from Africa in Transition , Africa Program , and Nigeria on the Brink

Understanding the Threat Posed by ISWA in Nigeria

Hadiza, an internally displaced person from Baga local government area in Borno State in Nigeria, poses with family members on July 21, 2019, in Markas, the mosque of Boko Haram leader Mohammed Yusuf in Old Maiduguri where she currently resides. Fati Abubakar/AFP/Getty Images

August 14, 2019

Hadiza, an internally displaced person from Baga local government area in Borno State in Nigeria, poses with family members on July 21, 2019, in Markas, the mosque of Boko Haram leader Mohammed Yusuf in Old Maiduguri where she currently resides. Fati Abubakar/AFP/Getty Images
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The fishing town of Baga, on the shores of Lake Chad, has been devastated by both Boko Haram and the Nigerian army. It is currently controlled by the Boko Haram faction, the Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA). The group is led by Abu Abdallah al-Barnawi, and is separate from, and presumably a rival to, Abubakar Shekau’s faction. Obi Anyadike, a reporter, interviewed eight former residents of Baga who had fled to Maiduguri. He published a report based on his experience in the New Humanitarian, a news organization that was set up by the United Nations in 1995 but is now an independent non-profit. His reporting is hardly definitive about life under ISWA, but it parallels other accounts

In 2016, following an internal rift, Boko Haram split into at least two factions. One was recognized as the Islamic State’s official branch in West Africa, and thus retained the affiliation. The other has continued to be referred to as Boko Haram, and is still led by Abubakar Shekau, the brutal leader of the group since its deadly reemergence in 2011. The fundamental difference between the two, and which ostensibly led to the split, is the treatment of civilians. ISWA tends to target the Nigerian military and others perceived as agents of the secular Nigerian government. Shekau’s faction apparently views any Muslims who do not follow him—civilian and military—as legitimate targets. 

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Anyadike’s reporting indicates that ISWA is serious about governing the people in the territory it occupies, creating a daulah, an Islamic state conducted according to Islamic law, that can rival Nigerian state government. In Baga, the daulah provides certain services, allows residents to leave upon the payment of a small tax, and does not interfere with farming. It also appears to treat women and girls better than Shekau’s faction, who forced all girls of marriageable age to marry. It digs wells, provides rudimentary health care, and imposes food price caps—all popular measures.

Such a group, Anyadike points out, does indeed pose a different, perhaps more serious, challenge to the Nigerian secular state than Shekau’s. ISWA appears to be engaged in state building, while Shekau’s faction remains a millenarian (“end times”) movement that is deeply violent. 

Anyadike raises the possibility that, some day, ISWA might evolve into a political party that supports Islamic law but participates in secular politics. Perhaps. But an ISWA commander he interviewed rejected any possible compromise with the Nigerian secular state; a former ISWA leader, Mamman Nur, was allegedly killed because of participating in back-channel talks with the Nigerian government (and misappropriating funds).

More on:

Nigeria

Islamic State

Boko Haram

Nonstate Actors and Nongovernmental Organizations

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

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