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Boko Haram and the competing narratives

Political elites in Nigeria trade accusations over who is responsible for the failure to stem Boko Haram's violence.

Last updated: 03 Jul 2014 14:00
Zainab Usman

Zainab Usman is a doctoral candidate in International Development at the University of Oxford. Her research assesses political institutions, the oil economy and economic reform in Nigeria since the transition to democracy in 1999.
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Some 5,000 people have been killed in violence instigated by Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria [AP]

Nigeria has recently been brought to global media attention both as the largest economy in Africa and as the home country of the Boko Haram insurgency. The growing security threat has been accompanied by a failure to develop a comprehensive narrative about Boko Haram's origins, its motivations and its implications for the country's future. The absence of such a cohesive narrative by the Nigerian government, its citizens and the communities affected is indicative of the need for a domestic solution to tackle this security challenge. 

The recent abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls from the remote community of Chibok in Nigeria's northeast focused the world's attention on the country's five-year battle with violent extremism. Within this period, the goals of Boko Haram have evolved - from leading a hermetic life away from a society they deemed corrupt and decadent, to a vengeful war against all symbols of modernity, democratic governance and Western education. 

Upsurge in violence

Unfortunately, Nigerians haven't been as quick to come to terms with the upsurge in violence. The now-daily suicide bombings, mass murders, mysterious assassinations of political, traditional and religious leaders, mass abductions and other incidents of mindless violence are still hard to grasp.

In the first five months of 2014, over 5,000 lives were lost to such violence, according to the think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations. In the wake of the glaring inability of the government to contain this violent extremism, several competing narratives have emerged.

On the part of the Nigerian government, the narrative has been mostly incoherent and highly politicised. With the Chibok girls' abduction for instance, both the federal government and the states in the northeast - Boko Haram's stronghold - have been preoccupied with trading blame. Constitutionally, the responsibility for security lies with the central government.

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Since May 2013, three of these northeastern states have been under a state of emergency, which gives greater powers to the central government over their security.

These states accuse the federal government of negligence, incompetence and corruption affecting the capacity of the military. In turn, the federal government blames the states for exaggerating the insecurity in their domains to embarrass it. 

The key to understanding this lack of cohesion between the federal and the northeastern states lies in understanding the nature of the heated political environment.

The next round of general elections in 2015 may be the country's most contentious. President Goodluck Jonathan, it is widely believed, will run for a second term, against a groundswell of opposition under the All Progressives Congress (APC).

Jonathan's emergence as presidential candidate in 2011 breached the ruling People's Democratic Party's (PDP) power-sharing rule in which presidential power alternated every eight years between the mostly Christian southern elites and their mostly Muslim northern counterparts. In the typical rhetoric of political brinkmanship that characterises electoral politics in Nigeria, a few aggrieved northern PDP politicians who felt short-changed of their turn at the presidency, threatened to make the country "ungovernable" for Jonathan, a southerner. 

Where these empty threats should have ordinarily dissipated into thin air, they coincided with the escalation of the Boko Haram insurgency. The Islamist group which emerged in the early 2000s became increasingly violent after confrontations with security agencies, as an International Crisis Group report documents. The extra-judicial murder of Muhammad Yusuf, the group's leader by the police in 2009, captured on camera, forced the remaining members into hiding. They reassembled a few years later, embarking on a viciously vengeful killing spree.

South-north divide?

In 2011, Jonathan became president in regionally polarising elections, on the platform of a fractured ruling party, and with a simmering insurgency about to explode in its full wrath. The interaction of all these meant that as Boko Haram waged its campaign of violence, including its historic bombing of the UN building in Abuja, the president and his inner circle wrestled to consolidate their power in the PDP. 

Consequently, a narrative slowly emerged from the president's mostly southern support base that the insurgency was being sponsored by "disgruntled northern politicians" to undermine his administration. This view has been articulated by known associates of the president such as Chief Edwin Clark and ex-militant Mujahid Dokubo Asari. 

Talk to Al Jazeera - Doyin Okupe: Failing to control Boko Haram

It is now a widely-shared belief by many southerners that the worsening insecurity is evidence of the northern elite making real their erstwhile threat, as opposed to the governance challenges bedevilling every aspect of Nigerian society. The northern elite are funding the insurgency, destroying their infrastructure and killing their own people just to make Jonathan look weak, it is said.

In the north where most of Boko Haram's attacks and victims have been concentrated, a widespread sense of fear, alienation and deep distrust pervades. This stems from the federal government's inability to contain Boko Haram despite the increase in defence spending to $5.8bn (or 20 percent of the budget) and militarisation of the northeast.

Rather, brutal human rights abuses by the security forces and allegations by combat soldiers of deliberate sabotage by their commanders reinforce the deep distrust in the federal government. The president's slow response and perceived indifference to attacks in the north has further alienated him from many northerners - he only publicly acknowledged the Chibok girls' abduction two weeks after. 

Consequently, the predominant narrative among many northerners is that Jonathan's federal government at best has little interest in ending the insurgency in the north; and at worst, his associates may be indirectly fuelling it, to weaken the region and its elites' national political leverage. This is a view recently articulated by Murtala Nyako, the governor of Adamawa, one of the states under emergency rule. Coincidentally, the governors of all three northeastern states under the state of emergency are in the opposition party, the APC.

As the country's elites and citizens blame one another, Boko Haram appears more determined. As the country's social fabric unravels after each bomb blast, and the narratives become more disparate, Boko Haram remains consistent with its vision against Western education, modern governance structures and inter-religious harmony. The strong national cohesion needed among Nigeria's leaders and citizens to collectively tackle this terrorist threat is lacking due to contentious local politics. References to a civil war and a disintegration of the country are now constant features online, in print media and other fora of public discourse.

It is commendable that at this time of need, governments of the United States, United Kingdom and other global powers have pledged military support to help Nigeria to contain this terrorist threat. Yet it is up to Nigerians to decide whether to unite and tackle the insurgency, or continue blaming each other while the country gradually unravels at the seams.

Zainab Usman is a doctoral candidate in International Development at the University of Oxford. Her research assesses political institutions, the oil economy and economic reform in Nigeria since the transition to democracy in 1999. Her research interests are in governance, natural resources management, economic development, political institutions and gender in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Follow her on Twitter: @MssZeeUsman

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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