John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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The Guardian on Boko Haram

by John Campbell
January 30, 2012

A man walks through the ruins of a zonal police headquarters after a bomb attack in Nigeria's northern city of Kano, January 21, 2012. (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters)


Distinguished London newspaper, the Guardian, published on January 27, an interview with alleged Boko Haram spokesman Abu Qaqa, conducted by Guardian Nigeria correspondent Monica Mark. In conjunction, the paper also included a careful analysis by Jason Burke that concludes the Boko Haram remains “a local phenomenon, not a global threat,” and an editorial that calls on President Goodluck Jonathan to address Nigeria’s religious divide and corruption, provide protection for all, and to redistribute state resources to accomplish those goals.

Qaqa lays out a radical Boko Haram agenda: Sharia (Islamic law), apparently for the entire country. While the rights of Christians would be “protected,” he envisages Nigeria as a Muslim state. Traditionally, Sharia does not apply to non-Muslims. Qaqa implies in violent terms that in Nigeria it would. “Even if you are a Muslim and you don’t abide by sharia, we will kill you.” He also claimed links with al-Qaeda forged in Saudi Arabia and that Boko Haram draws recruits from Sahelian states adjacent to Nigeria.

While not denying the possibility, Burke seems skeptical of Qaqa’s claims of significant Boko Haram links. He notes that claims of an al-Qaeda connection can boost Boko Haram’s credibility, and for the Nigerian establishment it deflects attention from their own corruption — as well as the possibility of significant financial assistance from the West from which they could profit. He does observe that Qaqa’s pro-al-Qaeda rhetoric is testimony to the enduring strength of the brand name.

Also on January 27, Abubakar Shekau, who claims to be the religious leader of Boko Haram now in exile in Cameroon, on YouTube, threatened to bomb schools and kidnap elite family members. He also rejected outright President Jonathan’s call for dialogue. This mirrors what Qaqa also told Monica Mark: “We will consider negotiation only when we have brought the government to their knees.”

What to make of this? In a movement as diffuse as Boko Haram, it is not clear for whom Qaqa is speaking. Shekau’s role and authority are also open to question. My supposition is that both are probably among the disciples of the murdered, charismatic Boko Haram leader Muhammed Yusuf. Qaqa’s remarks about the role of Christians in a Muslim Nigeria recall the Ottoman Empire in its obscurantist phases. Absent additional evidence, I share Burke’s seeming skepticism of significant links between Boko Haram and al-Qaeda.

Finally, the Guardian‘s editorial recommendations while credible would require a wholesale reformation of the Nigerian political economy from which the elites who control the state directly benefit. A tall order for any government, especially in Nigeria, with its winner-take-all political culture and regional zero-sum power struggle: more resources for the impoverished North means less for the Delta, President Jonathan’s home constituency.

Nevertheless, the situation in northern Nigeria is fluid and Boko Haram may be evolving. The fact that Qaqa met with a Western journalist for the first time may indicate that some part of the movement is developing a media strategy. So, too, may be Shekau’s use of Youtube. Shekau’s new visibility may also indicate that he is seeking to impose his authority over what has been a highly decentralized movement. If successful, Boko Haram may start to evolve from a movement into an organization.

Finally, the fact that a leading, quality UK newspaper devoted so much attention to Boko Haram indicates that an international audience is starting to take Boko Haram seriously as well as the deep challenges that Nigeria — “the giant of Africa” — faces.

Post a Comment 10 Comments

  • Posted by Mark Schenkel


    I read your articles with much interest. About Jason Burke’s skepticism concerning ties between Boko Haram and al-Qaeda: perhaps it is worth noting that just now, the UN have confirmed the existence of such connections, as reported by Jeune Afrique this weekend.

  • Posted by Maduka

    The extra amount allocated to the oil-producing regions is only fair, given the decades of environmental degradation and loss of agricultural productivity. In the US for example, Texas is the major beneficiary of the crude oil in Texas. The Nigerian framework should also reflect that.

    The moral case for taking resources away from the Niger Delta to invest in Northern Nigeria is extremely weak. Northern Nigeria has vast agricultural and solid minerals potential. This potential should be tapped for the benefit of the people.

    As we speak, Northern governors have made very little effort to diversify their local economies. Nigeria is not Saudi Arabia and it is morally unacceptable that a state with as much economic potential as Kano should still remain on the “Federal dole”.

    Nigeria’s population is projected to reach 300 million in the next few decades, and we are best advised to reflect that reality. The Nigerian state neither has the resources (when corruption is factored in) or the capacity to pull off a “Niger Delta style amnesty / rehabilitation” programme in Northern Nigeria – the area is too vast and the numbers are too high.

    There is no way extra resources can be allocated to Northern Nigerian states without the 11 non-oil producing Southern states requesting for, and obtaining similar resources.

    Secondly, any speculation about the links between Al Qaeda and Boko Haram is academic. That is not the point. Al Qaeda is known for its ability to fully exploit opportunities presented to it – and Boko Haram is an opportunity of a lifetime.

    Northern Nigeria is much richer, much more populated and more central to the Sahel region than either the deserts of Mali or Somalia. Secondly, it is much more politically difficult for its nemesis; the US Military, to operate there. The US can use drones in Somalia and openly organise training sessions with Malian special forces – they cannot do that in Northern Nigeria without radicalising the local population.

    Presently Boko Haram is in the “Hearts and Minds” phase of their campaign. They are attacking the hated Nigerian police and distinguishing themselves from the elite and infidels (Christians). That is why they are taking pains to explain that they are not against local Muslims.

    Unfortunately, their support base seems to be growing.

    When this phase is complete, expect them to get more ambitious. The attack on the UN building shows that they have both the intent and the capability to attack Western targets.

    Expect more to come in future. I can already see the influence of Al Qaeda.

  • Posted by John Ojeah

    ‘more resources for the impoverished North means less for the Delta, President Jonathan’s home constituency.’

    Not true. The Federal Govt alone takes 52% of revenue and the states and local govt shares about 48%. I would have expected you to say more to the North means less for the Federal govt and/or other states’ .

    Also, the 13% derivation to goes to the Delta states are revenue from oil produced within the state. The 13% derivation does not cover deep offshore production where most of Nigerian production is increasingly coming from. This particular sum goes to the Fed.

    Note that only 4 of the Delta states (Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Delta and Rivers and NOT ALL of Southern Nigeria) accounts for more than 95% of Nigeria’s onshore and shallow water production. So what do we do to the other Southern states that are not in the Delta?

    Also note that the derivation started ONLY IN 1999. Before then, the formula ensures that most regions collected more than the Delta, and this was enforced from the 1970s to 1999.


    1. The Fed govt is taking a disproportionate share of the oil revenues. More revenues should be devolve to the states since the state and local govt are responsible for most of the Human Development Indicators like education, health, etc. Money closer to home will change things a lot.

    2. While doing this, the North should gradually be made to understand that govt cannot provide everything. Govt can’t build all the schools, hospitals, businesses, etc. Northern elites should at least use the money they have stolen for over 4 decades of rule to invest in the region.

    3. There is not enough money to go around. 2 million bbls for 160 million people is not enough. Nigeria need other sources of revenue to complement the one from oil. A situation where 85% of the Fed govt and sometimes 90% of some states revenue are from the Niger Delta oil is not sustainable.

    4. As for Boko Haram, the more it continue with its terrorism, the more investments will elude the far North. Most of the private investments in the region is from the south, especially the Igbo business men. Killing or chasing them will result in what happened to Kaduna State in the early 2000s when businesses left the state in droves after the sharia riots. Foreigners, especially Americans avoid investing in Nigeria, even in the more developed south, not to talk of the region that will soon be identified with terrorism.

  • Posted by Marla Edwards

    This article is intresting but i want to know more about updated Nigeria daily post which are posted in the top most nigerian newspapers

  • Posted by Maduka

    “In conjunction, the paper also included a careful analysis by Jason Burke that concludes the Boko Haram remains “a local phenomenon, not a global threat,”

    What difference does it make to me, a Nigerian, resident in Nigeria as to whether Boko Haram is a local phenomenon not a global threat?

  • Posted by Zareen Iqbal

    In regards to the ‘hysteria’ surrounding implied links between Boko Haram and other Al Qaeda affiliates, I do agree that there is a tendency by those in the security sector to make rather definitive conclusions about such linkages. Interestingly, this somewhat risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Increased US attention and support, which includes the bolstering of local security resources and capabilities, in turn results in greater attention by various parties (including international groups such as Al Qaeda) and in some ways emboldens these more localized groups like Boko Haram (or the various factions that have been dubbed such) by providing them greater ammunition with which to exploit sympathy and recruit.

    It is important however to note that although both the Nigerian government/military, as well as the US military and related agencies, are at least partly motivated by the potential for additional funding and other support in making such grand linkages, there is some legitimacy to the general claim that a connection between Boko Haram and more sophisticated foreign terrorist groups either exists or will likely develop (as Al Qaeda is just as opportunistic as aforementioned entities). If experienced foreign jihadist fighters were to penetrate Boko Haram, taking on leadership roles and thus begin directing group activities, the consequences of such a shift would be severe, particularly for the local population. As in Somalia, we have seen how the intervention of foreign jihadists has resulted in the break down of traditional cultural structures and norms; we have also seen these foreign forces manipulate and abuse local populations, from forcing women into sexual slavery to kidnapping children to replenish ranks. What makes the interposition of foreign jihadists so dangerous is their lack of connection to local areas. They do not have any political, cultural or familial ties to Nigeria, and this means there are no limits what they are willing to do, which includes forcing the local population to do, in order to achieve their aims.

    Unfortunately, such a shift would mean that addressing issues of poverty would not be sufficient to combating a growing ideological movement; it would also make a political solution less likely as radical movements, particularly those driven solely by ideology, are not prone to compromise. References to seeking a ‘political settlement’ with Boko Haram are somewhat naive, given the fact that there is no known leadership structure and that there are many factions purporting to be part of this Boko Haram construct; then there are those emulating its tactics for criminal purposes. In addition, Boko Haram seems to have no specific political aims or taken no other political action than destroying or punishing security and/or Christian elements, as well as moderate Muslim leaders who continue to be assassinated.

    In terms of disparate levels of poverty between Northern and Southern Nigeria, there is no doubt that the gap is extremely significant due to long-term neglect and funding/service inequities. In fact, the gap is similar to what we find between the two Sudans, with South Sudan at deplorably low levels of education and poverty. I agree that addressing poverty issues immediately and intensively will be the best tool to combating any increased radicalization, but it will require Jonathan’s government to first establish much more substantive relationships with local Northern political leaders. This is a necessary first step as there is too great a disconnect between the two regions. It also requires that Northern political leaders and traditional elites, which reap considerable political an economic benefits as a result of their position to also address inequities between themselves and their people.

  • Posted by Maduka

    I don’t agree with Zainab’s assertion that the disparate levels of poverty between Northern and Southern Nigeria are due to long-term neglect and funding/service inequities.

    First of all, there is no empirical evidence to back this claim. If we track government spending back to the seventies on a sectoral basis (health care, education etc), one would immediately see that the North was certainly not disadvantaged compared to the rest of the country.

    I come from Nigeria’s South-East, an area devastated during the Civil War. Since the end of the Civil war, there has not been much effort by successive administrations to rebuild this region (the old bridge across the Niger is still there – no attempt has been made to build a new one). But we took it upon ourselves to work and fight for our children and now we have among the highest literacy rates for women in Nigeria / Africa.

    We have a bolder claim to marginalisation than the North, but we don’t dwell on it.

    If the truth must be told, the problem with Northern Nigeria (at least the Hausa-Fulani/Kanuri core) is more attitudinal than any thing else. This is not a politically correct thing to say, but it is true.

    I’ve been to Kano and seen swarms of aggressive child beggars (I am told they number in millions). There is no other culture in Nigeria (Muslim or Christian), that treats its children so irresponsibly. This is not a question of poverty – the Nupe and Gwari are equally as poor and Muslim, but don’t treat their children as badly and neither do Northern Christians.

    We could also talk about the scandal of female literacy levels in Northern Nigeria. Women in that part of the nation are among the least educated in the world. This has a lot to do a unique interpretation of purdah – women should not be seen, not be heard and should not interact with community.

    In a nutshell, the problem with Northern Nigeria is that a feudal system has been largely left untouched by both the British and Northern politicians. The likes of Aminu Kano and Abubakar Rimi fought hard to modify this system, but their efforts are yet to meet with success. The space formerly occupied by these splendid fellows has now be taken up by the likes of Boko Haram. This is sad.

    No amount of money can fix Northern Nigeria’s problems if the people of the core North are either unable or unwilling to break with their past. It would merely be money wasted and Nigeria doesn’t have that kind of money, anyway.

  • Posted by Maduka


    I am ready to have a substantive debate with you on the way forward for Northern Nigeria. But for us to proceed further, we need to be honest with ourselves.

    Female adult literacy rates (English Language) in Borno and Yobe States (National Literacy Survey, 2010) range between 16 and 17%. Meanwhile the figures from other Northern States like Benue and Plateau are close to 60%.

    Can you provide any concrete evidence to suggest that Borno and Yobe are marginalised compared to Benue and Plateau. If not, isn’t there something apart from “marginalisation” responsible for these discrepancies?

  • Posted by Maduka

    I meant Zareen not Zainab.

  • Posted by John Ojeah

    Maduka, I always have admiration for the Igbos on how they were able to come back after what they suffered through during and after the Civil war. The Igbos lost almost everything … the funds they left behind in banks before the war was seized, their properties was confiscated and declared as abandoned properties, they were denied access to the govt and denied promotions in the military, police and public service etc.

    But we can’t overlook the impact of their investment in human development at least by private individuals and families as a factor that helped the Igbos to achieve this fantastic comeback in such a short time period. No other ethnic group practices such individual independence from the government and spend more private money on human development as the Southeast and and the result of such investment is their to see. This is replicated in other areas of Nigeria at various degrees with the worst compliance in the far North.

    One major factor that is similar to the far North and Niger Delta is the environmental devastation that both regions are facing … one from oil and the other from desertification. Both drastically reduced economic activity, especially agriculture. Most Niger Deltans, even when the oil money was not flowing to the area but overwhelmingly spent to develop Lagos in the 1970s and 1980s, and later Abuja, as in the 1990s, still care little about oil because of other economic activities such as fishing, and farming. It is the gradual destruction of the environments that turned these once farmers and fishermen to agitators of resource control. I always think that if the oil companies were very responsible in their business and not destroy the environments these guys lived in we probably will have seen very little of the current insurgency.

    In the North, irrespective of the attitudinal challenges, I think the desertification facing the far North also contributes to the poverty. It reduces the size of land available for agriculture and pushes the wandering herdsman further down South where they constantly clash with farmers.

    In my opinion, these are some of the areas the government, over the years, failed to address. But this does not excuse the low investment of private capital in the North, by her wealthy sons/daughters, in the development of the region. For example, in my community in Akwa Ibom state, people contributed money gradually for about 35 years (1970s- till present) to be able to electrify the whole community, build 2 health care centers, two secondary schools and five primary schools. NO GOVERNMENT MONEY NOR ANY NGO AID/DEVELOPMENT FUND WAS INVOLVED. But as was the case during the military rule all the schools were donated to the govt … though I think they would be donated to Churches as is the practice now.

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