John Campbell

Africa in Transition

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

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Boko Haram Factions and the Kidnapping of the Nigerian School Girls

by John Campbell
May 30, 2014

A woman takes part in a protest for the release of the abducted secondary school girls in the remote village of Chibok, during a sit-in protest at the Unity fountain Abuja, May 12, 2014. (Afolabi Sotunde/Courtesy Reuters)


Jacob Zenn has published an important article that analyzes the various factions that comprise “Boko Haram,” their leadership and rivalries, and their links with other radical Islamist groups outside Nigeria. The article is dense and exhaustively documented. Here, I highlight certain of his points that I found especially relevant, given that the kidnapped Chibok school girls remain in captivity and a focus of intense domestic and international concern.

Zenn’s reminder is salutary that the French intervention in Mali likely had a perverse consequence of revivifying Boko Haram and strengthening its ties with other radical Islamist groups. There is a lesson here as western governments consider what they can do to free the Chibok school girls.

Further, given the preoccupation with freeing the girls, his discussion of the role of Boko Haram’s use of kidnapping is of particular use. He shows that the financial profits from kidnapping are very high, especially in a part of the world where the costs of conducting terrorism are low.

For those who follow Boko Haram closely, his suggestion that the name “Abubakar Shekau” may have become a nom de guerre for Boko Haram’s collective leadership is useful. The nom de guerre is still of course used by Shekau himself. I find the suggestion credible and could account for why “Abubakar Shekau” appears somewhat different in appearance and mannerisms in some of the videos Boko Haram has released. If Zenn is correct, it also means that negotiating the release of the girls is likely to be more complicated than it would be if there was a single leader to negotiate with.

Zenn highlights that Boko Haram statements indicate their view that northeastern Nigeria, parts of Cameroon, Chad, and Niger was a single cultural unity rent asunder by the colonial powers. These “colonial” boundaries therefore have no legitimacy. So, colonial boundaries—and the secular states they deliminate—may be like western education: haram.

Finally, Zenn sketches scenarios for the future directions that Boko Haram might take. But, even his most optimistic scenario implies that Boko Haram will have the ability to de-stabilize Nigeria for a long time to come.

Jacob Zenn has given us much to think about.

Post a Comment 1 Comment

  • Posted by Bruce Uba

    Mr. Campbell. Thank you for your reflections on Jacob Zenn’s article. However, your existing narrative does not recognize the fact that Boko Haram is not a direct insurgency against the Nigerian State, as you have labored hard to paint it. It is jihad! Nigeria has had several waves of Jihad (including Maitasine I, II, etc.). The recent wave of Islamic sharia declaration in 9 northern States that OBJ refused to challenge, softened the ground for the rise of Boko Haram. Northern Nigerians are known for their “born to rule” mentality and they consider political power at the highest federal level to be their only incentive for Nigerian nationality. Boko Haram is feeding on this.

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