John Campbell

Africa in Transition

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

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Boko Haram and Ansaru in Northern Nigeria

by John Campbell
April 5, 2013

People watch as smoke rises from the police headquarters after it was hit by a blast in Nigeria's northern city of Kano January 20, 2012. (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters)


Jacob Zenn, an analyst at the Jamestown Foundation, has written an important article, “Cooperation or Competition: Boko Haram and Ansaru After the Mali Intervention.” His central conclusion is that while Boko Haram originally emerged in northeastern Nigeria and was solely focused on domestic issues, it has come under the influence of the international jihad.

As for Ansaru, he argues it broke off from Boko Haram and has from its conception been heavily influenced by outside Islamists. Zenn discusses differences and similarities between the two movements and concludes that their goals—an Islamist state—are much the same and that tactical and other cooperation between the two is likely, despite the split.

The article is among other things an extensive compilation of relevant material from the Nigerian media and from Islamists websites. The content footnotes repay close reading, and in them Zenn often explains how he reached his conclusions, some of which are controversial.

Sources for what is going on among Islamists in northern Nigeria are problematic. The Nigerian press is mostly southern based and frequently misunderstands northern developments. It may betray a general bias against the North. Islamist websites and Boko Haram and Ansaru videos have, of course, a particular political purpose. Travel by outside observers in the region is now very difficult, not least because of the upsurge in kidnapping that Zenn discusses. But, Nigeria observers must use what is available, no matter the limitations. Zenn’s article is an important contribution, even if his conclusions cannot be the final word.

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  • Posted by Jim Sanders

    Whoa, Nelly! Let us not go overboard. Mr. Zenn’s talents are prodigious, but his is a very establishment document. The reality of Boko Haram is much broader than a CT approach allows. Consequently, an appreciation of the phenomenon it represents requires a combination of perspectives.

    One of these is outlined in Jeremy Weinstein’s book, “Inside Rebellion, The Politics of Insurgent Violence.” His framework of “activist” and “opportunistic” rebellions offers much that is relevant to Nigeria. Boko Haram and MEND seem to fit Weinstein’s categories, with Boko Haram qualifying as an “activist” group, with all that implies for its long-term durability.

    Another perspective is offered by Paul Cohen in his work, “History in Three Keys, The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth.” Cohen sees the Boxer rebellion in part as a reaction to the psychological anxiety induced by the specter of famine. Environmental stress, clearly present in northern Nigeria, can be a key variable.

    Finally, we should not ignore swarm theory in seeking to understand how people are melded into groups quickly, then dispersed just as quickly. Groups can emerge from the bottom up a easily as from the top down. Thus taking out rebel commanders has its limitations. (See, Ed Yong, “As One,” Wired Magazine, April 2013.)

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