Boko Haram: the Genie We Let Out Of the Bottle

By IndepthAfrica
In Article
Apr 26th, 2014

by Nze Anizor
The recent bomb blast at a commercial motor park in the federal capital, Abuja, has moved Nigerians closer to realising the grave danger posed by the Boko Haram to our collective well – being, it has impressed on those Nigerians who have hitherto preferred to believe that the growing terrorism is a problem of a particular section of the country that they have never been more wrong. We seemingly have come to an agreement that we must do all that it takes to stamp the terrorists out of our country. Unfortunately, some misconceptions, motivated mostly by political gain, still becloud our ability to understand the terror organization. It is common sense that you can’t beat what you don’t understand, or to put it better, leaving in self – denial or self – induced delusion is hardly an incentive for achieving worthwhile results. One of those deceptions is the view widely held by the ruling Peoples Democratic Party that the Boko Haram was formed to make ‘Nigeria ungovernable’ for President Goodluck Jonathan because he is a Southern Christian. For the average man in the streets of Southern Nigeria, especially the South East and South South, the Boko Haram arose out of the ‘born – to – rule’ mentality of the North, and is being sponsored by the All Progressive Congress, the main opposition political party in Nigeria. This fallacious view is of course being actively promoted by the political elite, especially in the PDP, and the President seems to have bought into the error as can be attested to by his actions and utterances with regard to the Boko Haram.

A careful study of the history of the group shows that they did not initially have it as part of their plans to slaughter Nigerians, irrespective of religion or origin, on such a massive scale. They were formed as a ‘fundamentalist’ Islamic group who disagreed with certain Western theories including evolution, the big bang theory and the fact that rain arises out of the evaporation of water from the earth. So how did we get here? How did we become held by the jugular by a murderous band of renegades beholden to nobody, and obeying no known rule of engagement?

Part of the answer lies in the origin of the sect, but most lies in the emergence of President Jonathan as President and the acrimonious PDP presidential primaries that gave rise to it.

The group we call Boko haram was created in 2002 by a Muslim cleric, Mohammed Yusuf, in Maiduguri. It was called the Jama’tu Ahlis Lidda’awati Wal – Jihad which means ‘people committed to the propagation of the prophet’s teaching and jihad.’ At this time, it was just a movement of people who had their own ideas about how Islam should be practiced, and it drew members from the society who were called Yusuffiyas. Of course, it was not the first of such fundamentalist Islamic group to rise out of Northern Nigeria. And like others before it, violence was not far removed from it. Also like others before it, it swelled its ranks with what may be called the ‘dregs’ of the society, the unemployed and the forgotten; those who felt a deep sense of discontent against the government of the day, and who at least partly blamed the mainstream Islamic leaders for the rot in the society. When you have a gathering of such persons, violence is not normally far away. They were informally called the Boko haram which translates to ‘Western education is a sin.’ Yusuf found a mosque, Markaz, which the group used as its headquarters. He had to do this because he had already been expelled from at least two mosques in Maiduguri due to his very radical views. This shall be of interest to all those who blame ‘Northern leaders’ for ‘refusing’ to speak out against the group. They had already started condemning the group when it was still legal and just a religious sect. Perhaps they saw what the rest of us could not see then.

On May 29, 2009, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua was sworn in as the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, and the Boko Haram continued their activities including small time trouble – making, and skirmishes with the security forces in which they almost always came out the worse.

This state of affairs continued till July 2009 when some members of the sect who were in a funeral procession for some of their dead members refused to wear motorcycle crash helmets. This caused a clash with the military and policemen, and seventeen Boko haram members were killed. In response to this, Yusuf threatened reprisal attacks in a video broadcast.

On 26 July, 2009, they started an uprising which was countered by the security forces. At the end of the riots, about 800 members of the sect had been killed by the security forces, including their leader, Yusuf, who was alleged to have been murdered while in police detention. Markaz, which served as their headquarters, was set ablaze. After this great loss, the sect went underground, possibly to lick their wounds, strategize and wait for another good opportunity. Unfortunately for the nation but fortunately for the sect, on 5th May, 2010, President Yar’Adua died, and Vice President Jonathan became acting president. The death of Yusuf also created room for factions in the sect, with different ideologies mostly at variance with the vision of their late founder.

As is normal with such situations after a change of guard, the sect carried out a few violent activities probably to test the resolve of the new administration. They found a gap and happily exploited it. This was the period that then acting President Jonathan was still battling to establish the legitimacy of his regime. Then came the acrimonious PDP presidential primaries and the eventual election of Goodluck Jonathan as President. Before then on 7th September, 2010, the Boko haram carried out a major attack on Bauchi Prisons and succeeded in releasing 700 inmates including about 100 of their members.

As is normal with human nature, the more the sect carried out violent activities without any significant response from the government, the more they grew in confidence, and expanded their reach. Many unemployed young men saw their string of successes as a proof of their invincibility and flocked to them. There is no gainsaying that the Boko Haram did not set out to become a terror organization, slaughtering hundreds of Nigerians at will, but the government of Nigeria played right into their hands and made the ground very fertile for their nefarious activities.

After the inauguration of President Jonathan on May 29, 2011, the mantra of the government after every Boko Haram attack became that it is the tool of the ‘North’ to destabilise the government because a Southern Christian is the President. They conveniently forgot that the group was in existence and carrying out violent attacks long before the president dreamt of aspiring to that office. It suited the politics of the day to use the sect to seek to unite the Christians in support of the federal government, a dangerous gambit indeed in a multi – religious country like Nigeria. The 2011 post – election violence did not help matters either. Although the only known statements alluding to making Nigeria ‘ungovernable’ was made by senior members of the PDP – Lawan Kaita and Adamu Ciroma, it matched the government’s interest to point fingers at General Buhari and the opposition. Because the PDP saw him as the major threat to the presidency in any election, they sought to systematically demonise him at every turn, and their falsehood stuck like tar to the former head of state. But a steep price was paid for this misadventure. When the Boko Haram showed an interest in dialoguing with the government, they named Buhari as their representative. This will not surprise anybody who is conversant with Buhari’s reputation in the North as am honest man. But since the government had already successfully sown the seed in the minds of Nigerians that Buhari is the sponsor of the sect, he was caught in a dilemma which would have deleterious consequences for the rest of us. If Buhari accepted the request of the Boko haram, the PDP and its supporters would clap their hands and say that their allegations have been confirmed. They would wonder how the murderous sect listened to Buhari if he isn’t their sponsor. As a man with an eye on future leadership of the country, and knowing that votes will determine his future, Buhari declined the offer. Whether he was right in taking the step or not is a discussion for another day. The energy that should have been deployed in fighting the sect was instead wasted on the futile venture of demonising a man for political gain. The sect did not wait for us to get our act together, they continued to grow, with the different factions acting as they wished while we regarded them as one organization. Once there is a violent attack in the North, we quickly ascribe it to the Boko Haram without bothering to find out which of the factions that was responsible. Properly identifying the factions will be a major factor in defeating them. You can hardly defeat what you cannot identify, except by sheer luck, and how common is that? Abubakar Shekau leads a faction, with the Ansaru as another faction. Mohammed Mariwa is said to be another factional leader.

The Boko haram upped the game in May 2011 when they started bombings and suicide attacks which were novelties in this country up to that time. They also started the killing of Muslim clerics who dared oppose them or speak out against them. This of course was lost to those who routinely accused the ‘Northern’ leaders of not having spoken out against the activities of the sect. By this time they had become a full – fledged terror organization, although their metamorphosis was still in progress. The United States of America recognized the fact and wanted to label them as a ‘foreign terror organization’ but this was vehemently opposed by the Federal Government for the ridiculous reason that it ‘may negatively affect Nigerians travelling to the USA.’ Who has ever heard of such nonsense? As if they were not aware that it is easier for an Iraqi or Afghan or Lebanese to procure a US visa than a Nigeria, and these are countries harbouring known terror organizations which are actively seeking to harm US interests, compared to the Boko haram which is local.

On 6 June, 2011, the BH killed a Muslim cleric, Ibrahim Birikuti, who had been critical of the group.

On 16 June, 2011, they attacked the Force Headquarters at Abuja. The next month, the Federal Government announced it will negotiate with the group, only to change its mind one month later.

On 26 August, 2011, they blew up the UN office in Abuja.

On 4 September, 2011, they killed another Muslim cleric, Mallam Dala in Maiduguri.

On 17 September, 2011, Babakura Fugu, a brother – in – law of the late BH founder, Yusuf, was killed after a peace meeting with former President Obasanjo. Interestingly, the Boko Haram denied involvement in this killing which was a rarity. The government seem not to have bothered to find out who perpetrated this act.

On 29 October, 2011, another Muslim cleric, Sheikh Jana’a was shot in Maiduguri. The BH accused him of having provided information to the security agencies about the sect.

On I January, 2012, President Jonathan declared a state of emergency in 15 local government areas in Borno, Yobe and Plateau states.

A week later, the President shocked the nation by declaring that the sect has infiltrated his government.

On 20 January, 2012, the sect killed 185 people in Kano.

The Boko Haram then started working on the hearts and minds of the people of Kano state by telling them that its battle was with government.

On 9 February, 2012, a man was shot in Kano for publicly criticizing the sect.

On 23rd February, 2012, the Nigerian military claimed for the first time that the sect has ties with al – Qaeda.

On 21 June, 2012, the US government went half way by designating three leaders of the BH as ‘global terrorists’.

On 2 November, 2012, the sect shot General Mamma Shuwa in Maiduguri.

On 8 February, 2013, they killed 10 polio immunisation workers in Kano. This was after they attacked the convoy of the Emir of Kano in January.

In April of that same year, about 187 people were killed in a clash between the group and soldiers in Baga. This particular clash attracted international attention and the US government condemned it and urged the federal government to respect human rights. Human rights organisations alleged that the military carried out widespread human rights abuses in Baga. The military denied the allegations.

On 14 May, 2013, the federal government declared a state of emergency in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states.

On 11 June, 2013, the vigilante group known as the ‘civilian JTF was formed by locals to battle the insurgents.

On 13 July, 2013, Shekau appeared on a video to express support for an earlier attack in a school in Yobe state in which 41 students were killed. He did not claim responsibility for the attack which implies that another faction may have been the perpetrators.

The sect then proceeded to kill members of the civilian JTF for daring to support the government against them. Between 26 June, 2013 and 15 September, 2013, they killed about 85 members of the vigilante group.

By 13 November, 2013, the US had had enough and declared Boko Haram and Ansaru as terror groups.

The timeline above is intended to paint a clearer picture of the steady growth of the insurgency, and the price paid by some Northerners who dared oppose them publicly. The federal government and her agents have been leading some Nigerians, especially Southerners, to blame the North for the rise of the insurgency. It makes no sense for a government which which should seek to unite the people to battle a rising monster to consciously seek to divide them for fickle political gains. Questions have been asked of the source of funding for the group. The answer should really be simple. Poke Toholo, a character in one of James Hadley Chase’s novels said that fear is the key that unlocks the wallets of the rich. There is no gainsaying that a good number of the wealthy people in Northern Nigeria must be paying ‘protection money’ to the sect, just like some wealthy people in the South may be paying to kidnappers and other criminals. This is not strange since even business men in certain parts of Europe and America and even Asia pay such money to organized crime families. The Boko haram even accepted that some state governments in Northern Nigeria have been paying them monthly ‘protection money.’ This is not to disprove the fact that the sect must have prominent backers in the North. They must have, and that is natural. Late General Azazi, the former NSA, alluded to this when he linked the rise of the insurgency to the contentious PDP presidential primaries which threw up President Jonathan. But it suits the federal government to ignore this and instead point fingers at the APC which was formed just last year. All that matters to them is the 2015 general elections. In this wise, the APC have not fared better, since they didn’t show any sign of rising above the fray. A few hours after the Nyanya bomb blast, a leader of the party, Bola Tinubu tweeted that it was as a result of the incompetence of President Jonathan.

One of the indicators that the sect has factions was that during the attack on a Federal Government College in Buni Yadi, the attackers were reported to have killed the boys and asked the girls to go home and get married. But just a month later, another group of attackers abducted more than 230 girls from another secondary school. It could not have been the same group because the basis of the two dissimilar actions lies in totally different ideologies.

While the government is busy playing politics and chasing shadows, the terrorists are busy strengthening themselves and wreaking havoc on the country. The recent attack on a commercial bus station in Abuja with its high casualty rate has once again brought it home to us that this battle is not just about the North.

While we were asleep, the genie slipped out of the bottle, and forcing it back in will be a tough task to accomplish. But try we must. The Federal Government must as a matter of urgency bring its campaigns for the 2015 elections to a halt. Our President must become our president and act like the leader of a nation at war. Going off to attend a party a day after more than 70 of his subjects lost their lives in a terrorist attack, and then heading off to Kano to campaign just after more than 230 of his ‘daughters’ were abducted neither communicates leadership nor empathy. The claim that terrorists would become encouraged if their activities disrupt the normal activities of government is not tenable. Since when did birthday parties and illegal campaigns, after all INEC have not given the go – ahead for campaigns to commence, become normal activities of government? Terrorists disrupted the normal activities of government the day we stopped celebrating the nation’s annual independence anniversary at the Eagle Square. They disrupted the normal activities of government the day state of emergency was declared in the three states.

Adequate provision must be made for the military to fight this war. Adequate provision must be made for the rebuilding of the North East. Attention must be paid to the economic growth of that region to make it difficult for the terrorists to find easy recruits. Those who engage in terror attacks must be quickly found and legally dealt with to bust the myth of invincibility which the sect is using to lure young men to their terror activities. These must be done even if the rest of the country must go into an austerity mode. We are at war.

If we continue to toy with this insurrection as we are currently doing, we may end up at a conference room in Geneva negotiating for a cease fire with the Boko Haram, part of the conditions for which might be forming a ‘government of national unity’ with Shekau as Vice President and the members of the BH assimilated into the Nigeria Army. This will be the assured outcome once they declare themselves as the legitimate government of the North East.

The recent statement by General Muhammadu Buhari and the response by President Jonathan is heart – warming, but we must move beyond rhetoric.

The genie is already out of the bottle, but we still have a chance, albeit a slim one, to force it back in.

Nze Anizor


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