from Africa in Transition

Nigeria’s Boko Haram and MEND Similar?

October 4, 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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Stratfor, the global intelligence company based in Austin, Texas, has published a thoughtful analysis that is well-worth reading, though I disagree with its fundamental premise. The starting point is a possible deal between President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration and the Delta militant leader Henry Okah, now imprisoned in South Africa (at Nigeria’s behest) for alleged terrorism. Okah has long been thought a senior leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) that carried out extensive attacks on the oil industry in the Niger Delta between 2005 and 2009. The article places MEND in the context of national politics and posits that a deal with Okah could be part of an effort to secure MEND’s cooperation in the run-up to the 2015 presidential elections, and the struggle for ruling party leadership, which, is suggested to be already underway. It directly ties MEND’s successes from 2005 to 2009 to its protection by the delta region’s governors and security officials. MEND’s activities largely stopped as the result of a national amnesty that included a massive payoff of MEND warlords and the region’s political leaders.

The article suggests that Boko Haram may be “The North’s answer to MEND.” That Boko Haram, like MEND, is protected by political insiders. The North has no oil, but Boko Haram has successful undermined public confidence in Jonathan’s ability to govern. So long as Boko Haram limits its operations to internal–not international–targets, it will survive.

Implicit in the argument is that Jonathan could end, or at least significantly decrease, Boko Haram’s activities by buying-off its leaders and according its sponsors with greater political influence.

The article portrays MEND and Boko Haram as mostly the proxy battles of elite politics. I see a much greater popular dimension to both than that understanding allows. Highly diffuse, Boko Haram includes a popular, religious millenarian dimension that makes it immune to the accepted ways Nigerian politicians “settle” their opponents; mostly by payoffs. Similarly, MEND taps into a deep sense of popular grievance in the Delta over the region’s failure to benefit from oil while at the same time it suffers from the industry’s environmental impact.

In both the North and the Delta, popular grievances are probably growing. Until they are addressed politically, continuing cycles of violence seem inevitable.

More on:

Sub-Saharan Africa

Nigeria

South Africa

Elections and Voting

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

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