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Africa in Transition

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

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Boko Haram Recruitment Strategies

by Guest Blogger for John Campbell
April 16, 2013

BAUCHI, Nigeria Members of an local Islamic group lie on the ground at a police station after their arrest in the northeastern city of Bauchi, July 25, 2009. (Ardo Hazzad/Courtesy Reuters).


This is a guest post by Jacob Zenn, an analyst of African Affairs for the Washington D.C. based think tank, The Jamestown Foundation, and a contributor for the West Point CTC Sentinel.

April 2013 marks two and a half years since Boko Haram launched its first attack on a Bauchi prison in September 2010. Since May 2011, another group, Ansaru, which likely has close connections to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and focuses on kidnapping foreigners, has also been active in northern Nigeria. Though both groups are relatively new, there is enough information available to identify some of their recruitment methods.

With respect to Boko Haram, I see four main factors that could attract recruits:

1) Financial Incentives: Some members join because Boko Haram pays them to kill Nigerian government officials, steal cars in Boko Haram’s name and sell them to businessman or government officials, or to rob banks. Some immigrants from neighboring countries may also join for economic purposes.

2) Kinship: Some northern Nigerians, including politicians, may affiliate with Boko Haram because they are related to members, or to some of the one thousand followers of imam Muhammad Yusuf who were killed during clashes in July 2009.

3) Inter-religious and government violence: The history of violence between Muslims and Christians in the Middle Belt and civilian deaths during battles with Boko Haram likely led some people to seek revenge against Christians or the Nigerian government through Boko Haram.

4) Radicalization: Some Boko Haram members may have been radicalized by Nigerian imams. Dr. Ibrahim Datti Ahmed led the anti-polio vaccine and anti-beauty pageant campaigns in northern Nigeria. Ahmad Gumi, in a recent sermon, called Nigeria’s role in the French-led military intervention against Islamists in Mali a Christian-led “crusade.” And Ibrahim Zakzaky, an Iranian-backed Shia leader who organizes anti-American protests, such as those against the “Innocence of Muslims” film, are some examples.

These imams create acceptance in mainstream society for many of the issues that Boko Haram and Ansaru use to appeal to recruits. Indeed, Boko Haram has attacked polio workers and a media agency that associated the Prophet Muhammad with beauty queens; while Ansaru attacked Nigerian troops preparing to deploy to Mali. Furthermore, both Boko Haram and Ansaru have taken advantage of anti-American and anti-Western sentiment, and have adopted al-Qaeda’s ideology in their public relations strategy. Abubakar Shekau, the reputed leader of Boko Haram, specifically mentioned he would respond to the “Innocence of Muslims,” an anti-Islamic film that caused violent protests throughout the Muslim world in September 2012.

The first three recruitment factors can be addressed by tackling Nigeria’s corruption, ensuring the nation’s resources get to people who need them most, and impartially prosecuting government officials and Boko Haram members who break the law. The fourth factor needs to be addressed with initiatives to counter Boko Haram and Ansaru’s message.

Post a Comment 6 Comments

  • Posted by Chike Chukudebelu

    Western analysts tend to suffer from a fundamental flaw – their analyses assume that the Muslim population in Northern Nigeria exists in a vacuum.

    If we don’t have holistic understanding of the impact of Boko Haram on BOTH the Muslim and Christian communities, we wont be hitting the nail on the head.

    In Nigeria, politics is interwoven with religion and ethnicity. Nigerian politicians (like all democratic politicians) are focused on winning the next set of elections.

    While many in the Muslim community in the North might blame government for problems that led to Boko Haram. Relatively few in the South and Middle Belt share the same sentiments.
    In the South & many parts of the Middle Belt, Boko Haram is just seen as the latest manifestation of “the North’s grab for power”. In this narrative, control of the Military, political Shari’a and now Boko Haram are attempts to advance the same cause: Northern domination.

    If you are a candidate who came to power by taking most of the votes from the South and the Middle Belt, increased suspicion of the North (and Northern leaders) by these two groups will be to your advantage during the next elections.

    It is that simple.

    So I implore Western analysts to look beyond the easy “Boko Haram is caused by poverty & alienation” analysis. Nigeria is a complex nation, with different ethnic & religious groups jostling for prominence at the center. It is within that context that we must analyse Boko Haram.

    Politics in Nigeria can often look like a zero-sum game, many people don’t want to “save the nation” as much as they want to ensure that someone from their part of the nation gets a shot at the presidency.

  • Posted by jake z

    It seems that there is likely some level – and possibly a very high level – of political machinations going on responsible for making the Boko Haram insurgency what it is today, as part of what the commenter says is ” “the North’s grab for power”. Yet, on the street level, is the typical Boko Haram foot soldier joining because of these politicians’ efforts, or are there much more grassroots causes which may compel them to join in? Poverty did not cause BH but I could envision some members joining at the root level for monetary reasons, or having followed Yusuf and believe his anti-Western creed partly due to a lack of education and perspective. Agreed Nigeria is complex and it’s hard to do justice to its complexity in an any article no matter the length.

  • Posted by Chike Chukudebelu

    Jake Z,

    I’ve followed the development of Boko Haram from Nigeria, it appears that politicians made use of Mohammed Yusuf’s people (probably as enforcers or something), but when they went out of favour, there was a vicious and inhuman crackdown by the Nigerian Police.

    The insurgency took a violent turn from then.

    There is definitely some influence from outside (theology & weapons training etc), but I suspect that Yusuf has always had a project to “reform” the Northern political/religious establishment.

    Does poverty and lack of education make recruitment more likely? Yes, but we must also note that mass uprisings by charismatic Islamic preachers are not unknown in Northern Nigeria (Maitatsine, Kano 1980, 4,000 dead).

    In the intervening years, there was periodic violence against religious rivals & Christians (Northern Nigeria has a history of religiously motivated violence).

    Back to my other point, Nigeria is very different from Pakistan or Afghanistan. The Christian & Muslim populations of Nigeria are almost equal and Christian and Muslim communities live in close proximity in Northern Nigeria.

    Consequently, any policy prescription must reflect this reality and guard against feelings of mutual suspicion. Christians are just as poor as Muslims and emphasis on one community to the exclusion of the other should not be encouraged.

  • Posted by Zainab

    I am quite worried about the explanation the writer gave, under the “Radicalization” factor. You said “Some Boko Haram members may have been radicalized by Nigerian imams.” and then went on to list Dr. Ibrahim Datti Ahmed and Sheikh Gumi as some of these principal agents of “radicalization”. These two might hold controversial views on some issues (personally I do not agree with some of their views especially on the polio campaign and the French intervention in Mali as you rightly noted), but it is incredibly unfair to rope them into this Boko Haram phenomenon, ESPECIALLY if you have been following recent events in Nigeria.

    Dr. Ibrahim Datti Ahmad was instrumental in leading the government’s earlier attempts last year, to negotiate with Boko Haram, in order to end the senseless violence. Here are some links to that effect:

    Sheikh Gumi on his own part, has been extremely vocal and vociferous in denouncing the activities of Boko Haram, their violent and murderous campaign. See link below:

    Due to his relentless condemnation of Boko Haram’s murderous modus operandi, he survived numerous bomb attacks and assassination attempts. See link below:

    In fact, taking a radically different position from many Northern religious and political leaders to grant the sect amnesty, Sheikh Gumi recently advised the government to crush them instead. See link below:

    Its incredibly unfair to rope these two people in, and undermine the efforts they have made and continue to be making. Please cross-check your facts, and post my comment.


  • Posted by Chike

    “The first three recruitment factors can be addressed by tackling Nigeria’s corruption, ensuring the nation’s resources get to people who need them most, and impartially prosecuting government officials and Boko Haram members who break the law.”

    When analysts make recommendations, these recommendations should be based on political realities, not the ideal case that applies in say, Sweden.

    The raison d’etre of politics in Nigeria is enrichment via corruption. To tell a political class that funds electoral campaigns via corruption to abandon corruption, is akin to telling them to commit class suicide, it will not happen.

    The second thing many foreign analysts miss is the role of different tiers of government in solving these problems and the capacity issues at each tier of government.

    I’ve actually worked in North East Nigeria and I can tell you that governance at the local level is almost non-existent there. Local government workers seldom turn up for work (only do when salaries are to be paid) and even if they showed up, they lack the capacity to deliver meaningful services.

    You can’t solve this lack of capacity by “aid” or “assistance”, because the desire to improve drives process efficiency. There isn’t any desire to improve, so things will remain as they are.

    This is why Boko Haram (by just showing up), is often more effective than many of the local governance structures.

    You then talk about “ensuring that the resources get to people who need them most”. Well and good, but where do these resources come from? The Niger Delta, and for these resources to have any meaningful impact in North Eastern Nigeria, more of the Niger Delta’s resources will have to be invested there.

    Anyone who understands Nigeria knows that this is politically difficult (please remember that we have also have dormant insurgency in the Niger Delta).

    There is no easy way out and if you critically analyse other regions of Nigeria, they aren’t significantly better off than the North East. They all have different social problems associated with poverty and unemployment (kidnapping is endemic in the South East and it is picking up in the South West).

    Nigeria is a nation in danger of implosion, Boko Haram makes the Western headlines, but it is not the only serious issue in what has become a weakened failing state.

    Nigeria does not have a strong national identity like the US, the kind of identity that binds in times of crisis. The sentiment among many in the South is for “government to simply give Boko Haram its own nation in the North East and leave the rest of us alone”.

    There’s a certain tiredness, a lethargy, a sense that the Nigerian project is failing and failing badly. In Lagos, people aren’t too bothered about what happens in the North East “as long is it doesn’t come down to Lagos” – and many won’t bat an eyelid if the North East ceases to be part of Nigeria.

    Of course, as a Nigerian this makes one sad, but it is important to understand that Nigerians do not react to these “burning platform” issues in the same uniform way Americans or Europeans would.

  • Posted by jona

    the nation of nigeria needs to track the root cause of the rise of boko haram engage in talks

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