London Review of Books
What Do Boko Haram Want?
Adewale Maja-Pearce 15 January 2015
There is much talk here in Nigeria of the world’s muted response to the latest outrage by the Boko Haram Islamic insurgents who sacked the entire town of Baga in the beleaguered north-east while any number of heads of state gathered in Paris to mourn the deaths of 17 French citizens. Double standards? Perhaps. But if so, what should we say about the silence of President Goodluck Jonathan in the face of the wholesale slaughter of his citizens – 2000 according to initial reports; 150 according to the government – even as his French counterpart was to be seen everywhere exhorting his people to stand firm? Nine months ago, when Boko Haram abducted more than 200 schoolgirls, it took the president nearly three weeks to acknowledge that anything had happened.
Nobody knows what Boko Haram want and perhaps they don’t know themselves. We only know what they don’t want, most famously ‘Western’ education. When they first upped the ante in late 2010, eight years after they announced themselves, they targeted churches, police stations and army barracks, along with the UN building in Abuja. This made sense of sorts but in 2013 they started killing Muslims in the north. Since they began their ‘armed struggle’, Boko Haram have killed around 5000 people and displaced 300,000, but these figures are guesswork; nobody really knows. Last week they killed 19 people in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, where the surviving Baga residents had fled, using a bomb strapped to a 10-year-old girl which they detonated by remote control.
As I wrote last year, there are many who believe that Boko Haram is the armed wing of the northern Muslim political establishment, smarting from the accidental ascendancy of Jonathan, a Christian from the oil-producing Niger Delta in the south. Last June, the Northern Elders Forum issued a communiqué which begins by asserting that the north laments the ‘dangerous trend’ by the Jonathan administration ‘aimed at weakening the determination of the North to reclaim its traditional position of providing leadership for the Nigerian polity’. After taking a swipe at the traitors among them who have fallen for Jonathan’s divide and rule tactics, it reiterates the long-held belief that the North has a divine right to rule (‘it is the almighty that has destined it so’) as the only way to keep the country ‘stable and secure’.
Nigeria is now unstable and insecure and Jonathan’s authority has suffered badly as a result, although in this as in so much else he didn’t need much help. After corruption, insecurity is voters’ main concern as we approach next month’s elections. Defeating Jonathan at the polls ought to be easy enough, except that his only challenger, Muhammadu Buhari, is – or was – a Boko Haram sympathizer. He is also a retired general and former military head of state. In May 2013, he compared Boko Haram with Niger Delta militants in the 1990s:
When the Niger Delta militants started their activities in the South-South, they were invited by the late President Umaru Yar’Adua. An aircraft was sent to them and their leaders met with the late President in Aso Rock and discussed issues. They were given money and a training scheme was introduced for their members. But when the Boko Haram emerged in the North, members of the sect were killed.
Buhari has more recently been distancing himself from ‘these barbaric purveyors of terror’, but comparing the militants with Boko Haram was grotesque. For one thing, the Niger delta militants never killed anyone but soldiers. (As with Boko Haram now, troops often ran away when they weren’t colluding with the enemy. It’s hard to blame them. The rank and file complain ceaselessly that they are ill-equipped to fight against better armed insurgents because their generals loot the over-bloated security budget.) For another, they were fighting a clear injustice, which culminated in the 1995 judicial murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his fellow Ogoni activists at the hands of General Sani Abacha (who the previous year had appointed Buhari chairman of the Petroleum Trust Fund). As president ten years earlier, Buhari had passed a retroactive decree – also in defiance of world opinion – that led to the execution of three men. And yet the Niger Delta militants have come out publicly to endorse him against Jonathan. There could hardly be a more damming assessment of the incumbent.