What can be done about Nigeria’s Boko Haram militants?

As bombings and shootings by the militant Islamic group Jama’atu Ahlus Sunnah Lid Da’awati Wal Jihad - better known as Boko Haram - escalate, the Nigerian government appears to be struggling to cope with the violence, or map a political solution to the crisis.

The Salafist group grabbed attention in 2009 with coordinated attacks on government buildings and police stations in four northern states which left more than 800 people dead. The raids were revenge for an earlier clash with the police, who had opened fire on Boko Haram followers in a funeral procession in the northeastern city of Maiduguri, which was widely seen as a deliberate attempt by the state authorities to crush a growing threat.

The violence metastasized in 2011: there were bombings of the headquarters of the police and the UN in the capital, Abuja; more than 100 died in bomb and gun attacks in a single day in two towns in northeastern Yobe State, and Boko Haram promised strikes in the largely non-Muslim Christian south. In what seemed an attempt to stir sectarian unrest, a series of bombings on churches on Christmas Day in Abuja killed close to 40 people.

As Nigerians nervously consider what the violence could portend for the unity of the country, IRIN asked three analysts their views on the conflict, and the steps needed to resolve it. The following responses are from Innocent Chukwuma, executive director of the Cleen Foundation; Hussaini Abdu, a public policy analyst; and security specialist Hussaini Monguno.

What does Boko Haram represent?

Innocent Chukwuma: Boko Haram represents different things to different people depending on where you stand in the deep divide of Nigerian society. To the political elite in the south, it may have started as a small, fringe religious sect with a radical worldview about how Nigerian society, especially the northern part, should be governed according to the dictates of Islam. But today [they feel] it is has been hijacked by the northern political elite who have not hidden their distaste about the emergence of President Goodluck Jonathan [a Christian southerner], and are now using the group to make the state ungovernable in order to ensure the return of political power to the north.

However, a more reflective viewpoint sees the group as representing the voices of the northern poor and downtrodden, even though misguided, who have been marginalized in the scheme of things and now seek a violent outlet to [highlight] their issues, like their counterparts in other parts of the country, such as the militants of the Niger Delta and the Odua People's Congress in the southwest.

Hussaini Abdu: Boko Haram (BH) represents the backward slide of Nigeria. Although presented in Islamic religious garb, its activities are deeply criminal and political. While the history of BH can be traced to a young Muslim group in the northeast of Nigeria, they have since [morphed] to include criminal groups. Today nobody is clear what the group stands for [and] people are not sure who exactly is responsible for the spate of violence in the country. There is therefore no one acceptable narrative on the issue. The perception of north/Muslim is different from that of south/Christian. Whereas most people in the south or Christians accuse what they call "a disenchanted north" for the problem, the north seems to believe the violence is being perpetrated by people in government and their foreign backers to divide the country.

Hussaini Monguno: Boko Haram is a name given in 2009 by the press to the religious group led by Mohammed Yusuf, when fighting broke out between the group and the Nigerian police in Maiduguri, Borno State. This group is an outgrowth of the [conservative] Izala Movement [one of the largest Islamic societies in the country]… [but] Yusuf fell out with senior preachers over ego, differences in perception of religious texts and their attitude/relationship towards the Borno State government… Yusuf built up a robust camp that was self-reliant, well organized and a popular destination of jobless and frustrated youths who found hope and engagement. As his followership grew, his confidence grew - to the deep consternation of the state governor and his courtiers... At the moment the group has resorted to taking revenge for killings, persecution and torture of its members in various prison cells nationwide, with targeted killings of informants and bombings to rattle the government. Lately they have also started to seek recognition and relevance by appealing to aggrieved northern Muslim sentiment [over Jonathan's election victory].

''Where the military is involved, the rules of engagement should be defined to avoid molestation of unarmed civilians and abuses that could further mobilize local communities''

How should the government respond?

Innocent Chukwuma: The attacks by Boko Haram and the security challenges they pose represent a potent threat to the corporate existence of Nigeria and need to be responded to with all seriousness using a multipronged strategy. Government, in my view, has not given the group all the attention and seriousness it deserves and appear to be playing politics with it in order not to be seen to be hurting certain vested interests. A more holistic strategy should combine an intelligence-led security approach to fish out the masterminds of the attacks, and initiatives that would aid the isolation of the group from the communities in which they operate.

Hussaini Abdu: The government needs to be decisive and deepen intelligence gathering. Where the military is involved, the rules of engagement should be defined to avoid molestation of unarmed civilians and abuses that could further mobilize local communities against the state. The government will also need to make a long-term strategic investment in the northeast of the country to contain the level of poverty and exclusion in the area.

Hussaini Monguno: The federal government should:

  •  Appoint independent local, national or international leaders to appeal, appease and engage the aggrieved sect members and leaders;
  •  Unban the group, granting them the right to freedom of belief and practice as guaranteed by the Nigerian constitution;
  • Renounce the use of violence, by all parties;
  • Unconditionally release the thousands of Yusufiyya members in cells, detained without charge;
  • Dispassionately review the events of 2009 and show remorse where necessary;
  • Work to win the confidence and trust of the affected communities through careful conflict resolution measures;
  • Compensate and rehabilitate all those families who have suffered loses both human and material;
  • Allocate federal government resources for rapid rehabilitation of infrastructure, boost agriculture and cross-border trading to promote rapid employment for the teeming uneducated, excluded youths.

What are the constraints the government faces?

Innocent Chukwuma: The major constraints faced by the government in dealing with Boko Haram is the politicization of everything in this country, which has crippled law enforcement and security agencies from carrying out their functions in a professional manner, without fear or favour.

There is also a certain level of insincerity and deceit on the part of government in confronting the issue squarely. A typical example is the half-hearted declaration of a state of emergency made by President Jonathan in 14 local governments areas [in Yobe], which is neither here nor there in practical terms. Everybody knows that unless you declare a state-wide state of emergency, which would mean removing elected governors and replacing them with people with clear mandates to work with security agencies to restore law and order in affected states within a given period of time, not much can be achieved.

Hussaini Abdu: Lack of capacity, especially intelligence gathering capacity, poor political will to face the challenge of dealing with criminality, the religious colouration of the situation, and the extreme politicization of the situation by the government.

Hussaini Monguno: The following:

  • Weak and heavily compromised political leadership;
  • The inability of the federal government to detach itself from the exploitation of sectional, sectarian, ethnic [interests];
  • Inability of the federal government to reverse itself having already tagged the problem a national security threat that should be wiped out;
  • Difficulty in breaking free from the beneficiaries of this standoff, i.e. the leaders of the security arms of government, security equipment suppliers, agents and contractors;
  • The reluctance of the federal authorities to bring the former Borno State governor, Ali Modu Sheriff, to account for his misrule.