Ten years ago, the radical Boko Haram sect became a terror organisation and embarked on a trail of murder and mayhem that continues today. The Nigerian government has learnt little from past mistakes, says Thomas Mösch.
In July 2009, northeastern Nigeria experienced what appeared to be an uprising that could be put down with tried and trusted methods. The government under president Umaru Yar'adua, a Muslim, sent in security forces; the resulting clashes left several hundred Boko Haram followers dead, including the founder, Muhammad Yusuf. A video shows him in police custody shortly before he died. Later, the security forces said he had been shot "while trying to escape." Hardly anyone believed that explanation.
At first, that seemed to be the end of the Boko Haram problem. It was a strategy that had been successful more than once in the north of the country. But not this time. Just two years later, Boko Haram was strong enough to challenge the Nigerian state with major attacks in the capital Abuja. By the end of 2014, the group had brought large parts of the northeast under its control and proclaimed a caliphate. Nigeria, or at least the north, was to become a radical Islamic state which would renounce all forms of western influences. Boko Haram (which means "Western education is a sin") had already been the battle cry of Muhammad Yusuf when the group was just a minor sect in a remote area in the north.
How could things go so far?
Firstly, Muhammad Yusuf was clearly not the only charismatic member of the group. With Abubakar Shekau, the group acquired an even more radical successor and emerged stronger than before. When President Yar'adua died in 2010, he was succeeded by his deputy Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the south. Many influential figures in the Muslim north were not happy with this at all. A rebel group that would make the president's life difficult suited them perfectly. There were increasing indications that Boko Haram received support from influential circles within Nigeria. The group already had a lot of admirers among the population of the north, who sympathized with its opposition to corruption and self-aggrandizement. The terrorists only started to lose this support when they began to kill ordinary people at markets, in churches, mosques and schools instead of attacking the hated state organs.
International developments also played into the hands of the terrorists. Today, radical Islamist groups and opinion makers have excellent links, thanks to the internet. In places where they control entire regions, as in Somalia, parts of the Near East or Libya after the fall of Ghadafi, they were able to train fighters and leaders of other groups. The fall of Ghadafi in 2011 also set free large numbers of modern weapons.
At first, the ruling clique around President Jonathan in Abuja did not take the threat seriously; the region in the north bordering Lake Chad appeared too remote and unimportant. When Muslim candidate Muhammadu Buhari defeated the incumbent President Jonathan at the polls in 2015, hope was born. Also in the mainly Christian south, many people were confident that General Buhari could end the terror. And indeed the army did make some progress, not least because it cooperated with neighboring Niger, Cameroon and Chad, which were also suffering.
But the anti-terror campaign soon began to falter – even though Boko Haram split into a wing around Shekau and another, which swore allegiance to the so-called Islamic State (IS). Buhari was unable to reform the Nigerian military to an extent that its equipment, pay and motivation could stand up to the Boko Haram insurgents. In addition, the army had to deal with numerous outbreaks of violence in other parts of the country. It was a sheer impossible task for the 130,000 soldiers in a country of 200 million. The cooperation with neighbors has also weakened. Above all, Chad needs its experienced army on its own territory.
Meanwhile the Islamists' networks are steadily becoming more efficient. With Mali and Burkina Faso, there are now areas of retreat in additional parts of the Sahel zone. International support is more important than ever. But it should not be limited to the military aspect alone. Nigeria's leadership shows its greatest weaknesses in its ideological and economic fight against terror. The harsh reaction to protests by the Shiite minority shows that the Abuja regime has learnt little from the early years of the Boko Haram insurgency. In the northeast there is still little support for initiatives designed to boost reconstruction and reconciliation. This is where the international community must continue to exert pressure and offer help, as the terror around Lake Chad still threatens to destabilize the entire region.