Over the past two weeks, Nigerian military forces have driven Boko Haram out of several towns in northeast Nigeria. There have also been reports of Cameroonian, Nigerien, and Chadian successes against Boko Haram. President Goodluck Jonathan made a rare visit to the northeast, and he even stopped in Baga, the site of a notorious Boko Haram massacre. All of this seems to support Jonathan’s recent statement that even if Boko Haram is not defeated by the scheduled national elections on March 28, its scope will have been much reduced and it will be possible for elections to take place.
Yet, at the same time, there has been an accelerating campaign of suicide bombings, including attacks on the towns of Jos and Biu. In the same week, the “face” of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, released a new video heaping contempt on the Nigerian, Cameroonian, Nigerien, and Chadian governments. He did not claim responsibility for any of the recent bombings. (In the past, he has been scrupulous about only claiming responsibility for actions that his organization carried out.) Meanwhile, the Nigerian authorities seem particularly focused on Shekau the man, calling for him to be captured alive so that they can confirm his identity.
The Nigerian government’s approach to Boko Haram continues to be a conventional military strategy: retake towns, even if they are little more than smoking ruins, such as Baga, and focus on Shekau, whom they seem to identify as the supreme leader of Boko Haram.
However, the recent suicide attacks, over which Shekau did not claim repsonsibility, would suggest that the bombers may not have been under his command. This could imply that there are Boko Haram operatives beyond Shekau’s control. If so, rather than a tightly led terrorist organization such as ISIS or al-Qaeda, Boko Haram may resemble more of a peasants’ revolt with little centralized leadership. If this is the case, then the current government strategy may be ineffective.
There are certainly similarities between Boko Haram and ISIS, not least because of their common Salafist, Islamic roots and rhetoric. But, it may be helpful to also look at Boko Haram’s similarities with other grass-roots, predominantly rural movements. Peasants’ revolts are generally characterized by extraordinary violence and often victim choice is incoherent. The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)and the Khmer Rouge (KR) come to mind. Though the LRA and KR had an identified leadership, peasants’ revolts often do not have supreme leaders but rather fall back on a more collective authority. Should this be true of Boko Haram, Shekau the man may not be very important and the re-conquest of territory by the Nigerian military may not have much long term significance.