Nigeria has a turbulent history of violent non-state actors who have challenged the state along ethno-religious lines. Nonetheless, no group has wrecked as much havoc as Boko Haram, an Islamist insurgent group that has developed from a relatively obscure cult into a ferocious terrorist organization. Boko Haram allegedly had at its peak more than 15,000 members, mostly in the northeast of the country and has killed upwards of 20,000 people since 2009 and at least 6,600 in 2014 alone. Its extremist brand of political Islam continues to appeal to some segments of the population, despite the election in 2015 of a Muslim President, Muhammadu Buhari.
Decades of extremely poor living standards, a lack of economic opportunities, huge disparities between regions and the apparent corruption and disinterest of the Nigerian government have offered perfect conditions for violent non-state actors such as Boko Haram to prosper. Many terrorist and rebel groups have indeed emerged from countries with a poor track record for human rights, governance and commitment to the welfare of their people. The main leaders of Boko Haram – Mohammed Ali, Mohammed Yusuf and Abu Shekau – have all used the government’s perceived corruption and illegitimacy as a rallying cry to recruit their members.
Furthermore, Nigeria’s political history has been closely intertwined with religious rivalry, and in particular the competition between the Muslim and Christian faiths that divide the country along ethno-political lines. Religion has a strong hold in Nigeria. Variations of Muslim and Christian groups led by charismatic and outspoken preachers have emerged throughout history and across the country. In recent years, sectarian violence in particular appears to be on the rise: Between 1999 and 2003, over 10,000 people were killed in religious clashes, before the advent of Boko Haram. Muslims do not have a monopoly over the use of violence: In 1987 for example, Christians in Kafanchan, Kaduna state “wantonly destroyed the property of local Muslims” and in 2014, Human Rights Watch denounced the murder of 150 Muslims killed in “Christian rampages” in Kuru Karama, in Jos.
The purpose of this chapter is to highlight the conditions that have led to the rise of religious extremism in Nigeria. It focuses on the case study of Boko Haram and in particular its remarkable rise and transformation into one of the most feared Islamist terrorist groups in just half a decade. The state’s failure to respond in a timely manner to the rising threat exacerbated the situation and it is only recently that Nigeria has managed to push back the insurgency. The chapter argues that Boko Haram rose out of near perfect conditions in Nigeria – a history of religious tensions; high levels of inequality, poverty and illiteracy; government apathy; military failures and opportunistic charismatic preachers/leaders. This ‘perfect storm’ however can be overturned with a coordinated political and security response. Long-term preventative policies and further studies on religious extremism can help to stem the rise of extremist actors in Nigeria and abroad.
A history of religious violence
Nigeria’s history of religious violence dates to at least the time of its independence in 1960. Among the worst cases of extremist violence in the country is the Maitatsine riots that took place between 1980 and 1985 and during which close to 10,000 people in Kano were killed in clashes between the sect and government forces. Many scholars have drawn comparisons between the Maitatsine sect and the rise of Boko Haram, which appear to match each other in “intensity, organization and spread”.
Toyin Falola explains the Maitatsine riots as “a consequence of Islamic fundamentalism on the one hand, and of the political decadence and economic troubles of the 1970s on the other”. The riots coincided with the oil boom in Nigeria that triggered a social revolution, which displaced a number of traditional merchants and was characterized by high unemployment, rampant corruption and general popular discontent. A series of environmental disasters including droughts and desertification, which reduced the supply of agricultural products and increased the price of food, further squeezed the population and thus exacerbated the situation. Mass urbanization ensued, and many of the unemployed youths in the cities turned to radical preachers in a bid to maintain their traditional religious beliefs in an apparently amoral society.
The government’s violent clampdown on the sect may have been strategically successful in the short term, but it failed to address the root of the problem. Falola concludes therefore that “the Maitatsine violence revealed the depth of the country’s economic crises, political instability, and the inability of the security forces to handle insurgents”. Although an insurgency rather than a series of riots, Boko Haram’s unchecked rise and gratuitous brutality between 2010 and 2016 also reveals the government’s inability to learn from the past, the continued incompetence of the armed forces, and the severity of the socio-political problems that seem to have just increased in the past 35 years.
In addition to the rise of violent extremist groups such as the Maitatsine and Boko Haram, Nigeria has also experienced difficult Christian-Muslim relations. In particular, the violence in Plateau and Kaduna states suggests an unhappy coexistence between Nigeria’s diverse ethno-religious groups. Indeed, religious riots in 1999, 2001, 2008, 2010 and 2013 saw the deaths of thousands of people. A report published by IRIN in 2004 stated, “more than 53,000 people were killed (and a further 280,000 displaced) during three years of sectarian violence that engulfed Plateau State in central Nigeria”. The cyclical nature of the violence corresponds to a large extent to environmental changes in the country. As a result of desertification, Muslim Fulani herdsmen have been moving south in search of pasture for their livestock, infringing on the land used by indigenous farmers in the region. According to reports in the local press, much of the violence is triggered by accusations of cattle theft or destruction of crops; both are direct attacks to the precarious livelihoods of the mostly Christian inhabitants. Because the farmers and settlers practice different religions as a result of colonialism and migration, the ethnic violence has taken on a religious overtone.
Finally, the murder of hundreds of Muslims by Christian militias in May 2004 forced President Obasanjo to declare a state of emergency in the Middle Belt. Between May 2011 and June 2013, a further 785 people were killed, demonstrating that the government had failed to address the problems that were contributing to the ongoing conflict. Undoubtedly, unscrupulous politicians have also exploited the religious tensions to galvanize votes. But none of the above offers an explanation for the success Boko Haram has enjoyed in northeast Nigeria since 2009.
The origins of Boko Haram
The sect has been active since at least 1995, when three Islamic organisations from the University of Maiduguri merged under the leadership of the preacher Muhammad Ali. There is an oversupply of fiery preachers from all faiths in Nigeria, so when Ali – a former mujahedeen who had fought in Afghanistan – declared the state irredeemable and started to build his own community in Kanama, he did not elicit any reaction from the government. The group was locally referred to as the Nigerian ‘Taliban’ as its members began to “terrorize the inhabitants of Damaturu (…), and Damboa, Bama, and Gwoza in neighbouring Borno State, attacking police stations and attempting prison breaks”. In 2004, the security forces stepped in, besieged Ali’s mosque, and killed 200 members include the leader. This could have been the end of Boko Haram, except that the survivors returned to Maiduguri where they reassembled under the leadership of the charismatic preacher Mohammed Yusuf, who had himself just come back from a self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia.
Mohammed Yusuf transformed the organisation from a tiny cult into a popular religious community. Drawing from the tradition of ‘missionary Islam’, Yusuf set about providing services where the government failed to do so. This included food and shelter and facilitating marriages for members of the group. He quickly built a cohesive social group around him. Members shared a common aim to rid Nigeria of a corrupt and abusive government that had evidently failed its people, and return the country to a state of religious purity. Yusuf received financial support from his followers and allegedly was given funds from some Saudi Salafists and individuals in Libya and Algeria – although these claims are disputed.
In Nigeria, Falola concludes “religion is used by the power-hungry as a stepping-stone to power and political legitimacy” and has historically been a source of violence. Yusuf’s religious message became increasingly political as he sought to influence the gubernatorial election and obtain the implementation of Sharia law in Borno state. Pushed by his more belligerent deputy Abubakr Shekau, Yusuf’s proselytizing progressively adopted a jihadi discourse, although the preacher himself never openly encouraged jihad. Nonetheless, the members of the group became increasingly violent: they targeted police stations to kill security officials and steal their weapons, broke into prisons to release militants, and assassinated a number of political and religious figures.
The Nigerian security forces responded to the increase in violence and set-up a joint military anti-crime operation to bring the group and its preacher to heel, as they had done in the Maitatsine riots. In July 2009, within forty-eight hours the army had killed 800 Boko Haram members and arrested hundreds of others, including Mohammad Yusuf who subsequently was killed in police custody. The extra-judicial killing transformed Yusuf into a martyr, as he became a symbol of the excessive police and military brutality. This state of affairs united both surviving Boko Haram members and the civilians in an ideological and military campaign against Nigeria’s brutal security forces and unaccountable political system. The virulent and disturbed Abubakr Shekau took over the leadership of the group and turned it into a deadly nemesis. In the next six years, Boko Haram grew into a murderous organization, massacring towns and taking over a territory the size of Belgium, before declaring the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate in 2014.
Boko Haram’s strategy of radicalization
There is limited knowledge of radicalization, especially Islamic radicalization, and much academic speculation on the matter. There is also no universal definition of radicalization and therefore “the search for what exactly ‘radicalization’ is, what causes it and how to ‘de-radicalize’ those who are considered radicals, violent extremists or terrorists, is a frustrating experience”. Much of the literature focuses on Islamist radicalization in the West, with very few research projects pertaining specifically to African nations or to Boko Haram in particular.
For the purpose of this chapter, radicalization is understood along the lines of the Danish intelligence services (PET) definition as the process of ideological indoctrination that leads to the support for, justification of and commitment to violence for politico-ideological ends. Historically, radicals are not necessarily in favour of violence and may support the transformation of society through peaceful means. Manus Midlarsky in his study of political extremism defined the term as a social movement supporting a political program at odds with the state, and willing to take extreme measures against their opponents, including but not always, “the mass murder of those who would actually or potentially disagree with that program”. In the case of Boko Haram, it is interesting to evaluate how the organization moved from its relatively limited religious beliefs and ambitions to the indiscriminate killing of thousands of countrymen and fellow Muslims, targeting anyone who was not ‘Boko Haram’.
The causes for radicalization are varied and terrorists generally come from many different socio-economic backgrounds. In northeast Nigeria however, the relative poverty and high unemployment and illiteracy rates offers an easy and arguably homogeneous recruitment pool for Boko Haram. With few job opportunities available, there is a low opportunity cost to joining Boko Haram and the added attraction of money and guns. The latter also creates a sense of empowerment for men who have felt socially or politically marginalized. Many witnesses have stated that Boko Haram pay their recruits, offering them a livelihood and social status that has nothing to do, initially, with ideological indoctrination. The process of radicalization then becomes gradual and takes place over time and within the group.
Fieldwork in Abuja and nearby refugee camps revealed the level of indoctrination that goes on inside Boko Haram. Prisoners, many of whom have been kidnapped, are forced to live in squalid conditions inside Sambisa Forest, one of Boko Haram’s strongholds. There is very little to keep them busy in the Forest, leisure activities being strictly banned. The militants pass the time harassing their victims and forcing them to chant verses of the Koran in an effort to convert the Christians and force the Muslims to follow Boko Haram’s brand of Islam. The pressure is constant and unrelenting. Little by little, the militants break down the identity of their prisoners by keeping them isolated from their communities and subjecting them to humiliating treatment, and according to many testimonies, sexual abuse. Survivors have testified to being given no choice but to join the group or be killed, and carry out attacks in order to protect themselves and their families. In addition, recent media and security reports of drug use inside the camps indicate either a certain deviancy among the members, or more likely the use of mind altering substances to control the members and possibly make them more aggressive. The use of fear and violence are an effective weapon that Boko Haram has perfected to radicalize its members, often against their will. This is typical of many rebel groups across Africa, such as the Lord’s Resistance Army, the Revolutionary United Front and the Allied Democratic Forces in DR Congo.
Finally, another important mobilizing factor is the capitalization on existing grievances, real of perceived. Northeast Nigeria, as mentioned previously, is characterized by political isolation and socio-economic injustice. Furthermore, the violent track record of the police and security forces has exacerbated relations between the citizens and the state, showing that there is no accountability for the latter and no hope for the former. Grievances however are a worldwide phenomenon at different degrees and do not necessarily lead to violence. As a result, this is not sufficient to explain the success of Boko Haram in Nigeria. Veldhuis and Staun argue that the process of radicalization requires a ‘trigger’ or ‘catalyst’ to set off a chain of events including the commitment of the individual to the cause and subsequently his consent and participation in acts of violence. To this, we would add a charismatic leader who can project credibility – or fear. Someone like Mohammed Yusuf or Abubakr Shekau. The former’s death may also have worked as the trigger that turned Boko Haram into an indiscriminately violent movement.
A culture of violence
It may be most pertinent therefore to analyze the radicalization of the most violent and committed members of Boko Haram in order to understand their capability to kill mercilessly in the name of religion. Although the group began to use violent tactics under Muhammad Ali, the use of indiscriminate violence accelerated under Yusuf and especially after his death under the leadership of Shekau. The main difference between Yusuf’s cult and Shekau’s organization is the personality of the leader. Abubakr Shekau adopted a more hardline approach after taking over Yusuf’s position as the sect’s spiritual leader. Shekau is also rumored to have spent some time in a psychiatric hospital in Maiduguri, and his raving video statements is indicative of someone who is mentally unstable.
Shekau has boasted in his videos about “enjoy(ing) killing anyone that God commands me to kill the same way I enjoy killing chickens and rams”. He has encouraged his followers to “just pick up your knife, break into homes and kill; slaughter anyone in their sleep you come across”. A jailed militant in the government’s de-radicalization program described Shekau as “very obstinate” and “impossible to reason with”. According to the inmate, it is Shekau’s “leadership (that) has made (Boko Haram) a violent and extremist group – they don’t have any regard for human life”. And yet this display of wanton violence has not stopped the group from gaining popularity – to the contrary. With a median age of 30 among its adherents, Boko Haram has attracted an important following of young people “who are not only ready to fight, but also lay down their lives for the new cause they have been made to believe in”.
A controversial hypothesis to put forward, but one that bears consideration, is the level of tolerance for violence prevalent in Nigeria and particularly northeast Nigeria as a result of its economic situation and its historic and cultural legacy. Poverty, unemployment and grievances may contribute to violence and radicalization and a number of academics postulate that crime and social deviance are strongly related to an unequal or broken socio-economic context. However, the level of brutality wielded by Boko Haram’s members is unprecedented in the country and more reminiscent of a civil war than a crime-ridden environment.
Research suggests that the extent to which a group of people identifies with a religious community, especially one that is perceived to be in conflict with another, is directly related to their willingness to carry out acts of aggression. Indeed, northern Nigeria experienced a series of religious clashes in the late 1990s over the implementation of Sharia law, which has exacerbated tensions between the Christian and Muslim communities. Evidence collected by the Cleen Foundation in 2014 seems to corroborate this hypothesis. There is significant acceptance among people in Yobe and Borno State surveyed by the Foundation that one’s religious beliefs could be imposed on others by means of violence. This attitude is less prevalent for example in Gombe state, which has a strong Christian minority, and where a much larger proportion of those surveyed rejected the use of violence to promote religion.
In addition, a large uneducated youth exposed by unregulated and vociferous preachers to extreme interpretations of religion justifying violence is also more likely to act on such beliefs without questioning the source of this message. The government estimates that there are around nine million children in Nigeria with no access to formal education – of which 8.5 million are in northern Nigeria – and who are vulnerable to recruitment by extremist terrorist groups such as Boko Haram. The findings highlight the difference in religious diversity, economic opportunity and literacy between the three states and how they may influence perceptions of religion and tolerance for violence.
On the other hand, Nigeria as a whole has also experienced cycles of violence in the form of religious uprisings such as the Maitatsine in the 1980s and the Sharia riots in the 1990s. There has also been a track record of political disputes and separatist wars since independence, in particular the devastating Biafra War in 1967-1968 in which between 500,000 and 1,000,000 civilians and soldiers were killed. Finally, a well-documented culture of violence and impunity among the armed forces and police signal an endemic tolerance for brutality that the government has either ignored or failed to bring under control. Against this historic background and in view of the existing economic disparities, it is less difficult, perhaps, to justify the emergence of a violent extremist group in Nigeria.
Although radical Islamist groups have effectively become a threat to the stability and security of the country, they are neither purely motivated by religious fervour nor are they simply manipulated by ambitious politicians. The poor socio-economic conditions of the country and a lack of faith in the government, the security forces, and their fellow countrymen have created an environment propitious to violence of any kind. Religion has therefore become a convenient vehicle for mobilizing and voicing discontent. The highly stratified religious communities and unequal development in the north and the south have facilitated this process of identification along socio-religious lines. An effective rivalry between religious communities for power and the presidency has become integrated in Nigerian politics, further entrenching the problem for the future.
Inequality in Nigeria
The relationship between political conflict and economic inequality has been under academic scrutiny for some time. Although there is no consensus on the exact nature between violence and the poverty/inequality nexus, there is strong evidence to suggest that social unrest is stirred by perceived grievances including a feeling of injustice when faced with relative inequality. Although inequality, or the distribution of “extreme poverty and wealth”, has been recognized as a catalyst for “civil disintegration” and political violence since Aristotle and Plato, there is little conclusive evidence regarding the relationship from a security perspective. As Cramer explains, “sharply skewed income and wealth distribution does not always or even usually lead to rebellion” and as a consequence the “linkages between economic inequality and violent political conflict” are unclear.
Zimmerman’s comprehensive review of the literature for example reveals “a linear positive relationship between socio-economic inequality and political violence”, although he acknowledges the weaknesses and data reliability in many of the existing studies. Muller explains that high levels of income inequality “radicalize” and “polarize” a portion of the population and finds that this contributes to instability in his cross-national study of 33 countries. A separate study of 71 developing countries by Alesina and Perotti found that income inequality coincided with social discontent and political instability including a rise in political assassinations. This chapter argues that the rise in religious extremism in northeast Nigeria is significantly correlated to the lack of economic opportunities and relative inequality experienced by the local population in comparison to their fellow countrymen. However, neither religious extremism nor inequality are correlated to a rise in violence.
Nigeria’s diversity is both remarkable and challenging. It hosts more than 150 million people and 250 ethnic groups. The asymmetric process of integration developed by the British in the colonial era, however, emphasized the differences within the regions and lay down the foundations upon which modern Nigeria was built. Since gaining independence in 1960, the country has been divided regionally, ethnically and religiously, not to mention politically and economically. Christians in the south fear political domination from the more populated Muslim north, whereas ethnic minorities inside the individual states are at risk of being subdued by the three largest ethnic groups: the Yoruba in the southwest, the Igbo in the southeast, and the Hausa-Fulani in the north. Competition over power and access to government funds has exacerbated the situation, with political contenders capitalizing on existing fears. Boko Haram’s grievances are therefore rooted in the economic disparities and political tensions that characterize these two regions.
Despite rising national income and an average GDP growth of 5.4% in 2013, development in Nigeria has been asymmetric and concentrated overwhelmingly in the south. Overall, the living standards in the country have dropped to levels unseen since Nigeria’s independence in 1960, while the poverty rate has continued to increase in the last decade. The renowned author Chinua Achebe once pointed out that the gap between minimum and maximum pay in Nigeria was among the highest in the world. Little appears to have changed since, as a 2013 survey by the National Population Commission (NPC) with the support of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) revealed the inequalities between the regions.
While 61% of the population fall under the poverty line, that burden is disproportionally felt by Sokoto state whose poverty rate includes to 86,4% of residents. The disparities in the north and south are further evidenced in the health and education surveys: Nigeria has an under-five mortality rate approximating 157 deaths per 1,000 live births. While this number is already very high, in the northeast the mortality rate rises to 222 deaths per 1,000 births but drops to 89 deaths in the southwest of the country. The campaign for immunization of children has also had unequal results, with 25% of under two-year olds vaccinated, but among them only 10% in the northwest and as few as 1% in Sokoto.
Access to education is a further illustration of the vast differences between the regions. Literacy rates in the north barely reach 26% for women, with a low of 10% for those in Sokoto against a national average of 53%. In Borno, the heart of Boko Haram’s insurgency, the literacy rate is 15% compared to Lagos in the south, where 92% of residents are fully literate. An estimated 7-9 million children nationally are out of school of which nearly half are from a nomadic background and have limited access to education. These trends are subsequently reflected in the level of youth unemployment that reached 54% among under 35-year olds in 2012, and again the north shows the highest level of unemployment in the country.
The disparities between the north and the south are quantified by the Gini Index, which rates Nigeria among the most unequal 35 countries in the world with a coefficient of 48.8 (with 0 being closest to perfect equality). The Gini index measures the distribution of income within countries and shows that inequality in Nigeria has increased over the last 20 years. Indeed, the poorest half of the population receives less than 10% of national income.
Inequality in Nigeria is deeply rooted and multi-layered. Faced with dire and increasing economic hardship, many Nigerians have turned to religion, leading to the emergence of fundamental Islamic groups and Pentecostal sects. These organizations thrived in urban areas during the 1980s and 1990s and became highly influential among the political elite. Indeed, the popularity that both faiths enjoyed empowered their religious leaders to make demands on the government, such as changing the day of rest from Sunday to Friday or implementing Sharia law and courts which led to riots in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The election of opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari to the presidency has been a victory for democracy above all else. The north is perhaps celebrating its return to power, but it is important to highlight the pitfalls of a power-sharing agreement that circumvents the democratic process. Since the independence of Nigeria, the north has dominated the politics of the country, primarily via illegitimate military regimes. On the other hand, the civilian governments elected and re-elected have until recently been Christians from the south, including Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan. The north is more populated whereas most of the country’s petroleum resources are in the south. As a result, both regions have been vying for power to control the country’s wealth. Whereas the north has relied on its larger population base and recurrent military coups to ensure its participation in government, southern presidents have repeatedly rigged elections and counted on nepotism to stay in power. In both cases, the democratic process has been hollowed.
The recent monopoly over power that the south has enjoyed has furthermore alienated the Muslim population in the north. Under succeeding Christian presidents, poverty in the north increased, widening the gap with the relatively wealthier south. Boko Haram’s military successes in the northeast between 2013 and 2015, and the government’s apparent disinterest and incompetence at restoring security, suggest that the region’s wellbeing cannot be left in the hands of a southerner. Buhari’s victory will go a long way towards restoring the faith of his northern citizens in the political system. But he must also live up to the expectations of his southern residents who have their own legitimate grievances, including fair access to oil resources and the degradation of the land along the Niger Delta. Failure to do so could trigger further violence and religious tensions.
The government’s response
Until recently, there has been minimal effort on the part of the Nigerian government to understand the phenomenon of Boko Haram. For a long time, Boko Haram was portrayed as a problem of northeast Nigeria, funded and propped-up by local politicians who held a personal grudge against President Goodluck Jonathan. This narrative dominated the Nigerian press, until Jonathan began to appeal for foreign support to counter the ‘terrorist threat’. Furthermore, the Jonathan administration responded to the growing threat in a similar manner to its predecessors: with unaccountable brutality.
The 2009 massacre in Maiduguri of 800 Boko Haram members and their leader is reminiscent of the government clampdown of the Maitatsine in the 1980s. The brutality exercised by the security forces in Nigeria has repeatedly served to alienate the local population from the government, with many joining forces with Boko Haram as a reaction to state-sponsored violence according to a number of human rights NGOs. The Joint Task Force (JTF), a combined unit made up of police and military forces, has repeatedly breached basic human rights entrenched in Nigerian and international law. A report published by Amnesty International at the end of 2014 stated that Nigeria’s police and military routinely torture people as “punishment, to extort money or to extract ‘confession’” which goes “far beyond the appalling torture and killing of suspected Boko Haram members”.
The heavy-handed tactics by the security forces are by no means correlated to the increase in violence exercised by Boko Haram. The police and military personnel have long had a reputation for escalating the use of force in retaliation to any perceived or actual threat to the institution, particularly in the northeast where they operate with virtually no oversight and thereby in total impunity. Indeed, the storming of Muhammad Ali’s mosque and arbitrary killings of 200 followers is evidence of a lack of measure and accountability on the part of the armed forces. No legal measures were even taken following this police-led assault.
The 2009 raid of Yusuf’s mosque and the extrajudicial killing of the preacher further served to exacerbate the situation and alienate the population from a police force that was deemed ruthless and corrupt. After his capture, Yusuf was brought to the Giwa military barracks where he was questioned before being shot by the police. Although the police released a statement explaining Yusuf had been killed trying to escape, witnesses testified that he was shot in the chest and in the back of the head while tied up and sitting on the floor. The execution of the religious leader at the hands of the government’s security forces turned the man into a martyr and a rallying point for anyone who had been on the receiving end of a perceived unjust system. Indeed, when Boko Haram re-emerged in 2010, they swore to avenge the crimes of the government, especially Yusuf’s murder and the 800 people who had been killed in the July raids.
Between 2009 and 2014, an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 people were arrested, detained indefinitely and tortured as part of the military campaign against Boko Haram. This surprisingly high detention rate is part of a deliberate strategy of mass arrests to deter the population from cooperating with the ‘terrorists’. Women and children were among those detained by the security forces in an effort to intimidate their husbands and draw suspected Boko Haram members out of hiding. Soldiers have descended on entire towns, perpetuating a cycle “of attack and counter-attack (which) has been marked by unlawful violence on both sides”. Most notorious maybe is the April 2013 assault of Baga, a town on the edge of Lake Chad that was sacked by soldiers following an ambush on a patrol vehicle in the region. Human Rights Watch assessed that at least 187 people were killed in the rampage and that 2,275 buildings had been destroyed, mostly by fire. The army denies the allegations and suggests that insurgents dressed in camouflage led the rampage, which is also a possibility.
The impunity with which the security forces operate has created a “climate of fear in which people are too scared to report crimes and journalists do not dare report them”. As a result, the Joint Task Force has not been able to count on the cooperation of the population in the counter-insurgency operation, thereby weakening and delaying its ability to implement a proper strategy. In addition, the police abuses have pushed some Nigerians into the recruiting arms of Boko Haram, who are perceived as the only viable option to avenge the crimes the security personnel committed against family members and friends. One resident of Maiduguri quoted in a Nigerian paper stated that “we don’t have a problem with Boko Haram; our problem is with the police and the military that harass and kill our innocent people. They call every Muslim a Boko Haram”.
Despite the media and analysts’ claims that police brutality has been a driving force behind the radicalization of populations in the northeast of Nigeria, it is important to note one study led by the United States Institute for Peace (USIP). Indeed, the USIP report found that “alleged excesses of security forces are among the least important drivers of youth extremism and violence”. It concluded that “poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, and weak family structures” in addition to perceived government corruption were principle factors that led to the recruitment and radicalization of young people. Nonetheless, the lack of public confidence in the security forces of the country, and the failures of the state to guarantee security and basic living standards effectively undermine the credibility of a government and mobilize public resentment.
Finally, following a speech by Goodluck Jonathan in January 2012 and an increase in violent attacks by Boko Haram, the federal government declared a state of emergency in 15 Local Government Areas (LGAs), giving security forces additional powers in the region. As a result, the JTF used more draconian tactics, further alienating the population and pushing Boko Haram into rural areas over which the government has little control. The government’s approach to Boko Haram has been principally militaristic, especially since the group has grown into a full-blown insurgency. This has not changed under the presidency of Buhari, who as a former military man himself has preferred a hardline approach, but with arguably more success. Indeed, under the new President, the Nigerian army has benefitted from foreign advisors and military support and has consolidated its military cooperation with neighbouring countries.
A Nigerian de-radicalization strategy
As part of their strategy to counter Boko Haram, the Jonathan government did set up in 2014 a de-radicalization program for former militants and prisoners. To a certain extent this was a reaction to the backlash against the military ‘hard approach’ that arguably had the reverse effect of further radicalizing communities. De-radicalization programs however are relatively new and experimental. They are backed by psychological studies but there is limited precedence and evidence that these programs are at all effective.
Known as the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Program, the initiative is hosted by the Office of the National Security Advisor in Abuja. It receives funding from both the European Union and the United States. The CVE program follows a recent trend that seeks to counter violent extremism with a variety of policies, including addressing “intolerance, government failure, and political, economic, and social marginalization”. In practice, the programs’ approach is one of research and prevention: experts study the causes that lead to violent radicalization with the objective of eventually tackling the main socio-economic, political and psychological drivers. This includes identifying at-risk populations before individuals become radicalized. The task is enormous and daunting and requires significant community input and financial commitment, which takes time in the best of cases.
As a result, Nigeria’s de-radicalization program has focused principally on survivors, victims and captured Boko Haram members. The head of the program, psychologist Dr Fatima Akilu, directs the experiment through two prison programs and includes both a research component and an educational framework. First of all, the staff engages with the inmates on their belief systems, studying their sources of inspirations, heroes, and especially the texts in the Koran that appears to drive them. A team of imams meets with the prisoners and they discuss religion and ideology, encouraging consultation and intellectual exploration. From an educational perspective, prisoners receive reading and mathematics classes, they meet with individual councillors, do art therapy and are encouraged to take part in team sports such as volleyball, football and basketball – all the things that Boko Haram prohibits. Dr Akilu described the program as being in their “early days”, in need of a longer period of engagement but overall “going well”. All prisoners seem to have integrated well but there is little evidence at this time that the experiment has affected or changed their fundamental belief system.
One of the important features of the new prison program, which could equally be useful to CVE initiatives in other countries, is the separation of Boko Haram prisoners from other inmates. According to Dr Akilu, when they are together, the former spend all their time trying to convert other prisoners, a phenomenon that has been frequently observed elsewhere and prisons are today a significant lieu for radicalization.
Finally, despite the optimism in the Nigerian CVE program, under President Buhari the National Security Agency has undergone significant changes, including the removal of Dr Akilu from her position in October 2015 and replacing her with a military officer. This risks undermining the foundations of Nigeria’s ‘soft’ approach to de-radicalization and it is unclear whether or how the new government will move forward.
Boko Haram started off, like many other radical groups in Nigeria, as a small, localized sect with little power or influence. Its successful transformation into a regional and arguably international threat is partially the result of its ability to capitalize on existing religious rivalries and socio-economic grievances. The government’s failure in dealing with the Maitatsine rebellion and the track record of police brutality have also fed right into the discourse of religious victimhood that is propagated by Yusuf and Shekau.
With a large pool of impoverished youth from which to recruit and a powerful political grievance backed by legitimate religious beliefs, Boko Haram has managed to expand in the northeast of Nigeria and take advantage of the government’s relative disinterest in the economically ‘backwards’ part of the country. It has proven to be opportunistic and resilient, strategically adapting to the political and security context in the region. Recently, Boko Haram established itself with international terrorist groups in Africa and the Middle East, thereby increasing its striking power and is access to weaponry and recruits. Goodluck Jonathan sought to position Boko Haram as an international threat and gain support from the West, but the successful rise of the Islamist group in Nigeria is most likely the result of severe domestic grievances than part of an international Islamist agenda.
There are a number of strategies the Nigerian government can adopt in order to address the growth of violent radical groups. From a crisis management perspective, a quicker reaction from the government to denounce acts of violence and a pro-active response and reintegration for refugees and other victims of Boko Haram would signal the Buhari’s commitment to finding a solution to the immediate problem. The government would also need to involve civil society to promote community-based security arrangements that it could support with technical assistance for example. There has been much criticism of the government’s emergency response and in particular regarding corruption and ineptitude within the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA).
On a macro level, poor economic opportunities and high levels of unemployment are part of the problem in northeast Nigeria and need to be addressed in the long term. Realistically, job creation is not straightforward and alone will not solve the problem, but it should be included in an all-encompassing strategy including a focus on economic growth to counter extremism. A step in that direction could include more investment in formal education and the regulation of preachers – particularly itinerant preachers whose access to vulnerable populations is too easy and dangerous.
The government’s approach has been reactive rather than proactive. Competition and violence among and inside the police and military institutions have undermined trust in the state. In addition, systemic failures and corruption in the justice system have eroded the effectiveness of the security forces: There is little accountability for police and military personnel, but likewise prisoners may be held eternally without trial or on the contrary released back into the community regardless of their crimes. A reform of the police and justice sector will also need to be a part of the long-term strategy.
In December 2015, President Buhari declared the militants were “technically defeated” and no longer able to mount conventional attacks. While Boko Haram has not disappeared, it has been relegated to the typical African rebel group, limited to a small stronghold, still hurting those nearby but no longer a threat to the nation or of any concern to the West. The year 2015 was instrumental in pushing back the group, and many may wonder why it took so long to accomplish. Was it a lack of political will? Of military expertise? Of foreign assistance? Or does it simply take time to mount a successful counterinsurgency?
Despite the rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria over the last few years, a pro-active government response that includes a military approach but also addresses the conditions that led to the success of the group in the first place can be effective. The Nigerian armed forces, with the help of foreign advisors and neighbouring armies have already managed to push back the insurgency. A comprehensive and informed long-term approach as detailed above could deter further extremist movements from ravaging part of the country in the future.
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 Kyari Mohammed in Pérouse de Montclos, Marc-Antoine. 2014. Boko Haram. Leiden: African Studies Centre, 10
 Cook cited in Pérouse de Montclos, Marc-Antoine. 2014. Boko Haram. Leiden: African Studies Centre, 12
 Agbiboa, Daniel Egiegba. 2015. “The Social Dynamics Of The “Nigerian Taliban”: Fresh Insights From The Social Identity Theory”. Social Dynamics 41 (3): 415-437.
 Pérouse de Montclos, Marc-Antoine. 2014. Boko Haram. Leiden: African Studies Centre, 140
 Falola, Toyin. 1998. Violence In Nigeria. Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 2
 Schmid, Alex. 2013. “Radicalization, De-Radicalization, Counter-Radicalization: A Conceptual Discussion And Literature Review”. Terrorism And Counter-Terrorism Studies.
 Midlarsky, Manus I. 2011. Origins Of Political Extremism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 7
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 Veldhuis, Tinka, and Jørgen Staun. 2009. Islamist Radicalization: A Root Cause Model. The Hague, Netherlands Institute of International Relations Clingendael.
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 BBC News. 2015. “Using Football To Tackle Nigeria’s Boko Haram – BBC News”. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-34126346.
 Cleen Foundation, 2014. Youths, Radicalization And Affilialiation With Insurgent Groups In Northern Nigeria. Cleen Foundation, 21
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 Struch, Naomi, and Shalom H. Schwartz. 1989. “Intergroup Aggression: Its Predictors And Distinctness From In-Group Bias.”. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology 56 (3): 364-373.
 Cleen Foundation. 2014. Youths, Radicalization And Affilialiation With Insurgent Groups In Northern Nigeria. Cleen Foundation.
 Hannah Hoechner in Pérouse de Montclos, Marc-Antoine. 2014. Boko Haram. Leiden: African Studies Centre, 68
 Nagel, Jack. 1974 Inequality and Discontent: A Nonlinear Hypothesis. World Politics, 26, pp 453-472
 Cramer, Christopher. 2005 Inequality And Conflict A Review Of An Age-Old Concern. United Nations Research Institute For Social Development. Identities, Conflict and Cohesion Programme Paper Number 11.
 Zimmerman, Ekkart. 1980 “Macro-comparative research on political protest.” In T.R. Gurr (ed.), Handbook of Political Conflict: Theory and Research. London: Macmillan
 Muller , Edward. 1997. “Economic determinants of democracy.” In M.I. Midlarsky (ed.), Inequality, Democracy and Economic Development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
 Alesina, Alberto and Perotti, Alberto. 1996. Income distribution, political instability, and investment. European Economic Review, Vol. 40, No. 6, pp. 1203–1228.
 Data.worldbank.org. 2015. ‘GDP Growth (Annual %) | Data | Graph’.
 Achebe, Chinua. 1983. The Trouble With Nigeria. Enugu, Nigeria: Fourth Dimension Publishers.
 National Population Commission (NPC) [Nigeria] and ICF International. 2014.
Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey 2013. Abuja, Nigeria, and Rockville, Maryland, USA: NPC and ICF International.
 Campbell, John. 2013. Nigeria. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
 Hoffmann, Leena Koni. 2014. Who Speaks For The North? Politics And Influence In Northern Nigeria. Ebook. 1st ed. Chatham House Africa Programme. http://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/field/field_document/20140703NorthernNigeriaHoffmann.pdf.
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 Hdr.undp.org. 2015. ‘Income Gini Coefficient | Human Development Reports’. http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/income-gini-coefficient.
 Yetunde, Adegoke. 2013. Disparity In Income Distribution In Nigeria: A Lorenz Curve And Gini Index Approach. Ebook. 1st ed. Universal Journal of Management and Social Sciences. http://cprenet.com/uploads/archive/UJMSS_12-1254.pdf.
 Cleen Foundation. 2014. Youths, Radicalization And Affilialiation With Insurgent Groups In Northern Nigeria. Cleen Foundation. Amnesty International,. 2014. Welcome To Hell Fire; Torture And Other Ill-Treatment In Nigeria. Amnesty International Publications.
 Amnesty International. 2014. Welcome To Hell Fire; Torture And Other Ill-Treatment In Nigeria. Amnesty International Publications.
 Human Rights Watch. 2012. ‘Spiraling Violence | Human Rights Watch’. Hrw.Org.
 Amnesty International. 2014. Welcome To Hell Fire; Torture And Other Ill-Treatment In Nigeria. Amnesty International Publications.
 BBC News. 2015. ‘Nigeria Army ‘Abuses’ In Boko Haram Crackdown – Amnesty’. BBC News.
 Human Rights Watch. 2013. Nigeria: Massive Destruction from Military Raid. Human Rights Watch
 Smith, Mike. 2014. Boko Haram. I B Tauris.
 BBC News,. 2015. ‘Nigeria Army ‘Abuses’ In Boko Haram Crackdown – Amnesty’. BBC News.
 Kyari Mohammed in Pérouse de Montclos, Marc-Antoine. 2014. Boko Haram. Leiden: African Studies Centre, 28
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 Maiduguri Metropolitan Council, Jere, Ngala, Bama, and Biu in Borno State; Damaturu, Geidam, Potiskum, Gujba, and Bade in Yobe State; Jos North, Jos South, Barkin Ladi, and Riyom in Plateau State; and Suleja in Niger State.
 Frazer, Owen, and Christian Nünlist. 2015. “The Concept Of Countering Violent Extremism”. CSS Analyses In Security Policy 183.
 Interview with Dr Fatima Akilu in Abuja; August 2015