Nigeria: Boko Haram Through the Lens of the Niger Delta

“If our dear late President Umaru Yar’Adua can restore peace to a more volatile area like the Niger Delta by extending Amnesty to the militants of the region and dialogue with them by resolving most of their grievances amicably, I don’t see why we can’t do the same to the Boko Haram.”

– Governor-elect (now Governor) Kashim Shettima of Borno State, Nigeria, May 2011

In 2009, President Umaru Yar’Adua launched an amnesty program that aimed to disarm, reintegrate, and employ militants in the Niger Delta. Prior to this, local anger over the failure of oil revenues to substantially benefit communities gave rise to armed movements that disrupted oil production. The government had deployed soldiers (the Joint Task Force or JTF) and militants, but only the amnesty seemed to offer a chance of lasting peace. The government’s two-pronged approach to the Delta – crackdown, then amnesty – helped tamp down the conflict there, though rumblings of discontent in the Delta, along with new threats from militants, indicate that it could resume.

Policymakers at both the federal and the state level largely see the problem of Boko Haram, the Muslim rebel group that is spreading violence outward from its stronghold in the Northeastern city of Maiduguri, Borno State, through the lens of the Niger Delta. The precedent of the Niger Delta force-then-amnesty policy, the perception of its at least partial success, and the existence of groups with significant experience in dialogue with militants, helps explain why some officials urge the application of the same formula in the Northeast. The military is already in Maiduguri, and force has long been an element of the state response to Boko Haram. The persistence with which the idea of amnesty returns in government circles, though – even when Boko Haram rejects it time after time – shows how strongly the example of the Delta has shaped Nigerian policy responses to violent groups.

The analogy with the Delta also shapes an understanding of what the root causes of Boko Haram’s emergence are. Figures like Governor Shettima, along with virtually every analyst, believes that Northern Nigeria’s problems – poverty, feelings of political isolation, deficient infrastructure, lack of broad access to higher Western-style education, etc – play some role in sustaining Boko Haram.

The challenge lies in moving from a general understanding of factors at work in Boko Haram’s existence to a specific understanding of the movement’s grievances and, finally, to nuanced policy tools that could reintegrate members of the movement into society or undercut its grassroots support.

The analogy with the Delta is helpful in the sense that it encourages examination of root causes of violence; it becomes less helpful if policymakers stop at the level of generalities (e.g., “we need more schools”) instead of thinking about what factors make Boko Haram, and Northeastern Nigeria, unique.

One place where a general analogy between the Niger Delta and Northeastern Nigeria breaks down is in the differences between groups like the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) and Boko Haram. It would be a mistake to say that religion (Christianity, local religions, and even Islam) is not a force in the Niger Delta, but the grievances of MEND have to do with the distribution of wealth resulting from one natural resource, oil. The grievances Boko Haram expresses are more diverse, less material, and are explicitly articulated as religious politics: Boko Haram wants stronger shari’a, it wants a purification of society, etc.

If the grievances are different, the solutions to address them must of necessity be at least somewhat different. More schools could help reduce feelings of marginalization in the North. But to reach a group whose very name connotes a rejection of Western education, not only as a phenomenon but also as a symbol of “un-Islamic” governance in Nigeria, an educational initiative would have to be introduced carefully indeed.

Shettima, who has shown substantial political courage, recognizes this, of course. Shettima has been the foremost proponent of an amnesty for Boko Haram, but he has also begun putting forward religious arguments against violence, invoking Islam as both theology and as a historical way of life in the Northeast:

According to him, targeting innocent souls for attacks irrespective of religion and ethnicity, among others, was alien to Islam.”The targeting of innocent and unarmed civilians regardless of their ethnicity, race and or religious beliefs is alien not only to our norms and culture, but alien to the fundamental doctrines of Islam.”

He said Borno, as a home of Islam over the years, had enjoyed great harmony among the different tribes and religious groups.

“In over the 1,000 years that Islam has taken roots in Borno, it has indeed affected the lives of our people positively, and has through its doctrines guided our daily lives.

“It also guided our interpersonal relations ranging from social to economic interactions.”

These arguments underscore the historical, cultural, and political differences between the Niger Delta and the Northeast.

There are certainly lessons that policymakers can take from the former conflict and apply to the latter. But past a certain point, general similarities end. The problem of Boko Haram will require its own solutions.

10 thoughts on “Nigeria: Boko Haram Through the Lens of the Niger Delta

  1. I agree with your analysis. Boko Haram is a radically different threat from MEND. However, there is a common worrying trend – violence gets you “respect”.

    There is no shortage of young men with grievances in Nigeria and the lesson they will take home is that government only takes you seriously when have means of violence at your disposal.

    The problems in Northern Nigeria and the Niger Delta were well known to the political elite but no serious action was taken until either security or oil revenues were threatened. More worryingly, when action was taken to remedy the situation, government was extremely incompetent at implementation.

    I suspect that MASSOB in the South East and OPC in the South West observing the apparent “success” of MEND and Boko Haram and taking notes.

    The question is this – can the Nigerian state survive all this? The Finance Minister complained that a whopping 74% of the Federal Budget was spent on recurrent expenditure – can we even afford to placate these people, can we afford to build the schools and even if we could do we have the capacity to implement positive outcomes?

  2. I was with you on this post. Just one small quibble.

    “The persistence with which the idea of amnesty returns in government circles, though – even when Boko Haram rejects it time after time – shows how strongly the example of the Delta has shaped Nigerian policy responses to violent groups”

    I think what people are getting out of the MEND situation is distrust of Nigeria’s security infrastructure. Amnesty comes up a lot, I think, because people don’t think that the police force is strong enough to deal with Boko Haram. That’s why the army gets called in a lot as well, and this notion is strengthened, I think, from the fact that there has been no new measures, no obvious realignment of the police structure in the north to show a coming to terms of the reality of an armed group looking to strike fairly often.

    If Boko Haram won’t settle with the govt for amnesty, it seems like the police and army would have to come together to beat them.

  3. Interesting. I wonder if Mr. Shettima suggests that local leaders don’t consider Boko Haram to be a major threat to their existence. Alternatively you could be right and their opinions on how to handle them are done with a perspective from dealings in the Niger Delta (though I’m not sure how successful those were).

  4. each region has it own problems, Federal Govt. should let the leader of each regions settle theirs dispute, or they should apply the old system of government of region by region and have ceremonial president at the centre with less power over each regions even in regional natural resources sharing formula; they should forget about borrowed systems of governing of white people because it can not solve our problems even the white people! the way they apply their system of government is quite different from ours here in African continent. Example in United Kingdom with less populated compare to Nigeria has about 6 countries with different constitution governs each countries under them.

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  6. Pingback: Boko Haram in the Niger Delta? – Aran Orin online

  7. damilola…..i dnt knw ppl like u re in nigeria…..we all knw u just said d truth, and nothing bt d truth. If each state or region can manage there resources wit a moderation from d central govt. All dis rubbish wont b happening. If not the country sud jst better split into pieces now without blood shed…..cos these killins and corruption and all d bad vices will neva end in nigeria, and we can neva achieve any millenium goal. Nigeria have different group of ppl wit diff. Ideaologies and dnt think we can be one.

  8. Pingback: Boko Haram in the Niger Delta? | NIGERIA PORTAL

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