BY ROMMY MOM
Beginnings of Boko Haram
It is widely believed that the movement started out as a pious and strict way of Islam intended to guarantee paradise after death in the midst of worldly and earthy distractions. Not many people are aware that this ideology became so popular in Nigeria’s North East that even some government officials joined in the movement and supported it in order to be seen as holy and pious people.
With time, the movement became powerful enough to start enforcing its way of life on many, demanding zero tolerance to anything western. Some government officials resigned to comply with this directive while others saw the price as too heavy to pay just to belong. Originally known as “Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad,” which in Arabic means “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad” this coinage was soon shortened by locals to the simpler, “Boko Haram” which, loosely translated, means, “Western education is forbidden.” Those who refused to team up with the extremists were viewed as uncommitted Muslims.
Extra judicial punishment in the form of brutal killings was soon meted out on those who resisted these teachings, especially persons of other faiths. Early violence was targeted at non-believers with Churches targeted particularly on holy days such as Easter and Christmas when attendance was heavy. Perhaps the initial plan was to plunge Nigeria into a religious war. The reluctance or inability of Christians to pay back in kind thwarted this move thereby frustrating the movement in that regard.
The now notorious cult, which began its insidious existence during the Obasanjo administration (2002), was rendered a crushing defeat by the state under YarAdua when it appeared to be challenging the power of the state. However, instead of a well strategized and carefully executed investigation which would perhaps have unearthed the roots of the cult, defeat was meted out on extreme grounds of extra judicial killings, with the arrest and execution of the group’s founding leader, Mohammed Yusuf, who was killed in police custody in 2009.
This act caused the group to run off into the forest (Sambisa) and quietly continue living their “pious” lives while burning with anger and resentment with a view to vengeance. They soon regrouped under a new and more vile leadership, that of the so called Abubakar Shekau.
Growth and Notoriety
Having regrouped, the cult, now bent on establishing an Islamic state, quietly developed networks with other extremist Islamic groups, first across Africa and eventually, beyond. How Nigeria’s intelligence missed this is the wonder. Indeed, the efficiency with which the group was able to muster heavy military weapons and machinery speaks volumes about how incredibly weak Nigeria’s government systems were calling to question how the weapons were brought into the country and safely delivered to the terrorists without raising suspicion. These weapons included armored personnel carriers, surface to air missiles and other weapons even Nigeria’s military lacked.
On the anniversary of their leader’s assassination, the group announced its desire to commemorate his death. Not knowing the extent of the group’s preparedness and the seriousness of their threats, the Borno state government (the state that has since gained notoriety as the “home” of BH) assured citizens that there was nothing to worry about and urged them to go about their normal businesses. Underestimating BH turned out to be a big mistake.
On the day of the “commemoration,” gun wielding members of BH stormed the city of Maiduguri, mowing down any Christian policemen in sight, leading to police officers taking off their uniforms and begging for their lives. It was to be the first of many well primed attacks.
The state’s meek reaction did nothing to help and the sect waxed stronger over time, killing at will, bombing prime state targets across the country, including the Police headquarters and the UN office both in Abuja, Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory. Still the state, this time under Goodluck Jonathan, failed to fully comprehend how powerful the rag tag group had grown to be.
BH eventually went as far as conquering and seizing territories, declared its independence from Nigeria and killed citizens at will, at this point, not minding religious inclination. Schools were targeted and children killed for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. The Buni Yadi massacre in Yobe state was carried out at night in an all-boys school. Shortly afterwards, an estimated 300 girls were abducted from their school, also at night. A few of them managed to escape when one of the vehicles they were being carted off in broke down.
This incident finally turned international attention to Nigeria, when the army first of all lied that the abducted girls had been rescued, then when the abduction was followed by inaction by the state. To this day, one and a half years later, there are still groups demanding for the return of the girls, now known as the Chibok girls. An estimated 200 may have been sold into slavery or forcefully married off to total strangers as Shekau at the time threatened.
Their actual fate remains unknown.
Reaction of the state
After the brutal subjugation of the movement by the Yar Adua administration, subsequent dealings by the state lacked any form of decisiveness. State reaction portrayed total lack of political will to deal definitively with the terrorists, leading to a state of general insecurity, not just in the region but across the country, thereby giving the group a larger-than-life reputation.
While the terrorist group wreaked havoc in Nigeria’s North East and the neighboring West African countries of Chad, Niger, and Mali, unscrupulous elements within the government and the military saw the insurgency as a means of making money and corruptly enriching themselves. Monies intended for equipping the military were diverted to personal use, while a poorly armed, poorly motivated military was sent out to tackle a better armed, better, motivated and better organized opponent. The battles ended with Nigeria’s military massacred in huge numbers and the people of the region killed in a pogrom of a sort never before witnessed in the land.
Over 15,000 lives have been lost, while a mutiny within the army, owing to lack of weapons and machinery was decisively dealt with by imprisonment even as corruption continued to thrive and the country bled. It has since been speculated that a 5th column was identified within the army and that some of the sponsors were known to those in power and yet to BH remained a menace.
In the run up to the 2015 elections, the ability of the APC Candidate, Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, to definitively articulate issues such as Corruption and Security, and the way these messages resonated with the electorate forced the sitting government to finally see BH as an electoral albatross that could lead to its defeat. Elections were quickly postponed to deal with BH, but lacking any concise operational plan, weapons were hastily put together and indiscriminate air strikes commenced in territories held by BH. While the group was indeed pushed back, the collateral damage was equally huge especially in the civilian population.
This last ditch attempt at stopping BH, while the most impressive, did nothing to help the Goodluck administration as the people’s minds were already made up. Elections eventually threw out the government and installed Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, whose credentials as a long serving military man were seen as the right qualification for a Nigerian leader hoping to rout BH.
The present administration is now engaging BH in a more constructive and intelligent manner, strengthening alliances with neighboring countries, gathering intelligence and launching offensive strikes, while curbing corruption within the system and motivating soldiers.
The results are commendable as Nigeria is now on the offensive as opposed to BH being on the offensive, which was the situation in the past, and practically all Nigerian territories have been reclaimed. This has led to a new approach by the terrorists, bombing of soft targets within the communities, markets, viewing centers, IDP camps etc.
Intelligence can help neutralize these attacks and this is where the role of the citizen is key. The new wave of terrorism in Nigeria can NEVER be won except the citizen steps up and engages.
Intelligence is not obtained from thin air but by citizens being observant and reporting suspicious movements and or circumstances in their surroundings. In the past, those who did report such things found themselves under attack, the information having been somehow leaked to the terrorists. Perhaps this was led to the situation we now face where some of these communities have taken to shielding the terrorists and some even contributing their children to the “cause.” There are also those who genuinely believe the extremists are trying to promote an Islamic agenda and as such have developed genuine sympathies for them leading to them cooperating with the group and shielding them from the prying eyes of the authorities.
Interestingly enough, as operations against the group have continued, it has become obvious that though members of the group claim to be Muslims trying to establish an Islamic state, a good number of them know nothing about the religion itself other than what they have been brain washed by the master minds into believing. It is said that a good number of them neither pray nor can recite vital parts of the Quran. One then begins to wonder what the real motivation or trigger behind the movement is.
Attempts by the Jonathan administration at various points in time to establish contact with the group and determine their demands produced woeful results. Unlike other terrorist groups in Nigeria which made concrete demands on government, BH’s demands were unrealistic and speak of a lack of focus. The group is believed to have demanded that Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian, convert to Islam, a request which of course went unattended to.
There is a real need for some of Behavior Change Communication strategy to be embarked upon to enlighten Muslims of the real intentions of the group which has little to do with promoting Islam and everything to do with spreading hate and fear. There is a need to send out educational passionate educational messages, suing passages from the Quran to counter the poisonous messages being spread by the terrorists.
These could be in the form of radio/TV messages, billboards, online broadcasts and so on. After all, the fight is against an ideology. There is therefore a serious need to work on the minds of those who are vulnerable to get them to understand that the ideology of the terrorists is warped at best. This is one of the ways in which the state can help the citizens to decide on doing what is right.
Regarding the fear of being outed after passing intelligence to security agents, the current government seems genuinely concerned about curbing the excesses of BH as can be seen by the fact that the service chiefs are now stationed right at the battle front and have been seen at the frontlines with their men. This is a clear sign that the status quo has changed and people can now trust the security agents.
“Small” things like strange faces, tenants who would rather keep to themselves, vehicles haphazardly laden with gas cylinders and driven in populated areas, etc. as normal as they appear, could be clues. A tip off to security agencies may lead to saving of scores of lives.
People acting suspiciously in crowded environments such as markets, schools, malls, Churches should be carefully observed and if possible questioned. Unattended bags should not be poked or touched. Very rickety cars driven to a crowded spot and abandoned are also suspect.
The need to create awareness amongst community leaders on how to spot suspected terrorists can’t be over emphasized. It is very important for the purposes of stepping the messages down to members of the community in languages they will understand and be made to understand how this strategy could save us all.
If we can successfully push for and achieve the measures outlined above, then we can truly begin to say with confidence that the days of BH in Nigeria are numbered.