Dr Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos
Associate Fellow, Africa Programme

Opportunities to address the Boko Haram crisis have been missed, so the situation has become more entrenched, resulting in a seeming reduction in the policy options available to respond. But there are steps that can be taken, primarily by Nigerian state and non-state actors, but also by Nigeria’s neighbours and international partners.

Photo: ReutersPhoto: Reuters

Boko Haram has been evolving in northeastern Nigeria for over a decade. An extremely violent Islamist movement, it has in 2014 entered a new transitional phase. The inability of Nigeria’s armed forces to obstruct its onslaught, combined with a higher international profile, have lent it a confidence and ambition that appear to have prompted increasingly strategic behaviour, alongside its ongoing indiscriminate and widespread attacks against civilian and state targets.

The movement grew out of socio-economic flux that came with a process of democratic transition, coupled with the consequences of decades of mismanagement resulting from military rule and corruption. In a sense, Boko Haram too has been in a constant state of flux: it has always adapted to changing circumstances, with its methods and membership reflecting this. This has allowed for multiple descriptions of the group to endure, bridging different narratives of terrorism, insurgency and criminality, where different drivers of conflict and instability have converged.

Unique in Nigeria for its combination of sectarianism and terrorist tactics, Boko Haram is skilled at exploiting state institutional weaknesses. Its familiarity with the terrain in Borno state, its home territory, enables it to navigate around a demoralized and deficient security presence to carry out attacks with impunity.

Boko Haram was not a violent movement at its inception, nor at the point of its transition to a terrorist network in 2009–10 was it a movement of such size and organization as to be a national threat. But responses to Boko Haram have suffered owing to the dearth of credible information and the triumph of vested interests in this opaque context. The uncertainties continue, and it is an amalgamation of the lack of facts, competing political interests, multiplying local grievances and under-resourced yet enmeshed armed forces in the northeast of Nigeria that has provided Boko Haram with the space, motivation and opportunity to grow and further entrench itself in its northeastern stronghold.

The movement’s ability to use this situation to present itself as a significant threat of substantial capacity, together with the public messaging by its leader, Abubakar Shekau, and the criss-crossing of borders by its members, have led to speculation over the nature of its international links. But while a more internationalized and networked Boko Haram may evolve, viewing the problem through an international prism risks inappropriate policy responses. Boko Haram is strongly rooted in its domestic context and grew out of confrontation with the Nigerian state: it is host to a multiplicity of domestic actors and interests and operates in a complex political environment. Any external actors seeking a more active engagement in the crisis, for whatever reason, risk becoming entangled in what is ultimately a Nigerian crisis.

The actions of Nigeria’s security forces have been a significant determinant in the trajectory of the crisis. Since the military repression of the Boko Haram uprising in July 2009, continued massacres, extra-judicial killings and arrests without trial have widened the gap between communities and the armed forces. The purpose of the presence of the armed forces in the northeast needs to change: the only sustainable way to combat Boko Haram is to protect civilians. Without a reordering of priorities and visible efforts to regain the trust of communities, Nigeria’s military will be caught fighting an interminable insurgency.

For those seeking to impede Boko Haram’s violent advance, Nigeria’s coming general elections in 2015 are an important consideration. It will become more difficult to distinguish between ideologically or grievance-driven Boko Haram attacks, politically manipulated attacks and violent political militias that may or may not claim to be affiliates of the movement. Although the April 2014 kidnapping of more than 200 children, still missing, focused new and significant international attention on Nigeria and Boko Haram and triggered offers of assistance by Nigeria’s international partners, it is in their capacity to support dialogue, witness protection and the provision of humanitarian relief and shelter for displaced civilians, as well as providing institutional support for inter-agency cooperation, that these partners can be most helpful.

The Boko Haram threat to Nigeria overall has been more oblique than a direct physical threat. The movement has been continually eroding a still nascent sense of cohesion and will to accommodate and compromise in such a diverse nation. This has served to legitimize reactive and short-term policy responses to one of the most complex, unique and poorly understood security crises Nigeria has ever faced.