Boko Haram – the fear, the conspiracy theories, and the deepening crisis

Author Note

Part of a special project exploring violent extremism in Nigeria and the Sahel

The fear is palpable in northeast Nigeria as Boko Haram intensifies its war on civilians. The military’s regular claim that the jihadists are on the run is patently false, and provides no comfort to anyone.

 

Instead, this is the reality.

 

– Since January, there have been at least 83 suicide bombings by children – a figure four times higher than last year.  

 

– Of the four roads leading out of Maiduguri, the main city in the northeast, only the Maiduguri-Damaturu-Kano road is adjudged safe.

 

– In rural areas, people are not able to venture more than four kilometres out of the main towns in each local government area because of insecurity.

 

– In Maiduguri’s mosques, people now pray in relay. As one group prays, another keeps watch to guard against suicide bombers.

 

The death tolls are startling. In the last two months, high-profile Boko Haram raids have included:

 

– An attack on oil workers and soldiers prospecting in the Lake Chad Basin in which more than 50 reportedly died.

 

– The shooting and hacking to death of 31 fishermen on two islands in the Lake Chad Basin.

 

In response to the rising tempo of attacks, acting President Yemi Osinbajo ordered the deployment of all his military chiefs to Maiduguri in July. It hasn’t stopped the violence.

 

The insecurity has undermined farming in the northeast, resulting in serious food shortages in pockets of the region. Boko Haram has taken to seizing food and goods from communities in Damboa, Azir, Mungale, ForFor, Multe, Gumsiri – to mention just a few.

 

The military are also accused of threatening communities that do not vacate their villages and move to the poorly serviced internally displaced persons (IDP) camps.

 

Those that stay behind risk not only being plundered by Boko Haram, but also the confiscation of their goods and produce by the army, on the grounds that they are in league with the insurgents.

 

In the Lake Chad Basin in particular, Boko Haram is moving into the traditional fish and bell pepper trade. It not only helps finance their insurgency, but muddies the identification of who is a combatant.

 

Nowhere seems safe – even Maiduguri. In recent months there have been bomb blasts at the Dalori IDP camp, Maiduguri university, a general hospital, and a major coordinated gun attack on the city itself.

 

Know your enemy

 

The military not only appears powerless, but lacks the operational intelligence to thwart the attacks. That lack of awareness – over both the nature of the threat and how to deal with it – led the army’s head of public relations, Brigadier General Sani Usman, to accuse parents of “donating” their children to Boko haram as suicide bombers.

 

The raid by the military on the UN’s headquarters in Maiduguri in August was another example of woeful intelligence. The army said it was conducting a cordon and search operation for high-value Boko Haram suspects, and did not know it was entering a UN building because there was no insignia.

 

But the incident does point to the level of distrust over the work of humanitarian agencies. The word on the street in Maiduguri the morning of the raid was that the leader of one Boko Haram faction, Abubakar Shekau, was in UN House - along with a secret store of ammunition.

Conspiracy theories abound and aid workers are implicated. A common allegation is that they provide food, fuel, and drugs to Boko Haram under the guise of delivering humanitarian aid.

 

An additional gripe is that what aid is being delivered to the needy is not enough. The World Food Programme suspended food handouts in Borno this week after IDPs in Gubio camp rioted, destroying five vehicles belonging to International Medical Corps. They were protesting, they said, that they had not received rations in two months.

 

And then there are the grievances over aid agencies not employing enough locals, and that foreign aid workers do not respect local norms and traditions in what is a conservative society.

 

It’s an unhappy relationship. The overriding perception here is that the surge in aid agencies to the northeast is not what is required – people want security first, and then they can take care of their own needs.

 

Guarding the guards

 

But arguably the biggest problem is that the military are far from uniformly trusted to provide that security.

 

The most enduring conspiracy theory is that behind the eight-year war are conflict entrepreneurs in the military high command and the political class. They are accused of perpetuating the violence to feather their own nests, at the expense of the lives of Nigerian citizens.

 

Although there has been a series of major weapons purchases, from attack helicopters to an extremely expensive deal for ground-attack planes from the United States, it doesn’t seem to have added to the fighting capability of the military.

 

The confusion over who’s who is also exemplified by the tension between the army and the vigilante Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF). It is the CJTF that has been the military’s eyes and ears, the first responders manning the roadblocks in towns and villages. Armed with little more than traditional weapons, 680 of them have been killed so far in the conflict.

 

Yet the military distrusts them, believing that within their ranks are Boko Haram Fifth Columnists (which is probably true, along with criminals and other miscreants). But the CJTF see themselves as community defenders. They receive little or no remuneration for their work, and no insurance cover.

 

The atmosphere of suspicion over the enemy within extends to the tension between IDPs and those who remained in their communities when Boko Haram arrived. As IDPs return to those areas adjudged safe, it’s easy to label those that stayed behind as collaborators, brainwashed by the insurgents’ ideology.

 

As the counter-insurgency campaign stumbles on, Boko Haram clearly believe it now has the momentum, after being on the ropes last year – driven from all the towns they controlled.

 

The propaganda war certainly seems to be going their way.

 

Since the beginning of the year, Shekau has released 11 videos. The more low-key Boko Haram faction led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi (who publicly shuns indiscriminate attacks on civilians) has now stirred and published two videos in the space of a month.

 

There was once talk of ceasefires and negotiations – that seems very distant right now.

 

ih/oa/ag

TOP PHOTO: Boko Haram leader Abubaker Shekau