By François-Xavier Ada MSc African Studies (2017) St Catherine’s College
While Boko Haram goes back as far as 2002, the sect gained nationwide and global attention following the events of “Black July 2009”. On 28 July 2009, the Nigerian Army mounted a brutal offensive against the radical Islamic sect in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State in Northeastern Nigeria, in retaliation to coordinated attacks by Boko Haram militants on police stations and government edifices two days earlier.
According to most accounts, Boko Haram began its Jihad against the secular Nigerian state in response to the unlawful death of at least four, and the wounding of a dozen of their members during an encounter with state security forces in Maiduguri a month earlier in June 2009. The security forces had reportedly accosted some of the sect’s members on a funeral procession for not complying with the helmet law promulgated in January 2009. The encounter had turned violent, leading to the death and wounding of several Boko Haram members. Mohammed Yusuf, Boko Haram’s charismatic leader wrote a letter to the Federal Government in which he threatened the government and urged them to respond to the incident within 40 days with a view to a resolution between the government and his group, and if not then “jihadi operations [would] begin in the country which only Allah will be able to stop”. The forty days passed without an investigation or the semblance of concern from the Nigerian state on the welfare of a fringe of its population. True to his word, Yusuf launched his Jihad against the Nigerian state which responded with matching, if not excessive violence.
The wounds of the young men coopted into the sect go much deeper however. Decades of inadequate governance and economic mismanagement have left the Northeast impoverished. The youth, graduate but jobless, is resigned to petty trading in the absence of macro-economic opportunities. Corruption extends to the politics where the state (at both Federal and State levels) is viewed as the “national cake” which elites endeavour to share among themselves. The result of this socio-economic marginalisation and political abandonment of the youth is resentment towards the idea of a secular Nigerian State, an idea which seems to only serve the Abuja-based or connected elites.
The crackdown of July 2009 led to at least 1,000 deaths and casualties. In Maiduguri alone, the Red Cross reported close to 800 deaths at the time. The army reportedly conducted indiscriminate door to door checks, rounding up civilians and arresting suspected Boko Haram members. Mohammed Yusuf, who was captured alive (there is evidence of him alive in a police station with a bandaged arm) was later found dead in front of the same police station in Maiduguri. The circumstances of his death to date remain a mystery. Following these events which some within the Nigerian government believed to be legitimate (at the time, the Nigerian Information Minister Mrs. Dora Akunyili referred to Yusuf’s demise as a ‘positive’ denouement), Nigeria was criticized by international human rights organizations for the indiscriminate violence of the response, and for allowing the crisis to escalate as it did.
Like several researchers before me, I have been intrigued by the Nigerian government’s initial knee-jerk reaction to the insurgency in 2009, and the failure of successive governments to elaborate a comprehensive response plan to Boko Haram.
This was intriguing especially considering two things. First, there is the fact that Boko Haram is not Nigeria’s first experience with militancy. Nigeria’s turbulent political history is marked by episodes of internal violence. In the oil rich Niger Delta region, several militant groups have challenged the Nigerian state’s authority. The largest of those is the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) whose members were granted a controversial amnesty in 2009 (unconditional pardon and cash payments to rebels who agree to lay down their arms) after years of military conflict with the Nigerian government. While some might argue that Boko Haram and groups such as the MEND differ in tactics and ideological alignments, the similarities in the nature of some of their grievances, i.e. the over centralisation of power in the capital and the resulting structural political and economic marginalisation of the populations in the peripheries of the country, widespread corruption with negative effects on the livelihoods of populations, lack of accountability on the management of the country’s resources, lack of opportunities for socio-economic mobility, especially for the youth, are enough to draw a comparative lines between them.
The second element of the Nigerian response to Boko Haram which caught my attention was the substitution of a political solution – which in the insurgency’s early days was possible – for a brutal military solution. Indeed, the brutality of the army’s response was disproportionate to Boko Haram’s limited strength. Reports of abuses by the military emerged soon after the events of July 2009. These were first denied but later acknowledged by the Federal Government. As it turned out, at the time the army had not been issued rules of engagement with regards to countering the Boko Haram insurgency.
Instead of proactively engaging with the grievances of the militants and the local population, especially the youth who constitute Boko Haram’s recruitment pool, governments at both state and federal levels politicised the crisis in the hope of scoring points towards the 2015 general elections. This lack of adequate attention led to the transformation of Boko Haram from a local conflict into a regional terrorist organisation with alleged links with the so-called Islamic State.
Today, despite what the Nigerian government says, Boko Haram is far from being technically defeated. While the military has managed to push the insurgency away from the main cities into the region’s ungoverned spaces (around Sambisa forest), the group remains active, regularly conducting bomb attacks and incursions in Maiduguri.
What could this mishmash of a response tell us about how the Nigerian state works? First, that it lacks capacity and know-how to address the genre of threat posed by Boko Haram. If there is one thing we are sure of it is that Boko Haram is not a single-issue crisis. Rather, it is a complex blend of religious fundamentalism, and social, economic and political grievances, for which Nigeria was unprepared in 2009, and remains ill-equipped to deal with in 2017. To put it in context, Nigeria did not have a national security strategy document until 2014, at the height of the insurgency.
The quality of the response to the crisis also reveals Nigeria’s difficult struggle to move away from its military past. The substitution of a military solution for a political solution to the crisis can only attest to it, as it is reminiscent of the militarised character of Nigerian politics between 1967 and 1999. During this period of time, politics was military and military was politics, resulting in the slow development of state institutions and the emergence of the “soldier-politician” mindset in Nigerian politics. Crucially, this period of time saw the consolidation in Nigeria of a singular approach to addressing internal crises: the use of force. We saw this with eruption of the 1967-70 civil war, the Maitatsine riots which were violently repressed (and which some scholars have argued, are precursors to Boko Haram), and the initial handling of the Niger Delta militants.
In the absence of a national security strategy, the military was given discretionary powers to ‘deal’ with Boko Haram. After nearly nine years of continuous war, a comprehensive response plan which addresses the initial – and valid – grievances of the youth in the Northeast has yet to be successfully implemented. Instead, we have seen a steady increase in the country’s defence and military spending arguably to bolster the military response to the counter-insurgency. It is unclear what the impact of the Presidential Committee on the North-East Initiative (PCNI) and the Borno Youth Empowerment Scheme (BOYES), two of the country’s flagship “non-violent” attempts at countering violent extremism, have been. In December 2016, PINE was unable to account for N2.5 billion ($7.9 million) allotted by the government towards the reconstruction of the Northeast.
The fact that Nigeria’s praised transition to democracy in 1999 did not address key issues such as the use of force to address political disagreements, the place of the once all-powerful military in the new “democratic dispensation”, and the fact that this ‘soldier-politician’ mindset is embedded in the new “political dispensation” do not contribute to strengthening Nigeria’s democracy.
My research led me to the conclusion that the contemporary Nigerian state is sedimented. It is the result of the accumulation of several layers of the country’s political history marked by resolving door politics, cycles of coups d’états, and strong men who saw the country and its resources as their rightful prebend. As a result, the state and its institutions exist within a complex normative universe characterised by tensions, between the official norms governing the State and between official and informal rules. The command mode of governance characteristic of previous military governments has survived Nigeria’s democratic transition and we saw can see it manifest itself in the response to Boko Haram.
François-Xavier Ada has a Master in African Studies from Oxford (2017, St Catherine’s College) and a Master in International Security from St Andrews. He has worked in strategic communications for the UN in Cambodia and IOM in Mauritania. His research interests are political theory in Africa with a particular focus on security and non-state actors. Follow him on twitter @francoisada
 See Adesoji, A. (2011). Between Maitatsine and Boko Haram: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Response of the Nigerian State. Africa Today, 57(4), 99-119. doi:10.2979/africatoday.57.4.99