“What is Boko Haram?” ~ A Report by BBC’s Andrew Walker for USIP

Several weeks ago, in an NGO where I was working then, one of the Executive Directors of the organization came to my department, to say hello to everyone. We exchanged pleasantries, and he asked of my nationality, to which I replied “Nigeria“.  He then asked what part of Nigeria and I said “…from the North…”. He then exclaimed: “Oh! Boko Haram boom! boom! boom!!!” Everyone laughed, I laughed, but deep down I didn’t find it funny. I wasn’t offended at all but I was sad that Boko Haram was the first thing that came to his mind when Northern Nigeria was mentioned.

This anecdote shows how these days, Nigeria, or Northern Nigeria in particular is being increasingly identified with the insurgency group, Jama’atu Ahlus-Sunnah Lidda’Awati Wal Jihad (popularly referred to as Boko Haram). I have written severally about the group’s activities notably its deadly onslaught against its perceived enemies: the institutions of the Nigerian state, churches and Christians, Politicians, Muslims and Imams who dare question them, media houses, universities, primary schools and so on; I have written about the pattern of its attacks; the conflicting and sometimes misleading narratives about the group’s activity and the overall implications for Nigeria’s stability and unity.

What Boko Haram stands for and the consequences of its activities touch me personally and deeply, as the group operates chiefly within Northern Nigeria. The group’s activities — and that of its numerous factions, splinter groups and copy cats — are wreaking tremendous havoc on the political-economy, the social cohesion and stability of my home basically:  the various bomb blasts, gun fights, targetted assasinations, government curfews restricting movement and police and military check points are having a devastating impact on economic activity, scaring away investors, tempers and tensions are high between Christians in the region who feel most vulnerable and Muslims who feel they are equally victims. My “home” is crumbling and falling apart, and the situation is hardly improving.

There is a general sense of confusion, fear and paranoia in the North in particular and Nigeria in general over Boko Haram and the general state of insecurity. Since the escalation of the group’s insurgency in 2011, it seems there’s little new information available (to the public) as it is becoming more of a the-more-you-see-the-less-you-understand phenomenon. Therefore, I strongly advocate any research, any report or any useful information that would shed more light on the Boko Haram insurgency, suggest ways of effectively addressing it and restoring some sanity to the North and to Nigeria in general. One of such reports is: “What is Boko Haram?” by Andrew Walker – a  BBC journalist – written for the United States Institute for Peace (USIP) based on extensive field research and key interviews . The following is the summary and key highlights of the report (you can access the full report in PDF HERE):

  • Boko Haram is an Islamic sect that believes politics in northern Nigeria has been seized by a group of corrupt, false Muslims. It wants to wage a war against them, and the Federal Republic of Nigeria generally, to create a “pure” Islamic state ruled by sharia law.
  • Since August 2011 Boko Haram has planted bombs almost weekly in public or in churches in Nigeria’s northeast. The group has also broadened its targets to include setting fire to schools. In March 2012, some twelve public schools in Maiduguri were burned down during the night, and as many as 10,000 pupils were forced out of education.
  • Boko Haram is not in the same global jihadist bracket as Algeria’s al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or Somalia’s al Shabab. Despite its successful attack on the UN compound in Abuja in August 2011, Boko Haram is not bent on attacking Western interests. There have been no further attacks on international interests since that time.
  • Following the failed rescue of hostages Chris McManus and Franco Lamolinara in north­eastern Nigeria in March 2012, President Goodluck Jonathan played up the connections between the group and international terrorism. However, links between Boko Haram and the kidnappers are questionable.
  • It is difficult to see how there can be meaningful dialogue between the government and the group. The group’s cell-like structure is open for factions and splits, and there would be no guarantee that someone speaking for the group is speaking for all of the members.
  • Tactics employed by government security agencies against Boko Haram have been consistently brutal and counterproductive. Their reliance on extrajudicial execution as a tactic in “dealing” with any problem in Nigeria not only created Boko Haram as it is known today, but also sustains it and gives it fuel to expand.
  • The group will continue to attack softer targets in the northeast rather than international targets inside or outside Nigeria. It is also likely to become increasingly involved in the Jos crisis, where it will attack Christian indigenes of the north and try to push them out. Such a move would further threaten to destabilize the country’s stability and unity.
  • Now that the group has expanded beyond a small number of mosques, radical reforms in policing strategy are necessary if there is to be any progress in countering the group. Wide­spread radical reform of the police is also long overdue throughout Nigeria. As a first step, jailing a number of police officers responsible for ordering human rights abuses might go some way to removing a key objection of the group

Without intending to sound overly pessimistic, my mouth went dry literally and I struggled to swallow hard at various times whilst reading the report. Nevertheless, in my frank assessment, the report is rich in information and detail, seems quite balanced, very nuanced and accurately captures the dynamics of the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria. Hopefully, Nigerians in general and our policy makers in particular would put this information to good use. Afterall, according to British scientist and historian Joseph Needham (1900-1995):

“no knowledge is ever wasted or to be despised”

32 thoughts on ““What is Boko Haram?” ~ A Report by BBC’s Andrew Walker for USIP

  1. Hope Nigerian Government will be sincere in finding solution to this crisis and not continue to see it as a northern issue. I pray they make use of all the vital information they come across like the stated report so as to bring peace back to the north. They should shun all form of bigotry and view every part of the country as an essential part.

  2. Thanks for posting. I must admit I found it interesting and concise, with lots of useful information to work with, one to file away,

  3. Interesting perspective ,to the issue!But if Walker’s piece is well researched,I would expect him to reflect the present perception ,among northern Nigerian elite,of the Boko haram phenomenon as a tool to ground the Northern Nigerian economy.Many believed that the group is sponsored by Govt for certain end.And,Zainab,there are a lot of pointers to that,like why can’t the leaders be arrested even when the group spokesman holds teleconference(s)with journalist,or trace the origin of their YouTube uploads,among so many other issues!

  4. Interesting perspective ,to the issue!But if Walker’s piece is well researched,I would expect him to reflect the present perception ,among northern Nigerian elite,of the Boko haram phenomenon as a tool to ground the Northern Nigerian economy.Many believed that the group is sponsored by Govt for certain end.And,Zainab,there are a lot of pointers to that,like why can’t the leaders be arrested even when the group spokesman holds teleconference(s)with journalist,or trace the origin of their YouTube uploads,among so many other issues!

  5. The issue now is there are three boko haram in Nigeria, read General Buhari’s recent statement. Why christians attack churches with Muslim dress? Certainly muslims or so called muslims started this attacks, but now the foreign country that predict the collapse of Nigeria by 2015 is taking advantage of the activities of boko haram to carry out thier covert operations.

  6. Hey Zee! For the job weldone, this is quiet enlighting & educative. Keep it oop!!! I’m expecting more of these facts on Boko Haram… My question here is that; how can u relate Boko Haram with the present Political reality of Nigeria looking at the intriques & conspiracy which you & I can attest to that? Thank You…I’m proud of u..

  7. In the absence of credible information about Boko Haram, Nigerians have adopted their pet theories on what Boko Haram is, its motivations and where its support base comes from.

    Many Northern Muslim voices (and they seem to be quite a few on this blog) seem to be ready to believe that Boko Haram is a tool of the government at Abuja used to “destroy economy of the North”.

    On the other hand, Northern Christians believe that the same people who introduced Sharia to Northern Nigeria are behind Boko Haram, and that Boko Haram is a carefully planned and executed “Jihad against Christians in Northern Nigeria”. Ayo Oritsejafor is the chief exponent of this particular view.

    In the South, the consensus seems to be that the Northern political elite is solidly behind Boko Haram and that Boko Haram exists in its most virulent form today simply because “Jonathan had the temerity to seek the presidency” and that the “born-to-rule” mentality of the Muslim North cannot abide another “Southern Christian” president.

    Why am I writing all this? The real danger of Boko Haram isn’t whether it mutates into a “Foreign Terrorist Organisation” but its ability to trigger a TOTAL breakdown of trust among Nigerians.

    In our present climate of fear, the “truth” about Boko Haram is just as important as finding ways to address the fears and suspicions of the different stakeholders in the Nigerian project. We really need to stop making unguarded and unproven statements like “Jonathan / Federal Government is behind Boko Haram” (like quite a few prominent Northern leaders).

    1. That’s an accurate summation of what Boko Haram means to different sets of people in Nigeria i.e. Northern Muslims, Northern Christians and Southern Christians. One has to wonder though, if Boko Haram is viewed differently by different categories of Nigerians, then which perspective is closer to the truth? Could they all be right or all be wrong? Is one perspective closer to the real situation than the others? Or could they all have some element of truth in them? As for the breakdown of trust among Nigerians, I think that is already happening and the rift might grow wider especially given the general obsession with the 2015 elections which is 3 years away!

      1. Hello Zainab. think on how we can mobilize intellectuals to join this site for constructive contributions and criticisms. coz we really need to go beyond ordinary Man’s seeing so as to uncover the reality. thank u for ur usual contributions

      2. At the risk of sounding Machiavellian, let me state that the “truth” isn’t important at this point in our history.

        Different sections of the population have witnessed traumatic events:

        1. For the South-West, IBB’s betrayal of Abiola and Abacha’s brutal crackdown on Lagos and targeted assassinations. Obasanjo’s “imposition” by the “Northern elite” also counts.
        2. For the Niger Delta, Abacha’s murder of Saro-Wiwa and Dauda Musa Komo’s reign of terror.
        3. For the Middle Belt – Zango-Kataf, Kaduna and Jos.
        4. For the North – Jonathan’s brutal crackdown on Maiduguri.
        5. For the South-East, the Civil War. (we continue to carry on, forgetting that 1-2 million people DIED during the conflict and no real attempts at reconciliation have occurred since then).

        These events merely “confirm” our various perceptions and no amount of “truth” will shift our perceptions.

        The best way to deal with this problem is not to talk about “dogs and baboons soaked in blood” or to appear clueless with a garbled message. The best way to deal with this problem is to talk, write and act as if we understand where each and everyone is coming from.

        We also tend to underestimate Jonathan. Jonathan is the first candidate to win a presidential election without the support of the “far North”. How exactly, was he able to build that coalition and how likely is he to repeat the same feat in 2015 (irrespective of what some of the louder voices in the North and South-West say).

    2. Hello Chike, i appreciat your comments on this issue. But i dont think there is an absence of credible informations on Boko Haram. Government is aware of everything through its security agencies. is just that so unfortunate that most people tend to reason and draw conclusions from logical abstraction. we can also subject these newspaper reveletions to thorough scientific analysis, so we may get the truth.

      1. If there is credible information, it isn’t available to the man on the street and the man on the street forms his opinions based on his understanding of current events and his biases.

        It is as simple as that.

      2. Don’t know, but Buhari certainly didn’t win that election either.

    3. Did jonathan paid u 2 post dis comment?dis is bullshit!u dnt know anytin abt d north so shut d fuck up!!!

    4. Believe its about time the northerners go back to their groundnut pyramids and cattle herdsmen then we in the south (the infidels)face our oil and other resources. What is the problem? A son of the oil soil cant rule? For the first time? Common! We are getting tired. The oppression is too much. We are not fools. Enough is enough. There is no unity, no love. We might as well go our seperate ways. Mscheeeew!

      1. trully we could do as u say Mama but I hope I don’t get to here a misinformed southerner claiming BH is there cos an oil son is ruling. if that was the Case why is the bombing in Borno and not in Abuja or locations of the pipe lines. How will the northerners make it ungovernable for GEJ by destroying there backyard or burning churches? we need to look at both sides of the story b4 making slow witted comments…

  8. well written!my zee,you are very active writer in boko haram issues,but please leave them alone,we have red alot and heard enough. My article in my blog title ‘boko haram and the media’elucidate my comment,just have a time and read it.

  9. thank you Zainab. Boko Haram are exactly what you described them to be. But some questions are missing that you need to go and investigate. Do Boko Haram beleive in this type of Democratic Politics, talkless of seeng her taken by some corrupt and false Muslims? Who then are the Currupt and the False Muslims? And who are the Saints in terms of Politics? with what criteria they discovered that division? Are you trying to make a distinction between Good Muslims and Bad Muslims? need to see your reply through my inbox. i will like to make you a very good friend. Idris is presently with Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria studying Msc Political Science

  10. Salam, am sorry that i cant read all your comments, but let me share my little experience been some one from Yobe living in Maiduguri and close to the Markaz ( meaning the capital) as named by the boko haram’s them selves.

    Bokoharam the real one have no link with government and their agents and are for real hunting them, thats y they cant move freely.

    As long as the JTF will continue to burn innocent people houses, and kill innocent souls, whilst they run for bokoharam, there will never be any solution to this problem.

    Most of the so called dialogues by the group is lie’s cos we dont see any possibilty for that, as must of them are living freely in the town of Maiduguri

    This military and police are just disturbing our peace, cos i see by my eyes how the are running from this set of men, but police will come to street and collect bribe from poor villagers.

    A weak later there have been a physical combat b/w the JTF and the group, you will wonder how thos guys kill JTF and hours after they finish their operation, JTF come to burn all houses in the erea, and call for the relocation of all residents of about three wards in Maiduguri.

    The implication of thos kind of action is, the group members will relocate tother with ppl and innocent youths will still be recruited in a revenge mission for seding them and their parents out of their legitimate homes.

  11. The only knowledge Nigerian government will be ready and generally willing to put to use is that of graft and corruption and very bad and inhuman policies.

  12. One thing is quite clear that was not revealed in Zainab’s musings.
    We all are aware if the arsenal kept by the Boko Haram group. We know that this kind of Arsenal is not cheap & easy to come by. International arms deal is not Jankara market or Kano market.
    So the questions are:
    1. How does BH come by their weapons if it is a localised group?
    2. Who finances the group in their acquisition of these sophisticated weaponry?
    3. Who is their facilitator in all these transactions?

    If BH is localised as is being touted, then the arms purchases can be tracked down easily to know their sources etc.
    If it is also associated with AQIM, it will easily be known.
    So, between the government & the people, we are all been deceived. Nobody is being truthful & we can never get it right.
    But one thing I’m sure of is: the issue is not poverty given the array of cars being destroyed, cars not declared stolen or missing, and the sophistication of guns in use by the group.

  13. Firstly i want 2 tel d whole world dat wht boko haram is doing is nt wht we can relate 2 religion @all bcos d word of islam means peace, & there is no place in holy quran & hadith dat support killings bombing or evil characters. wht i gues is dat those group is a professional terrorist they were used by politicians. morealso northanans so belived in bad culture of theres by worshipn their currupt leaders who can not introduce to real life, educatn, insted dey brainwash dem in the sake of jihad. God against

    1. why then is religion a tool in the hands of Northern elite? i grew up in the North and i have a good knowledge of how things work there. Any/Every time the North feels aggrieved, it will bring out religion as a trump card and sacrifice the lives of innocent southerners to buttress their points. If Islam is truly peaceful, why do terrorist groups in the world carrying out their wicked and senseless acts in the name of Islam. examples abound!! for me, I believe that Boko Haram is a weapon in the hands of Northern political and religious elites!!

  14. i heard on grapevine that there is diologu e between the government and boko haram.but i doubt it ,where is there adress,who is their speaker ,are they dialouging through phone or eye boll to eye ball .niger delta militant has adress that makes amnesty possible


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