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Understanding the Difficult Fight Against Boko Haram

A conversation with Virginia Comolli, author of a book about the militant Islamist group.

af Sam Tahmassebi
03 november 2015, 6:00am

Nigerian demonstrators in London trying to raise awareness of Boko Haram after a four-day massacre by the group that killed around 2,000 people (Photo by Jake Lewis)

According to a study released earlier this year, fighting associated with Boko Haram killed over 6,300 civilians in 2014 alone. The Islamic extremist group – whose name is often translated as "Western education is a sin" – was founded in Nigeria in 2002 and is now active in Niger, Chad and northern Cameroon, with its violent insurgency displacing around 2.3 million people since 2013.

Understanding the group and how to deal with them is arduous, but Virginia Comolli – a security and development researcher for the International Institute for Strategic Studies – recently released a book, Boko Haram: Nigeria's Islamist Insurgency, seeking to do just that. I gave her a ring to talk about her work.

VICE: First off, how did Boko Haram arise?
Virginia Comolli: Officially, they emerged in the early 2000s. However, they are hardly a new occurrence for the north-eastern part of Nigeria. This region of the world has a long history of violent, religious extremists, particularly the north-eastern part of Nigeria. During the post-colonial period, several of these groups emerged. The most infamous are [Yan Tatsine, led by the Islamic preacher] Maitatsine, who launched large-scale riots in Kano in the 1980s. Boko Haram merges out of this tradition, very much seeding the many socio-economic and political grievances that are still pretty widespread in that part of Nigeria.

During the initial years you could describe them as an isolated, mainly non-violent sect, leading very secluded lives, not mixing with mainstream Muslims. What we see now, from 2009 to 2010, is a group that is capable of waging a large-scale insurgency against the state, that engages in terrorist attacks and that relies on a variety of criminal activity to sustain itself.

Boko Haram manages to recruit both the poverty-stricken and the well-educated. How do you think they manage to appeal to such disparate groups?
It's very important you make this assertion, because often people wrongly equate poverty with extremism, claiming people with no economic opportunity would automatically turn to violent or criminal groups. But that is often not the case. Evidence suggests that, during the early days, wealthy, educated individuals – children of the Nigerian middle-class – would actually join the movement. And of course, people from less wealthy backgrounds would join also, attracted by economic opportunities.

The original leader, Mohammed Yusuf, was a very wealthy man, and by offering some money in the form of micro-loans, which people could use to set up small businesses, he appealed to many individuals. He was also a very charismatic creature, so it wasn't just the economic opportunities he was offering, but [also] the ideology and teachings. We've seen this trend of change quite a bit of over time, and I think it's safe to say the vast majority who join tend to be people with limited economic opportunities.

Besides the ideological appeal that might still exist among some members, it's basically by joining a group like Boko Haram [that] young, usually male, [members have] the opportunity all of a sudden to feel like they are someone. They are somebody. They belong to a group, given a gown and a wife, which is one of the reasons why so many females have been kidnapped – they were forced to become wives. And they also find a way of channelling whatever grievances they feel towards the state.

These are the same drivers that were behind earlier violent groups, who all framed their discourse into religious terms, but they were also trying to use and exploit the feeling of socio-economic marginalisation and anger towards widespread corruption that is prominent in the north-east, as well the feeling of neglect from federal government.

So you wouldn't say that all members hold radical Islamic beliefs?
Boko Haram is a very fluid and non-monolithic group. People there may fully or partly espouse the violent radical ideology, truly believing that the groups should fight for the establishment of an Islamic state in Nigeria. And for some, it's because of lack of alternative opportunities, political grievances, or simply because they seek revenge for instances where they've been wrongly targeted by security forces.

Often the Nigerian security forces have been responsible for widespread human rights violations, and arguably the actions of the military, at times, have exacerbated the violence and created a vicious cycle that has escalated recruitment for Boko Haram.

READ ON VICE NEWS: Nigerian Army Raids Boko Haram Camps, Rescuing More than 300 People

Muhammadu Buhari, who has a poor history of human rights abuses and is a known disciplinarian, came back into power earlier this year after ruling the country for a time in the 1980s. How do you think he's going to manage the task of fighting Boko Haram?
Buhari unfortunately inherited a long list of challenges from the political scene in terms of the economy and security, which is also to do with the middle belt, where there's been a resurgence of Biafra separatist sentiment.

Boko Haram is the number one priority. This was made clear during his election campaign. He said he would ensure that they would feel the full force of the Nigerian military. And one of the first few initiatives he implemented when he took office was to change all the heads of the armed forces and to relocate the 7th Division – the army division responsible for the counter-insurgency operations – to Maiduguri, the capital city of Borno State, where Boko Haram operate.

Buhari has a history of being very authoritarian. During his first time in office in the 80s, his administration was marred by a number of human rights violations. It was very telling that this time round, even during his short inaugural speech, he devoted a couple of lines to the issue of human rights violations. This was a very important step, because the previous administration, the Jonathan administration [often denied abuses], despite all the reports published by the likes of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others, who provided evidence of human rights violations conducted by the security forces.

Buhari acknowledged that the abuses had taken place and made it clear that this culture of impunity that had been allowed to flourish would no longer be tolerated.

Buhari jailed around 500 politicians and officials in a clean-up attempt didn't he?
Yes. He feels very strongly about the need to eradicate corruption, and it's very much needed, as it's had an impact on fuelling Boko Haram's recruitment drive and also in undermining the military efforts. The defence budgets have increased annually for the past several years, however there's been many instances where soldiers on the front line had complained or had to run away because they were not supplied with sufficient weaponry.


WATCH: VICE News' film 'The War On Boko Haram'


What's the best antidote to such an adaptable group?
Adaptable is a perfect way to describe them. We've seen it on so many levels in the way they've changed their tactics, their operation theatres, their funding revenues, always trying to find a better way to adapt to a changing situation and catch security off-guard.

I think you need a very much multi-layered approach. Of course, you need the security and the defence component so you can create some form of safety and stability. Once some level of security has been re-established, a continuation of it needs to be carried out in parallel with other projects, such as economic rejuvenation, which is very much needed across the north, particularly the north-east, where the highest percentage of people in severe poverty are.

Programmes in education need to improve. I'm not simply talking about reopening the schools that have been shut for over a year now, but also improving the quality of the teaching in those schools.

Then, a pet hate of mine is the issue of lack of electricity supply. That's a problem that affects the whole of Nigeria, but of course you cannot start even a small business if you don't have a reliable electricity supply. We're talking about infrastructural weaknesses that need to be addressed in order for the region and country to develop, and move forward to face the challenges it is facing.

Thanks, Virginia.

'Boko Haram: Nigeria's Islamist Insurgency' is available here.

@samtahmassebi

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