Fault Lines in Unknowable Spaces: Boko Haram and the hunt for Nigeria’s missing schoolgirls

Analysing the group’s evolution from a local spiritually led Islamist organisation driven by the charismatic leadership of Mohammed Yusuf in the early 2000s, to the now-militant cult whose brand of ultra-orthodox sharia law and extreme tactics have made them international ‘bogeymen’, Andrew Walker, a writer and journalist working in Nigeria since 2006, charted the groups repositioning contra-government authority to become “more and more anti-state”.

Miller put to Fatima Akilu, director of behavioural analysis in Nigeria’s office of the National Security Adviser, that this repositioning was initially utilised by state authorities, “that there are political connections with Boko Haram, and at some point the group became a very useful militia which was used to political ends by politicians”.

Effectively representing the government, Akilu confirmed that “the group did work with state governors at the time and helped them to mobilise the youth who were used for election purposes”.

Kayode Ogundamisi, writer and commentator on Nigeria affairs, claimed Boko Harem’s shift towards militancy was a result of the “extra-judicial execution of its spiritual leader Mohammed Yusuf”, leading to the radicalisation of the more extreme elements within the group. Ogundamisi criticised the police for their treatment of Yusuf and several other leaders, claiming that it is they (and, by extension, the state) who are ultimately responsible for the change in tactics that Boko Harem have since adopted.

“This led to what we have today. You cannot accept any state who fights terror with a method of terrorism. The way the government treated Yusuf provided a tool for the terrorist to recruit more sympathisers.”

Bala Liman, doctoral candidate at SOAS examining the nexus between conflict and identity in Nigeria, developed this point further.

“Half of the problem, and why Boko Haram is still existing, is because the military is carrying on these extra-judicial killings, people are getting arrested randomly . . . and, most importantly, the government are capturing [Boko Haram’s] women.”

Liman continued on the subject of the missing schoolgirls, stating that the abduction tactics employed by Boko Haram are as much a personal response to the actions of the government as a terror strategy.

Akilu sought to differentiate the actions of Boko Haram by contextualising the most recent incident, and why it achieved such international attention.

“What was different about these girls [compared to the brutal massacring of girl in the past] was that they took them alive.”

Discussing the potential solutions to the current situation, Walker was quick to point out the difficulties in attempting negotiations between Boko Haram and the government due to the complex internal structure of the group.

“It’s never really sure who you are talking to – whether that’s the full totality of the group. Because of the way it’s arranged, split into factions, means it’s very difficult to organise how to get to these people. I think one of the biggest problems of this whole group is that they are a kind of unknowable empty space in this remote place and all of these fault lines flow through this empty space. We don’t know how Boko Haram organise themselves, we don’t know how they tell themselves whether they are spiritual or not and it’s difficult for people who are outside, be it the presidency or here looking in, to understand what is going on and how to get in there and do anything.”

Likening Boko Haram to a franchise, Ogundamisi responded that while it is irresponsible and dangerous to negotiate with a group whose goal is to Islamise Nigeria, “the first priority is for the state to enforce itself as a state”.

All the panel agreed that what lay at the heart of the issue was the corruption within Nigeria and the inherent mistrust that ordinary Nigerians have for state institutions – from education to the army.

While the panel also recognised a need to prevent the “next generation” of young people becoming radicalised, there was disagreement as to the solutions effected on the ground, be they long term or in dealing specifically with the present abduction crisis.

Quoting Yasser Arafat that “the person you negotiate with is your enemy”, Ogundamisi cited the influence of the hardline core group within Boko Haram, combined with a federal system where power is so centralised in one man, which makes any negotiation virtually impossible and ultimately undesirable.

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