Nigeria: Understanding Boko Haram Radicals – Analysis


A spate of bomb attacks by radical Islamist group Bokom Haram in Maiduguri, capital of Borno State in northeastern Nigeria, and a heavy-handed crackdown by the military, have prompted thousands of people to flee their homes, but why is this violence happening and how can tensions be eased?

Boko Haram was formed by Muslim cleric Mohammed Yusuf in 2002, in Maiduguri. Initially peaceful, in June 2009 the radical sect waged a short-lived armed uprising in a bid to establish an Islamic state in the north. This was brutally crushed by the military in July 2009, leaving over 800 dead, mostly sect members.


During the crackdown, leader Mohammed Yusuf and several other members including Yusuf’s father-in-law, Alhaji Baba Fugu, were killed in police custody.

Since January 2010, surviving sect members have reportedly been behind bomb and shoot-and-run attacks which have killed dozens of people not just in Maiduguri: An Abuja police HQ was bombed on 16 June.

The group is not easy to monitor, according to Human Rights Watch researcher Eric Guttschuss. “Since 2009 the leadership has gone underground. It’s now unclear what the exact command structure is.”

A spokesperson for Boko Haram told reporters in June that members had received training in Somalia. Okechukwu Nwanguma, programme coordinator with non-profit Network on Police Reform in Nigeria (NOPRIN), said this could indicate Boko Haram has “a link with the global terror movement”.

Other reports have suggested the same thing, saying Boko Haram already has links to international terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda, and has the potential to link with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) which operates in nearby regions.

While a Western security official in Nigeria told the Wall Street Journal these links were unconfirmed, he noted concern that they could develop if the situation is left unchecked and the group is able to grow.

Root causes of violence

Political solutions will only be delivered if some of the root causes driving Boko Haram membership are addressed, said Human Rights Watch researcher Eric Guttschuss. These include “poverty and unemployment, driven by poor governance and corruption,” he told IRIN.

Guttschuss said former leader Yousef gained support “by speaking out against police and political corruption” on behalf of the country’s “vast numbers of unemployed youth [who] he was able to tap into for recruits”.

Violent uprisings in Nigeria, whether Boko Haram or other groups, are invariably the result of “social injustice” and “bad governance” said Abdulkarim Mohammed, a researcher on Boko Haram.

“Boko Haram is essentially the fallout of frustration with corruption and the attendant social malaise of poverty and unemployment… The young generation see how [the nation’s resources] are squandered by a small bunch of self-serving elite which breeds animosity and frustration, and such anger is ultimately translated into violent outbursts,” he said.

NOPRIN’s Nwanguma said there is speculation politicians from northern Nigeria are surreptitiously funding Boko Haram to force the current government to relinquish power. This follows recent controversial elections.

Michael Utasha of think-tank Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) told IRIN he had heard similar accusations: “Unconfirmed reports have it that there are disgruntled members of the political class in Nigeria who are bent on destabilizing the government of President Goodluck and giving the impression that he is a weak and indecisive leader.”

But Tanko Yakasai, a member of the Northern Leaders Political Forum (NLPF), a political group that has pushed for the retention of power in the north for another four years, vehemently denied these claims, saying Boko Haram aims to destroy any system of secular government in Nigeria “irrespective of whether a Muslim or a Christian is in power”. Viewing Boko Haram “as a political gimmick to retain power in the north is trivializing the whole problem,” Yakasai added.


OSIWA’s Utasha accused the authorities of exacerbating tensions with the sect and thus enflaming violence. The 16 June Abuja attack, he said, “was a direct response to some irresponsible and inflammatory comments by the inspector-general of police, Hafiz Ringim, who only a few days before the attack had boasted that the days of the group were numbered.”

The governor of Borno State has reportedly admitted the army reacted too strongly to the recent Maiduguri violence, and said measures are being taken to check their behaviour.

Boko Haram militants attacked an army patrol in Maiduguri with explosives and gunfire on 9 July. In the ensuing shootout soldiers claimed they killed 11 sect members; while two soldiers were injured. Following this, civilians said their houses were burned and people shot by the army. Thousands of civilians have now fled the city in fear of further violence.
Murja Muhammad, a resident of the Kalari neighbourhood who fled her home on 10 July told IRIN, “Soldiers began repeatedly shooting in the air after the bomb attack and the shootout that followed. They then…started breaking into homes, singling out male occupants and shooting them and driving women out of the houses which they set ablaze.”

A group of 18 local members of the respected Borno Elders Forum on 12 July called for the withdrawal of troops from the city, saying the soldiers have worsened the security situation.

The police have taken some positive action to combat impunity in the past, said Guttschuss, pointing to five police officers recently charged with the extra-judicial killing of Mohammed Yusuf, as an “important step”. While this occurred some two years after events, it sent a message that “regardless of who commits crime they will be held accountable,” he told IRIN. “But whether this will diffuse the attacks is yet to be seen,” he said.

However, dealing with the perpetrators of attacks, and army/police reprisals, requires more fundamental criminal justice sector reform, said Amnesty International in a 27 June statement.

“We initially thought the military would employ logical strategies to put an end to this cycle of violence… [but] the soldiers went from door to door killing innocent people, they broke into homes stealing property and raping young women,” Bulama Mali Gubio, a member of the Borno Elders forum, told IRIN.

Military spokespeople are still defensive, blaming the burning of houses in the Kalari neighbourhood of Maiduguri on explosives used by Boko Haram.”My men are not responsible for the exodus [of people] because even before the deployment of soldiers people were leaving the city,” military commander Brig-Gen Jack Okechukwu Nwaogbo, told IRIN.


When attacks by Boko Haram increased this year, President Goodluck Jonathan initially assured people the situation was under control, comparing it to violence in the Niger Delta that was partially improved through eventual negotiation and an amnesty programme.

Analysts from the Economist Intelligence Unit have suggested that the religious fanaticism of Boko Haram means this approach is less likely to be effective.

Others insist engagement is necessary. “It is only when the government understands their [Boko Haram’s] mindset that it can effectively tackle the problem,” said researcher Abdukarim Mohammed.

Borno State governor Kashim Shettima has reportedly invited Boko Haram to engage in a dialogue, stressing the government was ready to address their demands.

But negotiation will only work if the government is genuinely willing to engage and consider creative options, such as a “more genuine” amnesty, said the chairman of the Adamawa State chapter of the All Nigeria People’s Party (ANPP), Alhaji Umar Duhu. He said members were currently still afraid of being arrested or killed by security forces if they surrendered.

Negotiation or not, more targeted intelligence-gathering is needed to curb future violence, according to NOPRIN’s Nwanguma. “What we are witnessing in Nigeria are the consequences of a national intelligence and security system that fails to recognize that contemporary crimes demand more reliable and timely intelligence than guns and armoured personnel carriers.”

In the meantime, the current situation remains out of control, Nwanguma argues: “Clearly, Boko Haram has virtually overrun northern Nigeria, despite deployment of soldiers,” he said. “They have continued to operate beyond the control of the Nigerian government and security forces.”


IRIN is an independent, non-profit media organization. IRIN delivers unique, authoritative and independent reporting from the frontlines of crises to inspire and mobilise a more effective humanitarian response.

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