By Antonio Cascais
The death of the founder of Boko Haram 10 years ago was a turning point for Nigeria. The organization went from being an Islamist sect to a terror organization, and in the process it lost some of the support it had.
“This is a message to President Goodluck Jonathan and all who represent the Christians. We are declaring a holy war! We will fight the Christians, because everyone knows what they have done to the Muslims!” This was the message the Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, broadcast via the internet in July 2010. The organization had begun to change.
The origins of Boko Haram
Boko Haram had started 11 years earlier, in Maiduguri, the capital of the state of Borno. Following Nigeria’s return to democratic rule in 1999, the population was hoping for the fairer distribution of wealth and an end to rampant corruption. It was at this point that a young preacher called Mohammed Yusuf appeared. He called for the application of Islamic law, and for people to turn their backs on the Western way of life. He declared that “Western education is a sin” — or, in Hausa, “Boko Haram.” People’s dissatisfaction proved a fertile soil for this preacher and his radical assertions, though he initially said he opposed the use of violence.
“We want to propagate Islam. Everyone has the right to hear the message of Islam,” Yusuf preached. However, his attacks on all non-Muslims became increasingly explicit: “I say to you: The unbelievers are liars. They do anything to achieve power. They promise a lot and talk of peace, but in truth they are merciless.”
Yusuf’s movement became very popular, especially in the northeastern states of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe. In early 2009, confrontations with the security services during demonstrations in all the main cities were a daily occurrence. Yusuf was increasingly becoming a threat to the Nigerian state.
Death of the founder, Mohammed Yusuf
When a Boko Haram demonstration was banned toward the end of July 2009, rioting broke out in the city of Bauchi, spreading to Yobe, Borno and other regions. The clashes lasted several days, and at least 300 people died in Maiduguri alone.
The Nigerian government responded with a large-scale police operation. A large number of people were arrested, including the leader of the sect, Mohammed Yusuf. According to a police spokesman, he was shot dead on 30 July 2009 while trying to escape. Members of the sect were reported to have been illegally executed by the police.
By this time, Yusuf had already named his successor: Abubakar Shekau. Under Shekau, Boko Haram launched a merciless “holy war” against the Nigerian state. The sect’s activities moved underground, and its terrorism entered into a new dimension. It carried out many suicide attacks, including one on the police headquarters in the capital, Abuja. Boko Haram’s increasingly brutal attacks, which now often targeted civilians, spread fear and terror in the region. Over ten years, around 32,000 people have been killed and millions driven from their homes.
Spiral of violence: Young people form vigilante groups
Many among the civilian population accused the government and military of being incapable of guaranteeing their people’s security. In 2013, a group of young people from Maiduguri decided they would take matters into their own hands and set about protecting the population. They started a vigilante group called the “Civilian Joint Task Force,” or CJTF, with the aim of driving the Islamist fighters out of their towns and cities. These young people armed themselves not just with guns but also with daggers, machetes, sticks, and iron bars.
Female vigilantes were welcomed. “I decided to join the group because my husband, a police officer, was brutally killed, leaving me with five children,” Altine Abdullahi, one of the women fighters and a founding member of the CJTF in Maiduguri, told DW.
The group is now estimated to have more than 26,000 members, of whom 1,800 received a monthly salary of about 50 US dollars. Around 600 CJTF members have been killed. It has, however, largely succeeded in driving Boko Haram out of Maiduguri and other big cities. However, the CJTF has also been accused of committing human rights violations, including physical abuse and the arbitrary shooting of alleged Boko Haram fighters.
Despite the criticism, though, both security experts and local people stress that the vigilante group has achieved results. Elizabeth Ame, a resident of Maiduguri, confirmed to DW: “Their efforts bring tremendous success in fighting Boko Haram. Before their emergence, you would hardly see people moving around as they are now. People can go from one area to the other because they feel they are now safe,” she said. “These young people know their way around better than the soldiers of the Nigerian army, most of whom were sent in from other states.”
Muhammadu Buhari’s military offensive
The government was also increasingly gearing up for a confrontation with Boko Haram. In 2015, Muhammadu Buhari – a former general with the Nigerian army – beat Goodluck Jonathan in the presidential elections. He promised to defeat the terrorist organization within two years.
With the help of international troops from the neighboring countries of Chad, Niger and Cameroon, the Nigerian military did in fact succeed in pushing back Boko Haram and putting them on the back foot. They were able to liberate large swaths of the state of Borno that were still controlled by the jihadists in early 2015.
Now, though, security experts are far more skeptical about Buhari’s declaration. “It’s easy to announce the end of Boko Haram,” says Yome Dare, a former officer in the Nigerian army. “It’s much harder to obtain concrete results. It’s a very ugly war we’re dealing with here; people shouldn’t play games with that.”
In recent months, Boko Haram does indeed seem to have been regaining both strength and territory. The Boko Haram fighters have stocked up their arsenals. Observers say their weapons are coming mainly from Libya, possibly also from former IS strongholds. At the end of 2018, on 27 December, the organization gave a demonstration of its military strength when it drove 500 soldiers of the regional anti-terror coalition out of their headquarters in Baga. It was briefly able to assert control over the town.
Yome Dare confirmed to DW that the security situation in Nigeria has deteriorated rapidly in the past few months. “The troops’ morale is low,” he says. “The soldiers are stretched to the limit.” The security expert comments that the soldiers are tired, demotivated, and poorly equipped. “I believe it’s high time the government and the military leadership made sure that equipment intended for soldiers at the front does in fact reach these soldiers,” he said.
Last year, there were reports in the Nigerian media about numerous demonstrations by frustrated soldiers of the Nigerian army. In August 2018, hundreds of soldiers were said to have fired into the air on the runway at Maiduguri airport, expressing their exhaustion after four years at the front. Their message was: “We’ve been stationed a long way away from our families for years now, and still we’re making virtually no progress in the fight against the jihadists.”
Mohammed Al-Amin in Maiduguri contributed to this report