Boko Haram: Why the talks won’t work

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At the end of August 2012, the Nigerian government confirmed that it had restarted informal talks with Boko-Haram  after previous talks failed on the 12th of May in the same year. A government spokesperson described the current situation as follows: “The form of the dialogue is that backroom channels are being used to reach across with the sole objective of understanding what exactly the grievances of these persons are, what exactly can be done to resolve the crises.”  As such, it is far from anything which could be considered negotiations yet given the origin of the Boko-Haram movement, the grievances might be so profound that we ought to ask ourselves how realistic it is that these talks lead to sustainable peace in (the Northern part of) Nigeria. To answer this, looking into the history of Islamic fundamentalism in Northern Nigeria and the members of Boko Haram is crucial.
Boko Haram, popularly translated as meaning ‘Western education is sinful’, is the name given to a militant Islamist Group striving for the imposition of Sharia law in Nigeria . Christians in the Northern part of Africa’s most populous country used to be the main target . Part of the explanation for limiting their attacks to the northern – Muslim – part of Nigeria may be that the organization had not yet professionalized sufficiently and that its support base was still limited . Recently however, the group has extended the range of its operations in order to include parts of the predominantly Christian South, such as Nigeria’s capital Abuja . The most well-known attacks signifying their expansion are perhaps the Christmas day bombings at church services near Abuja.  Their international exposure grew strongly during the past years as a result of their high profile attacks such as the aforementioned and the one on an UN-compound in Abuja, Nigeria on the 26th of August, 2011 .
Yet, Islamic fundamentalism is not new to Nigeria and the country has seen an increase in religious fundamentalism over the past 40 years with Boko Haram being the most recent display . Ama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, as Boko-Haram is officially called, was founded by Mohammed Yusuf in Maiduguri, Borno state, Nigeria . The seeds for Boko Haram have however been sown as far back as the late 1970s and early 1980s . Maiduguri and the surrounding region rank among the poorest in Nigeria. “Unresolved national issues, including the weak economy, weak security and intelligence apparatuses, and the failure to define what the national culture and identity is” are considered to be critical catalysts contributing to the rise of Boko-Haram . Unregulated religious education and the willingness to blindly follow Islamic preachers are also mentioned as  contributing factors . Although reliable estimates of its support base, let alone its ‘active’ members are hard to come by , the organization has grown over the past few years. With the years, the group has also professionalized – as did its weapons portfolio . This professionalization may also be attributed to the (alleged) support they are receiving  from other organizations such as Al-Shabaab and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) . Another sign that Boko Haram’s support base is increasing can be found in Nigerian president Jonathan Goodluck statements, saying that Boko Haram has infiltrated the national security forces. The escape of a high-profile suspect from police detention illustrates that there might be considerable truth to the story . However, in a country as large as Nigeria with artificially drawn borders and strong religious divides, ideological differences are commonplace and it would be naïve to think such would not extend into the corridors of power. Furthermore, the group has no (obvious) structure. It lacks a clear leadership and a chain of command which can be targeted and while various individuals in the past have claimed to fulfill various (leadership) roles in the organization it remains a question how operations are coordinated and who exactly funds them. This is also reflected in the uncertainty that the current talks are held with true and full representatives of Boko-Haram . In addition, it draws members from all layers of society with different objectives .
It is exactly this which makes the problem so hard to confront. It is hard to fight an enemy which you do not know, let alone fully understand. A further complicating factor is that Nigeria’s borders are porous with potentially corrupt or complicit agents checking them which means that members can move in and out of the country for training or in order to  escape persecution. The response from the Nigerian government has so far been ineffective . It has arrested some members of the group  and displayed fierce rhetoric  yet so far, this does not seem to have decreased the threat. The various security agencies that should address the problem collectively have failed to deliver the desired results. Adding to the problem is that, especially in the Northern part, there seems to be quite some genuine support for the ideas that Boko-Haram claims to fight for. The government seems to be either unable or unwilling to initiate and enforce real change in the area, as a result enabling  militant Islamic organizations  to continue to be able to take advantage of the precarious situation.
Eventually, what we see is not (yet) a full-blown insurgency as we can see with the Taliban in Afghanistan where state functions in some parts of the country are actively taken over and daily battles are the norm rather than exception. Rather, we see a militant group which is increasingly able to terrorize parts of the country and sow fear among the population at large. For now however, no indications are found that it is starting to run a parallel state according to its own ideology. Violent clashes, although increasing in frequency, are still not a daily occurrence. The apparent ineffectiveness of the state in countering the threat leaves us to wonder what is to come.
Even though we are unsure what the demands of Boko-Haram exactly are, their call for the imposition of the Sharia and their rejection of Western education makes it hard to believe that the government will give in to such demands. Simultaneously, the government seems to want Boko-Haram to drop its arms and renounce any violence to be followed by a rehabilitation program . This seems to be (too) much to ask for. We must not forget that this is a group with people willing to sacrifice their lives to achieve their fundamentalist aims. Any form of rehabilitation would mean that they should buy into the system they ideologically despise. Meanwhile, both sides continue their activities, attacks and raids have taken place since the talks were initiated, hardly a situation in which mutual trust, crucial to successful talks, can be established . This is not to say that the move is a bad or incomprehensible one, the government has the responsibility to try and resolve the situation. However, while the talks might yield temporary relief, it is unlikely that they will achieve sustainable peace in the Northern region or Nigeria as a whole .
Notes
BBC, “Nigeria confirmsinformalBokoHaram talks”, 27 August, 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-19388695AlJazeera, “Boko Haram ends talks with Nigeria government”, 12 May 2012, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2012/03/201232193925550817.htmlDaniel DeFraia, “Nigeria government in talks with Boko Haram”, 27 August, 2012, http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/africa/nigeria/120827/nigerian-government-talka-boko-haram

Adesoji, A. O. (2011). Between Maitatsine and Boko Haram :Islamic Fundamentalism and the Response of the Nigerian State. Africa Today, 54(4), 99-119, p. 106; Daniel DeFraia, “Nigeria government in talks with Boko Haram”, 27 August, 2012, http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/africa/nigeria/120827/nigerian-government-talka-boko-haram

Human Rights Watch, “Nigeria: Boko Haram Widens Terror Campaign”, January 24, 2012, http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/01/23/nigeria-boko-haram-widens-terror-campaign

Stewart, S. (2011). The Rising Threat from Nigeria’s Boko Haram Militant Group.

Farouk Chothia, “Who are Nigeria’s Boko Haram Islamists?”, January 11, 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-13809501. This article also provides an excellent timeline of Boko Haram’s activities.

BBC, “Nigeria churches hit by blasts during Christmas prayers”, December 25, 2001, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-16328940

BBC, “Abuja attack: Car bomb hits Nigeria UN building”, August 26, 2011, www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-14677957

Adesoji, A. O. (2011). Between Maitatsine and Boko Haram :Islamic Fundamentalism and the Response of the Nigerian State. Africa Today, 54(4), 99-119, p. 99

Farouk Chothia, “Who are Nigeria’s Boko Haram Islamists?”, January 11, 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-13809501. Aliyu A. Ammani, “Boko Haram Uprising: Not Seeing the Wood for the Trees”, http://www.gamji.com/article8000/NEWS8726.htm notes that Yusuf was also heavily involved in earlier Islamic movements. Other sources mentioned in Hussein Solomon (2012): Counter-Terrorism in Nigeria, The RUSI Journal, 157:4, 6-11, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03071847.2012.714183, note that the group has been operating under other names for as much as fifteen years already.

Adesoji, A. O. (2011). Between Maitatsine and Boko Haram :Islamic Fundamentalism and the Response of the Nigerian State. Africa Today, 54(4), 99-119, p. 103

Adesoji, A. O. (2011). Between Maitatsine and Boko Haram: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Response of the Nigerian State. Africa Today, 54(4), 99-119, p. 99

Aliyu A. Ammani, “Boko Haram Uprising: Not Seeing the Wood for the Trees”, http://www.gamji.com/article8000/NEWS8726.htm; Thisdayonline, “Nigeria agrees to conditional Boko Haram talks”, August 8, 2012, http://world.myjoyonline.com/pages/nigeria/201203/82732.php

Aliyu A. Ammani, “Boko Haram Uprising: Not Seeing the Wood for the Trees”, http://www.gamji.com/article8000/NEWS8726.htm refers to “tens of thousand (sic!) of men and women” and in

Aghedo & Osumah (2012): The Boko Haram Uprising: how should Nigeria respond?, Third World Quarterly, 33:5, p. 858 it is mentioned that Boko Haram itself claims to have 40.000 members.

Scott Steward, “The Rising Threat from Nigeria’s Boko Haram Militant Group”, November 10, 2011, http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/20111109-rising-threat-nigerias-boko-haram-militant-group
Africa Research Bulletin – 18881, June 1st–30th 2011; Africa Research Bulletin – 18445, June 1st–30th 2010; Solomon (2012): Counter-Terrorism in Nigeria, The RUSI Journal, 157:4, 6-11, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03071847.2012.714183

Vanguard Nigeria, “Boko Haram suspect’s escape:How high level complicity aided Sokoto’s escape”, January 21, 2012, http://www.vanguardngr.com/2012/01/boko-haram-suspects-escapehow-high-level-complicity-aided-sokotos-escape/

Heather Murdock, “Nigerian Presidency Announces ‘Backroom’ Talks With Boko Haram “, August 27, 2012,

http://www.voanews.com/content/nigeria_presidency_confirms_unofficial_talks_with_

boko_haram/1496343.html

Aghedo & Oarhe Osumah (2012): The Boko Haram Uprising: how should Nigeria respond?, Third World Quarterly, 33:5, p.p. 859-860
Ibid., p.p. 853-869

Hussein Solomon (2012): Counter-Terrorism in Nigeria, The RUSI Journal, 157:4, 6-11, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/03071847.2012.714183

IOL News, “Jonathan vows to deal with Boko Haram”, June 26 2012, http://www.iol.co.za/news/africa/jonathan-vows-to-deal-with-boko-haram-1.1327397#.UD_CRaDvCSo

Thisdayonline, “Nigeria agrees to conditional Boko Haram talks”, August 8, 2012, http://world.myjoyonline.com/pages/nigeria/201203/82732.php

Charles Akpeji, Njadvara Musa and John Akubo, “Doubts over govt, Boko Haram talks as blast rocks Gombe“, September 4 2012, http://www.guardiannewsngr.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=97736:doubts-over-govt-boko-haram-talks-as-blast-rocks-gombe-&catid=1:national&Itemid=559

Illustrative for this is the situation in the Niger Delta where an amnesty was granted to the militants there but without fixing the underlying problems of poverty and desperation, the effects of the amnesty is already wearing of and some combatants are reverting back to their old tactics (see for example Heather Murdock, “Former Nigerian Militants Say Amnesty Program Failing”, Jun 18, 2012, http://www.voanews.com/content/former-nigerian-militants-say-amnesty-program-failing/1212337.html). Given that the Boko Haram uprising is not a financial fight but an ideological one leaves little room for negotiation.

About Author

Roeland Hemsteede

Roeland Hemsteede is contributor at the International Security Observer (ISO). As an Africanist by training, Roeland’s primary interests lie with security issues and conflicts in Africa. Issues relating to states that were formerly part of the Soviet Union is also a region he likes to explore. For the International Security Observer he will focus on issues with a particular African character. Roeland holds a bachelor degree in Communication systems, a masters degree in African studies and is now taking a research master in African Studies at Leiden University. He is fluent in English and Dutch mother tongue.

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