Analysis: Is Boko Haram a part of Al Qaeda

Raymond Beauchemin

The National, Monday, May 26, 2014

Radical Islam and Muslim-Christian conflict are merely one factor in the tension and violence gripping northern Nigeria. Ethnic and regional strain, worsened by economic inequality and scarce resources, is the foundation of the country’s conflict.

These issues have created a situation where insurgent groups flourish. Boko Haram is but one of at least a dozen rebel groups and hundreds of armed gangs called “cults” operating in Nigeria.

“What has escalated recently is a scramble for power among ethno-political interest groups throughout the country,” said Mark Schroeder, vice president for African analysis at Stratfor, a US geopolitical intelligence firm.

“There are the Fulani, the Kanuri, President [Goodluck] Jonathan’s Ijaw in the Niger Delta region. All these ethno-political groups have used militants to advance their political interests.”

The militants in focus recently have been members of Boko Haram, a youth group founded in northern Nigeria in 2002, but which turned radical in 2009 when clashes with police resulted in military action. Boko Haram’s mosque was destroyed, hundreds of members were killed or arrested and its charismatic leader, Mohammed Yusuf, was executed. Yusuf’s deputy, a radicalised Abubakar Shekau became the implacable head.

Since then, Boko Haram has been blamed – or taken responsibility for – dozens of bombings and kidnappings. Bombings last week in Jos, a tin-mining town in the country’s central plateau area, that killed at least 118 people were suspected to be Boko Haram’s work.

The kidnapping of almost 300 schoolgirls in April has prompted an international effort to free them and a multinational attempt by Nigeria’s immediate neighbours to rout Boko Haram. Last week, Mr Jonathan said Boko Haram was now “clearly an Al Qaeda operation”.

Mr Schroeder disputes that notion.

“It’s a stretch to say Boko Haram is a franchise of Al Qaeda. What we can say with credibility is there has been interaction” with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which has a base in Algeria and has spread into Mauritania, Mali and elsewhere. “During that time, members of Boko Haram have travelled into Mali and into Algeria to consult, to gain strategy and tactics to bring back to the battlefield in northern Nigeria. But is Boko Haram a part of Al Qaeda? It’s not that kind of operation.”

Boko Haram’s influence is not likely to spread beyond the borders of Nigeria as some western analysts fear, nor does militant Islam have a pan-African dimension. The reason: the ethno-political and economic problems that led to the creation of Boko Haram and the other Islamist groups.

“When Mali was on the verge of collapse, the question was asked: ‘What about next door?’” Mr Schroeder said. “There were very similar circumstances, but we did not see a [Tuareg] rebellion replicate in Niger and Chad. Same in Mauritania.”

Local problems then, require local solutions. The insurgent groups in Nigeria are fighting for self-determination and/or a greater share of the region’s oil resources, according to Project Ploughshares, a conflict-resolution NGO in Canada. Years of oil production have devastated the environment, and land is at a premium because once-arable areas have turned to desert, a problem in many sub-Saharan countries.

Comfort Ero, the Africa programme director for International Crisis Group in London, wrote in the Financial Times this month: “Nigeria remains the key. Abuja needs to address the underlying problems that led to Boko Haram’s birth and sustain its fighters’ grievances – systemic corruption, bad government, decaying infrastructure and massive unemployment.”

Mr Jonathan, who is up for re-election in 2015, has been castigated internationally for his failure to act on Boko Haram after the kidnapping of the schoolgirls. But in many ways he might see his hands as tied.

The Nigerian writer Max Siollun, writing in The Guardian, says an attack by Mr Jonathan, a southern Christian, on a northern Islamic group, would result in lost votes.

For Mr Schroeder, it is more complex than that.

“If Jonathan is re-elected, the Boko Haram insurgency will escalate. What will happen is the grievances by the northern elite who already believe they have been usurped of their rightful place in power by Jonathan will see that grievance deepen and that will translate into more political space for Boko Haram to act. There will be less cooperation and goodwill with Jonathan to assist in the counter-insurgency. If he’s not elected, we expect to see a resumption of some militancy in the Niger Delta area where all the oil is located.”

“There needs to be a political resolution by [Abuja] that genuinely promotes inclusive government,” Mr Schroeder said.

“Nigeria needs to have a reversal, to foster a new government that is inclusive of the other regions, with patronage to those regions. Strongmen always think they can overcome the regions through force and if Jonathan does not reverse that trend, it will only get worse.”

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