Nigerians are the most-represented group crossing the Mediterranean to Italy. They look for economic remittances, as well as escape from jihadist groups

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:55:19

In February 2019, Nigeria will hold presidential elections. As with the last campaign, in 2014-2015, the jihadist group Boko Haram will be a major campaign issue. The group is nowhere near as strong as it was then, when it controlled parts of three states in far northeastern Nigeria. In early 2015, a combination of Nigerian and foreign militaries (and a few mercenaries) pushed Boko Haram out of much of its territory. Since then, a stalemate has obtained: amid repeated government pronouncements that the war is nearly over, and despite repeated announcements that soldiers have killed or captured hundreds of rebels, the conflict continues. Some 2.4 million people remain displaced, authorities’ control is tenuous or absent in some rural areas, and Boko Haram retains the capacity to bomb, ambush, raid, kidnap, and attack.


Boko Haram: Rise, Fall, and Stalemate

Boko Haram, whose name means “Western-style education is prohibited by Islam,” took shape in northeastern Nigeria in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The group is a product of multiple factors. Its antipathy toward Western-style education drew on decades of Muslim resistance to colonial and post-colonial government schools in the region, as well as a more recent wave of frustration with the decline of many public schools and the poor prospects for graduates. In religious terms, Boko Haram’s growth owed much to the rise of Salafism, an increasing competition to win over audiences through strident rhetoric, and an admiration, in some corners, for Osama bin Laden. In a convoluted way, the movement also received a boost from the implementation of sharia in northern Nigerian states after 1999. The prime movers in sharia implementation were elected politicians and prominent shaykhs, but Boko Haram’s founder Muhammad Yusuf (1970-2009) rode the wave of support for sharia, first as a participant of the new system and then as a critic who claimed it did not go far enough. Yusuf received some early support from politicians in his adopted home state, Borno; these politicians initially saw some utility in partnering with a young cleric and his enthusiastic followers, but they dropped Yusuf after he proved more troublesome than helpful.


Over the years, the group came into increasing conflict with local, state, and national authorities. Matters came to a head in summer 2009, when Boko Haram staged an uprising; Yusuf, the leader, was killed by police afterwards. After the uprising’s failure, the remnants of Boko Haram reorganized as a jihadist movement under Abubakar Shekau, Yusuf’s deputy. Boko Haram terrorized northeastern Nigeria and periodically struck other targets, conducting two major bombings in the capital Abuja in 2011 and raiding the north’s most populous city, Kano, in 2012. The group still partly comprised old followers of Yusuf, but Boko Haram attracted new recruits through persuasion, conscription, and force of circumstance, as it overran areas and presented residents with a stark choice of join or die. Meanwhile, security forces’ crackdowns – mass arrests, torture, extrajudicial killings, detention without charge, and so on – eroded civilians’ trust in the state and pushed some people into Boko Haram’s arms. By 2013-2014, all-out war raged in parts of the northeast, involving not just Boko Haram and the Nigerian military but also government-backed vigilantes. As the violence spiraled out of control, Boko Haram began carving out territory for itself, prompting the multi-sided military intervention of early 2015.


Amid its retreat back underground, in March 2015, Boko Haram, under Shekau, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. Before and after Shekau’s pledge, however, internal dissensions plagued the group, with key members denouncing Shekau as a tyrannical, capricious leader whose views on takfir (declaring other Muslims unbelievers) were too extreme even for them. In August 2016, the Islamic State sided with Shekau’s critics, formally replacing him with Abu Mus‘ab al-Barnawi (a son of Muhammad Yusuf) as “governor” of the “West Africa Province.” Al-Barnawi claimed that his faction would re-orient the violence away from Muslim civilians (most of whom Shekau considered unbelievers) and toward the state and Christians.


Since the split, both factions of Boko Haram have remained active. Shekau continues to seek a way back into the Islamic State’s good graces, and his forces conduct suicide bombings and other operations from the Sambisa Forest, a remote part of Borno State. Al-Barnawi’s forces appear more disciplined and savvy, largely fulfilling their leader’s stated aim of targeting the Nigerian military above all. Al-Barnawi’s fighters were responsible for the February 2018 kidnapping of 110 school girls in Dapchi, Yobe State, an incident that echoed the world-famous Chibok kidnapping of April 2014. Although al-Barnawi’s faction is more conciliatory toward civilians, a recent report notes that his “militants had thus far provided little in return [to nearby civilians] in terms of services or governance.” Neither faction constitutes a full-fledged alternative to the Nigerian state, but each takes advantage of state vacuums in remote areas.


Displacement and Migration

As noted above, Boko Haram has caused tremendous displacement of people in northeastern Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin. The displacement has in turn prompted the creation of numerous camps and, on a larger scale, the absorption of thousands of displaced persons into extended families and other communities. Many of these displaced people appear eager to remain in their region, but returning home can be exceedingly difficult and dangerous. The region’s governments, especially those in Nigeria and Cameroon, have repeatedly exacerbated this problem by prodding the displaced to return home before it is safe to do so. Meanwhile, people in camps become prey for sexual assault and exploitation, corruption, and profiling.


The humanitarian fallout of Boko Haram is mostly distinct from the migration of Nigerians and other sub-Saharan African nationals to Libya and Europe. In 2016 and 2017, Nigerians were the most-represented group crossing the Mediterranean to Italy, with over 37,000 arriving in 2016 [figure 1]. As the International Organization for Migration comments, “The majority of Nigerians attempting the journey are young people who say they want to work in Europe because sending Euros home – a stronger currency – will make a big difference to their families.” Anecdotally, at least in news coverage, many of these migrants do not seem to be from the northeast – many surnames suggest southern, rather than northern, origins. The main roots of migration, then, appear to be economic. The migration to Europe also reflects the continued reverberations of Libya’s collapse after the fall of Muammar Qadhafi in 2011 – whereas Libya was formerly an economic magnet for sub-Saharan African migrants and a source of precious remittances for their families, it has now become a crossing point where opportunities are few and dangers are many. Hundreds of Nigerians have already been repatriated from Libya this year.


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[figure 1Source: Italian Ministry of Internal Affairs - Public Security Departement


Intersections Between Boko Haram, Politics, and Other Security Crises

Turning back to Nigerian politics, both the Shekau and al-Barnawi factions are mostly limited to the northeast. Yet the issue of Boko Haram is national. The crisis has triggered massive security expenditures, some of which have fueled corruption – one of the country’s core problems. The government’s multiple pronouncements of Boko Haram’s defeat have also cost it some credibility, especially as various Nigerian elites argue that on multiple issues, Buhari’s administration has perpetuated the very practices (corruption, indifference to ordinary Nigerians’ problems, cynical politics) that Buhari decried in his predecessor. The 2019 election will be a hard-fought affair, with elite coalitions shifting and re-shifting in dizzying patterns until the last vote is counted, and with many voters despairing over the choices presented to them; Boko Haram will only be one piece of this equation, but it will be a significant part. The group’s presence will make voting difficult in parts of the northeastern countryside, and the campaign will feature numerous accusations and counter-accusations about the administration’s performance and intentions.


To make matters even more complicated, the Boko Haram crisis intersects – more in political rhetoric than in reality – with Nigeria’s serious and widespread farmer-herder conflicts. These conflicts occur primarily along a north-south corridor running from the northeast to the southeast of the country. The violence is driven by myriad forces: struggles to control land and water; desertification and climate change; ethnic tensions; religious identities and inflammatory rhetoric; memories of past conflict, dating to at least the nineteenth century; and politics, especially struggles to control local and state offices. Some of the political dimensions of the conflict are quite recent, reflecting administrative reorganizations – and ensuing competition for power – that occurred in the 1990s. Over the past several years, violence has escalated. Amid reprisals and counter-reprisals, rumors and distortions, the identities of perpetrators are sometimes hard to establish.


For some politicians, journalists, and Christian hardliners, the farmer-herder conflicts (with many of the herders coming from the Fulani ethnic group, to which Buhari belongs, and which is primarily Muslim) represent another form of “jihadism.” The panic around “Fulani herdsmen” taps into long-standing divisions in Nigeria, as well as deep-seated fears that the entire north wants to Islamize the south by force. Against this backdrop, the farmer-herder violence has precipitated severe tensions not just in affected zones, but throughout the country. The 2019 campaign will undoubtedly feature heated rhetoric (and, perhaps, escalating violence) around that issue. The rhetorical conflation of Boko Haram and Fulani herders increases the country’s political temperature, as well as the risks of authorities using ethnic profiling against the Fulani (who are not, it should be noted, the primary ethnic base of Boko Haram, which is heavily Kanuri).


The Outlook for Boko Haram and for Nigeria

Looking beyond the elections, the long-term future for Boko Haram is worrying – not because the movement is likely to experience a dramatic resurgence and fundamentally threaten the viability of the Nigerian state, but more because of the prospect that it will haunt northeastern Nigeria for years to come. In this sense, Boko Haram represents a horrific tragedy for the people of the northeast and a perennial drag on Nigeria’s overall fortunes. A range of well-intentioned solutions, including economic reconstruction programs for the northeast and ambitions to rehabilitate and de-radicalize swaths of fighters, face daunting challenges to implementation, not least among these the war economy that Boko Haram has generated. On some level, since Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999, every presidential administration has struggled to end the menace of Boko Haram. These precedents bode poorly for the next administration’s chances.