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Who is Boko Haram

8th May 2014

Nigerian Expert tells Muslim Association of Britain:                       

“Nigerian Government Must Negotiate With Boko Haram


The kidnapping of around 300 schoolgirls by Boko Haram of Nigeria has focused the world’s attention on the activities of the violent extremist group who have terrorized the country over the past five years.  The Nigerian authorities are now relying on the Americans and the British to provide logistic support to help the families to locate the schoolgirls and secure their release.

In this special interview with Muslim Association of Britain, Nigerian political affairs expert Dr. Olawale Ismail says the Nigerian Government must negotiate a political solution with violent extremist movement Boko Haram - even after the missing schoolgirls have been found.

Since 2008, the extremist organisation Boko Haram have staged a series of massive explosions, suicide bombings and kidnappings that have terrorised the Muslim and Christian communities of Nigeria and exposed the Nigerian authorities’ inability to prevent or predict the group’s terrorist activities.

Surprisingly, Boko Haram were once close political allies of the government, but after years of supporting each other for political ends and even having a Boko Haram minister in government, in 2009 the two sides became sworn enemies. 

Dr. Olawale Ismailwho has studied radicalization in Nigeria since the 2000s says, “it’s important to distinguish between radicalization which appears as a result of ideology and can happen in both Muslim and Christian communities, and violent extremism whose advocates attack by force anyone who disagrees with their ideology.”

Boko Haram appears to have been a social movement, providing housing, jobs, financial support and orthodox religious teaching to Muslims in the Northern Nigerian state of Maiduguri – many described them as the ‘Nigerian Taliban’

The group came to the notice of Nigerian politicians who canvassed in general and state elections and were keen to secure the support of the group’s young voters. The ideas of Boko Haram had become very attractive to young disaffected men and women, as the group spoke out against corruption and economic failures in the four federal states where its support was strongest. By 2008-9, after the movement had helped the government secured its place in power, observers say there was a ‘fallout’ between the two sides.

Dr. Ismailexplained, “Nobody really knows the reason behind the fallout, but suddenly members of Boko Haram were being harassed by police, their businesses were being affected and eventually the tension led to a reprisal attack in which 12 policemen were murdered – that triggered in June 2009 a major operation against the movement and around 1,000 members were killed by the Nigerian authorities including its leader Mohammed Yousif.”

What happened to the Boko Haram’s leader, said to have been captured alive, is a mystery; but it is known that several hundred members of the group escaped from police custody, cross borders and teamed up with jihadist groups in the Sahel where they were trained. Less than a year later, those members returned to begin a deadly spree of attacks on over 60 targets and resulting in the loss of around 1500 lives to date.

Once a respected movement with a huge following, Boko Haram has lost its following and sympathy from Nigerian Muslims who have been the victims of the groups attacks as much as Nigerian Christians.  Many political commentators reject the view that there is a Christian and Muslim conflict going on in Nigeria. They point to the indiscriminate killings of members of both faiths by Boko Haram.

Support for the group has dwindled.Dr. Ismail told us, “As far as I am concerned, the group probably has no more than 1,000 active members and they may have another 500 – 1,000 members lying low. They seem to always be one step ahead of the authorities and we, therefore, cannot rule out the possibility that they have infiltrated the Nigerian security services.”

However, despite heavy security measures throughout the country, there is little prospect of putting an end to the crisis soon. Dr. Ismail believes that the government must negotiate with Boko Haram. “There must be a combined security, military, police, political and economic solution to the problems. It’s very complex but the government have to provide funds to regenerate some of the areas which have economically collapsed sometime ago.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Ismail says the priority is to establish the location of the schoolgirls and put ordinary mothers and fathers out of their misery, “if it was my child that was missing I wouldn't care who came to the aid of the Nigerian government or what should happen next. As a father, I feel the pain of those parents, it doesn’t matter whether they are Christian or Muslim - we pray to Allah that this will be resolved speedily.”


Khalil Charles