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Beating Boko Haram: How Nigeria Can Kill the Roots of an Insurgency

As shoppers in the United States woke up early to score Black Friday deals on the day after Thanksgiving, in Nigeria the terrorist group Boko Haram carried out an attack which killed dozens. Although ISIL may receive more coverage by Western media, Boko Haram recently surpassed the group as the world’s most deadly terror organization, and despite their threat, there exists a large degree of uncertainty about how exactly to go about defeating them. Simple, vigilant military efforts need to be paired with the understanding that Boko Haram derives at least some of its attractive power from satisfaction with services and infrastructure from the Nigerian government. Improving the transparency, freedom, and material standards of the state will be instrumental in eroding the group’s base of support and blockading their future progress.

Boko Haram has roots in an old ethnic divide in Nigeria between northern and southern regions; in the north, the predominately Muslim state of Maiduguri has long been overshadowed by the more developed Christian south. The difference in the pace of development stretches back to colonial rule in which, under the British, more European trading and investment was directed to the South’s coastal shores, where Western education and culture consequently flourished.

To find evidence of this significant split, look no further than the name, “Boko Haram,” which means “western education is a sin.” The group started with the founding of a Muslim educational complex led by the cleric Mohammed Yusuf in 2002, becoming more violent with a series of attacks in 2009. Shortly after, the Nigerian military declared that they had suppressed the Boko Haram insurgency, only to find that an even more radical leader, Abubakar Shekau, had gained control of the group. Under his command, Boko Haram members have relentlessly perpetrated bombings and kidnappings, most infamously kidnapping 200 schoolgirls in 2014. Their stated goal is to establish a state ruled by strict Islamic law. After initially only partaking in bombings and other terrorist activities, in 2014 the group grabbed hold of its first significant portion of territory. However in recent months, the Nigerian military has successfully retaken much of the territory previously controlled by Boko Haram, pushing the militants out of towns and cities.

Up until this point, the Nigerian government has responded to the group with heavy military action and a noticeable rush to report victories. In recent days, as Boko Haram has retreated from territorial claims and begun moving through the eastern border with Cameroon in an attempt to avoid defeat, it has resorted to its more traditional terror attacks against public places like markets instead of conventional fighting, the military is claiming victory; their reasoning is that the kind of attacks carried out by Boko Haram in the past few weeks indicate an organization weakened by a successful military campaign. But while things may look positive on the martial front, little is being done to root out the causes of Boko Haram’s strength.

The Nigerian government must balance military superiority against a myriad of other challenges. Militants have the advantage of operating in forested and poorly developed terrain that bleeds into the border with Cameroon, to which they can retreat and gain respite as well as stage new offensives. This porous border around the Sambisa Forest certainly makes fighting Boko Haram more difficult, even if a multilateral task force comprised of Cameroon, Nigeria, Chad and Benin has found success recently. The group also has a nearly unlimited capacity for propagating fear in Nigeria through suicide bombings and public attacks, despite significant nominal decreases in power. It’s been said that Boko Haram retains some support in the official Nigerian government from generals and military agents for whom conflict is beneficial. It is also the case that in the north some citizens support Boko Haram, either out of sympathy or fear. Ties to the slave trade and foreign allies like al-Qaeda have certainly kept the militants well supplied.

Ultimately, any campaign for real peace will rely heavily on winning the hearts and minds of the Nigerian public. First, the government must be winning the actual fight against Boko Haram. The provision of long term security and stability requires a longer outlook and more international cooperation, something with which Nigeria has recently had considerable success. The newly elected president, Muhammadu Buhari, has used his legitimacy as a northern Muslim to rally Nigerians and take substantial steps against the progress of Boko Haram. When there is no imminent danger, however, the government should persist in reforms to proactively improve security. Border security needs more resources to be fully effective; the enormous deficiencies in the quality and quantity of the Nigerian police force must be dealt with more seriously, and the army should be used appropriately to provide transitional support for especially volatile regions. Training and equipping police, army, and counterterrorism forces will be no small task, but Nigeria can ease this burden by broadening relationships with developed countries like the US or France. The main obstacle to this, however, is that the United States withholds support because it can’t trust that resources won’t be misdirected to terrorists. This obstacle is surmountable by progress in the second area of change.

In order to allay the fears of potential donor countries, Nigeria needs to work to ensure that responsibility is present at all levels of government. Transparency from the military, crackdowns on corruption, and integrity at every level of government are vital to demonstrating to people that the government is a trustworthy source of information. Taking simple steps such as increasing compensation for government employees, cutting red tape, and promoting online reporting tools for bribery would go a long way toward increasing trust in the government. Such actions would garner more support from developed countries and the people of Nigeria. When citizens understand and trust the operations and decisions of the state and vital officials perform as expected, it becomes harder for a nascent terrorist group to gain support from a smaller pool of disgruntled potential supporters and avoid the discipline of the state. Put simply, Boko Haram would not be able to replicate its success in a better-run country.

Recent fears has been allayed, but officials should take care to ensure that such progress does not become a casualty of the oil market’s meltdown. Nigeria is one of the so called “fragile five” oil producers, and current market weakness hurts the country’s bottom line by diminishing the oil profits that feed subsidies and other programs. Politically, much-needed reform may seem less essential than pork as belts tighten, but this path of least resistance should be avoided.

Finally, and most importantly, Nigerian policymakers need to work to bring tangible benefits of modernization to the country. Boko Haram thrives on resistance to modernity. If the government can improve the economy, and build a base for long term economic growth, then its citizens can begin to see the real benefits of these policies. Around one in five Nigerian children are not currently enrolled in primary school, and the north especially still needs basic infrastructure for education. The government must commit to agricultural reform, improving infrastructure and awareness in order to diversify the economy away from oil dependence. These two reforms would go a long way towards long term growth. The difficulty is that in order to garner support for progressive programs, the state must first show the benefits of progressive programs. The government needs to make an effort to improve public awareness of the rationale for new programs, institute demonstration projects to pioneer ideas, and, if nothing else, realize that good governance requires the judgment and strength to make long-term decisions.

Presently, the Nigerian government seems particularly bent on simply using brute force to stamp out Boko Haram without addressing many of the underlying issues that give Boko Haram its power. With the recent advances that the Nigerian military has made against Boko Haram, it is now more important than ever to ensure that real action is taken in the political and social realm to ensure that Boko Haram continues to weaken and that no other organization steps in to fill the void.


About the Author

Austin Rose is a staff writer for the Brown Political Review.