Nigeria’s Boko Haram: Why They Fight and Some Recommendations for Quelling Their Insurgency

This article is based on the insights shared by Ahmad Salkida, a journalist and respected source on Boko Haram, in a twitter session which sought to shed light on the salient question #WhatDoesBHwant.

Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram's present leader (AFP/Getty)

Soldiers from Lagos, part of the then 1000 reinforcement sent to the 23rd Armored Brigade in Yola as they prepared to take on Boko Haram, May 20, 2013. (Reuters)

In a twitter session with the public on Saturday the 1st of November, Ahmad Salkida (@ContactSalkida on Twitter), a Nigerian journalist and a respected source on Boko Haram, shared his insights on the nature of the terrorist group and the danger they pose to Nigerian society and state. In an hour-long discussion, tagged #WhatDoesBHwant, he covered topics ranging from the group’s ideology and their sources of funding, to the prospects of a negotiated settlement. His remarks also have policy implications for containing and eventually quelling the insurgency, which I will comment on. 

Salkida’s tweets were both fascinating, for the insights they yielded on Boko Haram, and extremely disconcerting, for the picture they painted of a fanatically determined group committed to their cause and now with possible links to the “Islamic State” Group in the middle east.

I have embedded the tweets which I feel capture the essentials of the discussion. I also punctuate his tweets with my comments and a brief analysis of what I made of his statements. 

Salkida’s Tweets; My Remarks and Analysis

The nature of Salkida’s links to Boko Haram (BH)

On his access to BH’s leadership and how his contacts with the group came about:

Note: Yusuf refers to Mohammed Yusuf, Boko Haram’s first leader who was extra-judicially executed by the Police during a military crackdown on the group in July 2009. 

On why he is unable to lead his sources in BH to the Nigerian Army (NA) and the intelligence services.

BH’s Ideology

This topic dominated Salkida’s remarks. For good reason. Understanding the nature of BH’s ideology, yields a better understanding of what the group wants, why they fight so tenaciously in pursuit of their goals, and the magnitude of the threat they pose to our body-politic. A prominent theme coursing through Salkida’s statements is the image of Boko Haram as a group with an ideological programme to which they are fanatically committed to and are determined to implement.

Given the importance of this sub-section, I will punctuate the tweets with commentary. I will also give a brief analysis at the end of the sub-section of what I understand the essence of BH's ideology to be.

On BH’s beliefs Salkida tells us:

Note: 'Taghut' means idolatry/To worship anything other than God; 'Kufr' means disbelievers/deniers of truth. 

He further informs us that:

Note: Shekau refers to Abubakar Shekau, BH’s current leader.

In addition to favouring a strict and unquestioning adherence to the literal meanings of the Qur’an and a rejection of rational discussion and debate of religious injunctions, BH also shares some Salafi ideology. This is the belief that Islam has become corrupted over time; and therefore to purify the religion, Muslims should return to the practices and interpretations prevalent during the religion’s formative years in the 7th century:

On how BH views Muslims that do not share their narrow and heterodox interpretations of religious tenets; and on how the group treats agents and employees of the State who they see as the upholders of a secular order.

Unsurprisingly BH rejects both the appropriateness of seeking redress in secular institutions, and of Muslim integration into the social life of secular States, as forms of idolatry.

On the group’s violently dogmatic nature:

Indicative of the consistency of BH’s ideological hostility to secular institutions over time, Salkida briefly narrates his encounter with Mohammed Yusuf, BH’s first leader, in 2006 – a period before the group’s metamorphosis into the armed insurgents we know today:

Emphasising the role of ideology as the primary driver of BH’s violent activities, reducing poor economic conditions as only incidental or secondary drivers, and situating the group’s ideologically driven violence within a rising tide of global ‘Jihadist awakening’ (if I can call it that), Salkida says:

Brief Analysis

From the above it seems to me that BH’s ideology rests on three pillars: (1) A strict adherence to the literal interpretation of, and a rejection of rational debate regarding, religious injunctions; (2) A belief that Islam has been corrupted by modernity and thus must be returned to what they see as the pure ideals prevalent during the religion’s formative years; and (3) A belief that only a Shari’ah system can restore the pure, unadulterated, Islam practiced in the distant past.

The combination of these three pillars is what explains BH's fervent belief that anything other than a Shari’ah based social and political order is idolatry, and therefore must be resisted and replaced - with armed force if necessary.  It also informs BH’s violent opposition to all, Muslim or not, they see as not sharing their narrow ideological beliefs. It also highlights to me the fact that the name given to them by their detractors, Boko Haram (Western Education is forbidden as the most often heard translation goes), does not sufficiently capture the breadth of the group’s beliefs; instead, as Salkida points out, this name merely reduces the scope of their ideological beliefs to a single issue:

I can only infer that their regressive and violent attitude to secular education is informed by their views of it as the chief means through which the West's social values and ideas about government are transmitted into society; values and ideas they see as promoting idolatry.

Appreciating the fundamental importance of BH’s ideology (however nihilistic we find it) in explaining why the group has been so tenacious opens the door to grasping at an answer to the salient question #WhatDoesBHwant.

What Does Boko Haram Want?

It seems to me, from Salkida’s statements, BH has had a consistent goal which they have pursued, even before their metamorphosis into violent insurgents. And it is this goal that presently guides their brutal actions. So what does BH want to achieve? Why do they fight? The answer: To acquire a sovereign State (Daulat) of their own, forcibly carved out of Nigeria, within which they can implement their brand of Sharia’ah:

Appreciating the importance of ideology and the desire for sovereign Statehood as the main drivers of BH’s actions should also dispel some of the myths surrounding the group – the most pernicious of which is their alleged links to sections of Nigeria’s political elites.

On BH’s Political Links

One of the more destructive myths paralysing an effective and united response to the BH menace has been the often repeated claim that BH has direct links to powerful elements in Nigerian society. Some around the President, and amongst the southern elites, are known to view the crisis in the northeast as a calculated attempt by disgruntled northern elites to destroy his administration and reclaim power for themselves. Some amongst the northern elites similarly view BH’s seemingly unstoppable rampage in their region as a calculated attempt by the President to enfeeble the region’s political power.

If Salkida’s tweets are anything to go by, it should become quite clear to anyone that reads them that BH are their own agents, pursuing their own agenda. To the extent that there are any links it only manifests itself with individuals who have grown rich as a result of access to security contracts, or as a result of political violence being displaced onto BH:

Note: FG refers to Federal Government. 

Reinforcing the point that BH are their own agents, pursuing their own ideological agenda, Salkida further tell us:

Note: The Sultan of Sokoto is regarded as the spiritual leader of Nigeria’s Muslims.

On loyalty in BH

Note: Ansaru refers to a breakaway militant group which has since been reincorporated back into BH’s fold. 

On BH’s sources of funding

 The embedded tweets in this sub-section should disabuse anyone of the notion that BH is dependent on shadowy elements within Nigeria’s governing elites for sustenance:

On sources of BH’s weapons

A January 2012 UN report also suggested that the cache of weapons which flowed out of Libya in the wake of the collapse of Gaddafi’s regime could have also reached BH, thereby boosting their capabilities.

On BH's possible links with the "Islamic State" Group

I found his remarks on this issue the most disconcerting of his tweets. Whilst there have been suggestions online that there are IS “advisers” present on ground with BH, and whilst this fact now seems to be slowly percolating into mainstream news reports, the realisation that Nigeria’s battlefield could possibly evolve to become the next choice destination for foreign jihadists that can’t make it to the Levant is an extremely worrying revelation to me.

Policy Recommendations

There are many policy recommendations that can be made to reverse the tide against BH, and indeed I have suggested some elsewhere. However here I will restrict myself to only those policy recommendations that I could glean from the #WhatDoesBHwant discussion.

(1) Military equipment that cannot be evacuated with a retreating unit should be destroyed: First and foremost, it should now be an absolute requirement for military commanders to order the destruction of all military materiel that cannot be evacuated when a town or military installation is about to fall to advancing insurgents. Nigeria cannot be enemy and quartermaster to BH at the same time. The fall of Mubi town and BH’s reported capture of intact and voluminous military supplies can only constitute a boost to their war-fighting capabilities.

Any military commander who abandons his position without seeing to it that at the very least war materiel has been destroyed or rendered inoperable should be court-martialled for extending material help to the enemy.

(2) Morale should be rebuilt: Morale in the army, particularly amongst the frontline troops, has been shot to pieces. The combination of poor service condition, endemic corruption which often sees soldier’s benefits paid late and incomplete, poor weaponry, and having to do battle in such dreadful conditions against a fanatical and bloodthirsty foe will negatively affect the morale of any military force. It certainly seems to have negatively affected sections of Nigeria’s frontline troops:

There are many simple and immediately implementable steps that can be taken to rebuild morale. For example, soldiers’ benefits and salaries should be paid promptly and should be complete. It is a scandal that this should even be an issue at a time of war. A special class of Military Medals for this war, with substantial monetary rewards tied to them, can be created to be awarded for acts of heroism above and beyond the call of duty. Fallen soldiers should be buried publically and in a solemn occasion that should be televised, to generate sympathy for the enormous sacrifices of the armed forces and also sympathy for those families that have given their sons and daughters to die for the country. There are many other such relatively easily implementable morale boosting policies that can be adopted.

(3) Human Rights abuses by the Military should be curbed: There is no denying the fact that BH is a brutal and savage organisation. What is now also beyond doubt is the fact that the army has sometimes conducted this war against the civilian population of the northeast with an unbridled savagery that equals that of BH. The many human rights reports and examples are too numerous to be recounted here. In any case they can be easily googled. It goes without saying that a military that does not have the support and respect of the civilian population it is meant to defend will find it difficult to win the war it is tasked with fighting.

The military’s impunity and human rights abuses must be curbed. BH’s ongoing transition into Statehood and governance should give us all pause for thought. We must recognise the fact that BH is now a competitor for the hearts and minds of the population of that part of Nigeria. Whether the group becomes an effective competitor very much depends on how Nigeria treats its civilian population in the war affected areas.

Additionally, it also means that governance in Nigeria must be improved if it is to maintain its current legitimacy advantage over BH. Governance in Nigeria having been spectacularly poor since independence. Despite this, the only unassailable advantage Nigeria presently has over BH is the fact that the group appears a brutish and savage alternative to what Nigeria offers. Should BH sustain its transition to stable governance and reduce its brutality towards the civilian population, this advantage will evaporate – especially in the war affected areas.

(4) Negotiations can only be tactical. Any long-term strategy for quelling this insurgency must hinge on militarily subduing BH: Anyone who appreciates the ideological driver of BH’s actions, and the group’s cardinal objective of securing sovereign Statehood within which they can implement their ideology, fully understands that only blows will decide how this crisis is settled. Any policy of economic regeneration for war affected areas is of course instrumental for draining the pool from which BH recruits, but ultimately the core of the group itself can only be subdued through military force. If the Nigerian government plans to open negotiations with the goal of arriving at a political settlement to this crisis under an "amnesty" framework - especially when the momentum is with BH, then it must be prepared to part with the territories it has so far lost. Conversely, if Nigeria is interested in ever reclaiming its sovereign territory, it must be prepared to fight for it:

On tactical negotiations

From Salkida’s tweets, it seems there are still possibilities for entering into tactical negotiations with BH – particularly for the return of the abducted Chibok girls. Such tactical negotiations could be based on a “swap arrangement” – with BH returning the girls in return for their own members in detention. But even here it seems, the importance of gaining the upper hand militarily before entering into negotiations is absolutely critical if Nigerian negotiators hope to reopen discussions with the group on Nigeria's terms:

Nigeria is the only country we have. Ignorance regarding the nature and magnitude of this existential threat crippling a sizeable section of our country is not an excuse!

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