By Scott Johnson (2015)
On 2nd of July 2015 147 Nigerians were killed in various armed attacks on civilians in Borno state, Northern Nigeria. (BBC News 2015). The group responsible for these attacks was Boko Haram (BH), an Islamic extremist group based in Northern Nigeria. (Reuters 2015). This essay contains analysis of a Daily Mail report on the attack and, through further research will demonstrate how the article fails to adequately cover the important issues surrounding Boko Haram’s violent activity.
The article’s journalist Mark Duell uses emotive language throughout, demonstrated very well by the choice of language in its title. The word ‘slaughter’ is chosen instead of ‘kill’ or ‘murder’. (Duell 2015). Furthermore, its long title creates an image of peace and tranquility prior to the attack, of Muslims observing Ramadan peacefully, to emphasize the contrast to the violence of the attackers, who ‘mowed down’ men and children, as well as women ‘preparing food at home’. (Duell 2015). The language used from the start of the article is intended to develop a sense of complete shock and disgust among the article’s audience with civilian witness statements describing graphically, how the attackers “spared nobody, including women and young children”. (Duell 2015).
Eventually, the article provides some limited context, explaining a particular region of Africa, around Lake Chad, has been the ‘focal point of unrest’. (Duell 2015). It also provides some political context, claiming that BH has intensified its violence since President Buhari came to power, 5 weeks prior to the attack, on a mandate of ‘crushing’ the ‘bloody uprising’. Furthermore, the article does provide an update of the current state of affairs between the Nigerian Government Security forces and BH, informing the audience that despite territorial setbacks BH have kept up ‘raids, explosions and suicide attacks on ‘soft’ targets’. (Duell 2015). The article also briefly indicates the Nigerian state response, stating that a new regional security force comprising troops from nearby countries is to be mobilized within weeks. (Duell 2015). Despite acknowledgement of wider issues, the article fails to adequately explain important concepts, most notably the motive and underlying causes.
Nigeria is a former colonial state which gained independence from Britain in 1960. Essentially, Nigeria is a ’geographical expression’ drawn up by British colonisers rather than a natural nation state, comprising many different ethnic groups, languages and two almost evenly divided major religions in Islam and Christianity. (Kew 2011: 123). Indeed, examining Nigeria’s economic development since independence there is little change from the colonial era – with the functions of the state dedicated to the smooth exploitation of resources by a local elite and foreign powers. (Osaghae 1998: 12) A further negative outcome of the colonial era, still with resonance today is the ‘mistake of 1914’ involving the amalgamation of two British colonial provinces, modern day Northern Nigeria and Southern Nigeria respectively, to form the current Nigerian state, executed without consultation of the citizens. (Obadare 2011: 10) This process of colonial artificial state creation directly influences the violence in the Northern states where BH conducts much of its activity today. (Obadare 2011: 11) Furthermore, during the colonial era the North was shielded from Western influence while the south, particularly the coastal areas of Christian-majority Southern Nigeria most certainly was not. This shielding resulted in a lack of schools and universities in the North, largely as a result of resistance to the spread of Christian missionaries in the Northern Muslim states. This imbalanced access to education appears to have had a distinctly negative impact throughout the colonial and post-independence period for Northerners education, employment prospects and political competitiveness in recent decades. (Osaghae 1998: 5). Nationalist movements have long been discouraged in the North, with the first Northern MP only accepting a seat in government as late as 1947. (Burke 2013: 5). More generally election quality has declined since 1993, with harassment and spoliing of ballots commonplace, fueling the fire of the marginalised to tend towards more extreme activity. (Kew 2011: 121).
Boko Haram emerged amidst these difficult conditions in North-Eastern Nigeria in 2002 when former leader Mohammed Yusuf decided to break away from a group of moderate clerics, withdrew from society and established his own community in North-Eastern Borno state. The phrase Boko Haram means “Western Education is forbidden” in the local Hausa language. Broadly, BH is against all “products” associated with Western education – secularism, science, democracy and capitalism. (Burke 2013: 154, Osumah 2013: 542). Members of BH argue that this spread of Western values in Nigeria is a direct threat to traditional values, beliefs and customs of Muslims in North Nigeria. (Agbiboa 2013: 19). This is their self-acclaimed raison d’etre and motivates their violent activity : to “protect” Muslims from Christianity and/or Westernisation by uniting Muslims in North Nigeria under a Sharia law based Islamic state. (Osumah 2013: 542). Despite BH claiming to protect Muslims, the article states that their target has now switched to Muslims. (Duell 2015). BH leader Abubakar Shekau explained this in a video, claiming that Muslims were now a target for their “infidelity to the Koran and support of democracy”. (Audu 2014).
Nevertheless, from 2002 to 2008 the BH movement was ostensibly non-violent. Following tension with the police over open disobedience of state laws, the group became known to the Nigerian people as a violent organization in 2009 following an attack by police on a funeral of a BH member, killing 17 BH members in the process. (Agbiboa 2013: 433). BH then conducted a series of reprisal attacks, burning a police station down in July 2009 injuring several policemen. (Agbiboa 2013: 434). Violence continued to occur on both sides until a brutal crackdown by security forces saw “over 700” deaths, involving indiscriminate firing in civilian areas and on-spot executions by the state. Most notably former BH leader Yusuf was killed during the clashes. (Burke 2013: 155). This extrajudicial killing of Yusuf stirred up pre-existing animosities towards the Nigerian state, with Abubakar Shekau mobilizing his members to kill 119 police officers in 2011.(Agbiboa 2013: 434). This suggests that the Nigerian government’s response has been inadequate in preventing Boko Haram’s violence, as this essay will explore.
Defining terrorism is almost always a problematic process. Terrorism is certainly a pejorative term and scholars and politicians often have difficulties agreeing on what acts constitute terrorism. Nevertheless, Martin identifies several criteria that most can agree on : the use of illegal force, subnational actors, unconventional methods, political motives, attacks against soft civilian and passive military targets, and aimed at affecting an audience. (Martin 2013: 37). Although ignoring the role of state violence, BH meet several of these criteria. BH certainly indulge in unconventional methods, from kidnapping to indiscriminate shootings. Furthermore, BH demonstrates political motives with its desire for a Sharia law state, and also conducts attacks against soft civilian targets, such as schools, and passive military targets, such as police headquarters. It certainly seeks attention from its audience through continued and sophisticated social media presence. Thus, Boko Haram can certainly be described as a terrorist organization, as although a definition of terrorism is difficult to achieve, BH meets several of the criteria which are generally agreed upon.
Boko Haram is self-evidently a religious dissident terrorist organization according to Martin’s categories. Martin notes that a dissident terrorist is one who seeks to “destroy an existing order through armed conflict to build a well designed new society”. (Martin 2013: 111). This certainly applies to the case of BH who wish to establish Sharia law across Nigeria. (Martin 2013: 188; Kew 2011: 115). Martin describes religious terrorists as motivated by a ‘belief that a deity has commanded violence for the greater glory of the faith”. (Martin 2013: 160). Shekau claims to “enjoy killing anyone Allah commands”, framing his statements around a religious narrative. Nevertheless, although Boko Haram’s religious rhetoric seems sincere, there are other factors at play. Martin acknowledges another category – criminal-political terrorism – an amalgamation of profit and politics, and Boko Haram’s recent kidnappings for ransom, abductions and bank robberies suggest an element of this. (Martin 2013: 32; Burke 2013: 155; Agbiboa 2013:435). Furthermore recently BH have conducted attacks into Chad, Niger and Cameroon suggesting an element of International Terrorism, defined as terrorism “spilling onto the world stage”. (Martin 2013: 32; ARB 2015: 20955). Hence, Boko Haram’s target may not be simply the Nigerian state. (Abdulbasit 2013: 174). Nevertheless, most of its attacks are conducted within Nigeria and their stated goal is to establish a new society based on Sharia law, making the typology of religious dissident terrorism the most applicable.
Having explored the motives and categorized Boko Haram, we now examine the underlying causes which have contributed to Boko Haram’s rise and driven the young men to fight for its cause. Examining the socio-economic conditions present in Northern Nigeria, it is easy to see a link between poor regional economic management and the rise of extremism. As mentioned earlier the Northern states have experienced a long history of being disadvantaged both politically and economically from a state management perspective. (Osaghae : 5). Recent poverty figures show that the North still struggles economically. In 2013 the Northeast, Boko Haram’s operational base, recorded the highest poverty rate in Nigeria at 64.8%, followed by the North West at 61.2%, with the lowest poverty rates in the largely Christian South East at 31.2% and the South West at 40.2%. (Agbiboa 2013:20). This appears to have a significant effect on Northerner’s prospects, regarding education and general wellbeing. A potential trend appears when comparing poverty in certain states to their respective literacy rates and school attendance. Literacy rates remain far lower in the North, with an incredible 72% of Children aged 6-16 never having attended school in Borno state, Boko Haram’s original home. (Agbiboa 2013:21). Many scholars agree that the marginalization of the urban poor, particularly in Northern cities such as Maiduguri and Kano has led to deeply-entrenched animosity towards the government, giving rise to extremist views. (Osaghae 1998: 131; Awumo 2011:59; Eke 2015:326). Nigeria has long been infamous in many countries’ eyes for its rampant corruption and governmental malpractices. One divisive issue among the population of Nigeria and the political class is the ownership and profit-sharing of oil, which has bizarrely rendered Nigeria a structurally poor country economically despite its obvious potential to generate shared growth for the Nigerian people as an export. Nigeria is the largest oil producer in Africa yet its people remain depressingly poor and research suggests that people of oil-producing communities have remained totally marginalised from any form of part-ownership. (Obadare 2011: 317). Corruption and unfair distribution of wealth has long been issue in Nigeria, with former President Jonathan Goodluck accused of a string of offences since his election defeat in May 2015. (Ehi 2015). While this may or may not be the case, crucially many Nigerians perceive their leaders to be cold, indifferent and corrupt. (Osumah 2013 : 543). Nigeria has been governed by a military dictatorship for 30 out of its first 50 years of existence, with considerable violence throughout its young life. (Agbiboa 2013: 432; Osumah 2013: 537). The state military continues to play a strong role in the governance of the country, acting brutally without impunity, contributing to the rise of vigilante groups and non-state militias such as BH “protecting” their own interests aggressively. (Osumah 2013: 540). This presents a nation completely lacking faith in its government, particularly in light of the failed democratic transitions of the 1970s, 80s and 90s which led to violent conclusions and incompetent government. (Osumah 2013: 542).
Overall, despite religion being the self-proclaimed cause for Boko Haram’s violence, clearly there are several underlying causes which have contributed to their rise. As noted earlier political and dissident leaders often use religion as an instrument to mobilize people around them. (Agbiboa 2013: 8). This appears to apply in Boko Haram’s case who seem to fight not only on behalf of ultra-conservative Muslims in the region, but more accurately on behalf of the economically disadvantaged Northerners who have been completely marginalized by their own government. Ultimately the combination of underlying causes such as chronic poverty, political corruption and state brutality seems just as crucial to understanding Boko Haram’s motives as their extremist views on religion.
Just War Theory (JWT) is a useful tool to examine the legitimacy of an ongoing armed conflict. Achieving legitimacy within JWT requires correct behaviour while waging war, known as jus in bello, as well as correct conditions for beginning a war, referred to as jus ad bellum. (Martin 2013: 8). To BH of course, any violence is legitimate due its members belief it has been commanded by Allah. Nevertheless, several of the conditions necessary for a legitimate case of Jus ad bellum are not met in the case of BH. Just cause is one of these conditions, in that if an entity is attacked it has just cause to defend itself. (Moseley 2012) This applies to some extent to BH regarding the attack they suffered in 2009 which involved executions and indiscriminate firing by the police. Nevertheless, BH do not have just cause as Islam cannot be said to be sincerely under threat with Nigeria having a long history of multi-faith co-existence and no political rhetoric directed towards removing Muslim influence from any the significant parties. Thus the just cause can be said to have been imagined. Another condition is for violence to be a last resort. Despite many Muslims feeling marginalized from the political process, Northern parties and campaign groups managed to successfully convince the state to institute Sharia law in nine northern states since 1999. (Kew 2011: 115). In this way BH loses legitimacy as it could have successfully achieved limited goals non-violently. In Bello BH can also be seen to be illegitimate. One crucial condition is the notion of discrimination between attacking combatants and noncombatants. In this sense BH has clearly failed as it uses an array of tactics such as forced suicide bombings using captives to attack indiscriminate targets such as schools, markets and churches. Although its initial targets were representative of a corrupt and unjust state, namely policemen, it has clearly shifted its focus. (Burke 2013: 155). The article is an example of this, as this attack involved the killing of Muslims praying in a Mosque. Clearly Boko Haram’s actions both ad bellum and in bello can be considered illegitimate. (Kew 2011: 121).
After 6 years of violence questions have to be asked whether Boko Haram have succeeded and whether their move towards violence has been effective. Although Sharia law has not been instituted across the country they have certainly brought attention to themselves through their regular attacks. In this way although BH may never achieve its overall goal of a Sharia Law Nigeria, it “persists in the short term” because short term goals are often achieved, most notably publicity over attacks such as the one mentioned in the article or the kidnapping of schoolgirls in 2014. (Eke 2015 : 321). Beyond this, the brutal methods used by BH and the seeming random attacks appear to generate a psychological impact transcending the actual physical damage caused. This can be evidenced by the “euphoric” celebrations when a ceasefire, which soon failed, was announced in 2014. (Agbiboa 2013:435; Agbiboa 2013: 22). The violence also serves to further demean the government’s capabilities for an adequate response in the eyes of the Nigerian population. (Kogbara 2013). According to research, the overwhelming response is that Nigerians are demoralized and disillusioned by their government’s inadequate response, with President Jonathan acknowledging “underestimation” of BH. (Yahoo 2015). Thus, although far from achieving their long-term goal, BH certainly achieved success in terms of gaining the attention of the state and the world’s media, as well as exposing the Nigerian government’s further weaknesses to the population. This leads onto the next section which analyses the Nigerian government’s response to Boko Haram.
The Nigerian government has adopted a largely hard line approach to tackling BH. Using Gus Martin’s categories this includes suppression campaigns, with the Nigerian military directly engaging and successfully removing BH from several Northern territories in 2014. (Martin 2013: 435; ARB 2015:20668). However ‘quasi-legal methods’ have also been used, most notably by the specially established Joint Military Task force (JTF), which has attacked BH brutally and is implicated in human rights abuses, such as extrajudicial executions, dragnet arrests and intimidation of non-combattants. (Agbiboa 2013: 435). A recent case was particularly damaging for the Nigerian government when Amnesty International criticised the government’s decision to allow the JTF to execute BH members by firing squad. (ARB 2015: 20668) Arguably, the brutality and impunity of the Nigerian forces is fueling further motivation for attacks. (Agbiboa 2013:436). For example, although BH is on the defensive territory wise, BH has simply returned to its old guerilla tactics with great success. To add to this, the governmental response has been largely incompetent and inconsistent. Incompetence is evident in the government’s attempts to implement conciliatory responses, most notably when they announced a ceasefire in 2014, which lasted just 24 hours before another attack in the North-East. (Eke 2015: 324). This presents the image of a desperate and incompetent state, and Goodluck’s own admittance that the state totally ‘underestimated’ the threat of BH demonstrates this well. The state also pursued repressive options through enhanced security, with President Goodluck announcing a state of emergency in four northern states. This failed, as during the 6 months of the state of emergency, BH killed more people than in the previous two years combined. Ultimately the response has been largely incompetent and desperate, as evidenced by the brutal tactics and wasted opportunities for progress. It would appear with regard to the grievances of Northerners a conciliatory response of longer-term social reform would be an effective tool for the government. By tackling the factors of economic inequality that enabled the initial emergence of BH it may be possible to reduce its attractiveness to destitute Northerners. Furthermore, it is important that the Nigerian government pursues the option of economic sanctions and identifies the source of BH funding is coming from, an option they have scarcely explored until now. (Agbiboa 2013:23). Alongside this a hard-line response can still be a strategy, but only with the cooperation of nearby states who have also been affected by BH violence. This will boost the resolve of the Nigerian soldiers who until now have been alone and demoralized. (Burke 2013: 156).
Thus, after research it is now possible to gain a rounded perspective on Boko Haram. BH is a religious dissident terrorist organization, whose primary goal, among others is to establish a Islamic state in Nigeria. BH have some justifiable grievances aimed towards the government’s inadequate mismanagement of the Northern states, leading to severe regional socioeconomic distress. Nevertheless the actions of BH are in no way justifiable and are rightly condemned as unjust when applying JWT. BH is able to achieve success through attacks such as the one discussed, due to the raised publicity it gains, but ultimately despite the incompetence of the Nigerian state, BH is still a long way from achieving its long-term goals. Whether Nigeria can come up with a well-rounded response to destroy the attractiveness of BH to the young marginalised urban poor is another issue entirely.
In summary, having given a background to the rise of BH, including their grievances and motives, as well as their methods of violence and the response to to that violence, it is important to now return to the article that initiated my analysis. Overall, the article is inadequate in several senses, choosing to focus solely on the religious aspect, therefore failing to explain several important factors, most notably the context of life in Nigeria which explains much of the recent violence. In addition, the emotive language and shocking intent of the article develops an “us vs them” mentality and distracts the reader from the contextual realities.
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