Thirteen years ago, Nigeria was on a collision course with a little-known extremist group with a home base in the northeastern city of Maiduguri. The group would later survive the government’s attempt to crush it in July 2009 and outlive its first generation, including the demise of its charismatic leader Mohammed Yusuf.
Were there alternative paths to extinguish the fire and prevent the subsequent humanitarian crisis?
HumAngle rewinds to some of the defining moments and reexamines steps that have now turned out to be costly, worsening a crisis that has caused about 350,000 deaths, displaced well over two million people, and left millions needing humanitarian assistance.
“Tura Takai Bango” was synonymous with Nigeria’s military offensive in the region last year. Incidentally, the Hausa phrase, which means a state where one is pushed to the wall, was also used by Mamman Nur, a ranking Boko Haram member, during a sermon in the days leading up to the July 2009 uprising. Nur’s words could be considered a reflection of the heightening tension in the build-up to the group’s resistance and mutation.
Authorities failed to swiftly adopt measures to either deescalate, delay or possibly disrupt the impending crisis, such as implementing policies to counter the violent extremist teaching and social grievances being exploited for recruitment. Neither did the government manage the open letter, “Budeddiyar wasika”, which appeared as a call for redress and signalled an imminent transition to armed struggle.
The straw that broke the camel’s back
The open letter addressed to senior government officials such as the then President, late Umaru Musa Yar’dua, the military chiefs, and Borno state governor Ali Modu Sheriff, centred on the tension with security forces, the friction with other scholars, and the social issues knitted around the sect’s ideological creed. It was also the last warning for intervention.
The government missed a critical moment to take specific actions like reviewing the activities of the joint military and police paramilitary (MOPOL) security outfit codenamed Operation Flush. The team had become infamous for brutality and aggressive behaviour against the public and members of the sect. One such incident was the June 11 encounter with mourners heading to the burial of four associates at the Gwange cemetery from the headquarters, Markaz Ibn Taymiyyah. The officers had ultimately fired their weapons, leaving about 20 persons injured.
A significant factor behind the hostilities was the enforcement of helmets for motorcycle riders. It was also the focus of the statement delivered on the evening of June 12, 2009, in the Duki neighbourhood of Maiduguri, replacing the usual Friday sermons. As he narrated the incident and the conditions of the injured, Yusuf could be heard saying, “we will not accept it, we have not forgiven, and we will not let go.”
The situation continued to deteriorate at the University of Maiduguri Teaching Hospital, where access to treatment was difficult. Members returning to donate blood were denied entry following instructions from security officers. The government is believed to have missed another valuable moment to intervene by assisting the victims with medical care. This would have slowed down the movement’s race toward violence.
“Because of that, we won’t listen to anyone. We have already done it. We won’t write to anyone. We won’t listen to anyone. We won’t discuss with anyone. And we don’t accept this beating, this shooting, and we haven’t forgiven,” Yusuf said. “If you don’t remove the soldiers, there won’t be peace.”
The escalation hastened the group’s transition from passive activities and preaching to armed struggle. The more radical elements in the group were already pushing the thrust and could have broken away from Yusuf, who was known to have been a proponent of preaching before moving to the phase of confrontation. This doctrine could be seen from his disagreements with a faction headed by Muhammad Ali, who migrated and established a settlement in the Kanamma area of neighbouring Yobe. In 2002, the two clerics began to sow the seeds of radicalism.
In his speech, Yusuf lashed out at other clerics. Over the years, the group got involved in debates with Salafi scholars such as Shaikh Ja’afar Adam and Mohammad Awwal Adam ‘Albani’ on its ideology and position on subjects such as careers permitted for Muslims and western education. At the time the group was transitioning, the Islamic clerics who opposed it appeared to have slowed down their interrogation and debates, instead going hard and recommending a clampdown.
Materials on the group’s evolution over time, the persona of Yusuf, rejection of secularism, and translations of the preachings were covered extensively in the book, Boko Haram Reader.
The book also highlights the use of Islamic theology for radicalisation and indoctrination of adherents and provides details on debates, including on the status of western education and working for the Nigerian government between Yusuf and the current Minister of Communication, Mallam Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami.
The naming of the group Boko Haram by the media and public, meaning western education is forbidden, is a reflection of one of the most contentious creeds of the group.
Another factor that exacerbated the situation and likely energised the extreme radicals was the arrest of 62 members, including Abubakar Shekau, while opening a Friday prayer mosque in the town of Monguno in northern Borno. According to a source, Shekau, then the second-in-command, was also the spear of the more extreme section of the movement. He was not in support of obeying and listening to “unbelievers” (taghut) and reportedly benefited from Yusuf’s frequent absence due to petitions. This allowed him to take hard positions that would later be rescinded but whose effects could not be reversed.
The uprising was subdued with the deployment of additional soldiers and support equipment. “The situation has been contained in Bauchi and Yobe. The bad situation we have now is in Borno, where the leader of the group is residing … We are going to launch an operation, a main operation to flush them out,” President Yar’Adua told reporters before leaving for an official three-day visit to Brazil.
The gaps in state response were not isolated to wrong tactics. They included a lack of efficient early warning mechanisms. There were also insufficient steps to counter the growing extremism and prevent the insurgent group from building weapon stockpiles and developing a capacity to produce improvised explosives. An example of this was the channelling of funds for arms procurement to a contact recruited while in police custody.
Other incidents in Maiduguri and the southern Borno town of Biu revealed the manufacturing of explosives devices. In an interview with Reuters, the deputy governor at the time, Adamu Dibal, disclosed that security forces recovered materials for preparing bombs in the preparatory stage. He was also quoted to have said that they discovered a training camp in Biu three weeks earlier and seized bomb-making equipment. Dibal added, “A week later, a man was killed, and another blew his leg off trying to make a homemade bomb at a house in Maiduguri.”
According to the then Commissioner of Police, the suspects arrested in the raid in Biu said the group’s leader had instructed them to prepare for a battle. A search resulted in the recovery of swords, bags containing gunpowder, empty homemade bomb shells, and substances for making bombs.
A group member told Daily Trust, “We have not used the explosives yet. We were carrying out religious activities in peace. It was the police who shot our men some months ago for no just cause, and since that incident, we made up our minds to arm ourselves to resist any future attack on us by anyone.” The outlet reported that sources close to Yusuf said the group was aggrieved because the state government and security agencies neither assisted those shot nor apologised for the shooting.
At this point, the revolt was already in motion, and the leadership also faced the risk of an internal feud if it did not proceed. The clashes with the police in Bauchi, where hundreds of members “armed with guns, bows and explosives” stormed the police station in Dutsen Tanshi, increased the anxiety in Maiduguri.
In a telephone interview, Yusuf stated, “What I said previously that we are going to be attacked by the authorities has manifested itself in Bauchi, where about 40 of our brothers were killed, their mosque and homes burnt down completely, and several others were injured, and about 100 are presently in detention. Therefore, we will not agree with this kind of humiliation. We are ready to die together with our brothers, and we will never concede to non-belief in Allah.”
The revolt in Maiduguri commenced despite not attaining the planned level of readiness, as the first team, including Shekau, advanced towards the state police headquarters under cover of darkness after midnight. The violence was also recorded in Postiskum in the neighbouring state of Yobe and Kano in the Northwest.
After the uprising
The post-uprising period involved a window of opportunity to correct shortcomings in the government’s response and address old and new grievances, such as the extrajudicial killings by the police, including that of Yusuf, Buji Foi, and Yusuf’s father-in-law Baba Fugu Mohammed. The authorities also failed to manage the fallout and the divergent views within the group on the course of action, as some wanted a change in approach while others wanted a scale-up of the armed struggle and revenge.
Shekau would subsequently become the leader of the group formally known as JAS, Jamā’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l-Jihād, and initiated a campaign of terrorism and insurgency which reached its peak with the capture of several local government areas and declaration of a caliphate in the region.
The group rebranded to the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) after the 2015 pledge of allegiance to the then Islamic State (ISIS). In 2016, it reverted to the JAS designation after the 2016 formation of a rival group that retained the ISWAP name. Its members, including Nur and Yusuf’s son Abu Musab al-Barnawi (Habib Yusuf), had relocated and carved out a sphere of influence around the Alagarno forest and the Northern Borno-Lake Chad axis.
The new faction grew to become one of the most active ISIS affiliates in the world, while Boko Haram’s capacity continued to diminish even though it had a presence in Lake Chad and the Northwest. In May last year, the friction between the groups climaxed with the ISWAP conquest of Sambisa and the death of Shekau.
In 2012, journalist and security analyst Ahmad Salkida summarised the crisis thus: “It is deeper beyond the skin and requires even much deeper strategic and sophisticated engagement. Sadly, all that has been seen from players at the policy level has been anything but out-of-control techniques. There’s been so much opportunism, so much personal profit, and so much shadow acting. The superficial is at the driving seat where professionalism is in dire need.”
What’s clear is that the Nigerian state had problems understanding and responding to the threat partly because of a deficit in intelligence and strategy to counter the group’s operations. The government also chose the path of confrontation, instead of the more practical option that addresses the ideological, social, and political factors.
Not much has changed. Problematic tactics and the lack of effective law enforcement have continued to draw back Nigeria’s security response to threats despite repeated failures of such approaches to contain and resolve the crisis.
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