Nigeria: Boko Haram and Jonathan’s failure

Nigeria: Boko Haram and Jonathan’s failure
  • PublishedFebruary 11, 2015

Boko Haram started long before Goodluck Jonathan moved into Aso Rock. But, for a large segment of the electorate, the brutal insurgency’s successes have become synonymous with Jonathan’s failures as president. This tsunami of discontent created the possible conditions for the first transfer of power by the ballot box in the February elections. Bala Mohammed Liman explains.

This month’s elections, the fifth since the country returned to electoral rule in 1999, are in many ways being defined by the raging insurgency by the Islamist militant group Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’Awati Wal-Jihad (“People committed to the Prophet’s teachings for propagation and jihad”), better known as Boko Haram (“Western education is forbidden”).

Centred in the northeastern states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe, Boko Haram’s violence has claimed thousands of lives since 2009 but the scale of the group’s killing has been accelerating in the past year. Last month saw what has been described as Boko Haram’s most deadly attack as the group set about a multi-day rampage in and around the town of Baga, in the northeast of Borno State. It is estimated that anywhere from the hundreds to the low thousands of people were killed as Boko Haram first attacked a military base in Baga and then proceeded to burn much of the town and surrounding villages to the ground, according to satellite imagery released by the human rights group Amnesty International. Boko Haram attacks have now displaced up to one million people, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

Unfortunately, political discourse often interprets Boko Haram’s violence through the skewed political prism of North-South and Muslim-Christian. Some southern Christians interpret Boko Haram as part of a broader “Islamisation” agenda for the country as a whole. According to this view, Boko Haram is being used by a northern political elite who may not support Boko Haram’s violence but see the insurgency as a useful means to further the spread of their political power and perhaps with it, sharia law in Nigeria, which is already applicable, either in full or just for personal status issues, in 12 of the 19 states of Nigeria’s north.

Boko Haram’s reign of terror has highlighted the weaknesses in the Nigerian state but also affected perceptions of the president. Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria’s president since the death of his predecessor Umaru Musa Yar’Adua in 2010, found himself tasked with the job of managing this insurgency early in his presidency. He is not considered to have risen to the challenge, and is often depicted as an indecisive leader, incapable of governing such a pluralistic nation.

Far from being brought to heel, under Jonathan’s watch Boko Haram has grown and morphed into something significantly more threatening, dangerous and destabilising. Large tracts of Borno and Adamawa states are under the control of Boko Haram. Nigeria’s effective sovereignty no longer runs the full length of its borders with Cameroon and Chad.

Failures: From Chibok to Baga
Jonathan’s communications strategy on Boko Haram has likewise been unsuccessful. He did not comment on the April 2014 abductions of over 200 girls from a school in Chibok for over two weeks after the event. Officials have made claims about the immediate return of some or all of the girls that have severely damaged his administration’s credibility. The girls have still not been rescued.

He did visit Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, on 15 January to commiserate with some of the displaced persons from the recent Baga attack and also to show support for the armed forces. This is a good gesture. However, many of his critics see this as too little, too late – just an attempt to win votes. Evidence for this more cynical view may be found in the speed with which Jonathan condemned the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, calling them “dastardly”, while failing to comment on the ongoing massacre in Baga.


At times, Jonathan has appeared unwilling to take Boko Haram as seriously as he should. Various blame games have further dented his image. His administration has previously suggested that Cameroon was not doing enough to counter Boko Haram’s cross-border threat. His wife, Patience, alleged that the abduction of the Chibok girls was carried out to embarrass her husband. Interestingly, this narrative has been picked up on by his supporters, who believe that the president’s failure to effectively tackle Boko Haram has to do with enemies within the government who continue to sabotage his efforts, rather than his or the military’s incapacity. The president’s 2012 declaration that the group had sympathisers within the government, while not providing names or evidence to support this claim, suggests that this is either another excuse or an example of weakness, with Jonathan failing to expose these individuals.

The president’s actions have provided fodder for his opponents’ attacks. For example, his attendance at a political rally in Kano right after the April 2014 bomb attack by Boko Haram in Nyanya, a suburb in Abuja; his visit to the site of the September 2014 collapse of the Synagogue, Church of All Nations (SCOAN) building of T. B. Joshua in Lagos where 115 were killed, while ignoring the dead in Kano, Borno and Adamawa states; his defence of the militant group Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) after the 1 October 2010 Independence Day bombing in Abuja, for which Henry Okah, a former leader of MEND, was convicted in a South African court, even before investigations had begun.

Jonathan has simply not been in the habit of being in the right place at the right time or saying the apposite thing at the key moment. The failure to restrain Boko Haram feeds into another narrative that opponents of the president like to stick on him: an inability to root out corruption. According to this view, the military’s failures against Boko Haram should be seen in the context of the lack of prosecutions for the enormous, multi-billion-dollar fuel subsidy scam, which blew up in 2011, but has reached no satisfactory conclusion.

Since 2010, when Boko Haram increased its attacks, the amount allocated to the combined security forces including the police, armed forces, office of the National Security Advisor and the Ministry of Interior, has steadily increased from N264 billion in 2010, peaking at N1.55 trillion in 2013; and totalling N2.58 trillion ($13.7 billion) during the period.

Despite this heavy spending, soldiers on the front line have complained about a lack of equipment to fight the insurgents, who can be better armed with superior firepower. The question is being asked, where is all the money going? Even with these huge allocations, the government requested approval for an additional $1 billion loan to purchase further equipment to fight the insurgents. Some argue that with the scale of funding for the security agencies, this further request by the government suggests that there was a misappropriation of security funds taking place.
All of these critiques of Jonathan point in one direction: failure to tackle Nigeria’s biggest security threat has severely damaged the president. Whatever the outcome of the February polls, the failure to combat Boko Haram will be seen as the defining feature of Goodluck Jonathan’s presidency.

Written By
Bala - Mohammed Liman

Bala Liman is studying for a PhD on Boko Haram at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He is looking at the nexus between conflict and identity in Nigeria with particular focus on the ongoing conflicts in Kaduna and Jos. You can follow Bala on twitter at @BalaLiman.

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