What Boko Haram Wants

I recently learned that a friend of mine from northern Nigeria had gone into hiding late last year. An activist, he was targeted by the Islamist group Boko Haram for trying to broker peace talks. The militants were apparently not ready to do much talking.

The story crystallizes the reason that Boko Haram really, viscerally terrifies me: neither I nor anyone as far as I have been able to discover can put a finger on anything concrete that they actually want. CNN has begun describing Boko Haram as “fighting to install Sharia law in Northern Nigeria.” That’s patently not correct, given that Sharia law was already imposed in Northern Nigeria a decade ago. Other analysts argue that Boko Haram wants to install a total Islamic state, as their propaganda videos proclaim.

But I’d argue that what the Islamists are looking for is clearly something less de jure and more de facto. They don’t seek political power or even religious power as an ends—they may well seek exactly what they are increasingly getting: the power to completely paralyze the country.

Paradoxical as it seems, seeking chaos has often been a strategy to gain control for rebel groups in West Africa, where Nigeria is the regional giant. Take Sierra Leone, where the Revolutionary Patriotic Front cut off hands and legs as they burned villages one at a time. In doing so, they installed a perverse system of fear, extortion, and violence that became the only set of rules. Boko Haram has refined its own set of tactics: laying bombs at police stations, assaulting victims by motorcycle, laying waste to Churches, and occasionally appearing as armed gunmen. The seeming randomness of it makes life—real living—actually impossible. The economy, the fabric of society, the very rules and norms, are already starting to break.

Ideologically, this makes (perverse) sense to a group that was, in its earliest iterations, motivated by a deep sense of the injustice of the status quo. That, at least, most everyone can agree on. Northern Nigeria is an incredibly degrading place to lack status—which most people do. Opportunities are defined by family and community ties that procure access to an oil-rich state. And that’s about it. Justice is ad hoc, the rules—enforced by undisciplined police—have often seemed arbitrary.

For the last decade, that perilous order has already shown signs of collapsing into violence. Competition between communities for resources and land has erupted into inter-religious violence in countless spurts. Boko Haram is the next iteration. Northern Nigeria was already broken. But the militants are ensuring that it is destroyed too.

That Boko Haram could construct a new status quo out of chaos and terror—to me, this is the greatest risk. Because what happens when things fall apart is that it takes decades and generations to stitch them back together. Just take my friend’s story on a bigger-picture level. Now, it’s not just the government and the militants who are failing to talk. Now it’s my next door neighbor and I, or the schoolteacher who teaches my son and a good half of his classroom. It ups the ante of violence too. The terrified police find that they can only regain their own authority by ruling with the same terror that Boko Haram instills.

This cycle puts a very real time pressure on finding solutions to what is going on. The longer the chaos lingers the more permeating it will become. And even those who try to help—like my friend—will find themselves powerless to do more.


Photo Credit:  Zouzou Wizman

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