Nigeria, Boko Haram and Pervasive Distrust

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At around 01.30 am in the wee hours of Tuesday 13th March, while checking local Nigerian and global news as I usually do before heading to bed, I came across an article on the British daily’s website The Independent, titled “On the Trail of Boko Haram” by Andrew Stroehlein, the Communications Director of the International Crisis Group. Thinking it was one of those typically reductionist articles written by one of those foreign “experts” or “keen observers” of Nigeria, I initially dismissed it. However, my curiosity got the better of me, so I decided to skim through thinking that if I found it to repeat the same trite assertion of an impending apocalyptic implosion of a “Muslim-North and Christian-South” I would silently curse the author and go to bed.

As I read the article though, I had the exact opposite reaction, I felt it was brilliant and captured the situation in Nigeria accurately, objectively and succinctly. I had wanted to share it immediately on Facebook, Twitter and on several Nigerian online discussion boards, but my eyes were heavy, so I put it off for when I woke up in the morning. Not surprisingly, by the time I woke up, the article had gone viral, at least in Nigeria. Amidst glowing commendations, one interesting description of the article was thus: “one of the most accurate summary of the Boko Haram group in Nigeria, sadly by a foreigner”. What then is so spectacular about this piece when so much has already been written and said about Boko Haram and insecurity in Nigeria?

The insecurity in Nigeria especially with the orgy of violence unleashed by the group Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad popularly known as Boko Haram, or what I prefer to call the Boko Haram plague has been escalating as the group’s tactics have similarly evolved. Local and international media agencies have been falling over themselves to report (accurately and inaccurately) the group’s deadliest and bloodiest attacks. Journalists, columnists, pundits, analysts, experts, and bloggers all claiming some knowledge and expertise over the group’s activities, it can be argued, have covered all possible angles of the Boko Haram insurgency. However, what Andrew Stroehlein seems to have done differently is to go straight to the heart of the issue without looking at any angle per se. He focuses on the cold hard facts and that is why his sounds like the gospel truth to many. The four salient points which I believe the author strongly makes are:

First of all, he desists from treading the simplistic path taken by many foreign “analysts” and “experts” of depicting Nigeria as hopelessly polarized along a “predominantly Muslim North and Christian South” fault line, subtly implying the two parts are irreconcilable and probably better off apart than together. Consequently, Stroehlein does not succumb to the tendency to portray Boko Haram as a manifestation of a disgruntled and increasingly alienated “Muslim-North” unhappy with and trying to undermine the Federal government largely under the control of the “Christian-South”. He says: “Like other political and armed movements that have sprung up in this country, including the recent fuel subsidy protests that brought the country to a standstill, Boko Haram is just a symptom of the crumbling Nigerian state.” He does admit that: “…the vast majority of Nigerians do not turn to armed militancy, of the Islamist variety or any other…

By so doing, Stroehlein depicts Boko Haram rightly, as a bye product of state failure, bad governance and especially rampant corruption which he argues needs to be addressed by pouring “the oil wealth into government services rather than officials’ overseas bank accounts”. This is one point many analysts have alluded to, but perhaps because of the high level of tension and paranoia in the Nigerian public sphere, those who have made this argument have been rashly labelled as Boko Haram supporters or “sympathisers”. This fierce rejection of alternative narratives reminds me of journalist Richard Hall’s op-ed on the UK riots last year, where he makes a clear distinction between attempting to understand something and condoning it. In particular, Hall says:

“The impression appears to be that the crimes committed were so great and so senseless that to try and understand them is to condone them… Any discussion about the potential causes of the riots become indistinguishable from excusing those who carried them out, and those who attempt to analyse become apologists.”

In Nigeria, sadly this seems to be the case.

Secondly, the author points out that Boko Haram should be dealt with as criminals and also harps on an urgent need for reform of the Police, the intelligence agencies and strengthening the Judiciary’s independence to deal with such criminal challenges. Even though, Stroehlein links Boko Haram to the wider problems of poverty, corruption, bad governance and predatory management of state funds, he avoids the pitfall many foreign analysts fall into of advocating for an “appeasement” of the “marginalized” Northern-Muslim establishment (purportedly the sponsors of Boko Haram) who lost out in the current political dispensation as a way of mitigating and addressing the Boko Haram plague.

Alleged Christian Bombers in Bauchi. Photo Courtesy Daily Times Nigeria

Thirdly, the author corroborates what many have said before, especially those with first-hand knowledge of the North, that there are splinter groups of Boko Haram and that “Boko Haram” is now a cover for criminal activity across a wide spectrum. Stroehlein notes: “anything that turns violent can be blamed on the Islamist movement, whether it has a link to it or not. It is a perfect alibi, one that prevents further questioning. Bank robbery? Boko Haram. Attack on political opponents? Boko Haram.”  This became more evident in the recent high-profile abduction and murder of the British and Italian hostages, the group’s denial of its culpability given that it wastes no time in bragging about its violent attacks and the emergence of a new player, Al Qaeda in the land beyond the Sahel (AQIM) claiming responsibility for the abduction and murder. The argument about the existence of Boko Haram copycats is also given more credence especially when one considers that many of those caught-in-the-act whilst trying to burn churches in Bauchi in August 2011 and again in February 2012 and Bayelsa for instance are aggrieved church members or those who do not fit the typical Boko Haram profile.

Fourthly, Stroehlein makes a damning indictment of the media — both local and international — as concerned with being very sensationalist by misinformation and spreading fear and paranoia in covering the insurgency in Nigeria, typically spreading the now trite narrative that Boko Haram is a manifestation of the promise made by prominent “disgruntled Northern politicians who have vowed to make the country ungovernable for Goodluck Jonathan”. Stroehlein says: “the hype in much of the Nigerian media also contributes to the problem, as many media outlets chasing sales seem all too willing to fall for unsubstantiated rumour and outright lies proffered by political trouble-makers — or by nobody at all”. Of international media, he asserts their reports have: “also been more scare-mongering than substance, presenting this as a new terrorist threat to the West, when it is fundamentally a Nigerian issue.”

From these thrusts of Andrew Stroehlein’s piece and the reactions the article has elicited, it can be inferred that there is a deep-seated lack of trust in Nigeria between ordinary Nigerians of each other and of the government, fanned, aggravated and enabled by the local media feeding fat on public paranoia. The mutual distrust is symptomatic of the deep cleavages in Nigeria which have extended to the public sphere such that any attempt by traditional or religious leaders especially from the North where Boko Haram is most active to explain the context of group’s activity is misconstrued by a militant and sectional press, members of the public and even some politicians as trying to rationalise, sympathise or justify Boko Haram’s activities. Those who been persistently calling for dialogue with the group have been labelled Boko Haram “apologists“, even though the Federal Government has recently began talks with the group ostensibly out of realization that the purely militarized approach has done little if anything to contain the insurgency. Conversely, the general perception in the North, is that Boko Haram’s activities are a deliberate and calculated attempt at sabotage and destruction of the economy and social cohesion of the region from elsewhere.

The danger here is that this distrust is increasingly preventing sincere, meaningful, fruitful national discourse in the Nigerian public sphere on Boko Haram and insecurity in Nigeria. Consequently, analysts like Stroehlein who sum the facts we are all aware of and state the obvious are seen to have said something spectacular (and it is in many respects) precisely because in our national subconscious Stroehlein falls outside the categories and labels we are increasingly allowing ourselves to be boxed into — “Christian”, “Muslim”, “Northerner”, “Southerner” “Core North”, “Middle Belt”, “Minority” etc — he is regarded as a neutral party more capable of stating the unbiased facts apparent to everyone better than Nigerians themselves.

Effectively tackling Boko Haram requires a strategic, concerted, collective and coordinated action by all and sundry: not just the government and security agencies, but traditional and religious leaders, the media and members of the public. This would entail an adept combination of the military approach, dialogue and any other effective tactic as is required and is deemed fit. Unless Nigerians come to the realization that everyone is a stakeholder when it comes to Boko Haram and appreciate the need to engage in meaningful discourse on what Boko Haram stands for, the threats it poses to national security and social cohesion and ways of halting the orgy of violence, Boko Haram will continue “winning” against Nigerians.

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24 thoughts on “Nigeria, Boko Haram and Pervasive Distrust

    Joachim MacEbong said:
    March 20, 2012 at 12:14

    Good article as usual Zainab. There is a clear attempt by some to take advantage of the violence and label Northern politicians as the enemy, essentially playing politics with death. This must not be allowed to happen. We must stamp it out wherever we hear or see it.

    Sani Umar said:
    March 20, 2012 at 14:32

    Another masterpiece Zainab, Well done and keep it up. As we continue our decent into voicelessness in the north, suffering in silence due to the ineptitude and gutlessness of our governors and political elite, yours is always as refreshing and encouraging. keep it up sister, Allah Yayi albarka

    el-Bashyr said:
    March 20, 2012 at 17:15

    I have said this many a time that our true enemy as a nation are those politicians ruling over since 1999, its a do or die thing just like one of them rightly told us in 2003,

    Suleiman said:
    March 20, 2012 at 18:27

    Another superb article frm znb.this is the exact situation. i tnk the major culprits are the media organizations in nig, they hve done more harm than good to the problem. they re prog a cause and hve sme goals to achve. I do fllw events in ng esp cncrning bk hrm, i found mst of the reports biased. and nig citizens (esp thse frm south) dnt gve the scenario the justice it desrved. instead of undrstnd the prblm, anlyse it, b4 reachng a cnclsion. but, thy resrt to blkmail. insult, condmntin and blshphmeous cmnts. I am frm nrth-east, i knw the dfclties pple frm area are gng tru due to the crisis.we all knw wen the bk hm rst to violence, we also knw hw brno ste gvt hndled the stution then, we re also witness to how those stes were run. It also unftnte that most pple frm the south doesnt wnt good fortunutes in the nrth (frm cmnts, anlysis n reactions).i rst my case here.

    Danjuma Ahmad Musa said:
    March 20, 2012 at 18:52

    Hitting the nail on the head gbam! This is truly a nice piece which brings out a true perspective of things as it concerns the security challenges of these times.
    With our deficit of trust and the lebelling of Nigerians as muslims, christians, northerners, southerners, middlebeltters etc subsequent to a “we” and “them” mentality we are hardly able to eschew parochialism and premodial sentiments. We therefore will not be able to come together and understand situations and profer solutions, else you are lebelled an apologist or you are seen to condorn the action.
    We need to see things objectively and shun sensationalism at the expense of our nation.

    Olisa said:
    March 20, 2012 at 20:05

    It is a thouht- provoking write up which captured the real issues surrounding the recent insecurity in Nigeria. It indeed, has opened a new vista in our quest to grapple the dynamic of boko haram insurgency.

    Anonymous said:
    March 20, 2012 at 20:13

    “The thing is,we have to let go of all blame,all attacking,all judging,to free our inner selves to attract what we say we want.Until we do,we are hamsters in a cage chasing our own tails and wondering why we aren’t getting the result we seek.”
    Dr Joe Vitali

    Babagana Kundi said:
    March 20, 2012 at 21:18

    Superb and apt! Keep it up, Zainab!

    Anonymous said:
    March 20, 2012 at 22:04

    This is the harsh reality of contemporary Nigerian politicts.
    Well, as they plan, Allah also plan, and He (Allah) is the best planer of all planers. Our is to pray.
    GOD BLESS NIGERIA. AMIN.

    OLAYODE said:
    March 20, 2012 at 22:08

    What an interesting and thought provoking piece my sister, however the problem BH had actually had to do initially with their lack of concrete and practicable demands which as a realistic in the present Nigerian state unless we are fooling ourselves. If the BH had started as a socio-economic “miltancy or terrorist group” and not killing innocent Nigerians they will have the support of most Nigerians bearing in mind that a lot of Nigerians are living below the poverty line, but alas they started with ethnic and religious demands, which has led to the death of many people and which has made some southerners to relocate down south. At times i don’t understand how a socio-economic demand will make the group to attack youth corpers, residencial areas of southerners, police stations, the traditional rulers(are they govt officials?),
    and so many other targets. Let them borrow a leaf from the demands of the MEND, atleast we can see that this group was talking about economic, social, environmental and ecological problems, which we all know is a fact, and truely for BH, poverty and mismanagement of the economy is a fact but it is not limited to the north alone but throughout the country.We must take an wholistic approach when discussing the reasons why we find ourselves in this mess, apportioning blame will not solve the problem but we must be truthful to ourselves and find solutions to the various problems plaguing the country.

    Musa A. Jibril said:
    March 20, 2012 at 22:08

    This is the harsh reality of contemporary Nigerian politicts.
    Well, as they plan, Allah also plan, and He (Allah) is the best planer of all planers. Our is to pray.
    GOD BLESS NIGERIA. AMIN.

    Musa A. Jibril said:
    March 20, 2012 at 22:28

    The so-called idea of “Muslim dominated North“ and “Christian dominated South“ is part of the agenda of Western-Conspiracy.
    For instance, a close examination or rather a micros-copic view of Nigerian Politics, reveals that from Sokoto to P/H-Court, Lagos to Borno, the political elites are almost thesame…what matters most is COMMON INTEREST. To them, “THE ENDS JUSTIFY THE MEANS“
    GOD BLESS NIGERIA, OUR ONE & ONLY COUNTRY ON EARTH.

    jfoluso said:
    March 20, 2012 at 22:56

    Won’t blame people with such notions that Boko Haram is ª creation of Northern Politicians. Event leading to it declaring full scale violence against the Nation notwithstanding justify some of this assertions. However there is a need for all and sundry to work together to stamp out this crime against humanity. The existence of Nigerian is bigger than any individual or regional/sectional desire.

    solomon said:
    March 21, 2012 at 00:00

    I definitely agree that BH are just a group of criminals making demands that are unrealistic, one of the major demands of this criminal group is that some states will be islamic states, they are in no position to determine for the inhabitants of the state, this is a democracy, if they want to realise that they should follow democratic process, I also see them as a bunch of cowards, bombing poor innocent and defenceless Nigerians, why haven’t they bombed top northern elites who have ruled and been in power over the years, squandered our national treasury and systematically deprived and underdeveloped the north. The government is making a big mistake by thinking they can dialogue with criminals, the security agencies should wake up and hunt down this criminals.

    Mouky said:
    March 21, 2012 at 00:50

    I will play the devil’s advocate here again – Lets call a spade a spade shall we? Nigerians have a way of looking at the bleeding obvious and calling it something else – First of all, let’s be honest with ourselves, how does a ragtag group of semi illiterate ideologists able to carry out these attacks with a seemingly military precision? – Well I dare say the answer is almost very simple – They need active collaborators within the establishment, but to what end one might wonder – for the same reason MEND was able to secure deep water scuba diving gear and heavy military artillery to sabotage oil installations (in order to allow oil bunkering to continue for instance)- SOMEONE out there is benefiting from this carnage (we call them disaster capitalists I think).

    I refuse to believe for a second, that BH is sophisticated enough to carry out these attacks for purely ideological reasons, they need weapons and training which cost money and cannot be financed by running Madarasas – This money can only come from someone within the country and the training could easily have happened across the border in the lawless Sudan, after all it is an open secret there are many Nigerians (overwhelmingly Hausas) “studying” in Sudan (under the guise of learning Arabic or apparently medicine – how ironic). As far as I am concerned (and if Only our so called intelligence agents can be bothered), if you follow the money trail of any Nigerian “studying” in Sudan, you can link it to someone pretty high up within the establishment.

    This comes back to the “motive” for these attacks: Anyone that believes that BH is not the creation of some Northern politician, is only engaging in self deception and willful ignorance – Consider the following fact: Modu Sherif (Borno State) once armed a bunch of thugs to intimidate his political rivals. Fact: Danjuma Goje (Gombe State) once armed another bunch of thugs called “Yan Kalare” in Gombe to terrorize political rivals – Is it a mere coincidence that this BH insurgency only started after these people left their respective helms? Without suggesting anything, how is this group able to mount what I consider a sophisticated surveillance operation on targets without giving offsmoke signals? answer is: Someone is feeding them this information, and it is not any Al-Qaeda affiliated group, it is a government official some where. The sad of this saga is, the people sponsoring this insurgency for whatever political or economic aims, can simply catch the next flight out of the country to somewhere in Europe and claim political asylum when things get out of control or dont go according to plan, after all they are the same people that (can afford to) send their kids abroad for education, they are the same people that are financially raping the country on a daily basis.

    How do you open a dialogue with a group that does not have a face? or that does not stand for anything in particular? the day that BH comes out for a dialogue, is the day that the proverbial can of worms will be opened – so dont look forward to this anytime soon. What will most likely happen is that when the heat starts getting too close for comfort, the politicians that created this monster will quietly kill it and the docile Nigerian public will be none the wiser.

    I hear people like El-Rufai talk about transformational leadership and all the other “buzz” words, as the solution to the artificial entity called Nigeria, just how can we advocate for change, when the cheer leaders of the change are themselves simply grooming their progeny to continue where they left off? the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, FACT. What we need is a revolutionary leadership, which unfortunately will not happen in Nigeria, as we spend more time “Talking” about our problems (as evidenced by this write up and the numerous blogs out there) rather than “doing” something about it….*exasperated sigh*

    Nasir said:
    March 21, 2012 at 01:25

    Simply good, an interesting revelation. Our politicians and leaders are our major problems. sometimes they make one to begin comparing the era of the military with the so called democratic government being practiced in Nigeria.Please keep writing and always await to read.

    John said:
    March 21, 2012 at 03:06

    It is always the same reaction – Northerners trying to proffer why BH exists and Southerners suggesting all Moslems are behind BH. No one truly wants to sit back and analyse the evidence as they exist. As usual, it takes a foreigner to bring the point home. The real issue here is that of trust as Zainab mention. It simply doesn’t exist in the Nigerian socio-cultural dimension. Everyone feels the other is out to outwit or deceive him/her. Needless to say, this is pervasive even in the ‘security’ services.
    I believe the solution is to look at the problem as that of the whole society and not as a Moslem/political creation. That would be a step in the right direction.

    Anonymous said:
    March 21, 2012 at 04:05


    pls hajiya zee take alook at this video and analyse the situation of Nigeria with content of the video.
    You write very well. Keep it up.

    Efejiro Ashano said:
    March 21, 2012 at 04:33

    Nonetheless Andrew’s opinion of the current situation though unbiased is but a theory which might or might not depict accurately the whole picture. What if some pervading speculations were true? Not saying they are but that would be called, “giving the benefit of the doubt” won’t it?

    Anonymous said:
    March 21, 2012 at 11:20

    Zee though u write well and perceived what Andrew’s position is as excellent, one cannot but make other deductions from the overtly destructive and unreasonable acts of this group in reshaping the thoughts, action and intentions of the majority victims of their attacks. If bad rule is excuse for illiteracy and illiteracy excuse for criminality that is capable of wiping hundreds of thousands of innocent others who are in themselves also victims already of bad rule, won’t we be indulging these insurgents/ criminals? A spade be called what it really is! Nigerians should unite in one accord to fight this demon that is threatening our common existence. Anyone who feels or acts otherwise should be treated as one of them, Enemy.

    Maduka said:
    March 21, 2012 at 18:12

    Another good write up, but where does the trust deficit come from and is it entirely irrational?

    How can the Nigerian people trust their government when Babangida promised that SAP would lead to economic rejuvenation, but couldn’t account for $16 billion oil windfall? Will they trust Obasanjo who couldn’t account for the money invested in power projects? Or Jonathan who tells them they are safe everyday?

    How can the Yoruba people trust the Northern elite when Abiola won an election but that election result was annulled with the full approval of the same elite?

    How could the Niger Delta have trusted Abacha when Saro-Wiwa was hanged? Or Akpamgbo and other Igbo quislings who enabled that process?

    Does the Middle Belt still trust the North, given that the Northern elite promised peace and order under Sharia, but on the contrary, the introduction of political Sharia led to even more clashes between Muslims and Non-Muslims? Or will they trust Obasanjo who sacked Zaki Biam?

    Can the Northern people trust their leadership when their leaders have used a potent mix of religion, politics and ethnic supremacy to delude them for fifty years?

    These questions beg answers and they cannot be answered by simply “forgetting our past”.

    KEHINDE ODUWALE said:
    March 22, 2012 at 12:09

    When i recall the way many elderly bigots, ethnocentrists and tribalists (mostly from the Southern Nigeria where i hail from) trace the roots of BOKO HARAM’s onslaught to EMPTY threats made by some Northern politicians to make Nigeria ungovernable for Jonathan, i ask myself who sponsored and carried out the DISGRACEFUL bomb blast of Nigeria 50th anniversary (if not a Southern Nigerian-Henry Orker) and why President Goodluck Jonathan AGGRESSIVELY denied MEND’s claim of responsibility of the crime? And when many of these old confutionists (like Professor Wole Soyinka, person with whom i share Ijebu Remo district affiliation and Ogun state indegenship) tribalized this matter and hurriedly linked the origin of BOKO HARAM to emergence of Goodluck Jonathan’s Presidency, i ask myself again…Who were those northern militants (if not BOKO HARAM) and in whose regime (if not President Umar YAR’ADUA of blessed memory) engaged the Nigerian army and Nigerian police in almost a week Gun battle (which claimed the life of one Muhammad Yusuf-the then leader of the sect) in Bauchi and Maiduguri Metropolis in year 2009 when i was in NYSC orientation camp Wailo, Ganjuwa local government, Bauchi state 2009? These questions make my Heart bleeds when i read the way many Nigerian journalists and foreign journalists sentimentally analyzed the boko haram saga. Not until we all realize that the grievances of BOKO HARAM are not in anyway different from MEND, the Area boys of southwestern Nigeria (who often disturb our business peace here in Lagos) and many other frustrated Nigerian teeming youths, we would only continue to wallow in folly of encouraging the perpetual irresponsiveness and irresponsibility of callous/cruel/corrupt Nigeria’s government.

    akmsk said:
    March 22, 2012 at 22:04

    Reblogged this on Akmsk's Blog.

    [...] universities, primary schools and so on; I have written about the pattern of its attacks; the conflicting and sometimes misleading narratives about the group’s activity and the overall implications for Nigeria’s stability and [...]

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