John Campbell

Africa in Transition

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

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Boko Haram: A Different Perspective

by Guest Blogger for John Campbell
August 12, 2014

Burnt-out cars are seen at the scene of a blast in Abuja, June 25, 2014. (Afolabi Sotunde/Courtesy Reuters)


This is a guest post by Jim Sanders, a career, now retired, West Africa watcher for various federal agencies. The views expressed below are his personal views and do not reflect those of his former employers.

In his July 24 blog post, John Campbell referred to the “civil war within Islam in northern Nigeria.” There may be a slightly different way to view the events of which he writes. It’s credible to say that there is a civil war within Islam in northern Nigeria, but such claims also play into the hands of those who have long denied the seriousness of Boko Haram and its dire implications for Nigeria as a whole.

From Boko Haram’s beginning as a movement until the Chibok kidnapping, the Nigerian government and many others viewed the phenomenon as: a problem in the remote northeast; a violent group that is marginal to the country’s main players and constituencies; or a blip on the radar screen of more well-known and threatening terrorist groups globally. In other words, nothing that really affected Nigeria’s national integrity.

Those Nigerians and outside observers who have thought of Boko Haram as marginal can draw on comments like “civil war within Islam in northern Nigeria” as a justification for their own avoidance of the problem. The unspoken assumption is, therefore, that Boko Haram is isolated, contained, and thus minor. All manner of mental gymnastics will be performed to sustain this kind of denial.

But the reality is a lot different. First, Abuja’s role in Boko Haram’s origins is enormous, so it has been a national (if unrecognized) issue from the outset. It is also important to note that despite Muhammadu Buhari’s criticism of the group, the attempt on his life could easily have been carried out by his traditional political opponents, who, given Boko Haram’s high profile, anticipated that the blame would fall on the group. What better time to try to eliminate an opponent than when a group with a track record of murder is at large in the area and will likely be blamed? Nigeria’s “democratic” national election seasons typically begin with an unofficial “primary” in which political rivals narrow the playing field by trying to kill each other. We are now well into that political murder season. Boko Haram, in contrast, does not care about elections. Polls are irrelevant in their world view. If they did attack Buhari, it is more likely to have been on the basis of his reputation as a traditional Muslim leader than a political candidate.

But there are more layers to the Nigerian crises that can’t be understood very well by conventional ways of seeing. The academic concept of “post-modernism,” not normally discussed by those interested in security, does seem to accurately describe aspects of some present-day phenomena, Boko Haram included. The term is used to describe a situation in which organizations construct their own reality and act accordingly, often to the utter disbelief of those watching them.

Oddly enough, the Boko Haram discussion reminds me of’s conference call on July 24, in which CEO Jeff Bezos announced second-quarter losses of $126 million, or seventeen cents a share. Many on Wall Street expressed horror at the announcement, asking why the company showed no interest whatsoever in reducing spending in order to achieve profitability.

As a result of the call, Amazon’s share price dipped 10 percent. But Amazon simply does not care that much about its share price; it does care deeply about its long-term objective of dominating global retail, and is determined to do what it takes to get there. One need only look at the company’s 1997 Letter to Shareholders to understand its guiding philosophy. It will take losses, operate in the red, and “press on regardless.”

Similarly, Boko Haram does not operate according to anyone else’s playbook. This is one reason why some observers think they are stupid. There is no one to negotiate with, they complain. That’s because Boko Haram doesn’t want to negotiate. They intend to move forward, regardless. They are not deterred by losing men in battle; they just keep pressing on. Nor, like ISIS, do they care about national borders. They have created their own reality, an amalgam, as John Campbell says, of twenty-first century technology and esoteric (medieval) Islamic texts, which they hold up as guiding documents. Journalist Alex Perry’s account of Lamido Sanusi’s explanation of reality in Nigeria—“to understand Nigeria…you must throw away notions like certainty and consensus”—dovetails with the view of Boko Haram as a group that creates its own reality.

All of this means our current policy approach is stuck in the old, modern world where democracy was viewed as an absolute and elections were seen as the pathway to the end of human history. (Apologies, Mr. Fukuyama.)

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Bruce Uba

    Sanders’ academic treatise suggests that Boko haram does n’t seek territory and is apolitical regarding Nigeria. It also carves them out as a group with some type of underlying principle or vision. It appeals to the usual mockery of Nigeria as a place of political violence and desperation.
    However, Boko Haram is a jihadist group! Their primary interest is to isolate, cleanse and preserve northern Nigeria for Islam! They care little about anything else. Muhammadu Buhari has consistently denied having any type of sympathy (talk less of support) for Boko Haram. That surely makes him a target for BH assassination, especially when that can be blamed on the Federal government and Jonathan, thus, setting the country ablaze in reprisal killings of Igbos and Southerners!

  • Posted by Stella-Maris Edokpayi

    Boko Haram is certainly making its own reality and pressing on regardless, because it is following a ‘law of war’ dictated in whatever version of the Qu’ran or Sunna they are reading.
    Unfortunately, Nigeria’s security forces and analyst have failed to recognize this.

    For example, the abduction of girls or fleeing back to sambisa forest with food from raided villages are not considered kidnapping, stealing or being hard pressed; they are booties of war. Similar acts were carried out by soldiers in the old testament of the Christian bible. Israel possessed their inheritance through war with ‘ungodly’ nations. Kings and peoples were beheaded, sometimes males were killed whilst female [virgins] and children were retained as slaves or wives. Other times, whole towns were wiped out including animals.

    For Boko Haram, every success in battle against the Nigerian army is considered a sign from God. Its imperative to begin to view the group the way it views itself – a religious, perhaps, ancient army.

    The question now is, how would you defeat an army of an older century that is using new technologies? Maybe security forces should start reading either of the holy books for practical [not necessarily spiritual] clues.

  • Posted by Tony Gbegbaje

    Type your comment in here…has not been said better in my view. Takes someone on the outside looking in to get to the point we have all evaded all along.

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