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The Rule of Boko Haram

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Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters
Children who escaped Boko Haram attacks in Michika and Cameroon, Adamawa State, Nigeria, January 2015

In early May, during the final days of the hot, dry season, I flew to Yola, the capital of Adamawa State in eastern Nigeria and an apparent safe haven from the Boko Haram insurgency. Over the past year, the radical Islamic fighters had taken over large swaths of territory in three northeastern Nigerian states, killing thousands, conscripting many young men, and kidnapping and raping young women and girls. But after a series of defeats at the hands of the insurgents, the Nigerian army had begun pushing them back. It had just liberated hundreds of women and children from captivity in the Sambisa Forest, a 23,000-square-mile reserve of savannah and near-impenetrable bush in neighboring Borno State, where many of the Boko Haram fighters had taken refuge. The army had trucked 275 freed hostages to a displaced persons’ camp—an abandoned training school for nomads—on the outskirts of Yola.

John Medugu, a social worker, led me through a yellow-concrete classroom building and into a shadeless courtyard. Dozens of women, children, and babies sat in the 100-degree heat, eating boiled yams for breakfast. Most of the children looked malnourished. The captives had endured harsh conditions in the bush, huddled beneath shade trees to escape the fierce sun, eating at best two meager meals of corn or watery bean soup a day, sleeping on the ground, forced to walk through the night to stay one step ahead of the Nigerian army.

During these marches, they had sometimes gone twenty-four hours without food or water. Christian women who had agreed to convert to Islam, as well as those who married Boko Haram fighters, had received preferential treatment from their captors. The fighters appeared to have used systematic rape as a means of controlling and humiliating their captives. They also, Medugu said, want to ensure the rise of another generation of Islamic jihadists. Thirty of the roughly ninety women aged eighteen and older, he told me, were pregnant.

One twenty-six-year-old woman I talked to came from a village near Chibok, the site of the girls’ secondary school from which 276 students had been abducted by Boko Haram a year before—one of the group’s most notorious crimes. (None of the Chibok girls was among those who had been rescued.) Her husband had disappeared during the Boko Haram attack on her village in April 2014, she told me, and she had been taken to the forest with her two children, ten and seven years old. When Nigerian troops had overrun the camp at eleven o’clock in the morning five days earlier, they started shooting at the retreating terrorists, and several women had been struck by bullets and died on the spot. Armored vehicles had crushed others to death. The insurgents had carried off both of her children. “They are worthless people,” she told me. “They have no humanity.” Like almost all of the former captives, she was participating in a daily therapy session to deal with the trauma of repeated rape.

“I met one sixteen-year-old girl who was threatening to remove her own fetus,” John Medugu told me. “We keep her under close observation. When she delivers, we will take away the child, otherwise she will kill it.”

The country known as Nigeria began to coalesce at the beginning of the twentieth century, when Frederick Lugard, a British mercenary and explorer, forced the Sokoto Caliphate and Islamic emirs across the Sahel of West Africa to submit to British rule. On New Year’s Day 1914, Lugard formally joined together that protectorate in the Muslim north, dominated by Hausa and Fulani pastoralists, and another protectorate created from the wetlands around Lagos and the Niger Delta and largely populated by Christian Yorubas and Igbos. Four decades later, prospectors struck oil in the Niger Delta, starting a torrent of wealth that many believed would help resolve Nigeria’s deep internal divisions and turn the country, which gained its independence from Great Britain in 1960, into a global power.

Today Nigeria, with a population of some 174 million people, is the world’s tenth-largest oil producer, pumping 2.4 million barrels a day, and has the highest gross national product in Africa. But the riches have brought neither stability nor prosperity. A series of military dictatorships siphoned off billions of dollars of oil revenue over Nigeria’s first four decades, creating a culture of corruption that permeated society.

The civilians who have ruled Nigeria since 1999 have proven no more honest. Transparency International last year ranked Nigeria as the thirty-ninth most corrupt country in the world. Criminal gangs, some with ties to powerful politicians, smuggle out $1 billion worth of oil each year. Last year, Lamido Sanusi, then the head of Nigeria’s Central Bank, accused the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation—the agency that buys, sells, regulates, and produces the country’s oil—of diverting $18.5 billion in oil revenues in a single year, between 2012 and 2013. “It’s just a big scam,” Sanusi said. “The amount is shared by a cabal.” Weeks later, Sanusi was fired, setting off protests across Nigeria. By some estimates, the country’s leaders have stolen $400 billion worth of oil wealth since independence.

As the political and military elite enriches itself, the average Nigerian has grown poorer. Most of Nigeria’s population survives on one dollar or less a day. The desperate scramble for resources has bred a culture of violence, and deepened divisions between north and south. The southern Igbo tribes, largely Christian, attempted to secede from Nigeria in 1967, claiming that they could not coexist with a northern-dominated federal government. In the civil war that followed, some three million died. In the southern Niger Delta, the oil-producing heartland, rebels angered about being cut out of oil profits carried out a wave of political killings and kidnappings for ransom in the 1990s and 2000s before the government bought them off. Violence between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria’s “Middle Belt” has left thousands dead in recent years, and the poverty in the north, coupled with contempt toward the ruling elite, has provided fertile ground for radical Islam.

Boko Haram arose in Borno State in the northeast, one of the poorest and least developed parts of the country. It began as a peaceful movement that called for the adoption of a purer form of Islam and criticized the government’s corruption. But over a decade—in response to military brutality, jihadist ideology, and the utter passivity of Nigeria’s federal government—it transformed itself into one of the world’s most murderous terrorist groups.

In his meticulously reported new book, Boko Haram: Inside Nigeria’s Unholy War, Mike Smith, the Lagos correspondent for Agence France-Presse, traces the career of Boko Haram’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf, a self-educated young preacher in Maiduguri, a trading center of two million people in the savannah of Borno State, not far from the Chad border. Smith describes how, around 2002, Yusuf, who espoused a stridently fundamentalist Islam, began attracting followers to “a makeshift set-up outside his home,” later constructing his own mosque in a neighborhood of Maiduguri called Railway Quarters. Yusuf argued that Western institutions and ideas are haram—forbidden under Islamic law—and called on Muslims to reject the legitimacy of the Nigerian state and to regard science, modern literature, and other secular teachings as apostasy. He singled out Borno State’s governor, a repressive and corrupt politician, as a symbol of all that was wrong with Western education. “Yusuf’s message resonated with those who didn’t go to school,” Kyari Mohammed, a university professor in Yola and an expert on Boko Haram, told me. “Going to school means taking a government job, and then tomorrow you become stinking rich.”

Yusuf did not publicly advocate violence, but his followers were stockpiling weapons. This was easy to do in northern Nigeria, with its corrupt army and police as well as porous borders. In 2008, security forces under both state and federal control began harassing and arresting Yusuf’s followers for minor transgressions, such as disobeying a law mandating wearing helmets on motorbikes. After an escalating series of skirmishes, the army, joined by members of the notoriously brutal Mobile Police, attacked Yusuf’s headquarters in Maiduguri. Fighting spilled into the streets, and hundreds of people, both Boko Haram and security men, were killed during several days of gun battles. Smith writes:

Yusuf had by then become something of a folk hero to his followers and a marked man for the security forces. He was 39 and had been repeatedly arrested, but always found himself later released, welcomed back to his neighborhood in Maiduguri by adoring crowds. Some described him as a reluctant fighter, content to build his movement by preaching the evils of Western influence, condemning evolution and denying that the Earth is a sphere.

After this battle, the army captured Yusuf and turned him over to the Mobile Police, who executed him on the spot. He had named as his successor Abubakar Shekau, a fiery preacher who served as the group’s “chief of doctrine” and who was regarded as even more extreme than Yusuf. “He was known for getting emotional, for shedding tears while preaching,” Kyari Mohammed told me. Shekau spent one year lying low—there are reports that he was recuperating from a gunshot wound received during the fighting in Maiduguri—and then reemerged in September 2010. Fighters broke down the gate of the main prison in Bauchi, the capital of northern Nigeria’s Bauchi State, freeing hundreds of Yusuf’s followers. By then the group of militants had become known as Boko Haram, Smith writes,

not necessarily by its members, but by local residents and the news media who picked up on the idea that its leader was opposed to Western education. The most commonly accepted translation of the Hausa-language phrase is “Western education is forbidden,” though it can have wider meanings as well. The group would eventually refer to itself as Jama’atu Ahlus Sunnah Lid Da’awati Wal Jihad, or People Committed to the Prophet’s Teachings for Propagation and Jihad.

Nigerian President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, a northern Muslim, died unexpectedly of a heart ailment in May 2010. Goodluck Jonathan, his vice-president, a Christian from Bayelsa State in the Niger Delta, succeeded him. He ran for the office the next year against Muhammadu Buhari, a former military dictator from the north. Jonathan, observes Smith, represented a break from the past:

He seemed to inspire a certain amount of hope—somewhat ironically given his sleepy persona. His unlikely rise and calm demeanor led to the impression that he may be different from the country’s dominant politicians who had robbed Nigeria of so much of its wealth over the years. His campaign managers…sought to capitalize on it, using Jonathan’s Facebook page to announce his candidacy and emphasizing his family’s humble roots. Despite his sometimes fumbling speech…there was a feeling among many in the country that Nigeria had tried strongmen, military men and slick dealmakers, only to be left disappointed. Perhaps it was time for something else.

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Mike King

Jonathan defeated Buhari decisively, with nearly two thirds of the vote. Two months later, on June 16, 2011, a thirty-five-year-old disciple of Abubukar Shekau drove a bomb-laden car into police headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, killing two people in addition to himself. It was Boko Haram’s first suicide bombing, and a declaration of war against the Nigerian state by Shekau and his followers, who numbered about three thousand at the time. A bomber struck the United Nations headquarters in Abuja in August 2011, killing twenty-one. Boko Haram’s violence escalated. The group attacked police stations and military barracks, and bombed churches, mosques, and bus stations.

Shekau exercised nominal control over his fighters, but local commanders were given great latitude, Nigerian military experts told me, to choose their targets. Soon, they singled out villages whose residents were seen as sympathetic to the Nigerian army or government, slaughtering thousands of men, women, and children. In 2013 local vigilantes and the army expelled Boko Haram from its main base in Maiduguri. Around this time, local journalists told me, the insurgents began kidnapping girls and women, apparently to replace wives and girlfriends whom they had been forced to leave in the city.

Jonathan seemed to ignore the violence. His advisers sought to persuade him that the killings were a plot organized by aggrieved northern politicians to embarrass him, government and diplomatic sources in Abuja told me, and they argued that the terror in the northeast posed no threat to the rest of the country.

Jonathan had little rapport with the military elite, many of whom were northern Muslims. “Jonathan was afraid of his generals,” a government source told me. “I don’t think he could call his generals and say ‘get up and move.’” As a result, I was told by Hamza Idris, a correspondent for the Daily Trust newspaper, based in Maiduguri, who has reported on Boko Haram from its beginnings, “a small militia group was so emboldened that it believed that it could attack anybody.”

Shortly before midnight on April 14, 2014, hundreds of female students were asleep in their dormitory rooms in a government boarding school in Chibok, a settlement in rural Borno State. The girls had gathered to take end-of-the-year examinations at the school, having been assured by the state and the military that they would receive protection. In fact, only a single security guard was on duty that night as several dozen armed men, some in military uniforms, overran the premises, herded 276 girls onto trucks, set fire to the school, and drove their hostages into the bush. Boko Haram had targeted schools before—two months earlier, the jihadists had shot and burned to death fifty-nine boys at a boarding school in Damaturu in Yobe State—but the abductions showed the government’s inability to protect its most vulnerable citizens.

Days later, Shekau released a rambling video in which he vowed to sell the women as slaves. “God instructed me to sell them, they are his properties and I will carry out his instructions,” he said. The abductions led to a social media campaign, led by a former Nigerian education minister, and supported by Michelle Obama, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai, and other prominent figures. But it had little effect on the army, which mounted a few halfhearted efforts to find the Chibok girls—while killing unarmed civilians who were perceived to be sympathetic to Boko Haram.

In late 2014, rebels advanced across Borno and Adamawa states in an effort to recreate a “caliphate” in northeastern Nigeria. Government troops abandoned one base after another, allowing stockpiles of weapons and armored vehicles to fall into the insurgents’ hands. The “religious zeal” of the jihadists, the journalist Hamza Idris told me, contrasted with the lack of motivation and demoralization of the average Nigerian army conscript. Dispatched to the front lines with a handful of bullets in their rifles, the troops were well aware that their families would receive little or no support from the state should they be killed in battle. “You see hundreds of wives and children of deceased soldiers begging in Maiduguri,” Idris said. “They were tossed out of the barracks, forced to live with the relatives of their husbands.”

One Nigerian sergeant admitted to me that he had fled his base in Mubi, a trading center of 300,000 people in Adamawa State that fell in late October 2014, as soon as he heard firing in the distance. “We had just our rifles, and those people came with tanks and anti-aircraft guns,” said the soldier. He ran away with 120 other soldiers and almost the entire civilian population. The jihadists “were well organized.”

Buhari again challenged Jonathan in the 2015 presidential election. In the early 1980s, the dictator had led a draconian “war against indiscipline,” dispatching police to whip unruly commuters at bus stops and forcing civil servants who arrived late to work to perform frog jumps in their offices. The war against indiscipline had been carried to “sadistic levels, glorying in the humiliation of a people,” wrote the Nobel laureate for literature Wole Soyinka. This time Buhari cast himself as a born-again democrat, and his aura of authority appealed to a population that had grown weary of Jonathan’s fecklessness and a worsening war.

By this point Boko Haram had murdered more than 23,000 people. The group in early 2015 declared its allegiance to the Islamic State. “We announce to you to the good news of the expansion of the caliphate to West Africa,” an Islamic State spokesman declared in response, “because the caliph…has accepted the allegiance of our brothers of the Sunni group for preaching and the jihad.” There is no indication that Boko Haram has received weapons, money, or fighters from the larger group, but diplomatic sources told me that monitoring cross-border movements of money and arms in western Africa is difficult, and some sharing of resources could be taking place.

During the period before the 2015 vote, Jonathan finally began to take action against Boko Haram. He replaced the incompetent commander of the Nigerian army’s Seventh Division, responsible for security in the northeast, and provided his troops with better weapons. Tanks and antiaircraft guns arrived from Ukraine, Pakistan, and other suppliers. The US government stepped up its drone surveillance and shared intelligence. In January 2015 the government hired a group of South African mercenaries, who provided combat helicopters and pilots and trained a Nigerian army strike group.

The next month, the governments of Chad, Niger, and Cameroon formed a military coalition with Nigeria to take on the insurgents. Boko Haram fighters had mounted cross-border attacks with increasing frequency, and the insurgency was driving thousands of Nigerian refugees across the frontiers. Under pressure from three foreign armies and a newly supplied Nigerian force, the rebels lost in six weeks most of the territory they had captured in 2014. “We’re in a situation now that nobody had predicted,” a Nigerian army officer in Yola told me, saying that most of the Boko Haram fighters were now pinned down inside the Sambisa Forest south of Maiduguri. “We have reduced the area they control dramatically.” The turnaround came too late to help Jonathan, who was defeated by Buhari in the election in March.

A few days after I arrived in northern Nigeria, the military invited me to observe its operations to clear Boko Haram from Adamawa State. Seven troops in a camouflage-painted pickup truck led the way out of Yola, a hardscrabble city of 400,000 people. Two soldiers leaned out the back of the vehicle, swatting passersby with tree branches—an act of gratuitous violence that, I thought, summed up the contemptuous attitudes of the army, one of Africa’s most undisciplined and brutal forces.

A few days after my travel with the troops, Amnesty International released a damning report claiming that the army had “extrajudicially executed” more than 1,200 people, “arbitrarily arrested” at least 20,000, and committed “countless acts of torture” in its war against Boko Haram. At least seven thousand, the report alleged, had died in brutal conditions while under military detention. The organization claimed that these deaths “may amount to crimes against humanity” and held responsible nine top military officers including Alex Badeh, the chief of Nigeria’s defense staff. Nigeria’s military lashed out at the report in a news release, calling it “blackmail.”

We drove north through parched brown scrubland, studded with acacias and baobabs and bordered by black hills. After forty minutes, we reached Hong, the southernmost town held by Boko Haram before it was driven out a few months earlier by the army’s counteroffensive. Banks, administration buildings, and civil servants’ housing, symbols to the rebels of the hated Nigerian state, had been gutted and burned, as had a church. We passed the shells of Russian T-55 tanks that Boko Haram had captured from military bases and deployed in combat before the army disabled them. The jihadists had painted them over with slogans such as “There is no other God but Allah.” All three bridges along our route had been destroyed, either dynamited by the rebels or bombed from the air by the army. Beside one collapsed bridge, local teenagers and young men were doing a brisk business pushing cars and trucks across a shallow river. “When the rains start and the river rises,” Jacob Zambwa, a civil servant, told me, “we’re going to be completely cut off.” The state government, he said, had ignored their pleas for help.

After five hours we reached Michika, in northeast Adamawa State, at the limit of the Nigerian army’s northward advance. People were starting to trickle back from displaced persons’ camps in Yola, and they walked down the main road, on which they could see wrecked cars, abandoned government buildings, and, in front of one shop, the ashes of insurgents who had, I was told, been captured and burned alive. Boko Haram fighters were said to be lurking still in the surrounding bush and the Nigerian commander who escorted me warned me not to stray from the main road through town.

Walking along the road past a military checkpoint, I met a Hausa-speaking civil servant named Bitrus Buluma. He told me that jihadists had attacked his evangelical church in Michika during Sunday services in September 2014, shooting people indiscriminately. His wife had been killed as she tried to reach an exit. He had fled through the Mandara Mountains along the Cameroon border for days, and stayed with relatives in Yola. “I’ve returned because I can now see that there is military here, but I cannot say I feel entirely safe,” said Buluma, who had gotten back the previous day. Just down the road, cries could be heard from the courtyard of a ruined health clinic. Soldiers had captured a Boko Haram straggler, and were interrogating him while beating him with a stick. In front of the headquarters of the region’s armored brigade, two shirtless white mercenaries basked in the sun atop a tank. When I raised my iPhone to snap a photo, they waved me off and cocked their weapons.

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AFP/Getty Images
Secretary of State John Kerry with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari after his inauguration, Abuja, May 2015

Buhari took office at the end of May in a lavish inaugural ceremony in Abuja, attended by many foreign dignitaries, including US Secretary of State John Kerry. He has said that he will make the eradication of Boko Haram his priority. “Buhari will have much higher expectations of the military [than Jonathan], and he will be much tougher on the uniformed leadership,” one Western official told me. Buhari pledged in his inaugural speech to crack down on military abuses even while raising pressure on the radical Islamists. “We shall overhaul the rules of engagement to avoid human rights violations in operations,” he declared. “We shall improve operational and legal mechanisms so that disciplinary steps are taken against proven human right violations by the armed forces.” Hamza Idris, the correspondent in Maiduguri, was more optimistic than others I talked to. “These [northern] communities are his own, the people living there are his brothers. He has the experience, the determination, to contain the insurgency,” he told me. “Very soon it will be difficult to hear anything more about Boko Haram.”

But as Buhari prepared to settle into Aso Rock, the presidential palace in Abuja, Boko Haram was showing that it was not yet a spent force. Abubakar Shekau has taken refuge in the mountain range between Cameroon and Nigeria, where he is said to be directing his fighters by satellite phone. In mid-May, Boko Haram attacked Maiduguri for the third time in a year. The jihadists tried to overrun a military base there but retreated after hours of heavy fighting. Days later a young female suicide bomber killed seven people in Damaturu in Yobe State, and government officials said the insurgents had recaptured Marte, a town on the coast of Lake Chad in Borno State. In early June, two suicide bombers detonated themselves in the market in Yola, killing thirty people. It was the first time that Boko Haram had broken through the capital’s security cordon since the insurgency began. The Chibok girls have still not been found. It is too early to tell whether the recent military successes will be followed by the final defeat of the jihadists. And even if the new regime does manage to eliminate most of them, the endemic poverty, corruption, and religious extremism that gave rise to the movement will prove a far more difficult challenge.