Responding to Boko Haram: Why Context Matters

2012-03-09 06:35

As I continue to read analyses on Boko Haram, the more disenchanted I become with existing counter-terrorism scholarship. Often what passes as analysis is superficial: attempting to get to grips with who the new leadership is, where they get their arms from, and their possible links to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Al Shabab. Whilst these are legitimate concerns, what is problematic is that the wider-context in which counter-terrorism policy is formulated is ignored.

We ignore the fact that movements like Boko Haram can tap into a proud history of jihad beginning with that of Usman dan Fodio in 1804 which resulted in the creation of the Sokoto caliphate under Fulani emirs. As with Boko Haram, Usman dan Fodio’s jihad was ostensibly also focused on purifying Islam. This notion of purifying Islam was witnessed in the attacks in 1908 of the Kanawa against the residence of the British Resident in northern Nigeria on account of alcohol consumption on the premises. It was also seen in 2004 with the rise of the self-styled Nigerian Taliban who not only attacked police stations but also brothels and establishments where alcohol was sold.

Context matters in other ways too. British colonial rule until 1960 witnessed northern Nigeria being ruled differently from that of the south. Northern Nigeria remained largely autonomous under the control of chiefs and religious leaders. In the post-colonial period, we have a situation where two very different Nigerias’ – north and south – uneasily co-existing and where religious differences are reinforced by ethnic divisions and are further reinforced by regional divides.

Given the northern dominance of the armed forces, the return to civilian rule in 1999 and to rise to power of Olusegun Obasanjo, the first Christian from southern Nigeria to win democratic elections, has brought new insecurities in the north – a feeling that now both economic and political power resides in the south. This feeling was reinforced with the election of another Christian southerner in the form of current president, Goodluck Jonathan. Boko Haram’s rise then must also be placed within the context of a sense of alienation and marginalization in the north.

Context also matters when one considers that even before independence, we have seen the rise of violent sub-national identities often with religious overtones such as in Jos between the Hausa and Igbo in 1945, conflict in Kano between the Hausa and Igbo flared in 1952, 1960-1964 and again in 1966, the Tiv riots of 1962-1964 and the botched Biafran secession which led to the Nigeria civil war of 1967-1970. Since the 1990s religious and ethnic clashes have resurfaced in Plateau and Benue States – both states where Boko Haram has also been active. Indeed, the Nigerian state has proven incapable of getting its citizens to think of themselves as Nigerian first. Boko Haram has proven adept at playing into these differences – ethnic, regional and religious – causing further polarization.

Unless counter-terrorism efforts focus on this broader context as well, we may well have a situation where Boko Haram is defeated and another Nigerian Taliban or Salafist formation replaces it since the objective conditions continue to exist for the rejuvenation of such radical movements.

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