Nigeria – ‘Chibok abductions in Nigeria: “More than 230 seized”‘ (BBC, 2014)

By Jane Adelakun (2014)

Over recent years Boko Haram has become an increasing threat to Nigeria’s security. Their kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls in April 2014 shocked the world and led to one of the most popular social media campaigns of 2014. Using an article published by the BBC as its starting point (Appendix 1), this essay will conduct an in- depth evaluation of the actions of Boko Haram. I will begin this essay with a summary of the news article then proceed to provide a brief background to the group. Following this I will define the term terrorism and illustrate how Boko Haram fits into that definition, from which I will further specify which category of terrorism they fit into using Gus Martin’s typologies. I will then examine the motives behind the attack and analyse whether such motives legitimised the actions of the group. I will go on to discuss the implications of the attack and the subsequent response to it. To end I will reflect on the adequacy of the initial report and make recommendations for improvement.

On the night of 14th April 2014, over 230 girls aged 16-18 were kidnapped from a school in Chibok, northeast Nigeria as they were about to sit their final year exam. 40 of the kidnapped girls were reported to have escaped while the rest are still being held by their captors (BBC News, 2014). Responsibility for the attack was claimed by the militant islamist group, Boko Haram.

The news article on which the essay is based was published on the BBC news website just over a week after the event. The article focuses on the head teacher of the kidnapped girls and the reactions of their parents while very little information is provided about the incident itself which given the time delay should have been more detailed. Instead, the article lends a greater focus to the controversies surrounding the incident especially the shortcomings of the government noting that ‘the confusion over the numbers [of missing girls] comes after the military last week said all but eight had been rescued before withdrawing its claim a day later’ (BBC News, 2014). The general tone of the article is sensationalist, with little fact based information provided. Also, many of the quotes included in the article use emotive language such as the head teachers’ plea for the kidnappers to ‘“have mercy on the students”’ (BBC News, 2014). Another failing of the article comes in the way of not providing any real context to the actions of the group however some indication of a motive is alluded to in the form of a translation of the group’s name Boko Haram to English – “western education forbidden” and a brief point is made about the group’s aim to establish Sharia law in Nigeria yet no discussion is had over alternative motives. As a whole the article remains neutral throughout, not favouring the perpetrators or the state and all sympathy is reserved for the missing girls and their families. This is made evident by the article not referring to Boko Haram as terrorists despite it being recognised internationally as a terrorist group (U.S. Department of State, 2013).

The group responsible for the attack, Boko Haram – officially named Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’Awati Wal-Jihad (People Committed to the Prophet’s Teachings for Propagation and Jihad) –was founded in 2002 and since its inception has been responsible for almost 8000 deaths, half of which have been in the last year (Council on Foreign Relations, 2014). The increasingly violent nature of the group is arguably part of a broader Islamist wave of international terrorism which is referred to as alqaedism (Hill, 2014). The structure of which is flat and more networked and Boko Haram is one of several regional fronts where this spread of alqaedism is expressed. The group is based in northeast Nigeria where the predominant religion is Islam, a stark contrast to the Christian dominated south. Support from conservative Islamic sects in the north and corruption within the Nigerian government have been blamed for creating the favourable conditions which allowed the group to gain a foothold (Blanchard, 2014). I will now present a definition of terrorism and use an analysis of the actions of Boko Haram to demonstrate why they fit that definition.

Any attempt to present a clear definition of terrorism will be problematic as the term ‘terrorist’ is pejorative and is subject to emotional attachments and preconceptions. For the sake of this essay, terrorism will be defined as “The deliberate creation or exploitation of fear through the use or threatened use of force or violence by any person or groups of persons, whether acting alone or on in connection with any organisation or governments against individual civilians or property to coerce or intimidate governments or societies, often to achieve a social, political, religious, racial or ideological cause.” (Bruce Hoffman, US Department of Defence and AXA Insurance) This specific combination of definitions has been chosen to deliberately limit its scope so as to exclude acts of violence in a war context while leaving it wide enough to include broader forms of terrorism such as state terrorism as well as to allow for a range of motives.

One key aspect of the definition presented above is the use of violence or threat thereof to incite fear. Boko Haram clearly fulfil this criteria, with the kidnapping of the girls being just one incident of violence. Other acts of violence perpetrated by Boko Haram include bombings, armed attacks, assassinations and hostage takings (Ajayi, 2012). In fact their characteristic MO post 2002 is comparable to that of the Taliban and attacks are typically carried out against ‘soft’ targets (Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium, 2014). The targeting of vulnerable civilians such as schoolgirls in an unguarded school is terrorist in nature because it is designed to create fear and intimidate the people. This is illustrated by the government indefinitely shutting down schools in northeast Nigeria following the kidnappings (Onyulo and Auwalii, 2014) and the displacement of 650,000 people in northeast Nigeria due to fear of Boko Haram (UNHCR, 2014). Later on in this essay, I will explore the motives of the group and argue that it does indeed have a religious, political and ideological cause however from the examples presented it is evident that the actions of Boko Haram places the group within the parameters of the previous definition of terrorism. Before discussing the motives of the group I will first analyse what specific category Boko Haram fits under Gus Martin’s typologies.

According to Martin’s typologies, Boko Haram are dissident revolutionary terrorists as the ultimate goal of such groups is to “destroy an existing order through armed conflicts and to build a relatively well-designed new society… on the rubble of an existing one” (Martin, 2013: 157). Such sentiments have been expressed by the group who seek to establish an Islamic state in Nigeria and oppose the secularisation of the country (Aghedo & Osumah, 2012: 858). Boko Haram therefore falls under this category. The attack can also be classed as a case religious terrorism which Martin defines as “political violence motivated by an absolute belief that an otherworldly power has sanctioned and commanded terrorist violence for the greater glory of the faith” (Martin 2013, 129) this is reflected in a statement made by Boko Haram leader Shekau in the aftermath of the kidnapping “God instructed me to sell them… and I will carry out his instructions” (BBC News, 2014a). Now that it has been established that Boko Haram are a dissident revolutionary and religious terrorists, I will now conduct an analysis of their motives.

One of the most frequently cited motivations for the attacks perpetrated by Boko Haram is religion. As previously mentioned they view themselves as doing the work of God and advocate for the implementation of sharia law throughout Nigeria (CNN, 2014). The role of religion in this particular attack is evident as the village that was targeted and most of the girls captured were Christian (Smith & Sherwood, 2014). Also the girls’ forced conversions to Islam following the attack makes a strong case for religious motivations (Nossiter, 2014). However prior to 2009 Boko Haram was a relatively peaceful organisation confined to the north east of Nigeria and it was the death of the group’s leader at the time, while in police custody, that sparked the shift to more violent tactics when the group remerged under new leadership (Blanchard, 2014). The role of religion is significant in this change of tactics as it occurred alongside the group’s decision to align itself with Al Qaeda, more specifically Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (ISIM). This alignment led Boko Haram to adopt more sophisticated tactics and alongside this came a surge in violent attacks as ISIM support appears to be both motivational and material (Hill, 2014). Religion in itself may not have been the motive behind this but it allowed for the creation of a community of Jihadist organisations who viewed themselves as “brothers” (Mark, 2012). This network of regional groups working for a local cause while retaining a link to the broader Al Qaeda framework is not restricted to Nigeria, other groups such as Al-Shabaab and the Taliban have adopted the same relationship where they share common bonds over a broader ideology of resistance to the west framed in jihadism, which is termed ‘alqaedism’ (Bryman, 2014).

As is often the case with religious terrorists, discussions on the motives of Boko Haram are often oversimplified and underlying motives besides religion tend to be marginalised therefore religion as the primary motive can and should be questioned. While the group’s religious motivations are clear, socioeconomic motivations also come to the fore. Despite Nigeria being Africa’s largest economy with a GDP of $510 billion and OPECs 7th largest exporter of oil (The Economist, 2014), much of this wealth is concentrated in the Christian dominated south and monopolised by the political elite. This is a stark contrast to the poverty stricken, predominantly Muslim north where unemployment is rife and most people survive on less than $1.25 daily (Aghedo & Osumah, 2012). This overt inequality is thought to be a result of corruption therefore it has been suggested that the rise of Boko Haram is a response to the inequality in the north and the affirmation of a religious identity may be a way of responding as a group to something that is primarily an economic problem (Council on Foreign Relations, 2014a). By discrediting the government with their attacks, Boko Haram may cause a shift in public opinion and result in a northern candidate being elected in the 2015 presidential election (BBC, 2014b), perhaps resulting in more wealth reaching the north. However this argument is easy dismantled as while the targets of the kidnapping were Christian northerners, many of the attacks perpetrated by the group target Muslim northerners (CNN, 2014) and if their aim was to impact the rich Christian southerners surely more attacks would be carried out in the south. The northern attacks “seem like a remote rumour” (York, 2014) and even attacks perpetrated in more central parts of the country such as the Nyanya bombings target poor workers (The Telegraph, 2014).

Another aspect of Boko Haram’s motivation that should be considered is that of media attention. The group has been around since 2002 yet have only come to the fore in recent years due to their more violent tactics. The aforementioned affiliation with Al’ Qaeda also supports this argument as Al Qaeda is a well-known international terrorist group therefore by associating with them they increase their profile world wide – this is illustrated by the US identifying them as a foreign terrorist organisation (U.S. Department of State, 2013). The very nature of their targets in this particular attack – the kidnapping of girls – sparked worldwide outrage with the “bring back our girls” campaign dominating news channels and trending on twitter for some time (Bring Back Our Girls, 2014). From this explanation of the varying motives of Boko Haram, it is evident that religion is not the only motive, whether it is a primary motive remains unclear however socioeconomic and attention-seeking explanations to their actions are useful to bear in mind. Having analysed the motives to the group’s actions, I will continue by examining the extent to which these motives legitimise the group’s actions.

An important aspect to consider evaluating the legitimacy of violent actions is just war theory which is comprised of two distinct aspects: Jus ad bellum which is concerned with the conditions under which war can be initiated and Jus in bello which is concerned with what actions can be taken during war (Benbaji, 2010). As Boko Haram sees itself as fighting a holy war (CBN, 2014) I will be evaluating the legitimacy of its motives and the legitimacy of its actions using just war theory. From the aforementioned motives it is clear that besides religion Boko Haram does indeed have legitimate concerns however the methods they use to pursue those aims are questionable. However, much of the legitimacy Boko Haram ascribes to its actions comes from the belief that “such violence is an expression of the will of [their] deity” (Martin, 2010: 129) therefore any use of violence is legitimate. Under just war theory, for the motives of the war to be legitimate, the war must be necessary; the threat imminent and the action proportional to the perceived threat. Also, the war should be restricted to defence with a good chance of success (Benbaji, 2010). The cause the group is pursuing – the lesser jihad, is for the defence of Islam (Martin, 2010) however in the case of Nigeria Islam is not being attacked, in fact Nigeria is a multi-religious state and has been so since independence (Sampson, 2014) therefore it could be argued that the ‘war’ is not necessary because there is no imminence so no action is necessary. As a result the actions of the group carried out for the sake of religion are illegitimate both from the perspective of the religion and under just war theory. Boko Haram’s other motives, such as the defence of their socioeconomic welfare may be deemed legitimate as three quarters of people living in the north-east are under the poverty line (The Economist, 2014a) however their methods remain illegitimate. This is because as previously mentioned their attacks do not distinguish between the rich or the poor and they attack both northerners and southerners. Having explained the illegitimacy of their methods under just war theory, I will continue by discussing the implications of the attack.

The kidnapping of the girls had a significant impact and shone a spotlight on the Nigerian government however it is useful to explore how much it helped the group achieve their aims. On the one hand the attack could be seen as unsuccessful as the group has failed to institute sharia law and there shows no sign of that happening in the immediate future (Falana, 2014). However there were other significant implications from the kidnapping which work in favour of Boko Haram. Firstly, there has been an immense backlash against the government which has been massively discredited. Most new stories about the incident, including the one on which this essay is based, mention the failings of the government (BBC, 2014). With the presidential election next year and many Nigerians distrustful of the government’s ability to protect, this may work against incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan who is seeking re-election as there have been calls for a Muslim candidate to replace him (Mail Online, 2014). Alongside this disillusion with the government, there has been an increased fear of Boko Haram to the point where people have moved away from their homes (Guardian, 2014) and the group is taken as a more serious threat. Perhaps one of the significant implications of the incident has been the response by the media. The ‘bring back our girls campaign’ not only raised awareness of the incident with even Michelle Obama, first lady of America expressing her support for the movement (McVeigh, 2014) however it also gave the group more publicity than it had ever received, with news outlets worldwide reporting on the story. Despite failing to achieve their overarching aim of implementing sharia law throughout Nigeria, the kidnapping has been effective in helping the group achieve some of its other motives like discrediting the government and gaining publicity. Another inevitable implication of the attack is a government response which I will analyse next.

The measures used by the Nigerian government to counteract Boko Haram have consisted of both soft-line and hard-line strategies. The use of force has been employed as one of the counter-terrorism strategies with the Nigerian military launching an offensive against the group with international assistance (Smith & Sherwood, 2014). The extra-judicial killings of suspected Boko Haram members is another tactic employed by the Nigerian government (Human Rights Watch, 2014). Repressive options have also been used with the government launching intelligence operations (Agbiboa, 2013). Soft-line strategies have also been introduced such as negotiating with the group (IRIN News, 2013) and passing legislation to allow for more intelligence sharing and greater coordination (Blanchard, 2014). Despite these measures and the Nigerian president’s vow to “take all necessary action… to put an end to the impunity of insurgents and terrorists,” (IRIN News, 2013) the counterterrorism strategy has been unsuccessful for a number of reasons. Firstly the aforementioned measures have been applied inconsistently and there is a distinct lack of co-ordination in the counterterrorism strategy (Blanchard, 2014). This has led to accusations that some in the state are colluding with Boko Haram and not doing much to repress them, this argument is inflamed by allegations that Nigerian politicians are funding the group (Aghedo & Osumah, 2012: 866) and despite increases in the security budget the counter-terrorism strategy remains unchanged. Also, human rights abuses by the state has led to a distrust of security services therefore people are less willing to cooperate with them (Human Rights Watch, 2014). Furthermore the government’s decision to close schools indefinitely following the kidnapping is essentially a concession to the wishes of the group, strengthening their position (Onyulo & Auwalii, 2014). Another failing comes in the way of lack of coordination with neighbouring countries. It is well known that Boko Haram recruit from Cameroon, Mali and Niger and it is believed that the girls are being held in the Sambisa forest in Cameroon, yet no collaborative efforts are being made to counter Boko Haram. Due to the weaknesses in the government’s counter terrorism response, it is very unlikely that they will be able to defeat Boko Haram in the long run.

In light of these counter-terrorism failures, certain recommendations can be made. Firstly the government can redress the socioeconomic grievances of the group by investing in the infrastructure and healthcare of the north. This would remove incentives for northerners to join the group as a response to poverty. In addition, collaborative measures could be adopted with neighbouring countries which would make it more difficult for Boko Haram to operate from outside Nigeria – as they have been since the aftermath of the kidnapping. Also the election of a new, transparent government may go some way to dealing with the distrust of the government and may root out corruption in the political elite. Furthermore, a more sophisticated intelligence framework must be developed in order to pre-empt attacks. Above all a sustained, co-ordinated counterterrorism strategy must be implemented if Boko Haram is to be completely eradicated. Having gone through the background, motives, legitimacy, implications and response to the kidnapping, I will continue by reflecting on the BBC article; the subject of this essay.

The article proves insufficient for various reasons. Firstly there is no focus or depth in the description of the attacks and very little analysis of the group’s motives appears therefore readers would infer that religion is the only motive. Likewise no background of Nigeria’s political climate is given making it difficult to contextualise the actions of the group. Furthermore, the language of the article is emotive, making it sensationalist.

From discussions throughout this essay, it is clear that Boko Haram is indeed a terrorist group with a range of motives of which religion is just one aspect. The group possesses some legitimate grievances such as socioeconomic inequality however the legitimacy of the actions of the group can be questioned. Through the kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls, Boko Haram has managed to achieve some limited success and this is heightened by the Nigerian government’s inability to forge a coordinated counter-terrorism strategy. Whether any tactical changes will be made remains to be seen however this will be necessary to defeat Boko Haram which due to the influence of Al Qaeda is becoming more sophisticated.


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One thought on “Nigeria – ‘Chibok abductions in Nigeria: “More than 230 seized”‘ (BBC, 2014)

  1. This essay follows a clear and coherent structure, with good signposting, a good intro and a good conclusion.

    The analysis is very good and thorough overall. At times the line of argument could be developed a little bit further, in a bit more depth or with a little bit more critical reflection, but overall all the relevant aspects are covered, and are covered pretty well throughout.

    This essay is also very well researched, in good breadth and depth, and demonstrates very good knowledge and understanding of the case study.

    The English is mostly very good, though sometimes the grammar is imperfect.

    In short, the argument could be developed and polished a little further sometimes, but on the whole this is already a very good essay.


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