Hoping to snuff out Boko Haram, Nigerian forces launched a crackdown in May 2013, swooping into towns, rounding up hundreds of youths and strafing suspected hideouts of the militia, who, despite being pushed back, continue to torment civilians and target security forces.
In the latest attack on 15 February, more than a hundred people were killed in the northeastern Borno State by suspected Boko Haram gunmen.
But over the course of its crackdown, the military has been accused by rights groups of indiscriminate arrests and killings, causing disappearances, and engaging in other forms of brutality.
During the military operation - which saw a state of emergency decreed in the northeastern states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa - markets, homes and prayer sessions were raided. Men, and at times boys, were arrested, piled up on top of each other in trucks and whisked into detention, where they were held for a long time without trial.
“Many were never seen again,” Mausi Segun, Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) researcher for Nigeria, told IRIN.
Both Boko Haram’s attacks and the military’s tactics have hemmed in civilians, and vigilante groups have emerged to fight the insurgents and cooperate with the security forces.
Not addressing root causes
But deploying forces alone without a wider strategy to tackle the causes of the militancy will only perpetuate the insurgency, say analysts.
“Brute force and military crackdown against insurgents will not work,” said Michael Olufemi Sodipo, founder of the Kano-based Peace Initiative Network. “Intelligence-driven operations will be the key. The quest for a lasting solution to the crisis must begin with an understanding of the root causes and the ideological motivations for youth participation in [the] violent radical campaign.
“Violent responses may temporarily quell the revolt, but it will more likely than not just produce variants of the group,” Sodipo explained.
The movement came to prominence in the early 2000s, advocating for the implementation of Islamic law in northern Nigeria. The group was motivated by grievances over the perceived marginalization of their northern homeland, corruption among the ruling class and an ideology that sees Western lifestyles as sinful.
As its influence grew and its ranks swelled, it became a local security threat. Some observers also point to a political fall-out between its founder, Mohammed Yusuf, and local authorities as a trigger for the police crackdown.
Since Yusuf’s killing by security forces in 2009, Boko Haram has grown more violent. The group is suspected of having links with Al-Qaeda-inspired movements such as the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and its attacks have grown more sophisticated, evolving from machetes, clubs and handguns to bombs.
In September 2013, it carried out the worst attack in years, killing more than 140 people in a single ambush in Borno State. Dozens of armed gunmen blocked a highway and slaughtered civilians. The group also claimed responsibility for the abduction of foreigners in neighbouring Cameroon.
A heavy police clampdown in 2009 brought about a brief lull in Boko Haram’s activities until December 2010, when current leader Abubakar Shekau returned and unleashed a spate of attacks.
The group’s assaults on police stations, army bases and other government sites are often seen as revenge for Yusuf’s death. But the movement - an appellation that has been questioned due to doubts over Boko Haram’s cohesiveness - has also become cover for criminal activities.
Attempts to peacefully end the insurgency have failed.
After a year of “back channel” negotiations, President Goodluck Jonathan said in late 2012 that the talks were not making progress. “There is no face, so you don't have anybody to discuss with,” he said of Boko Haram.
Following talks in 2011 with former president Olusegun Obasanjo, Boko Haram demanded as conditions for a ceasefire an end to the arrest and killing of its members, payment of compensation to families of sect members killed by security forces, and prosecution of policemen responsible for the death of Yusuf. The demands were never met.
“As much as the government is fighting, the dialogue option is still very necessary. No peace can take place without [talking to Shekau], but I’ve tried on two occasions, and it wasn’t the Boko Haram members that failed me,” said Shehu Sani, director of Civil Rights Congress, a Nigerian rights group. Sani and Obasanjo both tried to initiate talks between the government and Boko Haram.
“The government made noise about its interest in dialogue, but how is it possible to dialogue when you have a state of emergency that made it clear that any insurgents who violates it will be arrested or be shot? The same government that speaks about dialogue has also outlawed the group, saying that any communication with the group is a crime. How do you dialogue with a group whose leader has a bounty on his head?” said Sani.
Radical Islam has deep historical roots in northern Nigeria, and violence has been all too common. Political manipulation of the south-north division since colonial times, ethnic and religious divisions, as well as rampant corruption have all played a part in stoking extremist violence in the predominantly Muslim north. And in the south, Nigeria was forced to reach an amnesty deal with the rebels in the oil-producing Niger Delta.
Responding to extremist violence will require stronger governance, tackling corruption and addressing socio-economic grievances, analysts say.
“The idea that Nigeria, failing its people on so many fronts and with too many looters posing as leaders, could achieve all this seems almost fanciful. The far more likely scenario is continued deterioration on all fronts and a disastrous military-first approach to the insurgency that only drives more young men to grab a gun or build a bomb,” Andrew Stroehlein wrote in a commentary in 2012, when he was director of communications at International Crisis Group think-tank.
“Countering violent extremism requires a full spectrum of initiatives, including apprehending extremist leaders, sustained development investments in marginalized communities, promotion of values of inclusivity to mitigate the spread of extremist ideology, and the rehabilitation of radicalized former fighters,” Sodipo told IRIN.
Since the 2009 upsurge in violence, thousands of northern Nigerians have been forced to flee their homes, some to neighbouring countries. Basic services such as healthcare and education have been disrupted.
With elections coming up in 2015, HRW’s Mausi warned that the vigilante groups that have sprung up in response to the insurgency may end up worsening security if they are not brought under control. “They are a ready-made army, and it would only worsen the situation for them and the rest of the people if the militant group [Boko Haram] sees that they are cooperating with politicians.”