Inside Story

Boko Haram and the battle for Nigeria's north

As authorities launch an offensive to deal with the hardline rebel group, we ask if military action is the best answer.

Last Modified: 18 May 2013 13:44
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The Nigerian army is back on the offensive. Its target: the armed group Boko Haram. And this time it is determined to defeat them.

Nigerian troops have deployed fighter jets, helicopter gunships and thousands of soldiers to take back territory the group seized in northeastern Nigeria.

This week, President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in three states.

We have some very serious concerns about the human rights situation of people living in northern Nigeria .... We were seeing a civilian population that were terrified of the group but also terrified of the security forces. We documented summary executions, unlawful detention, house burning, by Nigeria's security forces - and this is the security forces that are mandated to protect the population [who] are carrying out some very serious human rights violations.

Lucy Freeman, Amnesty International

The offensive has been welcomed by many who have seen Boko Haram's violent campaign kill around 2,000 people since it began in 2009.

But rights groups have called for restraint. They say they have documented cases of abuse by Nigerian forces in the past, including summary executions and random shootings.

Nigeria has been battling the group since 2009.
Boko Haram, which means "Western education is forbidden" in the local Hausa language, was launched in 2002. But it was not until seven years later that it began attacking police stations and government buildings.

The armed group rejects what it sees as western influence in Nigeria.

And it has been fighting to overthrow the government and establish an Islamic state in the North.

It has bombed government targets. And its gunmen, often mounted on motorcycles, have assassinated policemen, Christian politicians and anyone else who criticises the group.

Many Muslim civilians have also been killed in their attacks.

Nigeria's populace is more or less evenly split between Christians in the south and Muslims in the north. Poverty, rising energy costs, and personal security are concerns in the north .

There is debate in Nigeria about offering an amnesty to Boko Haram fighters. An amnesty was used with some success in Nigeria's delta region, where for years, armed groups waged a war against the government and the oil companies.

They demanded an equitable distribution of the country's oil wealth. And they caused a big headache for the  multinationals by illegally siphoning off millions of dollars worth of their oil.

But a government amnesty for fighters in the delta four years ago has largely ended the insurgency there.

And now, some Nigerians say an amnesty could end the rebellion in the north. So far though, Boko Haram has shown no interest in putting down its weapons.

So, just how much of a danger is Boko Haram to Nigeria? And is military action the best answer?

To discuss this, Inside Story, with presenter Jane Dutton, is joined by guests: Doyin Okupe, a senior special assistant to President Jonathan on Public Affairs; Vicki Huddleston, former US ambassador to Mali and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs; and Lucy Freeman, the deputy director for Africa at Amnesty International and author of the report Nigeria trapped in the cycle of violence.

"What we really need here, and we should have learned this lesson in Mali, is that individual states are not very good at confronting these problems that are associated with al-Qaeda. So what we need here is the African Union to be involved, and if not the African Union, the United Nations, so that there are observers on the ground, so that there is appropriate help for the Nigerian government .... This is a regional problem, it needs a regional solution."

 - Vicki Huddleston, former US ambassador to Mali



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