Boko Haram and the New Conflict Economy in Nigeria, By Uche Igwe

Uche IgweIn the last few months, Nigerians have watched with horror and trepidation, the continuous bloodshed of innocent Nigerians in the North Eastern of our country. It has been seemingly a situation of helplessness as many propositions fly in the air of what this is and what it is not. Some say the Boko Haram insurgents are a formidable and invincible group of well organised agitators. Are they? Others say that they are better resourced and equipped than the Joint Task Force of the Nigerian Army and so the soldiers run away whenever they hear that the Boko Haram soldiers are approaching. Really? A few others insist that Boko Haram is still a very organised hierarchical, and ideologically bound group with a supreme decision making body known as the Shura Council that meets regularly to take decisions on their targets and activities. True? While one will easily debate these views, it is safe to say that Boko Haram remains a loose but lethal group whose bloody operations have inflicted pains on many and have reconfigured and disfigured the Northern region. I spent some time watching most of the videos released so far by the Boko Haram and it gave me very interesting insights. What may be true is that there are probable underlying political economy issues that are currently sustaining the insurgency. It is a yet-to-be cracked complex network involving the security agencies, politicians, informants, community leaders, etc. It has become a very lucrative venture for these vested interests and until these issues are unearthed and dealt with, we may only be confronting symptoms without treating the real disease. It is very frightening to imagine that the continuous massacre of defenceless innocent lives may be of potential or actual benefit to anyone. But that is the reality of our time and I will point you to a few directions.
The first thing that is evident from the video is that these insurgents are not as many as we are made to believe. It does not appear that there are up to one thousand active Boko Haram fighters within their fold. They may be very deadly and blood thirsty but they get fewer by the day – may be less than five hundred. That is why they embark on constant propaganda to exaggerate their strength . They do not live in any jungle or in caves as we are made to believe. The region has a semi- arid geography with very sparse vegetation. Even without any military training, I reckon that detecting them from an aerial surveillance equipment and bombarding them adequately should not be rocket science. So how come the same Nigerian military that excelled in ECOMOG and other external assignments worldwide are suddenly said to be subdued by such a rag-tag group of insurgents. It sounds unbelievable to me. What is believable however is that Boko Haram insurgents may have many sympathisers even within the security agencies. Besides, the trillions of naira spent in combating this insurgency annually is keeping some people busy and making others smile to the bank. This is where the complains of motivation come in. For that cycle of funding to continue, Boko Haram must remain alive and effective. For them to continue to derive those benefits means that the status quo must remain. In a situation of instability, structures of accountability are either weak or completely absent. If you extinguish Boko Haram then you have taken away their cash cow.
The second aspect amplifies the first in a way that is clearer to many observers. The ‘successes’ recorded by Boko Haram might not be unconnected to these alleged contacts and sympathy they have within the security agencies. Now think about how some police officers were allegedly linked to the ‘successful’ attack by the Ombatse cult on security agents a few months ago in Nassarawa State. Can we cast our minds momentarily back to the operations of the then militants in the Niger Delta and how they might have collaborated with insiders in the Joint Task Force(JTF) to always know how and when to escape a few minutes before the soldiers arrive to bombard their camps. Some of us imagined that they were invincible but now we know better. How else will you explain that Boko Haram insurgents will operate for five hours in a state under emergency rule without any help coming from any of the security agencies supposedly patrolling the streets. In some of the recent operations, it was reported that the insurgents allegedly over powered the military and chased them away. It then took one week before the insurgents returned back to that community to conduct a successful raid that led to the death of more than 190 persons. One would expect that even if the soldiers were dislodged at the first time, they would have gone back to get reinforcement and come back to that community rather than leaving the community on their own. That second successful invasion was therefore preventable. Furthermore how does one explain that Boko Haram insurgents get regular supply of weapons and military camouflages that they have used in some of their recent operations even when the borders are closed? Just wondering.
While I leave you to ponder with these questions, let us talk about the third issue. The issue of protection money. Apart from occasional ransoms collected from kidnapping and cash collected from successful bank robberies, another alleged source of funding for Boko Haram insurgency is the so called protection money. Many politicians and businessmen of Northern extraction have allegedly paid some amount of money to these insurgents at one time or the other in exchange for protection. According to informed sources, it is either Boko Haram members or their representative contact these people by phone or write a letter to them. They will usually ask them to drop a particular amount of money to someone somewhere or get killed. Instead of alerting the security agencies, these characters prefer to obediently assemble the cash and drop it at the point requested by the insurgents. Most of the politicians you see today pretending not to know about Boko Haram have paid their share of protection money. Can we pause and count how many millionaires and prominent politicians who have been killed since the Boko Haram onslaught started? Does that suggest something to you?
Another direction I wish to point to is the probability that the continuation of insecurity in the North East may mean that no elections may hold there in 2015. Whether we agree or not, this will potentially reduce the apprehension of politicians in the ruling party, the PDP. Looking at the 2011 Presidential elections, the North Eastern states were predominantly won by the opposition Congress for Progress Change(CPC) except Adamawa and Taraba states. States like Bauchi and Bornu gave the CPC Presidential candidate 81.69 and 77.25 percent votes respectively. With the recent exit of key figures in Adamawa politics from PDP into the All Progressives Congress, it is easy to predict the outcome of the next elections in that state. That leaves only Taraba state possibly for the ruling party. Even that is debatable judging from the poor health of Governor Danbaba Suntai whose support base was key to the outcome of the last elections. For a federal government that may be going into elections at the edge of its popularity, the more there are red spots where conflict may prevent INEC from conducting elections, the higher their chances to concentrate efforts and resources in their(PDP) strong holds.
My final point is the probability that these insurgents are embedded amongst our communities. They are ours sons, brothers, boyfriends, cousins and husbands. We know them. Don’t we? But we are either too scared to talk or we are busy enjoying the bounties that they bring home. That is why they are always masked. In the video, they spoke fluent Kanuri. On close scrutiny one will imagine that the location of their rehearsals is not anywhere in the wilderness. It is somewhere just next door. There was a brave man who once denounced his son in Maiduguri and pointed him out to JTF soldiers and he was shot while trying to escape. As a father I know the pains he would have endured to take such an action. I commend him. It is similar to the sacrifices of the people we have come to know as civilian JTF. These are fearless youths in these communities who probably know who some of these insurgents are. They were regularly reporting them to the security agencies. Rather than come to apprehend these Boko Haram members, these patriotic informants got killed instead by the insurgents. So who exposed them? Out of utter frustration these young men constituted themselves to what is now known as civilian JTF and resorted to self-help. The effectiveness of these civilian JTF in policing some of the communities and the support and intelligence they have given to some successful military operations supports the view that these insurgents may be within reach. Former Vice President Atiku Abubakar alluded to this some days ago. Why are these civilian JTF members not supported, trained, equipped and funded?
With these wicked bloodletting still going on, it is time for all of us to pause and go beyond the simplistic narratives of the boko haram insurgency and dig deeper to expose the conflict economy that sustains it. It is web of corruption, extortions and blackmail that somehow benefits the elite to the detriment of the poor. It is my wish that these few points will contribute to the conversation and point those in charge to the right directions. Silence is no longer golden.

Uche Igwe is Doctoral Researcher in Politics at the University of Sussex. He can be reached at [email protected]

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