from Africa in Transition

Nigeria: Addressing Boko Haram’s Roots

June 02, 2014

Blog Post

More on:

Sub-Saharan Africa


Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Wars and Conflict


This is a guest post by Jim Sanders, a career, now retired, West Africa watcher for various federal agencies. The views expressed below are his personal views and do not reflect those of his former employers.

There is much to think about Boko Haram and Nigeria during the current crisis. A thought occurred to me recently, that as long as Boko Haram is viewed as an insurgency or terrorist group, the policy implications that flow from this will tend to cluster around counterterrorism operations.

However, if Boko Haram is seen as an element in a civil war that is raging in northeast Nigeria, and which threatens to spread, a different policy approach is needed. An initiative more in line with President Obama’s commencement address at West Point on May 28 would be required. He told cadets to get ready to work as a team, side-by-side with diplomats and development organizations. That kind of multipronged “offensive” makes sense in a situation such as that in Nigeria.

Boko Haram is probably well aware that they do not need to fear the current efforts against them. Their leaders and members can be killed or jailed, but as long as nothing is done to improve the deteriorating socioeconomic soil in which their roots grow, there will be replacements for their fallen members and the group itself is not likely to be eradicated.

Yet current analysis of the group usually does not address roots and soil, at least not from the perspective of ordinary people. The origins of long term grievances that sustain the movement are not explored. Where is Nigeria’s Katherine Boo, James Agee, or Oscar Lewis?

Interestingly, some treatment of ordinary lives appears in Nigerian science fiction—hardly a staple of the foreign policy community.

In her recent novel Lagoon, Nnedi Okorafor’s character Ayodele (an alien) says to Agu, a soldier, “you come from a family of yam farmers; they are the salt of the earth to you. They represent the heart of Nigeria. You joined the army to protect them. Now you understand your army is corrupt. You need a people to join.”

How many real life soldiers at the bottom of the military hierarchy feel this way? As long as analysis remains within customary channels, we will never know.