Thinking Aloud: “Understanding Boko Haram and the Terror in Nigeria”

Mar. 28, 2015 by Darius

Today, Nigerians go to the polls (for real this time) to choose their next president.  One of the biggest issues in the race is the fight against Boko Haram and if that fight is being waged competently and effectively by President Goodluck Jonathan’s government.

Last week, I saw a presentation by Hilary Matfess tracing the history of Boko Haram and social violence in Nigeria.

Matfess defined social violence as any violence that is not criminal in motivation.  Although Boko Haram was founded in 2002, as a movement opposing government corruption and Western (and Christian) education in Nigeria’s Muslim north, it did not kill anyone until 2005.  Even then, between 2005 and mid-2009, only five deaths were directly attributed to Boko Haram.  During this period, Boko Haram acted like a dissident sect, rather than a terrorist insurgency, targeting local politicians and imams who disagreed with its views but not taking its campaign to the national level.

In the second half of 2009, this paradigm changed.  Boko Haram staged a few major attacks, killing 22 people.  In response, the Nigerian government launched an offensive against Boko Haram.  The Nigerian government killed nearly 800 people.

In 2009, Boko Haram’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf, died in Nigerian police custody.  Abubaker Shekau, who remains Boko Haram’s commander, took charge of the group and, by 2010, Boko Haram’s activities took a much more lethal turn.  In addition, Boko Haram began targeting the Nigerian state rather than local leaders who opposed it.  Attacks increased in frequency and  deadliness.  As a result, social violence, previously spread quite equally around Nigeria, became concentrated in three northeastern provinces where Boko Haram operates.

In 2013, the Nigerian government declared a state of emergency in these provinces.  In response, Boko Haram’s fundamental character shifted again.  Boko Haram was displaced from urban areas by the government offensive.  For the first time, Boko Haram became primarily rural and began controlling and holding territory.  Boko Haram continues in this phase today.

According to Matfess, the results of Boko Haram’s rise and the Nigerian government’s response have been devastating to the northeast.  Of the three provinces affected by the state of emergency, 80% of businesses have closed in Borno Province, 70% of businesses have closed in Adamawa Province, and 50% of businesses have closed in Yobe Province.  Such basic economic disruption has caused a major regional increase in food prices and sent millions fleeing to other parts of Nigeria.

Matfess said there are between two and three million internally displaced persons and another million refugees created by Boko Haram.  In many cases, these IDPs have come into conflict with host communities because the host communities are often no better off economically, leading to an expansion of social tension and violence.  The Nigerian government, for its part, has responded incompetently to the problem of IDPs.  No records exist, and few IDPs get any government services.

For the two main Nigerian presidential candidates, the fight against Boko Haram is a major campaign issue.  Supporters of Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, believe it is not a good idea to change leaders in the midst of the campaign against Boko Haram.  Jonathan’s opponent, Muhammadu Buhari, a former military ruler of Nigeria, has campaigned on promises to bring his military experience to bear on Boko Haram.

Matfess feared the election itself, even if free and fair, will lead to more strife.  And as for the millions of Nigerians actually displaced by the fighting?  They won’t get to vote at all because Nigerian law requires people to vote in the town in which they registered, even if that town is no longer there.

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