Refilling the Vacuum: Responding to the Boko Haram Insurgency

Refilling the Vacuum: Responding to the Boko Haram Insurgency

Since its emergence as an Islamic fundamentalist sect in the early 2000s, the Jama’at ahlis Sunnah lid Da’wat wal Jihad, popularly known as “Boko Haram,” has grown into one of the greatest security threats in Nigeria’s modern history. As a result, containing the sect’s insurgent activities now takes top priority on the national security agenda of Nigeria’s government, with the support of local and international partners.

While the sect’s raison d’être is rooted in the anti-Western ideology its members espouse, the roots of its violence are a combination of factors, ranging from the negative consequences of corruption and poverty in northern Nigerian, on the one hand, to the inability of the Nigerian state to improve the welfare and security of its citizens, on the other. Hence, defeating the insurgency requires adequate efforts to address not only the spread of religious fundamentalism, but also the socioeconomic deprivations faced by many people in northern Nigeria. Nigeria’s security architecture must be revamped to reposition the security agencies both to protect lives and property effectively alongside the implementation of a multipronged socioeconomic development plan designed to generate employment for the many unemployed youths, and to improve the living conditions of most Nigerians.

The rolling back of the Nigerian state since the neoliberal turn of the 1980s that saw its withdrawal from the provision of social services at low and affordable costs, the massive scaling back of social welfare programs, and the delegitimizing of a corrupt ruling elite in the eyes of the people is partly responsible for the emergence of sects like Boko Haram. Combined with high youth unemployment and very low development indicators, the incidence of absolute poverty in the north has made many poor and vulnerable Nigerian youths ripe for recruitment by extremist groups, sometimes simply in their bid to survive. For example, the robbery-related activities often attributed to the sect attest to the desperation of some of its members to survive the vagaries of daily life in Nigeria.

Literacy levels are low, and poverty remains a constant reality for most people; on average, the northern states have higher rates of absolute poverty than their southern counterparts. The Nigeria Poverty Profile 2010, published by the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics in January 2012, estimates the absolute poverty rates in the northcentral, northwestern, and northeastern zones of the country at 59.5 percent, 69 percent, and 70 percent, respectively, while in the southeastern, south-south, and southwestern zones, the ratings stand at 58.7 percent, 55.9 percent, and 49.8 percent.

The failure of the political and religious elites to address the social misery caused by poverty has further exacerbated the insurgency. According to some analysts, the emergence of Boko Haram is in part a response to failed political and religious leadership in the north. The propagation of religious fundamentalist ideologies by Boko Haram has found fertile ground in the minds of some disenchanted youths and ordinary Nigerians, for whom the sect represents some form of salvation from corrupt politicians and rulers and the spread of Western culture.

The inability of the national security agencies to end the insurgency has equally contributed to the escalation of hostilities against churches, mosques, businesses, symbols of authority, and security installations. A major lacuna plaguing their efforts has been the continuous failure of intelligence agencies to foresee and forestall attacks. At various times, security forces have been caught off guard by the suicide bombing and ambush tactics adopted by Boko Haram. More effective intelligence could have, for example, prevented attacks on police headquarters in Abuja in 2011, as well as attacks on military bases, such as the Sani Abacha barracks in 2010 and other targets, which caused great loss of life (some estimates put this as running into the thousands), and property.

Nigeria’s battle against terrorism within its own borders poses complex challenges. Although security agencies have tried to improve their responses and recorded some successes in terms of identifying and destroying some Boko Haram strongholds and arresting a few key members of the sect, playing catch-up with Boko Haram has been very costly for the country. Ongoing operations conducted in the northeast by national and multinational joint task forces have also proven to be ineffective in stopping the sect from attacking public buildings and communities. Although the government claims the strategy is working, allegations of extrajudicial killings by the military during its operations have been insufficiently addressed, and have fed into fear and distrust of security agencies among the populace. For example, the controversy surrounding the now infamous Baga massacre remains unresolved amidst tensions about the presence of the military in the areas where the national and multinational joint task forces are currently carrying out military operations.1

If the Boko Haram insurgency is to be tackled effectively, a combination of well-thought-out development plans and security strategies is needed. The states and ruling elites in northern Nigeria and the federal government must quickly ramp up efforts and policies to improve the living conditions of most Nigerians. This would require rejuvenating the agricultural and industrial sectors of the economy, particularly by developing cottage industries in food storage and processing, reviving collapsed industries, and providing socioeconomic services and benefits to the large sections of the populace that presently live below the poverty line. The northern region of Nigeria is endowed with abundant material and human resources that could be used for development and to bridge existing wide income disparities. Bringing the State back into the lives of the people could make a significant difference in addressing youth unemployment and alienation and contribute toward institutionalizing new forms of democratic leadership, accountability, and social harmony.

Regrettably, the factors that facilitate the spread of sectarian violence are often located at the intersection of poverty, politics, and religion. Yet as the Maitatsine insurgency of the 1980s illustrates, Islamic fundamentalism in northern Nigeria is not a new phenomenon.2 Individuals and groups, some of them driven by extremist values, have attempted to fill the vacuum created by the retreat of the state and the alienation of the people by corrupt leaders with something that provides economic security in their lives, by joining groups like Boko Haram which provides disgruntled youth with a way to cope with their frustration against the system. Refilling that vacuum with something better requires new ideas and forms of political and social engagement targeted not only at the members of the sect, but also alienated sections of the populace. Also important is improving the capacity of the security agencies to gather and analyze intelligence, while seeking better relations between them and the citizenry. Equally relevant—and particularly so against the background of acts of brutality committed by some members of the security agencies against the civilian populace during the long years of military rule—is the need to build trust between the people and government at all levels. Social equity based on economic empowerment and improved access to basic services, combined with highly professionalized security policies and actions would help to build that trust and ensure the effective management and eventual containment of threats posed by Boko Haram.

  1. According to some local residents and officials of the Borno state government (in northeast Nigeria), the Nigerian military engaged in massive extrajudicial killings of citizens during confrontations with suspected Boko Haram insurgents in Baga, a community located in Bama local government of Borno state, during military operations in the area in April 2013. The Nigerian military has denied such accusations; meanwhile, due to the ongoing state of emergency rule in certain northern states including Borno, journalists and representatives of both national and international human rights groups have been prevented from independently verifying the accusations and rebuttals. Estimates vary as to the number of casualties with some reports claiming that more than 200 people were killed during the military operations.
  2. The Maitatsine insurgency took place in the late 1970s and during the 1980s after a self-styled Islamic fundamentalist preacher, Mohammed Marwa, became popular for spreading anti-state messages. His followers, like those of Boko Haram today, engaged the Nigerian authorities in violent clashes. Several people lost their lives during these clashes. See also Abimbola O. Adesoji, “Between Maitatsine and Boko Haram: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Response of the Nigerian State,” Africa Today, Volume 57, No. 4 (2011): 98-119; Niels Kastfelt, “Rumors of Maitatsine: A Note On Political Culture In Northern Nigeria,” African Affairs, Volume 88, No. 350 (January 1989): 83-90; and Freedom Onuoha, “The audacity of Boko Haram: Background, analysis and emerging trend,” Security Journal, 25 (2002): 134-151.
About the Author

Olabanji Akinola is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Guelph, Canada. He can be reached at Oakinola@uoguelph.ca.

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