Boko Haram: Behind the Violence
In a video released on May 5, 2014, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau announced he would “sell” more than 270 schoolgirls kidnapped by the Islamist insurgents in Chibok, Borno State as “slaves in the market.” Soon after, Boko Haram reportedly transferred many of the girls from Nigeria to bases in Cameroon and Chad. Then on May 12, a video claiming to show 130 of the abducted teenagers gave some hope that they might be returned. Shekau threw down a gauntlet to the Nigerian government: “Give us back our arrested Boko Haram militants, and you will get back these girls.”
The international and domestic pressure on the Nigerian government to negotiate is mounting. President Goodluck Jonathan has had little good publicity since the girls were taken. Just days after the abduction, the military falsely claimed it had rescued most of the girls. Jonathan took 19 days to call Borno State governor Kashim Shettima to discuss the situation, and still has not visited the grieving families in Chibok.
Most of the criticism of the Nigerian government has centred on misinformation and inaction. Yet the Nigerian government cannot be accused of ignoring Boko Haram. Over the past five years it has clamped down on the Islamists, with some initial success. Nigerian forces killed Boko Haram’s leader Mohammed Yusuf in 2009, along with 800 other fighters. The difficulty has been that each apparent gain has brought a new longer-term problem. What the Nigerian government is guilty of is mishandling the ’Boko Haram problem’, to the point of exacerbating it.
Chibok is a case in point. The abductions from the Government Girls’ Secondary School on April 14have shocked the world, and generated international social media outrage, under the hashtag BringBackOurGirls. But they came as no surprise to those who have followed Abubakar Shekau through his video propaganda messages since 2012. These messages have been a direct vehicle for his explicit orders to kidnap women, and they come in response to a similar tactic by the Nigerian police and security services.
In 2011 the Nigerian police began a series of raids on the homes of Boko Haram leaders. However, they arrested not the men themselves, but the wives and children of Islamist fighters. The Nigerian police had targeted more than a 100 women and children, arresting them without evidence or a trial. The aim was not clear. It may have been to put pressure on their spouses, the insurgents, or to force a negotiation—perhaps simply to humiliate Boko Haram into surrender.
Instead, the strategy enraged Shekau and prompted him to evolve a strategy of his own. Shekau has been in hiding since he reemerged as Boko Haram’s leader in 2010, so was powerless to defend the Boko Haram wives and their children. Among those detained were his own wife, Hassana Yukuba, also Malama Zara, the wife of the former Boko Haram leader Yusuf, and the wives and children of other closes associates. One woman, pregnant with the child of the commander for Sokoto, Kabiru Sokoto, was even forced to give birth in gaol. The arrests struck viscerally at the very heart of Boko Haram.
Quickly these detentions became a source of public grievance for Shekau. Throughout 2012, he used a series of video messages to repeatedly, and angrily, refer to the taking of the Boko Haram wives as prisoners. In one video he speculated on the possible police abuse of the women, saying “...they have continued capturing our women... . In fact, they are even having sex with one of them. Allah, Allah, see us and what we are going through.” In return he threatened the wives of government officials, pronouncing, “Since you are now holding our women, just wait and see what will happen to your own women... to your own wives according to Sharia law.”
In 2013 the retaliatory kidnappings began. On May 7, Boko Haram attacked the town of Bama on Nigeria’s border with Chad, killing 55 people and abducting 12 wives and daughters of security officers. A week later, Shekau appeared in a split-screen video message alongside these captives, warning they would become his “slaves” if the Nigerian security forces “do not release our wives and children.” A tit-for-tat cycle of arrests and abductions had been established, with Shekau explicitly threatening and ordering the kidnap of more girls.
Women had become bargaining chips for both sides. And for Boko Haram it would yield success. In May 2013, both Malama Zara and Shekau’s own wife were freed, alongside 90 Boko Haram militants. The women were released in a special ceremony of amnesty in which officials enrolled them in the ’skills acquisition programme’, gave them 100,000 Naira each (around £350) and five new sets of traditional Nigerian clothing. For the children, ten yards each of fabric as recompense. All Boko Haram had to get these wives and children back was release the 12 wives and daughters of security officers they took hostage in Bama a few weeks before.
With such results, there was no reason for Boko Haram to stop the abductions. The state of emergency has also reduced security for women in rural areas. Insurgents are reportedly seizing them as they flee the security forces. Gwoza, in Borno State, where a number of women were taken in early May, has been particularly vulnerable. In one widely reported case from November 2013, 19-year-old Hajja told how she was abducted by 14 Boko Haram fighters for three months, in which she was beaten, forced to cook and clean, convert to Islam, and lure government soldiers into positions where they could be killed. Hajja managed to escape, but dozens of women are still being held in similar circumstances.
The Nigerian government’s actions have also inadvertently pushed Boko Haram closer to other Islamist groups operating outside Nigeria, and closer ties with the global jihad. There has been a lack of Nigerian engagement with the broader connections that the insurgents, who call themselves not ’Boko Haram’, but ’Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad’, (the people committed to the propagation of the Prophet’s teachings and jihad) have to Al Qaeda affiliated groups. Kidnap, now routine for Boko Haram, is a technique appropriated from other Al Qaeda-related organisations.
This began with what seemed like a victory for the Nigerian government: the capture and killing in 2009 of the then Boko Haram leader, Mohammed Yusuf. Mobile phone footage of his extrajudicial killing in Nigerian custody has been viewed thousands of times on the internet, further radicalising many to Boko Haram. Shekau, originally Yusuf’s deputy, has emerged as a far more brutal leader, transforming the movement from essentially a band of proselytising ideologues, opposed to the secularisation and perceived corruption of Nigeria, to a brutal insurgency now responsible for 8,000 deaths, 2,000 this year alone. This again was predictable, and preventable.
Rather than wither, Boko Haram again responded with strategic evolution, this time towards al-Qaeda. In July 2010, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) leader, Abdelmalek Droukdel, promised “men, weapons, and ammunition” for the “mujahidin in Nigeria.” Mohammed Yusuf had already established links with al-Qaeda and propephicized about his “martyrdom” and post-“martyrdom” plans in place. After Droukdel’s message, Shekau gave an interview to a blindfolded journalist in a hideout saying that he “assumed leadership” of Boko Haram and declared to America “jihad has begun.”
The declaration brought Shekau and Boko Haram firmly into the AQ fold. On October 2, 2010, AQIM’s media wing, Al-Andalus Establishment for Media Production, published a statement by Imam Abubakar Shekau to the Shumukh al-Islam jihadist web forum. This marked the first time that AQIM had ever disseminated any official messaging from another militant leader or group. Shekau declared allegiance to al-Qaeda and its affiliates. In due time, AQIM, al-Qaeda in Iraq, and al-Shabab all issued condolences to the “mujahideen” and “monotheists” in Nigeria. Most recently, the Chibok abductions have been praised by Al Shabab.
Of greater long-term concern not just for Nigeria, but for the region, is that, as Boko Haram has learned, so too is it teaching. There is evidence that Boko Haram is training the mainly Muslim Seleka rebel militants in Central African Republic, and that they have begun carrying out kidnappings of their own in Cameroon. Through training, new networks are being established. There are already reports that Boko Haram has transferred some of the girls to Séléka militants in Birao, Central African Republic near the Sudanese border. This is consistent with Boko Haram’s global ideology, and the links to the international Jihad. As Shekau said in his May 5 statement, “we don’t know Cameroon or Chad or Sudan...I don’t have a country. Islamiyya is what I have.”
The immediate problem for the Nigerian government is Chibok. If negotiation appears the best strategy for a successful outcome to getting the girls back, it is also a risky one. The Chibok girls were taken as part of a tactic that has already been proven to work for Boko Haram—government-held prisoners exchanged for Boko Haram-held hostages. While ransom payment may bring the Chibok girls home, it might also jeopardise the security of many other women in the region, since Boko Haram will just kidnap more of them. Waiting it out and allowing local anti-Boko Haram vigilants to find the girls, with rewards for each girl rescued, is one option. This all keeps a large foreign footprint out of Africa—which many countries fear.
A second option is the National Action Plan that Nigeria launched in 2013 for the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, on the safeguarding of women in conflict. If 2014 is to become more secure for Nigeria’s women, this resolution must be rigorously applied. Failure to do so will make it more difficult to counter the insurgency, and to protect women, who are already at increased risk. Most important is the recognition by Nigerian police and security services that women must not be pawns in the wider conflict. That they cannot arrest women and children without evidence, whoever their relatives may be. And that if they do so, the consequences may not be within their control, but rather within Boko Haram’s.
This is also the broader lesson for the Nigerian authorities—that aggressive and apparently victorious actions in the short term, might in the long term prove disastrous. The Boko Haram problem is now an international concern. Boko Haram is kidnapping women and not considering international boundaries. It is offering them to its affiliates throughout Africa with no mercy. Shekau is reaching out to the global Jihad, and evolving ideologically. Nigeria has had international offers of help. Rather than exploit these for short-term gain, President Jonathan, who faces presidential elections in 2015, must consider how such offers will play out in six months, one year, five years time. The longer-term strategy is crucial, in order to prevent repeated repetitions of the insecure situation currently faced by Nigeria, its neighbours, and even its distant supporters, such as the United States, who also perceive Boko Haram as a threat, for years to come.
Elizabeth Pearson is beginning an ESRC-funded PhD at King’s College London in gender and extremism in October and is a freelance radio journalist with more than 15 years experience.
Jacob Zenn is an analyst of African and Eurasian Affairs for the Jamestown Foundation in Washington DC and consults on countering violent extremism in West Africa and Central Asia.
Copyright © 2014 Le Monde diplomatique—distributed by Agence Global