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Understanding the Phenomenon of Boko Haram in Nigeria

Even in a country like Nigeria with its numerous religious cults, Boko Haram (literally translated as ‘Western education is forbidden’) stands out for its weirdness. Its founder Mohammed Yusuf espoused a series of bizarre statements – that the earth is flat and that rain comes directly from God and not from evaporation caused by the sun. Yusuf also sought to impose sharia law over all 36 Nigerian states (including the Christian South) and some analysts have interpreted it as a crude attempt to impose Salafi Islam in Nigeria. However, there was nothing weird about this Islamist sect’s violence in 2009. Boko Haram’s carried out a series of coordinated attacks across four of northern Nigeria’s provinces which resulted in the deaths of over 700 people. The Boko Haram insurrection was quickly suppressed by Nigerian security forces and Yusuf himself was killed.

For a time it seemed as the leaderless Boko Haram was fading away but recent developments in the troubled country suggest that they are poised to make a comeback having changed their tactics from mass insurrection to targeted assassinations. Their choice of their targets also reveals their strategic maturity. Adopting urban guerrilla tactics specifically using snipers to target policemen and soldiers as well as driving-by shootings, the new Boko Haram is proving harder for security forces to defeat. In early March 2011, two police officers guarding the home of Mustapha Sandamu, Divisional Police Officer in Sabon Gari in Kaduna State, were killed by Boko Haram members on motorcycles. The specific targeting of the security forces is a worrisome development and points to Boko Haram directly challenging the authority of the state. But the sophistication of Boko Haram’s planning and efficiency in carrying out the attacks suggests that they may be receiving military training. Indeed some have suggested that foreign fighters from Afghanistan are providing this training to Boko Haram members. If this is true, then the next phase of Boko Haram’s terror might well be the use of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) into northern Nigeria – a cause of grave concern for the authorities.

Another target of Boko Haram has been prominent moderate Muslims. On 13thMarch 2011, Sheikh Ibrahim Ahmed was gunned down just after he finished his Maghrib prayers at Gomari Mosque in Maidguri by Boko Haram members. He often gave sermons against Boko Haram at the local mosque. The strategic logic behind the assassination was clear: from now on there will only be one interpretation of the Quran – the Islamist one.

In order to defeat this scourge, the authorities will need to do three things:

1) Brute force against Boko Haram will not work. Intelligence-driven operations will be the key and here intelligence is sorely lacking. Answers need to be found about their training and funding and the presence of foreign fighters. Answers also need to be found about their new leadership and their command and control structures.

2) The Nigerian authorities need to provide more public platforms for moderate Muslims and protect these from being silenced. In the battle between moderate Islam and Islamism, the security forces and the state need to come out firmly in support of the former.

3) The state needs to hold its nerve and reject the advice give by former Nigerian Information Minister Dr. Alex Akinyele to President Goodluck Jonathan that he should embrace dialogue with Boko Haram. No state can engage in dialogue whilst it security forces are gunned down and where innocent civilians are murdered. Moreover, there is nothing in the programme of the sect which suggests moderation, compromise or any propensity towards dialogue.