Why has Borno become a stronghold of terror in Nigeria? | Africa | DW | 15.07.2014

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Why has Borno become a stronghold of terror in Nigeria?

Boko Haram terrorists are mainly active in Nigeria's northeastern Borno state. One reason for this is the dramatic social upheaval of recent years, experts say.

The week began with more reports of killings by Islamist terror group Boko Haram. On Monday (14.07.2014) they reportedly killed dozens of people in a village in the state of Borno in northeastern Nigeria. According to figures from Human Rights Watch (HRW), more than 2,000 people have fallen victim to the wave of terror in the first six months of this year. Most of the dead - more than 1,400 - lived in Borno, the state which is considered to be the birthplace of the terror organisation. In May 2013 President Goodluck Jonathan imposed a state of emergency in Borno and two neighboring states, Yobe and Adamawa, in a bid to stem the terror. The military were given almost unlimited powers and initially they did succeed in bringing some calm to Yobe and Adamawa as well as to Borno's capital Maiduguri and several other cities..

Boko Haram's most recent targets were in more remote regions in the south and east of Borno state, on the border with Adamawa and Cameroon. Not just once but several times a week, armed men attack villages and destroy schools, churches and people's homes and massacre the inhabitants.

Inaccessible mountain region

Gerhard Müller-Kosack in the Gwoza mountains in 2005

Gerhard Müller-Kosack (right) is an expert on the Gwoza mountain region

German ethnologist Gerhard Müller-Kosack, who lives in the UK, is an expert on the mountain region between the Nigerian city of Gwoza and Mora in Cameroon. It has long been cut off from the outside world, he said. Christianity only became established there in the 1960s and Islam has noticeably become stronger in the last two decades. Many people still believe in traditional African religions. Today "there are no Christians left in the Gwoza area. Many of them are in refugee camps in Cameroon. Others have moved into other areas outside of Borno," Müller-Kosack told DW.

The Nigerian military only began actively fighting the terrorists in the Gwoza region in the last few weeks. Müller-Kosack says this is partly because of the difficult terrain, which can only be reached on foot. "People can hide behind a rock and attack you - it's a very hard place to fight an insurgency." This is still the case even though the Cameroonian military took up position on the other side of the border immediately after the anti-terror conference held in Paris in May.

Extreme poverty is one cause

The Boko Haram terrorists have not only moved in as occupiers of the Gwoza mountain region. They have been joined by young men who recently converted to Islam. There had long been a conflict between Muslims and Christians, linked to the extreme poverty in the region. "Somehow the whole Boko Haram problem has impacted on some kind of historical background in a very negative way," said Müller-Kosack. "So that even if Boko Haram does disappear one day, reconciliation between local people, the Muslim and Christian populations, will be very difficult."

A school class in the Gwoza mountains. Since the picture was taken, the teachers have fled

Such school classes in Gwoza (photographed in 2005) no longer exist. The teachers have fled the Boko Haram terror

Müller-Kosack and and other experts on the region are pessimistic about the future of its economy and ecology. They made these fears known in a recent publication by the Mega Chad research network which brings together 500 scientists worldwide who are carrying out research in and around the Lake Chad region.

As an example, Müller-Kosack points to the terraced fields in the Cameroon-Nigerian border region. "They are no longer being tended. This can have a negative effect on the water level in low lying areas, resulting in poor harvests and hunger."

Islam as a religion of tolerance

Boko Haram fighters first appeared in the mountains bordering on Cameroon in 2009 after the murder of their leader Mohammed Yusuf and hundreds of his followers, said Müller-Kosack. They came from the provincial capital Maiduguri and first hid in mountain caves. Another regional expert says social change is a major reason for the sect's growth. Norbert Cyffer is a retired professor of African studies in Vienna and an expert in the language and culture of the Kanuri, the largest ethnic group in Borno, to which Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau belongs.

"When I went to Maiduguri for the first time in 1969, the city had around 80,000 inhabitants," Cyffer said. "Today there are said to be 1,500,000." This population explosion was accompanied by social upheaval, one result being that the Kanuri are now just one of several ethnic groups. In the parts of Borno still dominated by the Kanuri, the extremists have little chance, Cyffer said. Islam has had a firm foothold for 1,000 years and there was very little support for Boko Haram. The religious and traditional ruler, the Shehu of Borno, has a reputation for tolerance. "Religion here was never a divisive factor," Cyffer told DW. In recognition of his work, Cyffer became the first non-Muslim and European to be awarded a traditional title by the Shehu in 2005.

Norbert Cyffer with two Nigerian colleagues

Norbert Cyffer and his Nigerian colleagues now meet in Vienna as the situation in Maiduguri is too dangerous

Like Gerhard Müller-Kosack, Norbert Cyffer also sees the spread of radical Islamist tendencies within population groups that have only recently become Islamized as one reason why an extreme ideology such as that of Boko Haram has been able was able to get a foothold in Borno. Youngsters who had hoped to find success in Maiduguri had been disappointed, Cyffer said. With no job and no prospects, they could only watch from the sidelines while a select few acquired prosperity.

Second hand information

Another consequence of the terror is that foreign academics now have to rely exclusively on information from local colleagues and contacts as they are no longer able to travel there themselves. "Especially when you are white and you want to do research, you stick out, you have a very high profile and nobody in their right mind would travel to the border region," Müller-Kosack said. For Nigerian academics at the university of Maiduguri, things are little better. "My colleagues there hardly dare venture out to shop at the market," Norbert Cyffer said.

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