The Nigerian jihadist group Boko Haram just perpetrated what might be the worst attack in its history, killing hundreds of civilians in a remote northeastern corner of Nigeria. The widely reported upper estimate for the death toll of Boko Haram’s onslaught in Baga and 16 other communities around the Nigerian side of Lake Chad is around 2,000.
The attack took place in a part of the country that Nigerian army has proven unwilling to hold — and that the government in Abuja has been remarkably unwilling to even contest. Years of institutional rot and regional tension have helped enable one of the most vicious jihadist insurgencies on earth.
As the New Yorker’s Alexis Okeowo wrote today, the attack might not actually have killed 2,000 people. But going by Okeowo’s reporting, which is based on Nigerian sources who had access to survivors, the attack would still rate among the deadliest ever pulled off by any terrorist group.
Okeowo cites a well-placed Nigerian source who “had spoken with Baga residents and a district head who said that they had seen hundreds, but not as many as a thousand, bodies: people who were breathing and eating one moment and dead the next, from a grenade or bullet. Surviving families have been fractured as they seek refuge elsewhere in Nigeria and beyond its borders.”
Her sources say that the attack may still be ongoing. And it’s taking place in one of the most remote and dangerous places in northeastern Nigeria — a factor that could go a long way towards explaining why Boko Haram has grown capable of reaching such astonishing levels of violence.
The Context Of Boko Haram’s Biggest Attack
The recent Boko Haram rampage is taking place against the backdrop of Nigeria’s presidential elections, scheduled for this coming February.
The current president, Goodluck Jonathan, is from the country’s oil-rich southern half and is emphasising his economic record while making every attempt at ignoring the conflagration in the northeast. Boko Haram, which comes from the Muslim and historically marginalized and underdeveloped north, is perhaps trying to derail the electoral process and undermine confidence in Nigeria’s tenuous multi-ethnic, secular, and democratic order.
At the same time, Boko Haram’s recent activities may be dictated by factors that have little to do with the elections themselves. In mid-2014, just after the April kidnapping of over 200 girls from a school in the northeastern town of Chibok vaulted them into global infamy, Boko Haram became interested in actually securing and holding territory in the northeast, something it has done with a worrying degree of success. The group even declared a “caliphate” in August, a possible echo of ISIS’s ambitions in the Middle East.
As Brandon Kenhammer, a Nigeria scholar and an assistant professor of political science at Ohio University explained to Business Insider, Boko Haram’s gains may have had more to do with the weakness of the Nigerian state than with any long-term strategy.
“They’re trying to destabilize the region and demonstrate that the security forces can’t hack it in northeastern Nigeria,” Kendhammer says.
And they have succeeded. “Boko Haram is doing what they’re doing in part because they can,” says Kenhammer. “In the absence of any real Nigerian military capability, they walked into more than they thought they’d be able to.”
Boko Haram now has a safe-haven along the Chadian and Cameroonian borders and the resulting breathing room and supply routes have created their own justification for holding territory. “So long as Boko Haram controls the northeastern quadrant of Nigeria, they can shape the environment to their liking,” Rudy Atallah, the CEO of White Mountain Research and a former US Air Force officer told Business Insider. Boko Haram has seen an opportunity to put down roots for long-term territorial control, and they’re taking advantage of it.
It’s a situation partly enabled by the Nigerian military’s collapse in the northeast. Nigeria’s army was once one of the most powerful in Africa, and earned international respect for helping to pacify Sierra Leone and Liberia during the countries’ conflicts in the late 1990s.
But Nigeria’s politics and major institutions are highly regional and ethnic. And the military, which has seen its leadership, preparedness, and hardware all decline in quality over the past decade, has been accused of repeated human rights violations in the already marginalized northeastern parts of the country that Boko Haram now controls.
“It’s hard for the army to make any headway when the average soldier who is up there is probably not from those states, not speaking the local languages and are are under-equipped and facing a civilian population that is distrustful and frightened,” Alex Thurston, an expert on Islam in Nigeria who teaches at Georgetown, told Business Insider.
The army has suffered defeats at Boko Haram’s hands in the northeast and even deserted several bases. Boko Haram’s brutality, along with the military’s poor abilities and unsavory reputation, has left the Nigerian army unable to operate in the parts of the country the group controls. The army also seems incapable of reforming itself. Nigeria cut off US military training assistance in December, partly out of Abuja’s frustration that US concerns over the military’s human rights record had blocked any additional aid from Washington.
The government seems uninterested in remedying the situation. President Goodluck Jonathan is emphasising the country’s economic gains during his presidential campaign — Nigeria passed South Africa as the continent’s largest economy last April. And Kenhammer adds that Jonathan is surrounded by political allies from the south and central parts of Nigeria who may not see Boko Haram as a national-level problem.
“If you look at who’s around Goodluck Jonathan there are so few northerners inside that inner circle that I’m genuinely not sure how seriously this is being taken in Abuja,” he says. “I think there is a large but influential minority of people who think of this as being a problem those Hausas [the dominant ethnic group in Nigeria’s north] are having.”
Boko Haram has managed to keep up its campaign of violence because of its ability to hold territory in the face of a deficient military and a relatively indifferent central government. That still doesn’t explain what the group hopes to gain from its nearly over-the-top brutality — its killing of an estimated 11,000 people and use of kidnapped children as suicide bombers.
Boko Haram’s brutality has had the practical effect of scaring off the Nigerian military and sending a grim message to people in northeastern Nigeria about the deadly costs of defying the group. But it also speaks to Boko Haram’s particularly extreme worldview.
“[Abubakr] Shekau is a lunatic,” Atallah says of the group’s leader.” There’s nothing between his ears except radicalism. He’s a self-absorbed and narcissistic guy who believes he has a solution to the world.”
Boko Haram doesn’t have as fully developed a jiahdist ideology as ISIS or Al Qaeda does. But Thurston believes they have a stark view of the world that expresses itself through the group’s violence.
“My suspicion is that their brutality is more tactical than ideological,” says Thurston. “With that said, I do think that they have a really sharp sense of themselves as an in-group and of everybody else as an outsider.”
They also have a motive common to all terrorist groups: the objective of provoking fear and galvanizing both its supporters and its enemies, no matter how horrifying the human cost.
“I think the kidnapping of the Chibok girls was intended to shock the whole world, and it worked,” says Thurston. “Their propaganda is not necessarily sophisticated, but they have at least mastered the art of shock.”
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