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Nigeria’s Government is Losing the War Against Boko Haram

The Islamist insurgency in the country's northeast is held responsible for a stream of attacks that have killed well over 1,000 Nigerians.
Photo via Getty Images

Boko Haram, a militant Islamist group that has waged a bloody uprising in northeast Nigeria since 2010, is held responsible for a stream of attacks over the past year that have killed well over 1,000 Nigerians. This spate of violence followed President Goodluck Jonathan’s declaration of a state of emergency last May in the states of Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa, and his initiation of a campaign to recover ground that had been lost to the insurgency. However, the militants are the ones that appear on the offensive.


In the past week alone, Boko Haram is said to be accountable for an assault in Bama that killed at least 60 people and destroyed public buildings; the slaughter of 59 sleeping students in Buni Yadi; and coordinated attacks in Adamawa that left at least 37 people dead. On Friday, officials announced that Nigerian troops had raided a Boko Haram camp, arresting 15 and killing 13 suspected terrorists.

Boko Haram — which translates to “Western education is forbidden” — primarily targets civilians through bombings, shootings, machete attacks, and abductions. The group has even razed an entire village.

Friday’s raid notwithstanding, the steady violence has left terrified Nigerians wondering what the hell the government is going to do about it.

“The government is not serious about fighting them,” Olukayode Thomas, a journalist for the Nigerian paper City Voice in Lagos, told VICE News. “They killed about 100 kids in the last few days, and Nigeria is going about celebrating its 100 years of existence.”

Perhaps even more troubling than the level of brutality involved in Boko Haram’s actions is how little control Nigeria has over the situation. Suspected Boko Haram members killed some 300 people in February.

In an interview published Saturday, the Shehu of Bama (a traditional leader) told the Nigerian Premium Times, “The government has failed; it is not protecting anything, and I have no reservation in saying this. It is [the] constitutional responsibility of government to protect lives, but here lives are not protected at all.”


The violence has only escalated following the state-of-emergency declaration. Nearly 300,000 Nigerians have been displaced since then. Perplexingly, earlier this year the Nigerian government actually cut its defense budget.

The killing on Tuesday of the students in Buni Yadi “was carried out at a federal, secular school in the north — in other words the most obvious target in the world,” John Campbell, a senior fellow for African policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, told VICE News. “And the Nigerian military was nowhere to be found.”

Boko Haram is far from an organized entity with a clearly identifiable mission. Although its stated aim is to create a separate Islamic state in Northern Nigeria, and it purportedly has ties to Al Qaeda, Boko Haram is a largely disparate movement loosely based on fundamentalist principles that many of its own members don't even follow. Members are said to be violently opposed to anything they see as Western — democracy, education, and Christianity, for example, or even the wearing of shirts and pants.

Campbell explained that the Salafist-jihadi group, which was founded in 2002 by the radical cleric Mohammed Yusuf, has since splintered into at least six separate factions. For this reason it cannot be neatly characterized as a cohesive terrorist organization that follows a unified doctrine.

“The biggest reason we have Boko Haram is because of politics, not religion,” said Thomas. “In the last few months, it has been Muslim killing Muslim and innocent kids.”


In an item written for the Council on Foreign Relations, African-affairs analyst Jacob Zenn noted that Boko Haram draws many of its members from religiously uneducated young men from impoverished and marginalized communities of Nigeria. These youths are prime recruits for insurgent groups and are being conscripted by the tens of thousands throughout the country.

“Many ‘Boko Haram’ members are not actually members of Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad” — which means “people committed to the propagation of the prophet's teachings and jihad” — “the real name of ‘Boko Haram’ in Borno,” Zenn wrote.

Boko Haram’s radicalization stems from tensions between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria, as well as repressive brutality on the part of a corrupt police force. It is also in part a legacy of British colonial rule, during which the north was chronically underdeveloped and isolated from the economically dynamic and better-educated south.

“The issues that Boko Haram are combating are Nigeria-specific,” says Campbell. “At its core, it is a highly diffuse, grassroots insurgency aimed against the Nigerian political economy and whose own leader even has little authority over most of its elements.”

This helps to explain why fighting Boko Haram is so hard — in order to combat the violence that is wracking Nigeria, its government must first define the target. How it will do so and where this will lead is anyone’s guess.