When A Military Makes Militants: A Pattern Of Escalation In Nigeria And The Rise Of Boko Haram


“Western education is anathema.” The basic ideology of Boko Haram, a militant Islamic group working out of north eastern Nigeria, appears simple: institute Sharia or Islamic law, and remove foreign influence from the country. To think of Boko Haram in such simple terms, however, is to drastically underestimate the socio-political complexity of one of the most deadly insurgencies in the world. Groups that recruit by radicalizing, like Boko Haram, do not develop purely through self-righteous ideology, but because of the systematically intensifying actions and counter-actions between the populace and the state. Any hope of a de-escalation of violence rests on an understanding of this system.

A Cultural Backdrop of the Boko Haram Uprising

While Nigeria stands as Africa’s most populous nation, with the largest economy and oil industry, pervasive corruption has left much of the country without basic development and infrastructure. Nigeria’s current condition constitutes a lasting testament to the disruption and destruction that British colonialism brought to Africa. While the region was formally united as the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria in 1914, the northern and southern provinces have remained administratively and religiously divided, with the Muslim majority north badly trailing the largely Christian south in terms of education and economic opportunity – leaving large discrepancies in wealth across the country. However, following the bloody civil war of 1967-1970, many southern Christians fled north, adding further tensions in the 1980s to this already pre-existing religious and geographical division. The social disquiet that characteristically follows forced assimilation led some Muslim groups – already feeling the sting of economic inequality – to see the non-Shia, Westernized Nigerian government as the catalyst of their religious and political exclusion. The early 1970s to the early 1980s saw the rise of support for Mohammed Marwa who led the religious group Yan Tatsine. Marwa was better known by the name ‘Maitatsine’ or ‘the one who damns’, due to his vocal (and often invective-laden) denouncing of the Nigerian State. Yan Tatsine followed in this ideology, often attacking the police and local Christians. By 1980, the Nigerian Army became involved, leaving approximately 5,000 people – including Maitatsine – dead. Despite his death, Maitatsine’s ideology lived on with the Yan Tatsine who continued to riot periodically across northern Nigeria for the next decade, and with the Islamist Qu’ranist group, Kala Kato, who were formed as an off-shoot.

Some theorists (Backgrounder: Boko Haram) have suggested that Boko Haram may have arisen as a direct result of Maitatsine’s movement. Indeed, while the Yan Tatsine’s activism had largely died out by the late 1980s, barely half a decade later and in the same geographical region, Boko Haram started making its first appearances.

Resisting Resistance: Religious and State Authority

Despite Boko Haram’s origins potentially dating back to the 1990s, the group didn’t officially organize until 2002, under the Muslim cleric Mohammed Yusuf. Yusuf’s strict fundamentalist interpretation of the Qur’an involved a belief that British colonialists had imposed an un-Islamic, Westernized way of life on Muslims when creating Nigeria. His charismatic leadership fed into the group’s existing views of perceived political and social suppression, and barely a year later, in December 2003, Boko Haram’s first known attack took place, targeting police stations and involving some 200 militants.

For the next 6 years, Boko Haram remained relatively peaceful, with Yusuf solidifying his centre of operations in the north eastern city of Maiduguri by founding his own mosque. The group’s message continued to spread, gaining followers and attracting attention from local authorities. In 2009, the task force Operation Flush II confronted Yusuf’s followers in Maiduguri, wounding at least 17 people, and triggering Yusuf’s call to arms against the security forces of Nigeria.

In the five days of violence that followed (known now as the Boko Haram Uprising), Boko Haram followers attacked security forces in Bauchi, spreading out to the states of Borno, Kano and Yobe. By the end of the five days, the military had brutally cracked down on the violence and captured Yusuf. While in custody, Yusuf was shot dead by police, who claimed that his death occurred during an escape attempt. However, with witnesses claiming otherwise and spurred by a history of harsh police tactics, Boko Haram concluded that Yusuf’s death was an extrajudicial execution. The clashes between Boko Haram and the police left hundreds dead, with a video later emerging that allegedly depicts Nigerian security forces shooting unarmed members of Boko Haram.

A year after Yusuf’s death, a new revitalized Boko Haram emerged. Led by Yusuf’s deputy, Abubakar Shekau, they became a truly radicalized insurgency, attacking civilian and government targets alike, with the group progressively becoming more violent. “We’re dealing with a movement of inchoate rage,” said John Campbell, an ex-U.S. ambassador to Nigeria. In 2013, Boko Haram was held responsible for over 1,000 deaths; by 2014, this number was closer to 11,000 (The Guardian). However, this intensifying of violence was not motiveless; a cyclic pattern of military and militant violence began to emerge. On May 14 2013, the Nigerian government declared a state of emergency and proceeded to launch a massive and tactically brutal offensive against Boko Haram in Borno. While this offensive may initially have appeared successful, it ultimately led to massive and desperate retaliation from the group, who finally gained global infamy in 2014 by kidnapping 276 school girls from their dormitory in the town of Chibok. The #BringBackOurGirls campaign swept across social media, and the eyes of the world turned towards Boko Haram and the Nigerian government. On May 22 2014, the UN Security Council finally added Boko Haram to its sanctions list – almost a year after the Nigerian government had declared a state of emergency. By March 2015, Boko Haram had pledged allegiance to ISIL and has continued to advance tactically ever since, increasing both in size and weaponization.

Since 2010, Boko Haram has averaged between 3-10 large-scale attacks annually. As of January 2018,  BBC Monitoring estimated that the group has been directly responsible for an estimated 20,000 deaths, and have displaced at least two million people in northern Nigeria. As of April 2018, UNICEF estimated that Boko Haram has been responsible for kidnapping more than 1,000 children in north eastern Nigeria in the past 5 years.

When a Pattern Repeats

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction; while Newton’s third law may originally have been developed to account for the resulting forces when two objects interact, this law holds true for humans too. Just as the downward force of your body on your chair as you sit reading this produces an upwards force from the chair to your body, the political downward force of any government seeking to suppress ideological groups in their populace will result in a reactive upwards resistance – and vice versa. While it is impossible to decipher which of the two groups – Boko Haram or the Nigerian military – should be considered the instigators of this conflict, it is clear that the cycle must be broken. The military have been heavy-handed in its response to social and political unrest in the north since the time of Yan Tatsine, with widespread accusations of human rights violations – although the military denies this (Africa Check). True or not, it is clear that harsh military tactics have not been successful at de-escalating radical Islamist momentum in Nigeria.

Despite Boko Haram’s global connections to other jihadist groups, its support has grown mainly due to local socio-economic and political factors, with most of the demands of the insurgency remaining local and developing from the widespread poverty, unemployment, and hopelessness of many Muslims in north Nigeria. As General Petraeus, formerly director of the CIA, puts it: “political, social and economic programs are usually more valuable than conventional military operations in addressing the root causes of the conflict and undermining the insurgency.” While he may have been speaking in broad terms about counter-insurgency strategies, General Petraeus’ point stands: the Nigerian government must explore methods of countering Boko Haram at the foundational level, rather than simply reacting to terror attacks.

It is not an easy task and one that is made drastically more challenging due to Boko Haram’s inability to engage in Nigeria’s political systems, and so legitimize itself as a representative political organization. As Nigeria’s political system is not based on Sharia or Islamic law, the insurgency is forbidden to participate due to the fundamentalist form of Islam Boko Haram follows. This no doubt contributes strongly to the socio-political alienation felt by many northern Muslim Nigerians and increases the likelihood of people seeing Boko Haram as their only means of representation.

There are clearly no moral victors in this conflict. Boko Haram’s actions have been – and continue to be – horrific, but there are lessons to be learnt from the insurgency’s growth; lessons that the Nigerian military, perhaps in their fear, have missed. This month alone has seen at least 45 members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN – a group known as non-violent for decades, and in no way affiliated with Boko Haram) shot and killed by Nigerian security forces during a peaceful protest (Amnesty International). Barely a day later, four hundred people from IMN were reportedly arrested. “It seems the Nigerian military are deliberately using tactics designed to kill when dealing with IMN gatherings. Many of these shootings clearly amount to extrajudicial executions. This violent crackdown on IMN protesters is unjustified and unacceptable” (Osai Ojigho, Amnesty International). In choosing to meet non-violent protests with violent counter-action, Nigeria’s government risks perpetuating a vicious cycle of growing extremism. Beyond anything else, the crackdown has shown that the Nigerian military has not learnt from Boko Haram and, indeed, may be in the process of making yet another group of disenfranchised militants.

Fiona McLoughlin