from Africa in Transition

The Guardian on Boko Haram

January 30, 2012

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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Distinguished London newspaper, the Guardian, published on January 27, an interview with alleged Boko Haram spokesman Abu Qaqa, conducted by Guardian Nigeria correspondent Monica Mark. In conjunction, the paper also included a careful analysis by Jason Burke that concludes the Boko Haram remains "a local phenomenon, not a global threat," and an editorial that calls on President Goodluck Jonathan to address Nigeria’s religious divide and corruption, provide protection for all, and to redistribute state resources to accomplish those goals.

Qaqa lays out a radical Boko Haram agenda: Sharia (Islamic law), apparently for the entire country. While the rights of Christians would be "protected," he envisages Nigeria as a Muslim state. Traditionally, Sharia does not apply to non-Muslims. Qaqa implies in violent terms that in Nigeria it would. "Even if you are a Muslim and you don’t abide by sharia, we will kill you." He also claimed links with al-Qaeda forged in Saudi Arabia and that Boko Haram draws recruits from Sahelian states adjacent to Nigeria.

While not denying the possibility, Burke seems skeptical of Qaqa’s claims of significant Boko Haram links. He notes that claims of an al-Qaeda connection can boost Boko Haram’s credibility, and for the Nigerian establishment it deflects attention from their own corruption -- as well as the possibility of significant financial assistance from the West from which they could profit. He does observe that Qaqa’s pro-al-Qaeda rhetoric is testimony to the enduring strength of the brand name.

Also on January 27, Abubakar Shekau, who claims to be the religious leader of Boko Haram now in exile in Cameroon, on YouTube, threatened to bomb schools and kidnap elite family members. He also rejected outright President Jonathan’s call for dialogue. This mirrors what Qaqa also told Monica Mark: "We will consider negotiation only when we have brought the government to their knees."

What to make of this? In a movement as diffuse as Boko Haram, it is not clear for whom Qaqa is speaking. Shekau’s role and authority are also open to question. My supposition is that both are probably among the disciples of the murdered, charismatic Boko Haram leader Muhammed Yusuf. Qaqa’s remarks about the role of Christians in a Muslim Nigeria recall the Ottoman Empire in its obscurantist phases. Absent additional evidence, I share Burke’s seeming skepticism of significant links between Boko Haram and al-Qaeda.

Finally, the Guardian’s editorial recommendations while credible would require a wholesale reformation of the Nigerian political economy from which the elites who control the state directly benefit. A tall order for any government, especially in Nigeria, with its winner-take-all political culture and regional zero-sum power struggle: more resources for the impoverished North means less for the Delta, President Jonathan’s home constituency.

Nevertheless, the situation in northern Nigeria is fluid and Boko Haram may be evolving. The fact that Qaqa met with a Western journalist for the first time may indicate that some part of the movement is developing a media strategy. So, too, may be Shekau’s use of Youtube. Shekau’s new visibility may also indicate that he is seeking to impose his authority over what has been a highly decentralized movement. If successful, Boko Haram may start to evolve from a movement into an organization.

Finally, the fact that a leading, quality UK newspaper devoted so much attention to Boko Haram indicates that an international audience is starting to take Boko Haram seriously as well as the deep challenges that Nigeria -- "the giant of Africa" -- faces.

More on:

Sub-Saharan Africa

Nigeria

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Wars and Conflict

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