For four years, the Islamist militants of Boko Haram have been waging a deadly campaign in northern and central Nigeria, killing thousands of people. In response, the Nigerian military is cracking down on the group, and the United States last week designated Boko Haram a terrorist organization.
I recently traveled to the northeastern city of Maiduguri, where the insurgency began in 2009 with the goal of imposing Islamic law on Africa’s most populous nation. This was after the founder of Boko Haram, Mohammed Yusuf, was killed while in police custody and his mosque and camp headquarters razed by the security forces.
It’s clear the Nigerian military rules the streets here. They are flagging people to move out of the way as they travel in convoy, at speed. The troops say they have a suspected militant in custody and they’re going to show him to journalists.
The Nigerian army presents a man who’s identified as a former insurgent. He looks bewildered and overwhelmed by the media attention. The 22-year-old doesn’t want to be identified. He’s frightened there may be reprisals against his family.
He’s on crutches. As he was captured, a bullet hit his left lower leg, which is bandaged. Asked by journalists how he came to be a part of the anti-government insurgency, the young man says he was forced to join the extremists in northeastern Nigeria, but others are willing members.
“We had every profession: qualified doctors, engineers and security and weapons’ experts,” he says. “We had mechanics and welders, carpenters, drivers and butchers; some of them are much older than us.”
Boko Haram’s Goals
Boko Haram vows to impose Shariah, or Islamic law, across Nigeria, which is predominantly Muslim in the north and largely Christian in the south. But this prisoner says religion did not appear to be a priority for his group’s leaders.
“I did not see any act of religion there. There was no work of God. They have never preached Islam to us,” the prisoner says. “The name of Allah is invoked only when we are running out of food supplies in the bush. Then our leaders assemble us together and declare that we are embarking on a mission for God and for Islam. We are just killing people, stealing from them and suffering in the bush. I was terrified. Every day was hell.”
Boko Haram, in the local Hausa language, means “Western education is forbidden.” The group was formed almost 10 years ago by machete-wielding militants attacking government and security buildings. Then they moved onto motorbikes, lobbing grenades. Now they wage war with armored cars, rocket-propelled grenades and roadside bombs.
And increasingly, they target civilians, Muslims and Christians alike — at school, in a college dorm in the dead of night and on public transportation. Victims often have their throats slit, echoing the way Muslims traditionally slaughter animals. Boko Haram militants battled Nigerian security forces and attacked a hospital and other targets last month in the northern city of Damaturu.
In a video, militant leader Abubakar Shekau brags that he led the raid that killed 127 people. It was the first major attack in months on an urban target and an audacious show of strength, after seven months of emergency rule and a military crackdown.
In addition to placing the group on its terrorist list, the U.S. government has put out a $7 million bounty on Shekau.
The Military Claims Advances
Nigeria’s army claims it is driving the militants out of the northern cities and chasing them into the bush.
Col. Ibrahim Yusuf, the acting brigade commander, says it’s wrong to think the insurgents are able to strike at will.
“Strike at will? I don’t think we are being taken by surprise,” Yusuf says. “Attacking civilians shows their weakness. They are frustrated and they are only venting their anger on civilians. It means they have lost the support of the civilians.”
The Nigerian government also must respect human rights, says Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs.
This follows a recent report from Amnesty International that hundreds of people died in Nigerian military custody between January and June of this year.
“Most of the reported deaths occurred in facilities used by the military to detain people suspected of being members of or associated with the armed Islamist group Boko Haram,” the organization said. It said the deaths must be investigated as a “matter of urgency” and that those responsible for human rights violations be brought to justice.
“It’s not all about security,” Thomas-Greenfield said during a recent media briefing with the head of the U.S. Africa Command. “They do have to take into account the impact of their operations on civilian populations as they go after Boko Haram.”
In Maiduguri, the prisoner tells journalists that foreign fighters from three neighboring countries were among the insurgents in the Islamist rebellion, fueling widespread fears of the violence spreading beyond Nigeria.
“We do have members of the group from Chad, Cameroon and Niger who actively participate in most of our attacks,” he says.
Boko Haram boasts of links to al-Qaida and other terrorist groups, adding to the fears of a nation already prone to deadly explosions of tribal and sectarian violence.