HENRY SREBRNIK: Boko Haram is a formidable Nigerian movement

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In northeastern Nigeria, a war has raged for a decade between Boko Haram militants and the Nigerian state. Can it be won?

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“Anyone who looks after and works for a widow and a poor person is like a warrior fighting for Allah?s cause, or like a person who fasts during the day and prays all night. (Bukhari)

Boko Haram emerged in the late 2000s in Nigeria’s Muslim-majority northeast, an area that has endured years of poverty, corruption and underdevelopment. 

Its militants mainly inhabit areas in the northern states of Nigeria, specifically Yobe, Kano, Bauchi, Borno and Kaduna.

Boko Haram was referred to locally as the Nigerian Taliban because of their religious similarities to the Afghani movement.

Boko Haram does not engage in Nigeria’s political system out of an adherence to a fundamentalist form of Islam which forbids participation unless the system is based on Sharia or Islamic law.

Originally a popular religious movement that challenged this status quo through ultra-conservative Islamist activism – openly opposing democracy and the legitimacy of the Nigerian state – Boko Haram turned to armed revolt in 2009, launching an uprising that the authorities have tried to crush with extreme brutality.

More than 37,500 people have died in the conflict with the group, according to data collected by the Council of Foreign Relations. Millions have had to flee the wider area, with many living in internally displaced person camps miles away from home.

Today it remains a violent insurgent group, widely abhorred but still able to recruit based on grievances many in northern Nigeria share, and whose members have tried to build links with other jihadists in west Africa.

Last year, the group split into the “Islamic State – West Africa Province” (ISWAP) and a splinter faction operating under the group’s original name. ISWAP in particular now appears resurgent, having conducted a recent series of attacks against the Nigerian army and built closer ties to communities around the Lake Chad Basin, extending the territory under its influence.

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The Lake Chad Basin, at the borders between Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Niger and the Central African Republic, is an important strategic location as the last green oasis before the Sahara Desert.

Some analysts have pronounced Boko Haram al-Qaeda’s representative in Nigeria, a view designed to push the United States to view Boko Haram as a global strategic threat to Western interests.

But this is rejected by many scholars of the region, who understand Boko Haram as just one of the symptoms of an ailing Nigeria– a country riven by corruption and violent abuse, facing multiple crises across a diverse and large population.

Portraying Boko Haram in this way, warned such academics, could hurt many more innocent people and exacerbate a grievous humanitarian emergency. 

Nigeria’s military influences and controls much of the debate about the movement, and its own conduct can be intimidating, even towards the politicians in Abuja.

Last December the Nigerian government briefly suspended the operations of UNICEF, accusing it of “unwholesome practices” and “deploying spies” for Boko Haram.

This followed the UN agency’s claim earlier that year that Boko Haram had kidnapped more than 1,000 children since 2013.

It is difficult to verify such claims, given the militants’ control of most of the countryside. The heartland of the insurgency is a conservative, deeply rural society with low literacy and few English speakers. It’s impossible for outsiders to get around easily.

Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

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