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Boko Haram: Dissecting the myth

Current Affairs

Boko Haram: Dissecting the myth

For over a decade and a half, the militant terror group, Boko Haram, has held Nigeria in the grip of fear as it has rampaged across the north of the country indulging in an orgy of killing and kidnapping, and causing an international outcry. The latest kidnapping of schoolgirls took place in February. Yet information about the group remains sketchy and contradictory claims by the government have compounded the issue and led to often wild accusations of collaboration with officials. Another group, allied with Fulani herdsmen in the north, is also threatening a major ethnic conflict in the country. As the political temperature rises, Peter Ezeh sets out to separate fact from fiction and get to the kernel of the truth behind Boko Haram and its affiliates.

The raid on another girl’s school in Nigeria’s north-east in February by the violent Muslim sect, Boko Haram, was a major embarrassment for a government that had written off the insurgents as a vanquished force.

Their release (actually, 104 were returned – five died in captivity and the abductors are holding on to one hostage, who refused to renounce her Christian faith) just 30 days afterwards has thrown up a plethora of discordant views from a wide spectrum of Nigerian society.

Some see the events as real and deserving of concern, while others are suspicious that the grim events were made up so as to find an excuse to use the anti-insurgency security fund, and thus improve the rating of President Muhammadu Buhari in the run-up to the 2019 general elections, where it is speculated that he will run for a second term. Some have suggested the events were invented to give the President an excuse for offering an amnesty to the sectarian insurgents, which he proposed after the hostages were brought to see him in Abuja after their release.

Some of the views on what Boko Haram is, and their true intentions, are even more remarkable.

In the case of the new abduction of schoolgirls, the mainstream narrative was that the insurgents came in three trucks and whisked off 110 of the girls just before dusk.

It was the first such raid to take place on a girl’s school in the six years since more than 200 girls were abducted in the notorious raid of 2014 that made world headlines and opened up a dangerous dimension in the activities of the sect.

The 2014 raid was in Chibok in Borno State, which shares its western boundary with Yobe State, where this February’s raid happened at the Government Girls Science Technical College, in the sleepy horticultural community of Dapchi.

Chibok and Dapchi are roughly 150km from each other and both states, Borno and Yobe, were once one, until the younger state (Yobo) was sliced off from the older one in 1991.

A former cabinet minister who also once worked for the World Bank, Oby Ezekwesili, periodically leads a peaceful march to the office of the President in Abuja demanding #BringBackOurGirls. Erstwhile US First Lady, Michelle Obama, while her husband was still in office, once echoed the cry in sympathy in faraway America. More than half the girls taken from Chibok were yet to be recovered at the time of the Dapchi event.   

Confusing claims and counter-claims

The Chibok captives were taken during the tenure of former President Goodluck Jonathan and by the larger Boko Haram group under Abubakar Shekau. The latest abduction at Dapchi was said to have been carried out by a faction of the insurgent group led by Abu Musah al-Barnawi, who was formerly under Shekau but split with him in 2016 when they disagreed on the leadership of the original Boko Haram.

An earlier communiqué from the Nigerian army claimed that Shekau had been killed but in an effort to disprove the claim, Boko Haram brought out a video showing someone who said he was Shekau. Sceptics said the man was Shekau’s lookalike. Barnawi himself was reported to have been arrested by the Nigerian troops in December 2016, the same year he parted ways with Shekau.

It is remarkable that Barnawi’s group itself has been silent on the Dapchi matter. The Nigerian government and the military did much of the talking. Opposition politicians and other sceptics have cashed in on this aspect of the events and the vague-seeming identity of this faction of the insurgents in their efforts to establish that the Dapchi incident was stage-managed by the Nigerian authorities. Boko Haram war lord, Shekau, issued public statements, including videos, at intervals after the Chibok abduction.

Amnesty International, in a widely reported statement, said that the Nigerian Army was informed in good time that the insurgents were heading for Dapchi but they did nothing to protect the girls. The army and the police have also traded blame on the matter.

The army said it removed its detachment stationed in the Dapchi area because it was needed for another assignment elsewhere. According to them, it handed the security of the area over to the police. But the police swiftly denied that the army had handed the security of the place to them before the attack.    

Critics also see the same disparity between Nigerian official claims and the reality in the wider fight against Boko Haram. While government and military spokespeople had said that the group was virtually defeated, President Buhari’s government was recently reported to have been permitted by governors of Nigeria’s federating states to take $1bn from a special public fund set up for the fight. The money is worth N365bn. The report about the new financial prop for the anti-terror campaign came barely a week after President Buhari was quoted as having said during a visit to Kano, “Nigeria, Chad and Niger Republic have succeeded in crushing Boko Haram insurgents in the North-East.”

The opposition, including Ayodele Fayose, the vocal PDP governor of Ekiti State, was critical of the decision to allocate a further $1bn to the Boko Haram campaign. A PDP spokesman, Kola Ologbondiyan, told a Lagos daily, “How can you justify that? Do you want to spend N365bn on an insurgency you claimed you have defeated?”   

A different kind of war

In the four months around the abduction of the Dapchi girls, a total of 1,351 people were killed in all but two of Nigeria’s 36 states in violence that was largely linked to sectarian militancy. In January alone, when 67 unarmed villagers were killed by Muslim herders in the central state of Benue, 676 were also massacred in various other parts of the country. The killing spree began on New Year’s Day.

Communities in the north-eastern districts suffered the most, providing more than half of the total casualties, but the distribution of the deaths brings in an obvious worrisome dimension and has contributed to the varied interpretations of the Boko Haram campaign.

As I prepared to file this story in early April, there were reports of two incidents in Boko Haram’s founding city of Maiduguri, with some sources putting the number of dead as high as 29 at first count. Scores of others, close to 100 by one account, were wounded.

The statistics do not include cases of girls and women being kidnapped, an occurrence which is fairly rampant. They kidnap men too, as in the well-publicised example when they took lecturers from the University of Maiduguri who were on fieldwork.

This seeming focus on girls and women raises a number of questions which academics studying the violent sect still rack their brains about. Is it because they are characteristically soft targets? Is it because sect members are separated from the larger Muslim society in a manner that makes it difficult for them to find brides and so they go for what ethnographers call ‘bride capture’? Is it because through the captives, the insurgents can have the means of replenishing their numbers, through the offspring from liaisons?      

In the Chibok case, from videoed accounts by Boko Haram leaders and ex-abductees who managed to escape, it was learnt that captives were married off to Muslims who support the insurgents. There are also unconfirmed reports of using some captives as suicide bombers.

Dr Samuel Onyeidu, who teaches comparative religion at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, in south-eastern Nigeria, told New African that the true intention behind the kidnappings might never be known until insider accounts become accessible. “The sort of violence that they visit on members of their own religion, not to mention members of other faiths, is un-Islamic,” he explains. “There is nothing in Islam to explain their forcible taking of the innocent girls.” NA

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Written by Peter Ezeh

Peter Ezeh is one of New African magazine's longest serving correspondents. He began his career in Nigeria and rose to the position of news editor of the Punch; served as Lagos chief correspondent of the Satellite newspaper group in Enugu and edited The Point in Port Harcourt. He he is an alumni of the University of Cambridge’s (Wolfson College) Press Fellowship programme.

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