Africa and China / Economics / Religion / West Africa

Questions and Answers on Boko Haram

Introductory note: The following is an email interview I gave a reporter with the Pengpai News Agency and the Shanghai Morning Post, in Shanghai China, on the subject of Boko Haram. The interview and stories derived from it will be published in the Chinese language Pengpai. The questions are in bold typeface and my responses are in regular text.


Why [did] the Boko Haram rise in the northeast Nigeria not southeast Nigeria? Is it because Nigerians who live in northeast Nigeria are mainly Muslims and southeast Nigerian are Christians? 

 The Northeast is the poorest region of Nigeria. This poverty is both a cause and the effect of a failure to provide and embrace Western education. The Northeast, along with the Northwest, has historically had very low levels of exposure to Western education. As a result, the region harbors a disproportionately large number of uneducated, poorly educated, and thus unemployable youths who are vulnerable to indoctrination by Boko Haram. Lacking the educational credentials to enter into Nigeria’s secular economy, many young men were seduced by the Utopian promises of extremist, militant Islam. Although there is poverty and unemployment in Southern Nigeria, there are no extremist religious groups there that seek to capitalize on these problems to grow their ranks and raise a religious army for violent jihad.


[How] does the northeast Nigerian view the Boko Haram, why do many young Nigerian[s] join in the Boko Haram, is it because they can’t find jobs or any other reasons?

 In the early days of Boko Haram — 2002-2008 — the group enjoyed some support among the population of the Northeast. Although the group preached the virtues of jihad and the necessity for an Islamic state governed by Sharia, it had not yet transformed into a violent jihadist insurgency. Moreover, it criticized some of Nigeria’s familiar problems such as poverty, corruption, and crime. These were popular messages that endeared the group to some people in the northeast — even people who did not intend to join Boko Haram and regarded the group as too extreme. This support was never expressed by a majority of the population. And when the group became violent and started attacking churches, mosques, schools, and government institutions and personnel in 2009, whatever sympathies existed for it among the people gradually faded. The group’s atrocities, especially those perpetrated against fellow Muslims, turned the Muslim-majority population of the Northeast decidedly against it. As for why young people in the Northeast join Boko Haram, there are two main reasons. The first is that there are many youths who possess little or no secular education for various historical and contemporary reasons. These youths cannot find employment in Nigeria’s secular economy where credentialed secular education is required for entry. Boko Haram preys on this group of young men by promising them a stipend, power, spiritual relevance, and, should they be killed in jihad, martyrdom and divine rewards in the afterlife. Many unemployed young Muslim men find this proposition difficult to resist, given their marginal economic and social status in society. The second reason young men in the Northeast have joined Boko Haram is that when the group attacks a community it forces surviving young men to join its ranks. It gives them a choice between joining Boko Haram or being killed. Most young men choose membership of Boko Haram over death.


The Boko Haram means “Western education is forbidden”. Obviously, it’s a[n] extreme religious group that aims to wipe out the western values. But besides this, does Boko Haram have other political purposes? For example, overthrow the Nigerian government and build an Islamic state around whole Nigeria?

 Boko Haram sees Western education as a microcosm of many other things that it considers un-Islamic, such as a secular government, democracy, music and revelry, Western dress, sports, science, modernity, and Western ideas. In Boko Haram’s Islamic ideology, these practices are responsible for all of Nigeria’s socioeconomic and political problems and have their root in Western education. Boko Haram offers a moral and religious explanation for complex societal problems. The solution to these problems, Boko Haram argues, is to go back to the way Islam was purportedly practiced in 7th century Arabia, to go back to what it considers pure Islam. That means establishing an Islamic state governed by the tenets of Sharia. That means replacing the current secular educational, judicial, and governmental systems with Islamic ones. That means the overthrow of the current government in the Northeast and the establishment of a caliphate in its place in that region, if not in the whole of Nigeria.


As we all know, Nigeria is Africa’s leading crude oil producer and Africa’s largest economy, but how to distribute the oil wealth? the Muslim-majority north and the Christian-majority south, do  they share equal benefits or the regional inequality is becoming large[r] and large[r]?

Oil revenues are distributed according to population and the number of local governments. By official statistics, the north has a bigger population and a larger number of local governments than the South and so it gets a bigger share of oil revenues, although the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, where the oil comes from, gets an additional allocation of 13 percent to compensate its people for the environmental degradation caused by oil production, and to assist with the development of infrastructure.


The presidential election will be held on Feb.14 and the Boko Haram launched several suicide bomb incidents in many places, why do the Boko Haram do this? What’s the purpose they want to get? As the presidential election coming soon, would they do more suicide bomb incidents?

Boko Haram’s suicide bombings are designed to achieve multiple purposes. One is to attract attention and grab media headlines —which is something that most terrorist groups crave. The second reason is to weaken the Nigerian state. The third reason is to turn the people against the state so as to deny it the popular support it needs to make a headway against the insurgency. The fourth reason is to spread fear and project an image of a group that is everywhere and can launch attacks in different parts of the country. The last reason is to divide the population along Christian-Muslim lines and instigate hatred and maybe even war between Nigerians of different faiths, a development that it can then take advantage of to realize its dream of a Sharia-governed Islamic state in the Northeast. Boko Haram does not recognize the authority of the government, and rejects elections and democracy as un-Islamic, so it could in fact seek to derail elections in the Northeast through suicide bombings and other kinds of attacks. Boko Haram’s goal in the Northeast, especially in the areas where it operates, is to intimidate people away from participating in the elections.

The Nigerian president Jonathan, he vowed to fight with Boko Haram, but it seems [it] didn’t work, why [can’t] the military cope with the Boko Haram? Is it because [of] the military’s corruption and poor government institutions? 

The military is deficient in morale. One reason for this is poor pay and incentives. Another reason is poor equipment. Both problems are caused by corruption in the military’s top echelon. The issue of poor equipment is beginning to improve as the government has ordered and taken delivery of new military hardware in recent months. The problem of morale remains. One underlying issue here is that the majority of those joining the army in recent years have been doing so only because they couldn’t find jobs in other sectors, not because they really wanted to become soldiers or that they love soldiering. This reality sometimes manifests in the will of soldiers to fight, in sagging morale. The other issue is that, starting in 1999, successive governments have given a lot of money to the armed forces but have not monitored how this money has been spent. The idea was to give financial and operational autonomy to the armed forces so that they would not be tempted to overthrow the government. While the policy has kept the army in their barracks and away from the political arena, it has produced massive corruption among the generals, with monies meant for the kitting of troops embezzled at various levels and contracts for equipment grossly inflated. Even more serious, monies meant for the welfare of troops have been creamed off, leaving soldiers lacking basic battle kits and equipment. This has led to a lack of professionalism in the armed forces. In peacetime, this problem was not evident, but as the army faces a well-motivated, well-equipped group of extremist insurgents, the results of the de-professionalization of the armed forces are manifesting themselves. Finally, there is the problem of the absence of an effective anti-insurgency strategy. The most visible evidence of this is that troops have been sitting back in particular towns and patrol corridors seeking merely to repel attacks by Boko Haram fighters or to contain their activities. There has been no offensive strategy to take the fight to Boko Haram camps, command and control infrastructures and hideouts. This tactic of defending towns and villages against Boko Haram attacks rather than attacking the group in their Sambisa Forest and other rural strongholds has emboldened the terrorists, giving them both time and space to operate freely and to choose when and where to attack. The ongoing joint military campaign seems to signal a departure from this strategy but only time will tell if it will defeat the insurgency.

Niger Cameroon Chad and Nigeria will build coalition to fight with the Boko Haram, in your eyes, will it succeed? Some scholars, they’ve claimed that mistrust will erode the cooperation, how do you see it?

 As we see from the events of the last few days, the distrust that prevented military and operational cooperation between these neighboring countries is finally giving way to a sober realization that it will take a determined regional military effort to eliminate the threat posed by Boko Haram. Now that Nigeria, Cameroon, and Chad are finally cooperating and sharing operational information and plans, the challenge is to sustain the current momentum and maintain the offensive. Some mistrust remains and has to be worked out, but my opinion is that success is a good cure for mistrust. If the current joint military operations continue to succeed, the mistrust and suspicion will melt away, paving the way for even more success in the joint military effort.

Moses E. Ochonu is Associate Professor of African History at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, USA. He is the author of three books. The most recent is Africa in Fragments: Essays on Nigeria, Africa, and Global Africanity (New York: Diasporic Africa Press, 2014).

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