Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Where is Nigeria’s Boko Haram Going?

Security personnel comb the scene of a bomb explosion at the Sabon Gari bus park in Kano, July 24, 2014. (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters)

After a weekend of carnage in Kano and two high profile kidnappings in Cameroon—following a nearly successful attempt on the life of former chief of state Muhammadu Buhari—Boko Haram is more than ever a central preoccupation in Nigeria (and now, presumably, in Cameroon).

The only thing we know for certain is how little we actually know about Boko Haram. It should be noted, for example, that Boko Haram has yet to claim responsibility for the attempt on General Buhari’s life. Certain political elements in Nigeria would be happy if Buhari left the scene, and pre-electoral periods in Nigeria are historically murderous. So it is possible that the attempt on Buhari’s life was authored by a group—or individual—other than Boko Haram. It’s also true that Buhari stands for many of the elements that are anathema to Boko Haram, at least in its rhetoric. A genuine Nigerian patriot, he is also a devout Muslim. An active participant in public life, he has constantly interacted with Christians on the basis of mutual respect and shared interests. And his fierce battle against corruption was an attempt to address the fundamental bad governance that has fed Boko Haram. Boko Haram murders Muslims who participate in secular politics, and who oppose the group. It is hostile to Muslims who seek good relations with Christians. It utterly rejects the secular state. Hence, I think it is likely that Boko Haram was in fact the perpetrator. But the evidence remains circumstantial.

So, where is Boko Haram going? Is it seeking to establish a territorial state along the lines of the ‘caliphate’ established by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)? Boko Haram warlord Abubakar Shekau has said he wants to establish a ‘caliphate’ in northern Nigeria, and he has praised the ISIS caliphate. Boko Haram’s recent campaign of bridge destruction in Borno state could be part of an effort to establish a separate territorial entity, one which may be the basis for a caliphate. Perhaps Maiduguri could play a role similar to that of Mosul in Iraq. However, Boko Haram has not yet established any visible institutions of government in the territories it controls, though there are reports that it is levying tolls at checkpoints.

A Boko Haram caliphate is, of course, only speculation for now. But, because the group appears to be evolving quickly, scenarios difficult to imagine only two or three months ago have become plausible.

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