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Who's behind Boko Haram?

Katrin Matthaei / guSeptember 2, 2014

Why is the Nigerian army not succeeding in defeating Boko Haram? Conspiracy theories see links to politicians and the military. And when the assistance promised by the West will materialize is an open question.

A destroyed car and pile of rubble left from a bomb attack. Photo: STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images
Image: Getty Images/AFP

"We've been flooded here in Mora by Cameroonians and Nigerians fleeing Boko Haram," a Cameroonian police officer told AFP. "Refugees are everywhere: in schools, under trees and in the markets."

In towns like Mora, thousands of people from the border areas between Nigeria and Cameroon are seeking refuge from the brutal onslaught of the Islamist sect. Utterly terrified people are fleeing to Niger and Chad as well. According to UN figures from early August, about 700,000 people from the affected Nigerian states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa have been driven from their homes.

Links between the army and Boko Haram?

In view of Boko Haram's territorial gains and the fact that some 220 schoolgirls kidnapped from Chibok in April are still being held by the militants, many Nigerians doubt whether their well-equipped army is truly willing and able to stop the militants from terrorizing the North. People are beginning to wonder about the relationship between the army and the terrorist group. The militants obviously have modern military equipment at their disposal. They are expanding their reach despite the state of emergency that was imposed on the three affected states over a year ago, which gave a great deal of control to the military. Money is not likely to be a problem. The Nigerian security apparatus has a generous defense budget at its disposal.

Nigeria's president Goodluck Jonathan and French president Francois Hollande give a press conference. Photo: ALAIN JOCARD/AFP/Getty Images
There is no sign of the military assistance the US, Britain and France pledged months agoImage: Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images

Conspiracy theories abound, and politicians are hurling accusations at each other. The most recent ones were triggered by the Australian Stephen Davis. The former Shell oil company employee and former advisor to previous Nigerian presidents had offered to mediate in an attempt to secure the release of the schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram.

Pointing fingers

In a television interview Davis made some very serious allegations. Boko Haram's sponsors, first and foremost the former governor of Borno, should be arrested, he said. "Former Governor Sheriff has been funding this for years … That guy is really a bad guy and he is known to be corrupt, and why the EFCC [Economic and Financial Crimes Commission] has not picked him up is anybody's guess," the Australian added. Davis said his allegations were based on what senior Boko Haram commanders had told him.

In an interview with DW, Modu Sheriff denied all of the allegations. "I think it is absolutely baseless, unfounded and totally false," the politician said. "Could it be that an Australian – not even a security agency – will say that he has evidence not even our own security agencies [have]?" Sheriff arrives at the conclusion that the state is behind this.

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau, dressed for battle, is speaking to the camera. Photo: AP Photo
Modu Sheriff, the former governor of Borno, denies allegations that he was funding Boko Haram militantsImage: picture alliance/AP Photo

The Nigeria expert and journalist Heinrich Bergstresser thinks the Australian's accusations are absurd. Although Sheriff had assisted in the creation of Boko Haram before the Islamists turned into a terrorist organization, he explained, Sheriff had used state security forces to rid himself of Boko Haram supporters when he no longer needed the group. That he of all people was now financing Boko Haram was a positively adventurous claim, Bergstresser told DW.

Bergstresser thinks a diversionary tactic is behind the Australian's interview. "Davis wants to exonerate the government, which had not been willing to deal with the subject of Boko Haram seriously," he said. According to Bergstresser, nobody in the government or in the upper echelons of the security apparatus is currently interested in successfully ending the battle against the militant group. The war against terror is very lucrative for many of those involved, he added.

Whatever happened to the military assistance?

The Australian Stephen Davis does, however, bring up a question which many Nigerians are currently also asking themselves: Where is the military assistance promised by the industrialized nations? The United States, Britain and France had pledged support at international meetings in Paris and London. The pledges included military cooperation in surveillance matters and the exchange of information. Military advisors and experts in combating terrorism were to be sent to Nigeria.

Nigerian amphibious army advance towards the enemy during a joint military exercise. Photo: PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images
Nigeria expert Heinrich Bergstresser says the war against terror is very lucrative for many of those involvedImage: AFP/Getty Images

In an interview with DW, the Nigerian security analyst Bawa Abdullahi Wase said that so far there was not a sign of the promised foreign assistance. He sees a direct connection between the announcement of international military assistance and the upsurge in Boko Haram violence. His theory is that foreign interests wanted to divert international attention to the North in order to gain better access to the oil in the Niger Delta.

Perhaps this is another conspiracy theory with which people in Nigeria are desperately trying to find answers to the question of how a locally active militant sect was able to turn itself into such a militarily effective group.