One of the most important aspects of fighting terror in Nigeria is deciding whether it is possible to rehabilitate and reconcile differences between the various ethnic groups in the country, or whether solutions are better served by severing ties between groups who are wholly incompatible. Boko Haram’s actions in Nigeria appear to be pushing public opinion to its tipping point, and all parties involved are escalating their rhetoric and strategies against reconciliation. This escalation is unlikely to help the situation plaguing Nigeria, which has seen Boko Haram go from a localized insurgency with claims on self-governance to a plague threatening to engulf much of the nation and region and a problem being given lip service by diplomats all over the world. The people and government of Nigeria need to decide how they will respond to this situation, but it appears, as of this writing, that all of the parties would rather turn away from one another.
The People are Speaking
When members of the Oodua People’s Congress, a Yoruba nationalist organization, marched through the streets of Lagos in early December, they were unhindered by police and lauded by passersby. They fired shotguns into the air, engaged civilians on the road, and promised to retaliate against any Boko Haram attacks in the region, reports Jon Gambrell of the Associated Press.
The group, which is made up of ethnic Yorubans from the southwest of Nigeria and the Niger Delta, is one of the largest groups yet to oppose Boko Haram, an insurgency and terrorist organization, made up mostly of ethnic Fulanis, that operates in the northern regions of Nigeria and advocates implementation of Sharia law in the north. The group has killed over 200 people since the year began, mostly through attacks on police stations and local government, but also through an attack on the U.N. headquarters in Abuja and, most recently, a bomb placed in a bar in Jos.
Chief Orebiyi Ebenezer, a leader of the militia, claimed the group was trying to protect the capital city: “we don’t want [Boko Haram] to fight here in our Lagos because Lagos is for everybody, not for Yoruba alone, but for everybody…we need peace here in Lagos.”
On December 14 Saidu Dogo, the Secretary General for the Northern Christian Alliance of Nigaeria, or CAN, stated in no uncertain terms that if the country could not come to grips with its multiple identities, then it would be best for the country as a whole to split. He said it was time for Nigeria to “call a spade a spade,” say reporters for the Nigerian Compass. Even as he expressed certainty that the government could stamp out the problem of Boko Haram, Dogo wondered whether ethnic and cultural issues would ever allow the country to be united, or whether the money being allocated for security and counterterror measures would just end up in the pockets of friends of the government.
Each of these groups has good reason to be fearful and angry because of the attacks by Boko Haram, but their actions are not in accord with a country united. The Oodua People’s Congress has stated as its goal the protection of Lagos from foreign attacks and, though it maintains that safety should be reserved for everyone in the capital city, this strategy still shuts a large section of the country out of sight and out of mind. The Northern CAN has given voice, for the first time as of late, that divisions caused by Boko Haram might cause the country to be split. The longstanding schism in Nigeria can be traced back so far that one wonders whether the country can be said to be united at all.
Nigeria’s divisions are not new, nor have they resulted from superficial issues, but are more substantive in nature and have been exacerbated by the nation’s history. British colonial rule divided what is today Nigeria into Northern and Southern Protectorates, with the Northern Protectorate administered in a hands-off manner, where local defeated emirs were allowed, if they capitulated to British rule, to continue to rule their provinces under control from the British. The South developed an economy much more rapidly than the north, and in the early 20th century the protectorates were combined not for political reasons, but to use the economic surpluses being developed in the South to offset the economic hardships of the North. Since that time, however, both parts of the country, but specifically Northern Nigeria, have been reticent to allow influence from the other to pervade ways of life that were traditionally separated.
It is this situation that has set the tone for the relations in Nigeria since colonial times, with the economy still being more strained in the North than in the South. These conditions of economic weakness and a separate history are what gave rise to the desire of Boko Haram to be independent, and this poverty has perpetuated the group and its sympathizers. For them, Nigeria is a long way away.
Despoilers in the Midst
In addition, the terrorists themselves have taken stances that have made consultation and reconciliation much harder to achieve. The Boko Haram of this writing looks much different from the Boko Haram of 2009. On an almost monthly basis the group continues to mutate and adapt its strategies in the North. Attacks in Yobe and Jos states, including gathering places and bars where civilians are gathered, display the increased sophistication the group has had since December of last year, when the latest iteration of the group began its campaign. This group, which began as a localized insurgency against police and government workers, has murdered innocents, civilians, and journalists, and a report by the U.S. Congress this month called the group an “emerging threat” to the United States and its interests.
It’s not exactly clear what the group itself wants. After much speculation by the international community, the U.S. African Command and Algerian intelligence have both claimed that Boko Haram has become aligned with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and, more importantly, Al Qaeda core, sometime after the death of original leader Mohammad Yusuf. This means the group would share all of the essential tenets of AQ core, namely that an Islamic Caliphate should be established from the Middle East to North Africa and that anyone not practicing the strict Salafism of the group be considered an enemy. This is quite different from the beliefs initially espoused by the group, which advocated a rather unique blend of Sufi Islam in the North and primarily looked like a regional threat.
In July, a group calling itself the Yusufiyya Islamic Movement, or YIM, began distributing literature to the effect that its members were committed to the goals established by Mohammad Yusuf, Boko Haram’s slain leader. The group also said it was against using Islam to attack places of worship or personal residences, and that it was not a group of heartless terrorists. They expressed sympathy for the civilians caught in the crossfire of northern operations, and called for a condemnation of an ending to such practices. The 18 months between the original conflict that resulted in Yusuf’s death and the first attacks of the newer incarnation of the group may indicate that, during that time, the group underwent some sort of ideological shift or recalibration, particularly since its rhetoric in recent months has shifted, like other previously regional Islamic insurgencies, to a general goal of eliminating western targets and helping to establish the Islamic Caliphate across the Middle East and North Africa.
Members claimed to be working on behalf of the group have also despoiled efforts by group members to communicate with government emissaries. When former President Olusegun Obasanjo met with members of Yusuf’s family, the family was represented by Alhaji Babakura Fugu, the oldest son of Yusuf’s in-laws. Obasanjo had been intimating for months that he wished to speak to members of Boko Haram and offer reconciliation for the extrajudicial murder of Yusuf, drawing a line to his policies in dealing with Niger Delta insurgents during his administration. Two days later, Fugu was shot dead as he left his house by unidentified gunmen. This attitude aimed at despoiling negotiations and chances at reconciliation—something that was previously an important goal of the group—raises questions about their commitment to the ideals that originally brought them into being.
The problem is that information on the group is still hard to come by, and observers are still attempting to determine to what extent the group has merely extended its claims and to what extent this represents a shift in the goals of the group. If indeed they cannot now be placated even by efforts at judicial reconciliation and measures aimed at independence from the government, solutions for dealing with them become less clear and infinitely more complicated.
Nigeria’s government finds itself in the midst of turmoil, unsure what to do. The first path they’ve undertaken is to throw money at the situation, and the country’s defense budget has increased by a third since 2009. They have played out several different strategies—from amnesty (largely ignored), reconciliation (despoiled), military presence (20,000 troops were placed in the north), to searching door to door for weapons and ammunition. These have, by and large, not succeeded in keeping the group from rapidly mutating, and hearts and minds approaches depend primarily on the government being well liked by the people it represents.
President Goodluck Jonathan does not enjoy the support in the north that he has in the south. His opponent in this summer’s election, Muhammadu Buhari, won most of his support from the north, and the re-election of Jonathan was met with calls for a recount and revote in the north, along with violence. The vast majority of northerners do not think of supporting Boko Haram, but this is not enough to compel them to go along with government efforts to control the violence in the region, and the government has merely flitted from one policy to the other, none of them being particularly effective militarily or from a counterinsurgency standpoint. The region is still particularly poor and mismanaged, and real steps towards counterinsurgency and antipoverty efforts, like those employed by the United States in Iraq, will likely need to be sustained—over a long period—to help to quell the group’s influence.
Meanwhile, the government seems to be spending just as much time questioning its own people as it does fighting members of the group, largely because there is no defined command structure for the group and thus no one to meet with and no one to report to. So when Senator Mohammed Ali Ndume was accused by someone claiming to be a BH spokesman of being a financier for the group, he was promptly detained by the government, negating any possible progress he would have made in his responsibilities on the presidential committee to address Boko Haram. Deposed Nigerian leader Ibrahim Babangida was also accused of being in league with the group. Whether either of these two men are involved or not is irrelevant, but what is important is to recognize how these investigations strain the resources of the government and may divide it against itself.
Finally, continued fighting is profitable. Dogo of the Northern Christian Alliance, while expressing hopefulness about the government’s ability to quash terrorism using technologies and policies from the United States, was nonetheless doubtful that money would be spent wisely to do so: “If we are determined to fight insecurity in this country, we will do it. But the issue is that, because of massive corruption, if you vote billions of naira for security, it will go into private pockets,” according to reporting by the Sun News Online. An analysis by All Africa.com says that groups such as a re-branded Blackwater are operating inside Nigeria, and groups will likely inflate their budgets and estimates to take advantage of the situation.
The government recognizes that it can no longer quash this threat easily, but that Boko Haram is something they are going to have to confront head on and deal with as a major tenet of the Jonathan administration. But first they must decide how much effort they will expend on politicking and suspicion and whether this is a worthwhile investment to keep their operations close to the vest or whether they are going to keep slipping down from the high moral ground.
“Things Fall Apart; The Center Cannot Hold”
Nigeria’s deep political, ethnic, and cultural divisions are widening because of the actions of Boko Haram. The center is dropping out, and groups are now giving voice to the possibility of failing to properly address the violence in the North. The sentiment that peace is needed in Lagos is laudable, but peace is needed everywhere in Nigeria, and the actions by militiamen and religious magnates alike indicate that they are skeptical that peace can come to the North.
To be clear, a stand against the violence perpetrated by Boko Haram is unimpeachable. The group’s ambitions towards justice for police and government extrajudicial actions and establishment of Sharia in the North in no way justify its use of violence. But at the same time, Nigeria will need a moral high ground to avoid slipping deeper into conflict, and the government is lacking this ground. Citizens may choose to stand together and demand further accountability from their government, or they may stand back and hunker down. There is a very clear case to be made that victory looks like separating the truly extreme, those who cannot be reasoned with, from the merely disenfranchised and hopeless. To do this will require action on behalf of all Nigerians.
The path forward is always unclear, but it must begin with groups in Nigeria—all of them—deciding to what extent they are willing to look towards the center and to what extent they intend to turn around and walk away.