Boko Haram: Africa’s Islamic State?

February 6, 2015

By Agnes Chambre

The Frontline Club was at full capacity on Wednesday 4 February, as a panel of experts discussed the implications of Boko Haram’s presence in West Africa in the lead up to the Nigerian presidential elections on 14 February.

Boko panel

L -R Peter Okwoche, Funmi Iyanda, Mike Smith, Bala Mohammed Liman and Alex Perry.

The panel included: Bala Mohammed Liman, a doctoral candidate at SOAS specialising in the intersection of conflict and identity in Nigeria; Funmi Iyanda, a Nigerian producer, journalist and talk show host; Mike Smith, a foreign correspondent with AFP and former West African bureau chief; and Alex Perry, a contributing editor at Newsweek‘s international edition and author of The Hunt for Boko Haram. The discussion was chaired by Nigerian journalist at the BBC Peter Okwoche  who, by way of an introduction, commented that the panel knew “Nigeria even better than me, which says a lot!”

The discussion began with Smith and Perry explaining why Boko Haram had reached such prominence under the current Presidential term, and the ways in which the Government was at fault for their failure to act.

Smith said: “This is absolutely a national issue now, maybe a regional issue. We don’t want to exaggerate though, Jonathan called it the ‘Al Qaeda of West Africa’, but it is absolutely not that.”

Perry said: “[Boko Haram] has reached the regional level [of importance] because Nigeria has allowed it to. We have to focus on the core issues: a total lack of governance and corruption that people are fed up with. It doesn’t legitimise Boko Haram, but you create a situation where some unrest becomes much more likely in these circumstances.”

Okwoche asked: “Should the buck stop with Goodluck Jonathan?”

Perry answered: “Nothing good that has happened in Nigeria has anything to do with him… look at the disinterest and indifference. It took 20 days for the Government to even notice the Chibok girls were missing. I mean, my God, 20 days to notice a whole school had gone… It was an unbelievable confirmation of the indifference and shows how out of touch the political elite are.”

He continued: “The government in Nigeria, it’s a very dark place, it does something very corrosive to notions of civic trust and culture of public good. If you think everyone in Nigeria is out for himself or herself, it makes you pretty frightened and cornered.

“You can’t trust people to tell the truth, truth evaporates and there is a darker motive behind everything… A solution to this is beginning to disappear, and that is really scary.”

A member of the audience commented on the group themselves: “We speak very little about the Boko Haram organisation itself. Maybe it is the Western media or my ignorance, but it seems like we know relatively little about the hierarchy of the group, the ability of the organisation.”

Smith responded: “My best definition of what we have now, is that Boko Haram…is just a good name to call all the things going on in the insurgency. Some of it may be different cells, or it may be one dominant cell – it gets quite complicated.”

“We have no idea how many members they may have because they recruit at will, and recruit both people who just need money or who are attracted to the ideology.”

Perry said: “This is local town rebels gone slightly, well totally, sociopathic. You can almost say what they are against, but saying what they are for is almost impossible because they are incredibly bad at articulating it.”

He continued: “I am not underestimating their brutality at all…. it has become a death cult. There is an awful lot of ceremony around the beheadings, there are readings from books, and everyone is arranged in a circle. How do you counter an idea when there’s not really an idea there to counter?”

A member of the audience asked how poverty affects Boko Haram’s level of recruitment, and asked the panel to comment on the impact of high unemployment and disillusionment amongst young people in this regard.

Okwoche interjected with a shocking statistic: “Within the age group of 19-25 in Nigeria, the unemployment rate is 40%. That completely blew my mind.”

Perry said: “In the North, I imagine that figure would be double. The marginalisation and exclusion and huge youth bulge could be a great resource, but if it is not tapped, if that energy isn’t re-directed, it’s a time bomb. Social exclusion is the bedrock with which Boko Haram is founded. There is no doubt about it, the area has some of the worst poverty statistics for anywhere in the world…it really is one of the worst places to live on earth. But there is no alternative, there are no jobs, and Boko Haram will pay you.”

The final questions focused on the future of Nigeria, and whether the current situation had a chance of improving in the near future. Iyanda answered with little optimism.

She said: “I keep thinking about this and I don’t like any of the answers. Either we get lucky, we get a good change of Government, or we get a change of heart or strategy from the same Government. Otherwise it would have to be that something really desperate happens. The Nigerian government and its sense of well-being would have to be threatened. I don’t know how that would happen… but I don’t want to find out.”

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