In 2015, I was stuck behind a convoy of flatbed trucks on the Kaduna - Zaria expressway. There was a leathery, weather-beaten white man leaning on a huge artillery piece on the truck. He had a thousand-yard stare. I know that is what he had because in the most recent Rambo movie, a man who fancied he was tough and thus behaved like a jerk (meaning he would soon be dead or need rescuing), mocked Rambo's jaded lack of a facial expression with the statement "I don't care about your thousand yard stare". That was the look on the man's face. He was probably a South African mercenary from an outfit called STTEP, a private military company built by Eeben Barlow around the remnants of Executive Outcomes. STTEP had been hired by the Nigerian goverment to fight an insurgency in the country's northeast, primarily in Borno State. The insurgency was by a fundamentalist group of Muslims called Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad, which is Arabic for - People of the Sunnah (teachings and practices of the prophet and his companions), Da'awah (evangelism), and Jihad (self explanatory). The formal name for the group was eclipsed by the Hausa phrase - Boko Haram. Boko is a Hausa word that ordinarily means western education (or culture, or learning, depending on context) but apparently originally meant fake. Haram is Arabic for forbidden. So, Boko Haram means western education is forbidden. The reason for this nickname is that in the early days of the group, its adherents had burnt their degree certificates and other evidence of western education in a repudiation of the corrupt modern (western) world.
Western education is held as a means to a materially better world since without western education, one cannot get a modern job. However, this hope for a better life through western education and modernity has not been realized. Economic conditions have generally deteriorated for most people in the country. There is a belief among some muslims that the weakness and poverty of Muslims is due to insufficient fidelity to Islam. They believe that a return to pure Islam, as practiced during the time of the prophet and his companions would enable muslims to once again be powerful. Boko Haram's adherents destroying their certificates is a variant of this belief.
BH emerged due to several factors. Before the creation of Nigeria, there were 2 large, old and relatively sophisticated states in Northern Nigeria. In the northwest was the Sokoto Caliphate, founded in 1802. The caliphate was built on a foundation of Hausa states that had been Muslim since at least 1400. In the northeast was Kanem Borno, a state that was Muslim from around 1100 and had existed long before then. These 2 states have been Muslim for so long that they have virtually no culture other than Islam. While they were independent, this was not a problem. However, the creation of Nigeria as a secular republic led to tensions with the Federal Government. The basic problem is that Islam is a political religion which preaches that rule according to God's law is the best. As a theocracy, it cannot subordinate itself to secular rule. To manage this tension, the constitution allows Shari'ah in civil and personal matters at the state level, with the proviso that the secular law remains supreme given that the Federal Supreme Court is secular. Importantly, Shariah was not allowed in the criminal code. This work around was challenged in 2000 when the governor of Zamfara State in the northwest decided to introduce the criminal aspect of Shariah law into the state's legal system. Strictly speaking this was unconstitutional. However, the president at the time, Olusegun Obasanjo decided not to challenge it for political reasons. While this was astute, it was wrong. It was astute because Obasanjo is a Christian and opposing the move would be interpreted as a christian trying to stop muslims practicing their religion, this would have heightened tensions. It was wrong because it weakened the federal government. The success of Zamfara state led 11 other states to expand their legal codes as well. This led to riots and clashes in some of the states that had large christian populations.
The introduction of shariah relates to my earlier point about muslims believing that a return to purer Islam would lead to material improvement. All the governors who introduced shariah alluded to such expectations as well. Unsurprisingly, this did not happen. If the administrative apparatus of Nigeria's government had been interested in governing and improving the lives of the people, there would have been improvement regardless of what legal system was in force. However, political office is simply a means for self enrichment. So, despite the introduction of shariah, nothing changed for the people. Further, the politicians only applied shariah to the poor. A man had his hand chopped off for stealing a cow while the governor, who was charged to a secular court for stealing hundreds of millions of dollars, hired lawyers to stall his case and ultimately get it thrown out on a technicality. Morality police were created to harass prostitutes and beer parlors while governors and senators imported foreign hookers and had drug and alcohol fueled orgies. The people got poorer, the governors stole more brazenly, and preachers shrieked louder about insufficient faith and practice of Islam.
One of those shrieking preachers was Mohammed Yusuf. He had built up a following and had created a group that had stated an aim of creating (or recreating) an Islamic state on the territory of the Borno empire.
In 2002, Mohammed Yusuf allied with a governorship aspirant in Borno state. The aspirant won the election in 2003 and appointed some members of the group into government. However, there was a falling out partly because the governor had allied with the group for expediency while the group had thought the governor was the real deal. The group was disappointed in the governor's insufficient religiosity. The alliance was probably completely in ruins by 2008.
In 2009, there were multiple clashes between members of Boko Haram and security forces especially the Nigeria Police Force. These clashes often left tens of people dead. The situation worsened in July 2009 when a police station in Bauchi state was attacked by Boko Haram leading to the deaths of 50 people. The Nigerian Army then attacked Mohammed Yusuf's house in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, arrested him and handed him to the police. The police killed him a day later. This is seen as the beginning of the insurgency. Many members of the group were arrested and killed (without trial or any semblance of due process)and the authorities believed they had smashed the group. Yusuf's deputy Abubakar Shekau was reportedly among those killed. This would not be the first time news of Shekau's demise would be much exaggerated. The group dispersed from the urban areas and withdrew into the vast, ungoverned spaces of Borno state, Yobe state and neighboring Niger Republic. This was a strategic retreat, for by 2010, they had escalated their campaign against the government. They continued attacking police stations and expanded to bombing churches, mosques, markets and other gatherings. Their most spectacular achievements were the bombing in Abuja of the national police headquarters and the United Nations building in June and August 2011. They pledged allegiance to ISIL calling themselves Islamic State, West Africa Province (ISWAP).
The government's reaction to this campaign of terror was heavy handed. People were indiscriminately arrested and held incommunicado. My best friend in university and a cousin are among those that were disappeared. They were arrested, taken nobody knows where, and they have not been seen since. The military and police set up checkpoints indiscriminately that did nothing but cause horrible traffic. They moved around in convoys that one could not overtake. The security men behaved like occupiers, abusing people at whim. The northeast was heavily militarized but it seemed to no effect because BH appeared to wax stronger. It is alleged that the fall of Qaddafi in 2011 led to a flow of weapons and fighters into the Sahel, many of which fell in with BH. Their activities became more violent with two incidents being particularly horrific. In February 2014, they attacked a boys secondary school in Buni Yadi, Yobe state and killed 59 students. In April 2014, they attacked a girls secondary school in Chibok, Borno state and kidnapped 276 girls. Bad as this was, the situation was worsened by the response of the president.
The president at the time, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan (GEJ) was a christian from the oil producing Niger Delta. He had assumed the presidency in 2010 when his predecessor Umaru Yar'adua died. GEJ was the vice president. He then contested and won the election in 2011. This was apparently in violation of a tacit agreement between northern and southern politicians to rotate the presidency every 8 years. Since Yar'adua had died without completing the north's 8 years, northern politicians argued that GEJ should not have contested. While this may be valid among politicians, it is nonsense. In any case, GEJ was in office and in power. However, he felt that the north was conspiring against him. He was a weak and inept man, and his distrust of the north made him susceptible to believing conspiracy theories. It is reported that he believed the BH insurgency was being fanned by northerners to destabilize his government. Thus, when the Chibok kidnapping happened, he and his closest southern advisers initially thought it was a hoax and so action was not taken immediately. There was an international outcry. The campaign for the girls' release was branded #BringBackOurGirls. Many global figures publicly and vocally supported the campaign and I think this was what spurred the government to act. The government got offers of international assistance. The UK reportedly was able to track the girls until they were dispersed. Unfortunately, the government stupidly rejected all offers with the boast that the armed forces could rescue the girls. This was an empty boast and everyone knew it. John McCain, a US senator disparagingly said that if he were US president, he would have acted without waiting for permission from some guy called "Goodluck Jonathan." To date, many of the girls have not been rescued. Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the group made some sickening videos where he said that the girls, being non-Muslim would be sold as slaves or given as concubines to his fighters. Some of the girls were offered their freedom if they would convert to Islam. Many did but one, Leah Sharibu refused. 103 of the girls were eventually released years later in a prisoner swap. In a continuing story that has many horrible episodes, the kidnap of the Chibok girls was one of the worst. One effect of Shekau's deranged violence is that the group split. One of the factions headed by Abu Musab al Barnawi, son to the late Mohammed Yusuf attacked Shekau's group in 2021 and finally killed Shekau, achieving something the Nigerian military had failed to do.
The situation in the northeast was the most important issue in the 2014 campaign leading to the 2015 election. The person opposing GEJ was retired General Muhammadu Buhari, a man with a reputation for iron. While serving in the army in the early 1980s, he had commanded the division that guarded the northeast. He relentlessly hammered GEJ's failure to maintain the country's territorial integrity. It looked like GEJ would lose the election slated for 14 February, 2015. One week to the election, the government announced that it would be postponed for 6 weeks (until March 28) because the military needed time to secure the northeast. While this might have been true, it was widely seen as a desperate ploy to improve GEJ's chances of winning. It was at the time of this postponement that I encountered the mercenary and his cannon.
The recruitment of STTEP was a fortuitous move because those guys really degraded BH. Part of the reason was that since they were professionals, paid upfront, they came to the theater of operations with all that they needed. They were not hampered by the corruption that riddled the Nigerian military where soldiers did not even have water, not to talk of bullets and air support is a pipe dream. Further, being veterans of the apartheid SADF, they were probably the best soldiers in Africa, experienced in fighting insurgencies. Despite STTEP's impact, General Buhari bitterly criticized their recruitment and he fired them immediately he won the election. The decision was rash, but understandable. The Nigerian army had once been respected and competent. In the 1990s it had singlehandedly crushed the civil wars in Liberia & Sierra Leone. It had kept at bay Cameroon and Chad, 2 countries with which Nigeria had territorial disputes. It is a disgrace that it could not eliminate a rag tag bunch of terrorists. Unfortunately, Buhari's administration has also failed in ending the insurgency. Part of the reason is that the government is more intent on applying military solutions. However, the problem's roots are economic. Nigeria is badly governed. One piece of evidence (among many) is that heavy military equipment is moved by road because over decades, the railways were left to rot. Billions of dollars are allocated annually for healthcare, infrastucture, education and so on. Most of the money is stolen, leaving the people destitute. Unless the government starts governing, the insurgency will never end.
The Boko Haram insurgency is 12 years old now. It does not look like it will end soon. I do not think the group can achieve its aim of overthrowing the Nigerian government or even setting up a functional state. I also think if our government made a determined multipronged (military, social, economic) attack, it could eliminate the group.