The insurgency, which has claimed more than 20,000 lives, with a further two million people internally displaced, and crippled the socio-economic life of the people of the North-East geo-political zone, has often been misunderstood. Beginning in 2010, the Boko Haram terror group has engaged the Nigerian government in a war of attrition. The fundamental misunderstanding of the terror group and misinterpretation of its motive on the part of various interest groups and stakeholders have aided and abetted, if not strengthened, the group, and the result has been the intractability of the war.
In the early days of the insurgency, the Boko Haram terror group apparently enjoyed some legitimacy among a significant section of the people of Borno State and its immediate environs because its doctrine of rejecting western education and lifestyle was simply a continuation of an existing religious sentiment preached and taught among the predominantly Muslim populace of the area; that was why their grouse was initially viewed as a result of local religious issues that found expression in politics involving principally the former governor of the state, Ali Modu Sheriff.
Following the security crackdown on the group and the killing of Mohammed Yussuf, their leader, the stage was set for an endless war, beginning with isolated terror acts targeted at political allies and followers of Sheriff, their avowed enemy. The predominantly Muslim populace of Borno saw it as a direct confrontation between the Boko Haram sect and Sheriff and sympathised with the group, who appeared to be oppressed by the state. When the group graduated to attacking security agencies and other government targets, it fitted well into the pre-existing anti-government sentiments prevalent among the populace. When again the group extended its violent activities to Christians and their places of worship, it was received with indifference because that also fitted into the religious bias, intolerance and resentment against people of other faiths pervasive among the predominantly Muslim populace of the region. Therefore, the sympathy and legitimacy the group enjoyed helped to nurture it to violent maturity.
Enter former President Goodluck Jonathan, who had the misfortune of becoming President and Commander-in-Chief shortly after the Boko Haram insurgency broke out, with the death of President Umar Musa Yar’Adua in May 2010.
Jonathan’s re-election bid in 2011 pitted him against the northern political elite within and outside the then ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) because his ambition violated the zoning arrangement agreed to and endorsed by stakeholders from all geo-political zones of the country. Jonathan’s less than gentlemanly act of violating the gentleman’s agreement that was the PDP’s zoning arrangement, which sought to oscillate presidential power between the North and the South, left a lot of northerners disappointed. The feeling that Jonathan was taking the turn of the North was a bitter one.
When all efforts to stop him at the PDP presidential primary failed under the influence of incumbency, the North massively voted for then Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) candidate, Muhammadu Buhari. Following Buhari’s loss in the election, there were widespread violent protests by riotous youths throughout the North. The post-election violence was a reflection of the frustrations of the northern political establishment. Leading political figures in the North allegedly made certain statements that might have incited their followers to violence. Lawal Kaita, former governor of old Kaduna State, was reported to have vowed to make Nigeria “ungovernable,” if Jonathan emerged President, and former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar, who contested and lost at the PDP primary against Jonathan, was quoted as saying “those who make peaceful change impossible make violent change inevitable.”
The post-election violence coincided with the steady rise of the Boko Haram terror group to a formidable and bloody insurgency machine that eventually became the most deadly group in sub-Saharan Africa.
The Jonathan administration mistakenly viewed the Boko Haram insurgency through the narrow prism of partisan politics. It was interpreted as the North’s response to loss of power. The blunder was highlighted by then National Security Adviser Owoye Azazi, while speaking in Asaba, Delta State, on the occasion of the South-South Economic Summit in April 2012, where he attempted to link the Boko Haram insurgency to the power struggle within the PDP by muddling up the terror group’s activities with the post-election violence.
This impression by the Jonathan administration was largely responsible for the non-implementation of Amb. Usman Gaji Galtimari report, which substantially addressed the remote and near causes, as well as short and long-term solutions to the problem. The gross misunderstanding of the Boko Haram terror group was also responsible for the initial doubts expressed by the Jonathan presidency about the abduction of the Chibok girls from their dormitories by the insurgents.
However, the blame for the misunderstanding of the Boko Haram terror group is not entirely that of the Jonathan presidency alone. The larger Muslim community in Nigeria helped in no small measure to add to the confusion by consistently denouncing members of the sect as non-Muslims. This living in denial compounded the issue immensely. A ridiculous conspiracy theory was even evolved, which was widely believed by many, to the effect that enemies of Islam, possibly aided and abetted by the Jonathan presidency, were responsible for the Boko Haram insurgency to give the religion of Islam a bad image. The northern political establishment’s resentment of Jonathan also added to the cacophony of confusing voices.
The inability of the Jonathan presidency to rein in the insurgent group was used as political capital to ridicule the administration as incompetent. Even the various military operations and strategies to curb the menace of the group were either interpreted as punitive or genocide against the North to reduce their population and give demographic electoral advantage to the South. Nigeria simply could not form a consensus of opinions on a common enemy due to its deep fault lines.
The resurgence of the Boko Haram terror group under the northern Muslim presidency of Muhammadu Buhari has shattered all the myths and exposed the various conspiracy theories as fallacies that have obscured the true nature and motives of one of the deadliest groups in the world.
Boko Haram is not Islamic but it is Muslim, and it is a Muslim problem that can only be solved by Muslims in the long term through the reforming of the mainstream Muslim theology wherein doctrines that are at the roots of radical Islamic ideology are embedded. Boko Haram came about as a result of entrenched and sustained intolerant and violent doctrine, which is not only found in deviant Muslim sects like Boko Haram, but in mainstream Muslim theology. The seeds of radical Islam were sown in mainstream Islam and it is still being nurtured by influential mainstream Muslim authorities who share the same aspiration of Islamic rule in Nigeria with Abu Shekau’s Boko Haram terror group.
This has created a critical mass of millions of Nigerian Muslims that are latently radicalized with the potential of easy recruitment by the terror group. The Boko Haram insurgents are only putting to practice what has been taught and imbibed over a long period of time. Northern Nigeria is a fertile soil for nurturing the seeds of radicalization because of the pervasive revivalist Islamist sentiments that pervade the entire environment.
This region was part of the historic Western Sudan, where violent Islamic revivalist and reform movements thrived and continue to thrive. Modern-day groups like Boko Haram draw inspiration from earlier, successful jihadi movements all over the ancient Western Sudan, including the Uthman Ibn Fodio Jihad of 1804, which established the Sokoto Caliphate over a large part of northern Nigeria.
Boko Haram is a group driven by a radical ideology, which has as its core the doctrine of caliphacy, a Sharia-ruled Islamic state by a Caliph [Prophet Muhammad’s successor]. But because Islam is a divinely-guided empire of faith that cannot be confined to a state under the earthly jurisdiction of self-appointed successors of the Prophet of Islam, the caliphate system has never been achieved successfully throughout the 1,400 years history of Islam. It is not Islamic but a Muslim invention, which has been a source of acrimony even among Muslims, resulting in strife, bloodshed and eventual schism into the Sunni/Shia divides.