Responding to Boko Haram’s Terror in Nigeria

By: Fernando Perez

WEA-RLC/IIRF Research and Analysis Report - 1/2012

The Islamist terror group Boko Haram has killed numerous Christians in northern Nigeria since 2009. The killings have escalated in recent months, and security forces have clearly failed to protect lives, forcing hundreds to flee and compelling Christian leaders to call for self-defense within the limits of the law. The situation is extremely complex and sensitive, and demands a calculated response.

Boko Haram, as its activities and targets have shown, is no longer just an indigenous group fighting against corruption in the government, heavy-handedness of security forces and economic disparities between the Muslim north and Christian south. There’s an evident radical religious dimension to the group, which originally sought to fight for “justice.” And it appears to have linkages with global jihadist networks.

The group has targeted Christians and churches and also a U.N. building and police stations. It organized a massive prison-break to free its members in 2010. It calls for cleansing of Christians from the north and creation of an Islamic state in the region with criminal Sharia courts.

Mohammad Yusuf, the Islamist cleric who formed the group about a decade ago in Maiduguri in the northeastern state of Borno, was from the Salafi movement, which is known to have fuelled violent jihad against governments and civilians as a legitimate expression of Islam. The actual name of the group is Jama’atul Alhul Sunnah Lidda’wati wal jihad, which translates as “people for the propagation of the prophet’s teachings and jihad.” Boko Haram, which means “Western education is sin,” is a name that others have used for the group because Yusuf was against Western education.

During its initial years, Boko Haram was an indigenous movement that viewed the country’s non-Islamic state as illegitimate. It linked corruption in the government and the judiciary and some forms of immorality to Western education and influence. But it was not violent or ultra-radical as it is today. However, a minor incident in 2009, which was seemingly mishandled by the Nigerian government, caused the group to go underground and carry out bombings and assassinations.

In July that year, police violently reacted against Boko Haram members who were riding motor-bikes without wearing helmets. The police action led to an uprising in Bauchi state, and then in the states of Borno, Yobe, and Kano. More than 800 people died in the unrest, and Yusuf and several members of Boko Haram were executed, allegedly extra-judicially. What had been simmering among sections of the people in the north for long – due to various factors, including sectarian violence between Christians and Muslims in central parts of the country, which has killed more than 14,000 people since 1999; corruption in the government; and sustained impoverishment of the north – suddenly came to a boil.

Due to the crackdown, members of Boko Haram scattered, and since then they have had numerous factions with their own leaders instead of just one charismatic person leading the whole group. They do not have any formally defined agenda of the organization.

Analysts in Nigeria believe that Boko Haram gained technical sophistication and weaponry after it sought help, or was offered help, from groups like al-Shabaab in southern Somalia and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb following the government’s military crackdown in 2009.

Boko Haram’s terror escalated and Christians became one of its primary targets especially after the victory of President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the south and a leader of the People’s Democratic Party, in the April 2011 election. On June 7, 2011, Boko Haram attacked a church in Maiduguri. On Nov. 26, they attacked six churches. And it turned into a fierce war against the Christians by the last Christmas.

Jonathan, northerners said, ignored an unwritten but agreed-upon power-rotation agreement, according to which a Muslim should have been appointed as the president, namely the northern Muslim candidate Muhammadu Buhari. There were also complaints of rigging in the north. Over 800 people died in the unrest that followed the election. Many in the north viewed Jonathan’s presidency as an evidence of the political marginalization of the north, which Boko Haram is seeking to exploit.

It appears that Boko Haram, as it has evolved into what it is today, wants political power, separation of the north from the Christian south, and creation of an Islamic state where society will be governed by Sharia in all aspects of life. It has also perhaps harbored international ambitions due to its apparent association with jihadist groups in other nations.

Violence helps Boko Haram towards achieving some of these objectives. Bombings and killings generally make a government appear weak and unable to govern. Terrorism weakens economy as businesses suffer, foreign investments decrease and military spending increases. Terrorists typically seek to arm-twist establishments into coming to the negotiating table and dominate the debate in the media.

But Christians are being targeted perhaps to make a case for the separation of the north. It can be seen as a Boko Haram’s attempt to incite the Christian community to retaliate, so that it will turn into a sectarian clash. It seems Boko Haram wants Christians in the south to attack minority Muslims, which could then lead to local Muslims in the north attacking Christians. As of now, it is just Boko Haram terrorists who are killing Christians with little or no support from local Muslims.

Nigeria’s Christian leaders and Christian community have shown great strength although they are going through immense suffering. They must not be ignored by the international community, especially the Christians, as they continue to comfort the families of the victims and encourage them not to resort to any sort of violence. The calls for self-defense must include encouragement to remain peaceful.

President Jonathan and local governments should be compelled, and helped, to provide security to all churches and Christian leaders in the states where Boko Haram is active. However, the political leadership must not see Boko Haram’s terror as a security issue alone. The government must also address political and economic grievances of northerners by gestures that are sincere and measurable.

While it is debatable if the United States should get directly involved in dealing with Boko Haram, it must do everything it can to assist the government of Nigeria in helping protect lives of civilians, severing Boko Haram’s linkages with jihadist groups outside Nigeria, and bringing development in the north and needed reforms at the federal level.

Please also remember Nigerian Christians in your daily prayers.