Boom spoke to award-winning Nigerian broadcast journalist, Funmi Iyanda, to understand the Boko Haram conflict in Nigeria.
Boko Haram is an Islamist militant group which was founded in 2002 by Islamic cleric Mohammed Yusef. The words “Boko Haram” loosely translate to “Western culture is Islamically forbidden”. It was initially focused on opposing Western education but it launched an armed insurgency in 2009. The group now wants to overthrow the Nigerian government and impose “Sharia law”.
In April 2014, it drew international condemnation by abducting more than 200 schoolgirls from Chibok town in Borno state, saying it would treat them as slaves and marry them off – a reference to an ancient Islamic belief that women captured in conflict are part of the “war booty”.
Following months of destruction and violence in northern Nigeria, Boko Haram on January 3 started a series of large-scale attacks which left over 3,700 homes and buildings damaged or completely destroyed. The death toll is estimated at over 2,000 people. An Amnesty International report released on January 15 said that these attacks carried out between January 3 and 7 are “the largest and most destructive yet.”
The current Nigerian President, Jonathan Goodluck, has faced sharp criticism for his failure to contain Boko Haram. Goodluck is a Christian from south Nigeria and is now campaigning for re- election against Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim from the north. Buhari is a general who ruled the country as a military dictator in the early 1980s.
The elections, which were scheduled to be held on February 14, have now been postponed by six weeks to March 28, due to security concerns.
Boom Live: Why has the Boko Haram situation become so dangerous in the last year and a half?
Iyanda: Boko Haram started as a revolution of those who were oppressed by the state, for whom the inequalities have been occurring for generations, and has given them a life that’s hopeless. So, they started out that way, an alternative narrative was presented to them by certain religious leaders. They should have been stopped earlier on. They were not stopped. They got more and more powerful, taking advantage of the deep ethnic divisions within Nigeria and the weakened states. It’s become dangerous because the Nigerian government has been a bit careless in handling them.
Boom Live: We read that almost 50,000 sq. km of territory in Nigeria is under Boko Haram, which is roughly 130 towns and villages. Are these figures true? And what does this mean for the rest of Nigeria?
Iyanda: It’s hard to be sure about those statistics. Nigeria is a large country. We have had challenges with getting accurate statistics, including certain census numbers. The states that Boko Haram has penetrated are big states, in terms of land mass. To give an example, I know that Borno state is 22 times the size of Lagos state and Lagos has 19 million people living it. So, if you multiply the land space that would take 19 million people by 22, you begin to get an idea of how huge that land mass is. And that’s just one of three states that Boko Haram has had some sort of inputs in them.
It’s an unfortunate situation in Nigeria, not only is it a huge land mass, there are different ethnic realities and cultures. Because this situation has been politicized in the past, there is a tendency to see this as a problem in northern part of Nigeria. There is a polarization both religious, ethnic and in terms of social class. There is a sort of detachment in some parts of the country from the realities of what is going on in the north. And that, unfortunately, also happens in governance. So, handling it has been difficult. There is an externalizing of the problem. However, people are becoming more and more aware of it. As soon as the government begins to see it not as northern problem but as a Nigerian problem, they will begin to have some in roads.
Boom Live: Prseident Goodluck has been trying to address this issue; there is a new African Front to combat the problem. What is your sense on these efforts and how strong are they to address the problem at hand?
Iyanda: We must realize the problem of Boko Haram, because it was not caused overnight, will not be solved overnight. There are three different levels that we should address it from. The immediate, a military attempt to actually crush the army of Boko Haram. Then, there has to be some sort of negotiation, some sort of engagement with the elders – religious, influential, ideological leaders – within the communities to begin to help the people pull back. And finally, we have to address the underlining issue of inequality, of poverty, of lack of education. Often, people misunderstand what they mean by Boko Haram – to simple mean we don’t want books or we don’t want Western education.
It’s not about Western education. Post-colonial Nigeria inherited a government, a structure, a police and an army that is designed to be oppressive and take resources from the people. That hasn’t changed for too long. Nigeria’s government has construed of a small elite who have benefited themselves but have not benefited the people. So, different parts of Nigeria have rebelled. There is some sort of rebounce violence. In the northern part of Nigeria, it’s been Boko Haram. I can explain why that is so. In the south-western parts of Nigeria, it’s armed robbery. In the south-eastern parts of Nigeria, it’s kidnapping. In the south, it’s militancy. So, there are different pockets of violence in the country.
Boko Haram became important because there is a religious element to it. Some people provided an alternative, false narrative to young men and women who have lost hope in a system that is oppressive to them. They have been presented with something that they can connect with. It has been presented that this is Western, this is an idea that has oppressed you for so long, and this is a way of life that has oppressed you. It is a flawed narrative. It is a narrative that has to be re-written, has to be re-taught to a whole new generation of people in northern Nigeria, and in the whole of Nigeria. So there are three levels of looking at it. It cannot be just done by militarization. You cannot crush people who do not care. There is a whole army of them and they are recruiting more and more people. Not just in Nigeria, but across that region, from Nigeria to Mali, to Cameroon, to Niger.
Boom Live: Are you saying that it may not be the best way to treat Boko Haram as terrorists?
Iyanda: I don’t think we can treat them as terrorists, in the Western sense. Terrorists are enemies of the state and are usually external to the state. You are talking about citizens of Nigeria, in the end. Citizens who have, in a way, been emotionally seceded from the entity called Nigeria.
Boom Live: How do you think the problem can be solved? Where should the current Nigerian government begin?
Iyanda: First is to regain the trust of the community, because in dealing with this problem, both the army and Boko Haram have become to the people agents of oppression. People do not trust the army either. So, they need to rebuild trust within those communities so that they can also help in rooting out elements and leadership of Boko Haram within the community. The Nigerian army is powerful. The Nigerian army fought many wars in the past and helped restore peace in several parts of Africa. The army needs to be re-armed and re-worked. So that they can do their work the way they used to do it. They can penetrate those territories and regain Nigerian territories.
The Nigerian government has had a challenge, in equipping the military properly and supporting them in the proper way. We also need to have a President who takes personal charge and personal responsibility, who has a sense of outrage as a Nigerian for what is happening in northern parts of Nigeria. There is nothing stopping them from moving to other parts of Nigeria.
That has to be done, on one hand. On the other, on the community level, we need to start to engage ideological leaders who will be right to re-tell this narrative to the people. Finally, we have to address the issue of inequality. We have to address the issue of infrastructures that are broken, a state that does not work for the majority of the people.
Boom Live: Are things coming under control today? Have they improved, from a Nigerian’s citizen’s point of view or are they still very delicately poised?
Iyanda: It’s still delicately poised. The elections in a couple of weeks are very important. There is an incumbent President and a new challenger who used to be a General in the Nigerian army. He is also a modern extraction; he is austere in his manner and his ways. Maybe he will be able to solve the problem. Either way, what is important is whoever becomes the President of Nigeria from May 29th, 2015 has to take the issue of Boko Haram seriously. He has to stop regionalizing it.
Boom Live: Have you had the opportunity to engage or interview anyone in the senior leadership of Boko Haram?
Iyanda: I haven’t had that dubious honour of interviewing anybody who’s at the top level of Boko Haram because nobody knows who is at the top level of Boko Haram. What I have done is actually interviewed the Nigerian General Olukolade, who is the spokesperson of the Nigerian armed forces. He is a really impressive gentleman, an honourable soldier. When you speak to him you begin to understand what the challenges are. Even the army as it is construed – its methods, its ways – are repressive and oppressive.
The Nigerian soldiers must be commended. They are going out into the forests and these regions and they are fighting with very limited resources. To call them cowards or to dishonour what they are doing would not be fair. I think they should be empowered to do what they can do and they would do something that can bring relief to the Nigerian people.