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What is Boko Haram and whence did it arise? By Gary K. Busch

ArticlesWhat is Boko Haram and whence did it arise? By Gary K. Busch
Location of the four cities in north eastern N...

Location of the four cities in north eastern Nigeria where the Boko Haram conflict took place. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The kidnapping of hundreds of schoolgirls by Boko Haram has outraged the world; particularly after their captors promised to sell the girls as slaves. They are portrayed as Muslim fundamentalists seeking to impose a harsh Sharia Law over the whole of Nigeria. They have murdered over a thousand Nigerians in the past few years and are acting with utter impunity against the pathetic forces arrayed against them by the Nigerian State.

The last sentence highlights the reality of the problem – it is not the rise of Boko Haram which is the problem but the willing inability of the State to confront them and the concomitant complicity of several major political forces in the country in the formation and sustenance of Boko Haram for their own domestic political aims. The complicity of ‘legitimate’ Nigerian political forces in the activities of Boko Haram is a guide as to why the president, Goodluck Johnathan, is afraid to move against Boko Haram in anything more than a token resistance.

Boko Haram emerged around 2002 in Maiduguri led by Ustaz Mohammed Yusuf. In 2004 it moved to Kanamma, Yobe State, where it set up a base called ‘Afghanistan’, and used to attack nearby police outposts, killing mainly police officers. It t started as a cell of the Muslim sect called ‘Jama’atul Ahlus Sunna Lid Da’awatis Jihad’ but advertised itself as ‘Boko Haram’ from the Hausa word ‘boko’ meaning “animist, western or otherwise non-Islamic education” and the Arabic word ‘haram’ figuratively meaning “sin” (literally, “forbidden“).
From its earliest days it received support from the Northern Nigerian Muslim political elites. The elites’ power was waning and the Nigerian army, which had always been the backbone for Northern political influence, had been changing into an army dominated by the Middle Belt officers (mainly Tiv). The Northern Fulani military caste was ageing, retiring and withdrawing from military activities. The army was becoming less Muslim and more Christian or Animist, particularly the junior officers. The traditional Northern (mainly Fulani-Hausa and Kanuri) elites were Muslims and represented mainly herders, operating under a system of feudal Emirs or Sardaunas.

A substantial part of the Nigerian North is not Muslim. In areas like Plateau State Christians are in the majority. Christians in the North are primarily agriculturalists while Muslims are herders. For centuries there has been a war between herders and farmers. This is a traditional conflict across Africa as each group seeks to use the rapidly disappearing arable land south of the Sahara. Moreover the Northern Muslim herders have been beset by cattle-raiders from their own side. In the last few years there have been incessant deadly attacks on Fulani (Muslim) settlements and villages in northern Nigeria by armed bandits – largely made up of disgruntled Fulani who themselves have lost cattle. Gangs of heavily armed bandits prowl the vast Dajin Rugu forest which spans several hundred square kilometres across Zamfara, Katsina and Kaduna states and Niger State. This is not only a Nigerian problem. In February 2012 alone over 23,000 Fulani herders poured into Cameroon from Nigeria’s north-eastern state of Taraba, following deadly clashes with farming communities. Many of the armed bandits are Fulanis who have joined gangs involved in cross-border armed robbery and cattle-rustling in Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon, Senegal and Mali.
Thousands of herders in northern Nigeria’s Kaduna State have fled their homes in 2013 and 2014 following raids by cattle rustlers that killed at least dozens of people. This ugly trend is compounding the dilemma of the Fulani herders who are caught in a vicious cycle of conflict with farmers over-grazing the farmed land of the Christians. It is a situation ripe for manipulation.
There is also a long historical trail to these conflicts. These ethnic conflict groups extend far beyond Nigeria’s borders. The Fulani (Peul) are the remnants of the old Fulani Empire which dominated much of West Africa, and can be found in Guinea, Nigeria, Cameroon, Senegal, Mali, Sierra Leone, Central African Republic, Burkina Faso, Benin, Niger, The Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Chad, Mauritania, Sudan, Egypt, Ghana, Togo and Cote d’Ivoire. They are a minority tribe in all but Guinea. The Kanuri (of Bornu State) are the descendants of the Bornu Empire (1380-1893) which was a continuation of the great Kanem Empire founded centuries earlier by the Sayfawa Dynasty. In time it would become even larger than Kanem, incorporating areas that are today parts of Chad, Niger and Cameroon. These two Muslim ethnic groups make up the large majority of the members of Boko Haram.
The sense of diminishing power and the concomitant rise to power of the South-South (a term used to refer to the Nigerian states of the South east where the oil is found and has been dominated in the new politics of the region by the Ijaws) was threatening to the Northern elites. The Muslims had been fighting running battles in Plateau State and elsewhere in the North with the largely Christian pastoralists, and they felt their interests would only be maintained in Nigeria through the formula of ‘zoning’, in which state power is divided among the various ethnicities and regions; theoretically sustaining balance.
This was incorporated in the rules which governed the dominant political party PDP, the Peoples Democratic Party. The PDP agreed to ‘rotate’ the presidency, vice-presidency and other key jobs between the North and the South on a regular basis to ensure “fairness” of representation. The fact that Nigeria is composed of more than just North and South was not reflected in the zoning rules. There are many Northern Christians but they don’t count as Northerners in zoning. There are massive competitions for primacy among the large Yoruba and Igbo ethnic groups on a national scale and the oil industry in the Delta is a hotbed of competition among the Efiks, Ibibio, Igbo and Ijaws of the Delta, Rivers and Bayelsa states; those who were getting very rich on the production of oil.
The Northern elites decided that they would have to insist that there be no third term for Obasanjo, the erstwhile president. They decided that they would put a Northerner (Yar’Adua) in power as the president and head of the PDP party. Goodluck Jonathan was installed as vice-president to ‘balance’ the ticket with a Southerner. But Yar’Adua was very ill and went off to a clinic in Saudi Arabia where he died, leaving Jonathan as President. The North felt that it did not get its full entitlement of power with the death of Yar’Adua. They demanded that a Northerner succeed Goodluck, but Goodluck decided to run again for President. The North took no chances and, while building up a powerful political force inside the PDP and the governorships, they also decided that they would send many Fulani and Kanuri children from the Northern madrassas to Libya and the Middle East for training. Under the pretext of sponsoring youngsters to study in the Middle East, they sent them to terrorist training camps.
Although Boko Haram officially started in 2002 there had been s
everal terrorist activities which preceded it. These young ‘jihadists’ proved their worth to their sponsors and the best of them got overseas scholarships to terrorist schools. In the early months of May 1986, thirty-six Jihadist hardliners went on a rampage, attacking Christian students of the University of Sokoto. According to a participant in that raid in that same week, the Federal Government of Nigeria under the leadership of General Babangida mobilised the jihadists and provided them with some military vans and army uniforms which they used to start killing innocent and defenceless Christians all over the Northern states. The following year, March 5 1987 to be precise, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida secretly armed the jihadists through one of his close aides by the name of Captain Hassan Abubakar. They attacked Christians and foreigners across Kano and Borno. Their ‘success’ led to them being chosen for training outside Nigeria.
The jihadists claim to have been trained in eight different countries namely Sudan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Egypt and the Niger Republic. They travelled as a group and received basic and advanced training. As proof of the success of their training they sport a mark (tattoo) showing proficiency. The mark is in the form of a sword held in a hand. Those who went through the training regard it as the ‘license to kill for Allah’. They included Ali Baba Nur, Asari Dokubo, Jasper Akinbo, Mohammed Yusuf, Salisu Maigari, Danlami Abubakar, Cletus Okar, Ali Qaqa, Maigari Haliru and Asabe Dantala.
The raids on Christians increased. The militancy exhibited by the leaders brought out a lot of support from Northern youth. This was not entirely because they had become hard-line jihadists but mainly because the substantial financial support from the Northern Emirs, General Babangida, the Northern governors and the Northern PDP political and business elite made jihadism a career choice. As the Christians fought back, it became easier to recruit jihadists.
One of the key demands of Boko Haram is the creation of a Muslim state in Nigeria which would be governed by the Sharia Law. The question of the legal co-existence of a Sharia law system in parallel with Nigerian civil law was raised in 1999 when the civil government of the former General Obasanjo had begun under a new constitution. Islamic law was allowed to exist under the British but elected Nigerian governments after independence did not recognise Islamic law as equal to civil law or binding on citizens unless they wanted to be so bound.
Despite many misgivings, in 2000, several states were given the option to use Sharia law. Since 1999 Sharia has been instituted as a main body of civil and criminal law in the Muslim-majority and in some parts of three Muslim-plurality states for Muslim citizens. In 2002, in defiance of the authorities in Oyo State, the Supreme Council of Sharia carried out a ceremony in Ibadan’s central mosque to inaugurate a panel to rule on civil matters in the region; to be empowered to decide on matters such as marriage, divorce and land disputes. The extension of Sharia law to a southern Christian state (actually the West) was a bold move by the Muslims. It was strongly rejected by Christians. What they objected to mostly was the cruel punishments of stoning to death and cutting of hands of the convicted as part of Sharia.
The Muslims of the North, despite their religious preference for Sharia were also appalled by the primitive punishments being applied. They were attracted to Sharia for different reasons. The Nigerian civil administration has always been riddled with corruption and injustice. Justice is a commodity not a birth right. They viewed the Sharia law as practised by their neighbours and religious co-believers as more likely to be fair and timely than a disinterested civil administration which was not inherently fair or just. The predilection for Sharia law was a powerful boost to the jihadists.
The militancy of Boko Haram was muted under the short presidency of Yar’Adua, a scion of one of the most powerful Northern families. He kept Northern political hegemony in power and most of his close associates were from the Northern elites. They kept Boko Haram in check. However, Yar’Adua was far more ill than anyone knew and died during his first term after a protracted stay in a Saudi hospital. His Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan became the accidental president; much as he had become the accidental Governor of Bayelsa when his mentor Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, the Governor was forced from office in 2005.
In 2007 Jonathan was vice-president and in 2010, at the death of Yar’Adua, he became president. In the meteoric rise to the top he had very little chance to pick up the skills and abilities needed for the job, especially in dealing with political sophisticates like Babangida, Obasanjo, Aliyu Gusau and David Mark; all of whom had years of plotting, coup-making and intrigue behind them. Those who could have helped him, like General T.Y. Danjuma, were ignored and isolated. Jonathan has bungled his way in the presidency ever since. His cardinal sin, in the eyes of the North, was to run for president on his own instead of allowing a Northerner in to finish the ‘Northern turn’ cut short by the death of Yar’Adua. On 18 May 2010, the National Assembly approved Jonathan’s nomination of former Kaduna State governor Namadi Sambo, an architect, for the position of vice- president.
With Jonathan’s election as president in his own right Northerners turned up the heat on the government by activating Boko Haram. There have been bombs, church-burnings, communal violence and a campaign to cause havoc in the country. The stated vow of Boko Haram has been to make Nigeria ungovernable. This is an amusing thought as there are very few Nigerians who have ever operated under the delusion that Nigeria has ever been governable. In 1965 there was widespread violence in the West as the Action Party turned on itself and killed large numbers of Yoruba. The Biafran War followed with the Igbo being driven from the North and calamitous battles fought between the two forces which left the East in famine and disease. Years of military rule followed, where kleptocracy and corruption thrived, even during a brief interlude of civilian rule. The roads have deteriorated and become largely impassable. There is no good drinking water in rural areas and in most cities. Boreholes which were paid for have never been drilled. Rural electricity has suffered from widespread theft of copper wire; blackouts of electricity are frequent and generators the rule. The creeks are polluted with oil spills. The rail system has largely disappeared, universities are frequently in a state of strike; hospitals are without medicines and refineries barely function. What is it that Boko Haram can do to make Nigeria ungovernable?
What Boko Haram has found, much to the displeasure of the self-appointed Northern elites, is that there are a very large number of Christians in the North. Other than in three states there is a large Christian presence; a presence which is being activated by the open support of the Northern elites; a Christian presence which is gathering its forces together to repel the excesses of Boko Haram and Sharia. The Igbo are sending buses to the north to bring back Igbo and Muslims of the South are starting a trek northwards, but these are trivial movements. There is nothing in the Northern economy which even hints at an ability to survive without the South and its oil revenues. The North needs the South but the South doesn’t need the North.
The whole edifice of what passes for governance in Nigeria is grounded upon the production of oil and the theft of its revenues. There is very little productive industry or agriculture in the North which will sustain its populace in food and jobs without a regular and hefty payment of money to the Northern states by the Federal Government from revenues derived from the oil industry.
The fundamental i
ssue of this revenue sharing is the implementation of the ‘derivation principle’. After the ravages of the Biafran War the country was reunited. The vast oil wealth of the Delta was distributed by the Federal Government using a formula which divided the national revenue derived from the oil industry equally among the states. Each state in the Federation receives a notionally equal share of the oil revenue (since 1995 set at 13% for each state) from the Federal Government. So, in theory, each state of the North gets 13% of the revenue even though the oil is actually produced in the states of the South-South who see the oil as ‘theirs’. Unfortunately their territory is effectively the same area as the defeated Biafran State so they had little choice. Under military governments the derivation formula was set at 10%. It is crucial to the Northern states that they receive the money from the derivation principle and the presidency of a South-South politician is a risk which seems threatening to them; hence the reliance on zoning.
The South-South states have their own ‘terrorist’ problems with the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) and those who terrorise the oil industry in the Delta. The terrorists of the Delta were similar to those in the North without the religious baggage, as MEND and the Delta militants were created and funded by the political elites of the South-South for their own ends. In many cases the actual leadership of these two groups, Boko Haram and MEND, were trained together in Libya at the same terrorist school in Benghazi.
The earliest groups to form were MEND and the Delta militants. They were funded by the South-South governors of Rivers, Delta and Bayelsa states and their political allies to make it difficult for the forces of law and order (the ‘Kill and Go’ police and the Task Force) to interfere with the stealing of oil in the region; known in Nigeria as ‘bunkering’. Every day the Nigerian economy loses between 150,000 and 320,000 barrels of oil. These are stolen by ‘bunkerers’, who have small tanker vessels which load the oil in the Delta and tranship this stolen oil to offshore tankers which deliver this stolen oil to other West African states. In addition to the theft of crude oil, other inland illegal tanker trucks load the imported refined products and drive these into neighbouring countries for black market sale. At $100 a barrel that amounts to around US$30 million a day for crude oil and around US$8 million per day for gasoline (PMS) and diesel. In short the bunkering of oil and refined products in the South-South brings in an illegal $42 million a day or over US$12 billion a year.
This illegal trade was pioneered under President Abacha when Rear Admiral Mike Akhigbe and his naval colleagues Victor Ombu and Ibrahim Ogohi established the smuggling of petroleum products from Port Harcourt and Warri to neighbouring West African countries. This naval assistance was important as over fifty vessels were engaged in the bunkering.
Soon the conflict between the military and the ‘terrorists’ took over the news and public attention. The issues of losing USD$12 billion a year to theft receded in public (and international) consciousness as the battles with MEND and the others took their attention. The international oil companies in the Delta, other than for the periodic inconvenience of the occasional kidnapping and ransom of staffs, were not terribly concerned, largely because most of the terrorist activities were concentrated on-shore and in the creeks. The international oil companies have production-sharing agreements with the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) which delivers the major part of the oil revenues for onshore production to the NNPC. For oil garnered from deep water production the oil companies receive around 60% of the revenue. They are financially better off delivering crude from their deep water wells so were not terribly concerned by the shutdowns of onshore production by MEND or anyone else.
Within a relatively short period of time and lots of publicity these terrorist groups of the South-South were ‘settled’ – a Nigerian term which signifies the transfer of cash for a designated behaviour. In several states the South-South governors continued to fund the militants, who also acted as their election agents, ‘Area Boys’. The militant leader of MEND, Asari Dokubo, was a graduate of the Benghazi school and was imprisoned for a while in Abuja. He is free and many of the MEND arms suppliers (primarily in South Africa and Angola) are back in business but at a lower level of activity. Their common nom de guerre, Jomo Gbomo, makes their public pronouncements. Henry Okah of MEND was arrested in Angola and brought to trial in a sealed courtroom (under Yar’Adua), and released. ‘General’ Boyloaf, who had taken over was also settled and they both resumed a less adventurous life.
Goodluck Johnathan was the Governor of Bayelsa State before becoming President and was not unfamiliar with the workings of MEND and the Delta ‘terrorists’. It is a cash cow for the South-South leadership and a ready-made political force. It is justified by alluding to the fact that this is ‘their’ oil so they have found a way to make more for themselves than under the derivation principle. Boko Haram was seen as the Northern equivalent of MEND.
The problem arose when the Al Qaida groups operating along the Sahel made contact with Boko Haram and introduced foreign fighters into their midst with little respect for the wishes of the Northern elites which continued to fund and arm them. Their ideology was a bit extreme for the more practical Northern elites but Boko Haram soon grew bigger than they could control. It operated on international jihadi principles. The Northern leaders still deal with Boko Haram as a buffer for their political adventures. Boko Haram is still useful to them. After the abduction of the girls, the Northern elders used the president’s inability to catch them to issue a declaration saying that Goodluck Jonathan had lost his bearings and had failed in his most solemn responsibility of protecting the lives and property of Nigerians. Therefore, power must return to the North in 2015. The position of the Northern elders is clear – Johnathan must not run in 2015 and a Northerner must become president.
There is no shortage of self-appointed Northern saviours. Former Vice-President Atiku is convinced he was short changed by Obasanjo in his effort to succeed him. David Mark wants to use his key role as president of the Senate for the job and sees the presidency as his next logical step in his collection of titles. Perhaps the most worrying is Aliyu Gusau, the former National Security Director and now Minister of Defence. He has always stated that one day he will be president and he hasn’t given up on his ambition. There was a fury in the country over Jonathan’s appointment of Gusau as Defence Minister. Although he was a General, the army despises him and tried to get him fired as soon as he was appointed. It wasn’t an ideological call. Gusau was one of the key people arranging arms for Boko Haram and, at the same time, keeping the Nigerian army very short of bullets and supplies. The army refused to meet with him when he was appointed, but eventually Jonathan forced them to meet. Gusau continues to play a much compromised role in this business and has been one of the key impediments to allowing foreign assistance to the Boko Haram incursions.
Jonathan is afraid of him and, at the same time, hopes Aliyu Gusau will act as a bridge for him to his Northern friends and sponsors. This is not a government with any principles, direction or conscience. There is nothing the Nigerian Government is going to do to resolve the Boko Haram problem. They have too much at stake financially to make a real effort and the military is too weak.
However there is a solution which is being considered. Over a third of the Nigerian army is serving outside of Nigeria as peacekeep
ers in other parts of Africa (Mali, Sudan CAR, Niger, etc.). They are fully armed and they are very hostile to Boko Haram and what they stand for. They are led primarily by Middle Belt officers and are now engaged in meetings to decide how to proceed. The problem isn’t lack of will but in overcoming the pressure for a ’Colonel’s Coup’ as opposed to a ‘General’s Coup’. This is being worked on now. There is a high likelihood that the civilian government in Nigeria will change soon as a response to the failures of politicians to agree on even the most basic policies. It will be no surprise when the green in Nigeria’s flag is once again khaki green.

* Dr. Gary K. Busch is an international trade unionist, an academic, a businessman and a political affairs and business consultant for 40 years.

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