A difficult fight against Boko Haram in Nigeria

Boko Haram has proved resilient despite government’s crackdown on the deadly islamist group in the northern parts of Nigeria. But as that country’s government seeks to deal with the terrorism quagmire posed by the group, with their source of funding and logistics support coming under scrutiny, Boko Haram’s demands point to a long battle ahead.

By Theophilus Abbah, 27 Sep 2013, The Africa Report

Thirty-year-old Moduga Borisknen, a resident of the commercial town of Maiduguri, in northern Nigeria, looked forward to Saturday, December 3, 2011. It was the day he was to tie the nuptial cord with Aminetu Alhassan, his heartthrob, in accordance with the Islamic tradition. But that was not to be.

While he dressed up for the life-time event, three gunmen wielding Kalashnikov AK-47 invaded his Shehuri ward residence and pumped bullets into him. He died, on the spot, along with his dream of family bliss.

Borisknen, affectionately called Modu, was killed by the fundamentalist sect, Jamā’a Ahl al-sunnah li-da’wa wa al-jihād. The group is popularly known as Boko Haram in the Hausa language. The Arabic meaning of the sect’s name is “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad,” while the Hausa version means Western Education is a sin.

Two days after Modu’s gruesome killing, Boko Haram’s spokesman, Abul-Qaqa, issued a statement claiming that the young man was killed because “he was an informant that led to the arrest of many of our members.” They believed that Modu had given information about the hideout of the group’s fighters to the military Joint Task Force.

Modu is one of over 5,000 Nigerians across religion to have been killed since 2009, when the terrorist group took up arms against the Nigerian State in a violent campaign to seek redress over alleged injustice done to it whilst demanding the institution of Shariah rule in the 19 states that constitute northern Nigeria.

In the Beginning

The sect, with bases in the North-Eastern states of Borno and Yobe States, took roots in 2001 under the leadership of the late Mohammed Yusuf, a charismatic preacher. The sect was called the Yussufiyanu movement. Its radical doctrines, condemned by moderate Muslims, insisted that Western civilisation was polluted and was not to be sought by Muslims.

In a 2009 interview with Sunday Trust, Abubakar Sekau, the current fugitive leader of the sect, used the following analogy to describe the sinfulness in Western education: “Western education is like a pot of honey. You find a trace of faeces in it, and many Muslims have decided to lick it with the filth, with the hope that eventually they may live to taste the bottom of it hoping to reach from pure honey at the bottom of the pot […] We are not fighting Western education itself, what we are opposed to are the various un-Islamic things slotted into it and the system upon which the study of Western education is rested.”

Under this atmosphere, young university graduates in Engineering, Medicine, Administration, Education, among others, tore their academic certificates, while thousands of young undergraduates abandoned their academic programmes in universities and polytechnics, to take up menial jobs in the sect’s headquarters. It was ‘haram’ (sinful) to acquire western education.

Around the country, the sect was barely tolerated. Its radical preaching against Western culture and the constituted authorities encouraged its members to resist political leaders, who were tagged as corrupt and infidels. In demonstrating their disdain for the authorities, the sect’s members disobeyed an instruction that all motorcyclists and passengers must use helmets while on the highway.

And, in June 2009, a quarrel broke between the sect’s members and the police over their non-compliance with this law, leading to a shootout in which six members of Boko Haram were killed and 13 others seriously wounded.

Boko Haram and Military

Boko Haram’s violent face emerged as a reaction to the police killing of its members. Citing movements in Afghanistan, Somalia and Palestine as the model that the sect would use in retaliation, in an interview with Sunday Trust after the face-off with the police, Yusuf announced: “We (Boko Haram) must act, but when and how, we shall not tell anyone.”

On July 26, 2009, Boko Haram members – trained on how to produce Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) – launched a string of violent attacks on Maiduguri, targetting police headquarters, prisons, electoral commission’s offices, schools, ministries, and churches.

This led to a military crackdown on the sect. The operation began when the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua instructed the army to crush the sect came to its climax four days later, on July 30, 2009. During that operation, the sect’s headquarters, Ibn Taimiya enclave at Unguwar Doki in Maiduguri, was destroyed, and hundreds of the sect’s adherents were killed, arrested or detained. On its part, the sect’s fighters killed hundreds of security personnel, as well as Christians and Muslims.

Following the military operation, the sect went underground, only to resurface a year later – in June 2010 under the leadership of a self-styled Imam Abubakar Shekau, a deputy to the late Yusuf, who was believed to have been captured and killed by the security forces. Since then, the sect’s violence against civilians, the police, the military, traditional institutions and those accused of collaborating with the Joint Task Force (JTF) has led to thousands of deaths.

But the killings have spread from Borno State to Bauchi, Yobe, Kano, Gombe, Adamawa, Kaduna, Katsina, and Niger states. Even the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) of Abuja has not been spared. The police headquarters, the United Nations headquarters and This Day newspaper house were bombed, leading to the death of scores of civilians.


In reaction to the unabated attacks by the sect, the Nigerian government imposed a state of emergency: first on January 1, 2012 and later in May 2013 in about a dozen states. Under the emergency rule, freedom of movement of persons living in states where Boko Haram fighters have found a foot hold is curtailed.

Curfews are complemented with police checkpoints at every kilometer in the affected cities. And telecommunication services in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa States (which were still under emergency rule at the time this report was being written) were cut off, such that communicating with the use of mobile phones has been impossible.

Soldiers have entered into desert and remote areas in states where the sect’s fighters are believed to be trained along Nigeria’s borders with the Republics of Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. Camps have been dismantled and many of the sect’s fighters have been arrested or killed.

Nonetheless, they have continued to be resilient, acquiring more sophisticated weapons and communication gadgets, making it possible for them to regroup in difficult terrains to confront Nigerian troops.

The powerful players

Boko Haram has entered into guerilla warfare against the Nigerian State, and apart from Abubakar Shekau, a fugitive, who reads threat messages on YouTube, once in a while, there is hardly any other known member of the group. In addition to Shekau, there have been two persons, since 2011, Usman Al-Zawahiri and Abu Qaqa, who have claimed to be spokespersons for the sect.

The sect is administered by a Shura, an executive council, made up of faceless commanders. It also has ‘three faces,’ defined by their activities.

First is the ‘original Boko Haram,’ represented by Shekau who insists on the strict enforcement of Shariah legal system. Second is what is called the ‘political Boko Haram,’ which is suspected to be behind the killing of politicians who belong to the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) in Borno State. This face of Boko Haram issue political threats, calling for the arrest and prosecution of the immediate past Governor of Borno State, Alhaji Ali Modu Sheriff, under whose regime Mohammed Yusuf was killed. The third face, called the ‘criminal Boko Haram’, engages in armed robbery, kidnapping, and extortions.

In order to give a bite to the third categorisation, the Shekau faction of Boko Haram, on two occasions, came out to disclaim those who robbed banks, kidnapped prominent Nigerians for ransom, and sent threatening text messages to rich individuals, demanding for contributions to the sect’s cause.

Conversely, the law enforcement agencies have not been able to unmask the difference faces of the sect to enable Nigerians know who are the real Boko Haram and who are not.

Funding of Boko Haram

The late National Security Adviser, General Andrew Owoeye Azazi, once alleged that the Boko Haram sect was funded by a former Mauritanian leader from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The authorities added that the Al Muntada Trust Fund and the Islamic World Society may have funded the sect at one point or another.

However, before it went violent, the sect received funds from prominent politicians and businessmen in Nigeria, who donated cash, motor vehicles, land, buildings, electronic gadgets, and other valuables to the sect’s campaign for purer Islam in the North. At a point, some state governments were said to have bribed the sect with monthly financial support to prevent them from setting up cells and attacking locations in their states.

Dr Fatima Akilu, a director in the Office of the National Security Adviser (NSA), which coordinates the counter-terrorism effort of government, told this reporter that the foreign and local sources of funding of the sect had been effectively blocked, hence it had resorted to attacks on banks, kidnapping and extortion. Persons, who claimed to be members of the sect, until recently, sent text messages to wealthy individuals, demanding for certain sums of money or face death. In many cases, they succeeded in raising funds through this means.

Furthermore, the sect enforced the payment of tax by peasants and traders in villages and small towns in local governments where they had taken control. In Borno State, the sect controlled some 20 local government areas, until May 2013, when another emergency rule was imposed on the state.

The sect got weapons for its operations by attacking police and army armory in the North-East. Also, government claimed the sect obtained sophisticated weapons from Libya, apparently referring to weapons that some fighters in Libya had smuggled out of the North African country to West Africa.

In search of peace with Boko Haram

The Nigerian government has embarked on a two-prong approach as it seeks to reach a peaceful end to Boko Haram’s acts of terrorism. The first is the military approach, where 3,500 soldiers were deployed to the North-East to confront the fighters and reclaim territories where they have held sway.

The second approach is the amnesty option. The Nigerian government has set up a 25-man panel to meet the sect’s leaders and fighters with an offer of amnesty if they would surrender their arms and embrace peace. Along this line, about 100 women and children of some of the commanders of the sect have been released from detention camps in the North-East. Among those released are Shekau’s wife and children.

The committee has met with the sect’s fighters who were captured and locked up in prison, asking them to renounce violence in order to benefit from government’s amnesty.

Dr Akilu told this reporter that she had designed a roadmap for the de-radicalisation of the sect’s members who renounce violence. In the process, those who surrender would be taken to a camp over a period of time. Islamic clerics would raise the teachings of the late Yusuf and use Islamic doctrines to counter them. Also, they would be given vocational training to enable them acquire skills they can live on, and those who have the intellectual capacity would be given scholarships to study for academic qualifications that would help them to re-integrate into the society.

“This is a long term approach,” Dr Akilu remarked. “It would take three or four years to de-radicalise some of these sect members, but we’re ready to patiently go through the process in order to achieve this objective.”

But in spite of government’s overtures, the sect is not giving up. In a press release signed by Usman Al-Zawahiri, the sect has given three conditions for peace.

They include the strict enforcement of Shariah legal system, the prosecution of the immediate past Borno State Governor, Alhaji Ali Modu Sheriff, over the killing of Mohammed Yusuf in 2009, and the resignation of President Goodluck Jonathan from power. Government and the majority of Nigerians consider these conditions as too difficult to meet as Nigeria is a secular State.

* Theophilus Abbah is a member of the Forum for African Investigative Reporters (FAIR) which funded this article under the SIDA grants programme.

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