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Boko Haram : Understanding why Borno elites must do more

By Pita Agbese

No insurgent group can operate for long by relying exclusively on its own resources. To operate beyond a few weeks, an insurgent group requires external resources such as money, territory, weapons, intelligence, materiel, and new recruits. It may also need ideological support derived from common ethnic, religious or regional identities. These resources may be given voluntarily, or the insurgent group may acquire them forcefully through looting and pillage. For instance, the insurgent group may be able to raise a huge sum of money from groups in the diaspora with which it shares bonds of ethnicity or religious identities. Such an avenue of funding from Palestinians living outside the Israeli-occupied territories has been crucial for the survival of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Without cutting off its sources of funding, it is difficult if not impossible to defeat an insurgent group. Thus, the resiliency of an insurgent group is the function of its support base.
Boko Haram, an insurgent group based largely in the North East geopolitical zone and using terrorism as its main insurgent strategy, has been terrorizing Nigeria and its closest neighbors, Chad, Cameron and Niger, since its violent phase began in 2009. It has survived, despite military and diplomatic onslaught by Nigeria and its neighbors, for more than eleven years. Part of its ability to survive has been its clever adaptability to changing circumstances, For instance, by establishing linkages with Islamic terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Islamic State, it has been able to draw on weapons, funding and fighters. As important as foreign assistance has been to Boko Haram’s resiliency, it could not have operated without assistance, voluntary or coerced, from its immediate geographical area of operation. It first, much of this assistance was coerced. Boko Haram would raid a village and steal food, looting banks and pilfering other essential commodities. It also killed people, abducted women and children and conscript men and young boys as fighters. Boko Haram has relied on assassinations of targeted individuals and those opposed to its ideology. Terrorizing people in the North East Zone and pillaging their resources allowed Boko Haram to sustain itself. Terrorism and pillaging were particularly useful to the terrorist organization when it seized a large swathe of Nigerian territory even before receiving outside help. Today, it no longer controls much of any territory. The thirteen local government areas that it had seized have been taking away from it.
Although Boko Haram no longer controls any definable territory of the Nigerian federation, it is still able to launch deadly attacks on the Nigerian population and the Nigerian armed forces. As military operations against the terrorist group has mounted, it has resorted to ambushing Nigerian soldiers. It is no longer able to launch spectacular attacks as it did in bombing police headquarters and UN offices in Abuja, but it remains a very deadly force. It has killed scores of Nigerian soldiers in the last few months. Much of its successes against the soldiers has derived from its ability to gather actionable intelligence on troop movements.

There are speculations that Boko Haram gains intelligence on troop movements because of saboteurs within the armed forces. While such rumors cannot be dismissed with flippancy, it must be noted that Boko Haram cannot gather such intelligence and operate with deadly accuracy without some open or tacit support from the local communities where it operates. Whether such support is voluntary or coerced, it must be recognized that military actions alone, short of a scorched-earth policy, would not eradicate the scourge of Boko Haram. As frustrating as it is not to unleash every firepower in the arsenal of the Nigerian armed forces against Boko Haram, that frustration must be tempered with the reality that fighting against Boko Haram in ways that violate Nigerian and international law would be counterproductive.

The only viable option is to engender greater cooperation from the communities where Boko Haram operates. First, it must be clearly demonstrated to the communities that despite sharing ethnic, religious and regional affinities with Boko Haram, Boko Haram’s goals are antithetical to the welfare, peace and security of the zone. What does Boko Haram want and how are its goals and objective in direct conflict with the interests of the people in the region? The terrorist group has spelt out its goals and objectives. It has also vividly made clear through extreme violence, the strategies it uses and intends to use in achieving its set goals and objectives.
Boko Haram’s aims and objectives are quite clear. Its’ leader, Abubakar Shekau, has publicly stated what the group stands for. As he puts it, “we are an Islamic caliphate. We have nothing to do Nigeria. We don’t believe in this name.” Among the most fundamental of Boko Haram’s goals and objectives are following: the overthrow of the Nigerian government and its replacement it with an Islamic State; the rejection of Westernization, including forbidding any participation in Western-style political activity such as voting in elections and running as candidates; and prohibition against engagement in social activities. Boko Haram also rejects Western-style secular education and it seeks to replace secular education with an unspecified Islamic education. The terrorist group is particularly vehemently opposed to girls receiving Western education and it has demonstrated its disdain and its total rejection of Western education by killing students, abducting them and forcefully marrying off the female students, and bombing schools as well as assassinating teachers. Boko Haram rejects the Nigerian government labelling its leaders, even if they are Muslims, as infidels.
Until March 2015 when Boko Haram was forcibly driven out of the Nigerian territories that it had seized, Boko Haram had established what it called an Islamic State in those territories. We therefore have a clear idea of the type of society Boko Haram would create if its goal of overthrowing the Nigerian government was met. It would be a deadly and an ultra-conservative and highly theocratic state. Although it would be said to be an Islamic state, it would have very little resemblance to Islam. While Islam reveres learning and knowledge, Boko Haram’s Islamic caliphate would be anchored on abhorrence to learning and knowledge. It would be a caliphate steeped in ignorance and fear of knowledge. Boko Haram’s caliphate, from what we saw of the territories that it briefly administered, would be a highly autocratic state. It would not be rooted in justice, even for its Muslim population. It would also be a state anchored on prejudice as the non-Muslim population under its control would be subjected to extreme oppression, brutality and brigandage. Shekau himself has justified the abduction of non-Muslim girls proclaiming that Islam gives him right to enslave such abductees.

Most of the victims of Boko Haram’s capricious rule would be Muslims. This is already quite clear. Although proclaiming that it was fighting for Islam, most of Boko Haram’s victims have been Muslims. Yes, Boko Haram has attacked churches and killed hundreds of Christians but a large majority of its victims, in terms of those assassinated and bombed out of existence, have been Muslims. Thus, for Muslims openly and tacitly supporting the terrorist group, the sobering lesson is that if Boko Haram succeeds in its objectives, Muslims would be the worse for it. Muslims would not receive any education at all because while Boko Haram makes vague references to Islamic education, the contents of such education remain inchoate. Moreover, where are the teachers who would provide Boko Haram’s style of Islamic education?
Second, the fact that Boko Haram is willing to bring in foreign terrorists to help it overthrow the Nigerian government should be of concern to people in Boko Haram’s major theater of operation. If Boko Haram succeeds, it would deprive the people of their Nigerian identity without being able to provide a better identity for its inhabitants. A Boko Haram caliphate over Nigeria would be a pariah state. It cannot count on cooperation among its neighbors. It would have to deal with the Western countries whose culture and whose education Boko Haram has rejected, from a very weak position.

What Must Be Done

The Nigerian military needs maximum cooperation from communities in the North-East Zone to be able to decimate, and ultimately, eliminate Boko Haram. Some of the communities have set up vigilantes in the form of civilian joint task forces. This is commendable. Some members of these outfits have paid the supreme sacrifice as they have been killed by Boko Haram. While this level of cooperation is appreciated, it is not enough. The military needs other forms of proactive cooperation. It needs prompt and effective intelligence on Boko Haram to enable it launch attacks on the group and in helping to forestall attacks by Boko Haram. The military also requires the communities to stop aiding and abetting Boko Haram and from shielding Boko Haram leaders and fighters from justice.

It is equally important for people in the North-East Zone to recognize that Boko Haram cannot overthrow the Nigerian government or over-run the entire country. At best, Boko Haram may succeed in capturing and holding a swathe of the country but its ability to extend its territorial control beyond a few local government areas in the North-East is highly circumscribed. We have seen the dastardly acts that pass for Boko Haram’s administration of a conquered territory. I do not think that most people in that part of Nigeria would look forward to that type of violent, oppressive and capricious governance.

While some people may be taken in by Boko Haram’s trenchant criticisms of the Nigerian government as corrupt, it should be noted that Boko Haram does not present any viable alternative to corruption in Nigeria. In fact, a Boko Haram administration, as we have seen in the brief period it governed the occupied territories, is far more corrupt than the Nigerian government whose corruption Boko Haram condemns. It is corruption for the Boko Haram leadership to send young men, other people’s children, to die while Boko Haram leaders stay away from the battlefield.

Communities in the North-East must refrain from cooperating with Boko Haram, openly or tacitly. They also stop seeing members of Boko Haram as their own people. Boko Haram does not see them as their brothers and sisters, fathers and grandfathers and mothers, sisters and aunts. They just see them as objects to be sacrificed to attain their atrocious and immoral goals and objectives.

Prof Agbese is a scholar at the University of Northern Iowa, USA.

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