The recent declaration of emergency in three of Nigeria’s Northeastern provinces by President Goodluck Jonathan is the newest development in Nigeria’s ongoing struggle with sectarian violence. In the wake of attacks by the local sectarian group, Boko Haram, the government has decided to take more assertive action. While it is the most aggressive action yet taken against the persisting threat of Boko Haram, there are many indications that the state of emergency declaration and military crackdown will not end the violence.
Coming to prominence in 2009 with an uprising against security forces in the northeastern town of Maiduguri, Boko Haram, whose stated goal is the transformation of Nigeria into an Islamic State, has since become a full fledged insurgent group. Known officially as Jama-atu Ahlus-Sunnah Lidda’Awati Wal Jihad, the name “Boko Haram” was adopted by locals, which translates to “western education is sinful”. Over the last four years over 3000 people, mainly civilians, have been killed in violence spurred by the group through a number of high profile bombings and attacks. Boko Haram gained international attention after it carried out a number of bombings in churches in 2011, as well as a car bombing of the United Nations headquarters and a recent prison break in May that saw over 50 people killed. In the wake of this most recent attack, President Jonathan decided to take more assertive action, calling the attacks a “declaration of war”. The Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states have all received the declaration of emergency, and a coordinated insertion of thousands of troops supported by fighter jets and helicopters into the three states has since taken place.
Boko Haram is based in and operates almost exclusively in the northeastern part of Nigeria, and its existence is a manifestation of the much larger problem of the growing regional divide within the country. While the southern half of the country is predominantly Christian, more developed, and sees a high degree of government control, the majority of the northern population is Muslim, sees a much lower degree of government control, and most importantly, is far more impoverished. This has led to anti-southern and anti-government resentment in the North, which Boko Haram has taken advantage of. The fight against Boko Haram is one that moves beyond just the crackdown of a dissident Islamic insurgency – it goes to the heart of much larger problems. If targets in the more prosperous southern part of the country are attacked, like Lagos and the Niger Delta, then the impact on the Nigerian economy as a whole will be much more severe.
Success of Crackdown
Boko Haram’s continued existence in the face of tougher military engagement rests on three factors. The first, and most insidious factor, is that it is a product of the sectarian divide in Nigeria. The increasing ethnic, religious, and socio-economic differences between North and South have created the perfect environment for a terrorist group like Boko Haram to thrive. Many of their recruits are unemployed and disillusioned youths, while there are many of the local population willing to support the group by not identifying them to government forces.
The second is that in the wake of unrest in Mali and the collapse of the Gadaffi regime in Libya in 2011, weapons and volunteers have been streaming into the area. At the same time, the group’s ties with the North African Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which is itself directly affiliated with Al Qaeda, have increased. This has enabled them to procure much more logistical, material and financial support. This is what has helped lead to the rapid expansion of their operations, and is also a frightening indication of the new coordination between insurgent groups in Africa and Al Qaeda.
Finally, as Nigerian forces push Boko Haram fighters further and further north towards the border, they have the option to continue retreating into Niger, Chad and Cameroon. This will make combatting them much more difficult, with the group becoming inclined to launch attacks across the border, while Nigeria’s neighbors will inevitably complicate the issue for Nigerian forces.
While the latter two factors can be dealt with through conventional means such as a greater amount of coordination between the Nigerian government and other organizations involved in the fight against Al Qaeda such as NATO and the AU, and increased border security, the former will prove to be more difficult. As long as the economic divide between north and south persists, it will be easy for groups like Boko Haram to gain support and sympathy from the local population. While this cannot be solved in the immediate future, one solution that has seen success with insurgents in the Niger Delta region has been a government amnesty program. This would allow a much smoother integration of fighters back into the population and provide less of an incentive for them to continue fighting for Boko Haram. President Jonathan has suggested this idea in the past, and if implemented it will hopefully be the first step in ending the violence.