One year since it escalated its counter-insurgency campaign under a localised state of emergency, Nigeria has lost control of its war against Boko Haram. Up to 3,000 Nigerians have been killed in violence linked to the group so far this year and clashes have spread to neighbouring Niger and Cameroon. Humanitarian outcry over the abduction of some 276 girls from a boarding school on 14 April has radically increased the chances of foreign military intervention, with Nigerian consent, against Boko Haram. Despite the humanitarian compulsion to act urgently, this could change the character of the rebellion and its links to jihadist groups in the Sahel. Any international military assistance to Nigeria must be backed by commitments – primarily from Nigeria itself – for greater investment in the north, and national governance, anti-corruption and security sector reforms.
Boko Haram was founded by Salafist preacher Mohammed Yusuf in Maiduguri, northeast Nigeria, in the years after Nigeria’s 1999 transition from military to multiparty rule. Known officially as Jama‘atu ahl al-Sunna li’l-Da‘wa wa’l-jihad (roughly meaning Sunni Group for Preaching and Jihad), it advocated the Islamicisation of law and society. This was a populist stance for many northern politicians at this time and Boko Haram’s activists appear to have been allied with some. Co-opting, and sometimes arming, violent youth and student groups (known as ‘cults’) is common practice among politicians across Nigeria.
While a radical dissident faction led by Abubakar Shekau launched several attacks around Borno and Yobe states in 2003-04, Boko Haram did not switch from proselytization to combat until 2009. An uprising in Borno state in July was put down with maximum force and Yusuf was arrested and killed in custody. Boko Haram then went underground, re-emerging under Shekau’s leadership in mid-2010. Attacks have subsequently been staged in at least 12 of Nigeria’s 36 states, as well as Abuja, the federal capital. Targets have included security forces, administration buildings, politicians, informants, foreign workers, moderate Imams, churches, bars and increasingly schools. Most casualties have been Muslim civilians. After Shekau rejected a possible amnesty the federal government declared a state of emergency in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states on 14 May 2013.