Possible Trajectories of the Boko Haram Conflict in Nigeria

In a continuation of the conflict with Boko Haram in Nigeria, earlier this week suspected Boko Haram fighters killed at least 100 people when they attacked Gamboru village in the country’s northeast. The village was being used as a base in the globally prominent search for the missing schoolgirls. And earlier this week, the United States joined other countries (such as France, the United Kingdom and China) in offering to assist the Nigerian government in the search. But where is this violence heading? President Goodluck Jonathan hopes that the current tragedy involving these girls could be “the beginning of the end of terror in Nigeria.” However, other critics warn that outside intervention might only fan the flames.

In my last blog, I discussed theories for the emergence and radicalization of both Boko Haram and Ansaru. In my next blog, I will discuss possible strategies for containing the conflict in the short and medium term, as well as long-term strategies for neutralizing the two terrorist groups and the threats they pose to the Nigerian state. Below I discuss possible trajectories of the conflict:  Can the conflict abate? Will current patterns hold steady? Or will the violence accelerate, and why?

Trajectory 1: Attacks by Boko Haram and Ansaru Decline

It is possible for the conflicts with Boko Haram and Ansaru to abate. However, this prospect does not look good in the short term.   In fact, despite intensified military campaigns against the sects and the declaration of a state of emergency in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states in May 2013 and the groups were resilient enough to carry out major attacks, such as the one on an air force base in Maiduguri last fall that left several people dead. As many experts have noted, the recent attacks show that the threats from Boko Haram and Ansaru are growing, not diminishing.

If the Boko Haram conflicts abate, it may not be before the conclusion of the 2015 presidential election, which President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the minority Ijaw ethnic group, is likely to contest. Though both Boko Haram and Ansaru couch their terrorism in religious revivalism, they are able to tap into social and political discontent within the local population, ensuring that at least some locals can sympathize with their cause. One of the issues appears to be a belief by some people in the north that the decision by President Jonathan to contest the 2011 presidential election flouted the ruling People’s Democratic Party’s (PDP) zoning and power rotation policy, thereby “cheating” the north from taking its “turn” at producing a president. Under the PDP’s zoning and power rotation arrangement, the north was supposed to produce the president of the country for eight years—after Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian Yoruba, had served out two terms of four years each. However, Umaru Yar’Adua, who succeeded Obasanjo as president and was from the north, died in office after only three years of being there, paving the way for the then-vice president, Goodluck Jonathan, to succeed him.

If a northern Muslim defeats Jonathan in the 2015 presidential election, some of the popular political discontent in the north on which Boko Haram and Ansaru feed will be removed, likely leading to an abatement in their terrorist attacks. This was precisely what happened in the restive Niger Delta when Jonathan, a minority from that region, became the vice president of the country. In fact, in the amnesty granted to the Niger Delta militants, then-Vice President Jonathan played a key role in the negotiations with the militants. Under the Jonathan presidency it would be difficult for the militants in that area to renew their violent agitations because they know such actions would be perceived in the local community as undermining the regime of one of their own.  

The flipside to this scenario is that if Jonathan loses the 2015 election, it could re-ignite militancy in the Niger Delta, with severe adverse implications for crude oil production. It could also send dangerous signals to other sections of the country that they need their own insurgency groups capable of holding the country to ransom for their section of the country to produce a president.

Another factor that could lead to a deceleration in Boko Haram terrorism is if the federal government replaces the civilian governors of the three most affected states (Borno, Yobe and Adamawa) with military administrators. Military governors are more likely to be in a position to slow Boko Haram terrorism in their states. On the other hand, this move could mark the beginning of the truncation of democracy in Nigeria since ambitious military officers could use the opportunity to seize power at the national level. The country’s current democratic rule only started in May 1999. Though Nigeria gained her independence from Britain in 1960 and started as a Westminster-style liberal democracy, the military usurped power in 1966 and established a prolonged dictatorship. An attempt to re-establish democracy in the country in 1979 was stopped again in December 1983 when the military once supplanted the civilian regime and established another dictatorship that lasted until 1999.

A third factor that could lead to the abatement of Boko Haram-related violence in the country is the recent kidnap of over 200 Chibok girls and the collective anger it has mobilized against the sect both within and outside the country. Already, the United States, France, Britain and China have offered various forms of military and intelligence sharing assistance to find the girls, which the Nigerian government accepted. About seven U.S. military officials are expected to arrive Nigeria today to help in the search for the missing girls. They will join about 60 U.S. interagency members who have been on the ground since before the kidnappings as part of United States’ counterterrorism efforts within Nigeria.

If the U.S. military is able to quickly locate the whereabouts of the abducted girls and free them without many of the kidnapped girls losing their life in the process or heavy civilian casualties during any rescue operation, it will bolster the U.S.’s standing in the eyes of the Nigerian public and possibly lead to a request for a broader U.S. assistance in fighting the sect. Then, if the U.S. is able within a short frame of time to help the Nigerian government arrest the leaders and sponsors of the sect—with minimum casualties on all sides—the conflict could also abate.

Trajectory 2: Attacks by Boko Haram and Ansaru Remain the Same in Character and Intensity

Under this scenario, Borno, Yobe and Adamawa States remain the hotbeds of conflict, with episodic occurrences in other northern states.  This scenario is not likely to occur because the conflict has already intensified from what it was only a few months ago. The sect has become more audacious as its recent attacks in Borno State vividly demonstrated. For instance, in the sect’s attack in the town of Gamboru this week. Allegedly, the terrorists, “wearing military fatigue, came driving dozens of pick-up trucks and motorcycles, with three armored personnel carriers providing cover.” Residents of Gamboru also claimed that an aircraft hovered in the skies throughout the attack, as militants wreaked havoc for four hours in the middle of the day.

Thus, the scenario of the conflict remaining unchanged in its character and trajectory is unlikely. Unless it abates in line with the first trajectory above, the conflict will likely continue to intensify.

Trajectory 3: Boko Haram and Ansaru Accelerate and Widen the Conflict

It is possible for the Boko Haram conflict to grow far worse than it is now. This trend could happen under at least four possible scenarios.

  1. If the core areas of the conflicts widen beyond their present concentration in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa, especially if Boko Haram and Ansaru manage to unleash attacks in any southern states, the violence could certainly increase. If this happens, Boko Haram- and Ansaru-induced terrorism will mix with ethnicity, religion and regionalism. One of the consequences could be series of retaliatory responses across the country.
  2. If Boko Haram members choose to outsource their terrorism to Fulani herdsmen or infiltrate them, then Boko Haram’s operations could also spread to other parts of the country. For instance, in March 2014, the Christian Governor Suswan of Benue State narrowly escaped death when his motor convoy ran into an ambush by suspected Fulani mercenaries at Tse-Akanyi in Guma.  A few days later, his entire village at Anyii in Logo was sacked by the suspected mercenaries, with over 22 people slaughtered. Again, on March 15, in southern Kaduna—which is dominated by Christians—heavily armed Fulani herdsmen reportedly killed over 100 villagers. Similar stories have emerged in Plateau and Taraba states, which also have substantial Christian populations. These tragedies have led to suspicions that Boko Haram may have been involved. If these suspicions of collaboration are true, the areas affected by Boko Haram’s attacks could easily grow since Fulani herdsmen take their cattle all over the country.
  3. If the United States and Europe openly get involved in fighting Boko Haram and Ansaru militants—especially if this involvement results in massive deaths of the insurgents and non-combatants—anti-Western sentiments could galvanize, turning into support for the terrorists, which will help them in membership recruitment.
  4. If President Jonathan wins the 2015 election, the political discontents in the north will harden, further feeding Boko Haram and Ansaru terrorists. This case will be especially so given that the opposition, represented by the All Progressives’ Congress (APC), which has its support bases mainly in the southwest and northern parts of the country,  is now more formidable than at any other time in the country’s political history, especially since the onset of the current democratic dispensation in 1999. This means that if the APC loses the election, it will easily cry that it has been rigged by the ruling PDP, which will further inflame passions and harden political discontents.

There is a strong feeling that Jonathan will contest and narrowly win the 2015 presidential election against a Muslim presidential candidate from the north and that the outcome of the election will be hotly disputed. Post-election violence in the north could be re-enacted along the lines of what happened after the 2011 presidential elections when Muhammadu Buhari of the defunct Congress of Political Change (CPC) lost to Jonathan. Boko Haram and Ansaru could tap into fairly generalized political frustrations among Muslims in the northern part of the country to increase and widen the tempo of their activities, targeting especially Christians and those thought to have collaborated with Jonathan in “rigging” the election. Under this scenario, Nigeria will be saved from anarchy or civil war only if the urge for reprisal attacks in the south is contained.

In essence, it is possible for the Boko Haram conflict to be contained or widen. In the next blog, I will discuss possible strategies for containing the conflict in the short- to-medium term as well as long term strategies for neutralizing the two terrorist groups and the threats they pose to the Nigerian state.

Note: This blog reflects the views of the author only and does not reflect the views of the Africa Growth Initiative. Just this month, the Brookings Africa Growth Initiative is wrapping up a yearlong study on the impact conflict has had on the agricultural sectors in northern Nigeria and Mali. Adibe collaborated with Brookings on this study and specifically put together a long-form exposition on the possible trajectories of Nigeria’s conflict. While the full report moves toward publication, Brookings asked him to publish excerpts for Africa in Focus, 1) explaining the emergence of Boko Haram, 2) discussing possible scenarios on how the conflict could evolve, and 3) providing policy recommendations for curbing the violence.