Nigeria, home to a population of over 200,780,000, abundant stores of natural resources, and Africa’s biggest economy, seems to be a potential powerhouse at first glance. However, while all countries face their fair share of internal strife, Nigeria has struggled with the prevalence of Boko Haram, which was ranked the deadliest terrorist group in the world in 2015.
What is Boko Haram?
Boko Haram is an Islamist terrorist group based in the northeastern Nigerian state of Borno. While the group emerged in 2002, the roots of a growing radical Islamic sect in Nigeria can be traced back to the mid-1990s. Attacks began in 2003 on police stations, however the beginning of their violent insurgence is largely defined as starting in 2009, when Boko Haram initiated a series of attacks on police stations, churches, and prisons across cities in northeast Nigeria. In the aftermath of these uprisings, Boko Haram began gaining global attention though it wasn’t until the new leader of the group, Abubakar Shekau, increased indiscriminate attacks which targeted civilians and Muslims he considered “non-believers.” The group’s insurgency originated as an attempt to establish an Islamic State in Nigeria and ultimately expand it around the world.
Boko Haram roughly translates to “Western education is forbidden,” which was the core belief of the group’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf. The group wants everyone to adhere to Sharia law, the Islamic legal system derived from the Qur’an, and has strictly forbidden participating in any activity deemed to be “Western.” This includes voting in elections, wearing certain outfits, and attending secular schools.
One of the groups most prominent attacks was in April 2014, when Boko Haram kidnapped 276 schoolgirls in a town called Chibok. This atrocious violation of human rights gained international traction and triggered the increase of American counterterrorism efforts – the Obama administration subsequently deployed an unmanned aerial vehicle and about eighty military personnel to Chad to conduct surveillance in the region and aid Nigerian forces. It also led to attempts by the Nigerian government to negotiate a ceasefire with the terrorist organization in an effort to free the captured girls, which Shekau quickly shut down. The kidnapping also started the social media movement “Bring Back Our Girls,” a hashtag that was used over one million times within three weeks of the event. To this day, more than one hundred girls are still missing.
In 2014, the cities in the states of Borno and Adamawa that were under the group’s control were declared a caliphate – a political-religious state under Islamic law. By early 2015, Boko Haram held 52,000 square kilometers of land, a territory about the size of Belgium. However the group began losing territory to the Nigerian military soon after. In 2015, Shekau pledged allegiance to ISIS and the group renamed itself the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP). A year later, ISIS caused a schism within ISWAP, leading to Shekau creating a breakaway faction that reclaimed the name Boko Haram. Though the strength of these groups have significantly declined, Boko Haram and ISWAP remain active in small pockets in the Lake Chad Basin and continue to carry out deadly attacks.
How has the Nigerian government fought back?
It is difficult to effectively combat terrorism while simultaneously running a country. Unfortunately, both Nigeria’s government and military face extreme corruption issues, limiting their capacity to fightBoko Haram. According to the 2019 Global Terrorism Index, Nigeria was ranked the world’s third-least peaceful country due to terrorism. Despite an overall increase in military funding since the emergence of Boko Haram, the army has continued to underperform and Nigerian soldiers remain generally underpaid, underfed, and overstretched. Based on a recent study, military officers, politicians, and public officials have been skimming money off of the defense budget for their own personal use. Furthermore, poor leadership, ineffective governance and the lack of transparency within the military has caused them to buy outdated equipment, handicapping their fight against Boko Haram.
How Boko Haram has hindered Nigeria’s rise
Tens of thousands of people have been killed and over 2.5 million people have been displaced since the start of the Boko Haram insurgency. In addition to giving the Nigerian government no choice but to increase its military funding, according to the United Nations, Boko Haram’s attacks on infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, and electrical lines, have cost northeast Nigeria an estimate of USD 9 billion in losses. Additionally, from 2011 to 2014, the increase in Boko Haram attacks led to a 21% decrease in foreign direct investment flows into Nigeria, resulting in increasing unemployment rates.
The presence of the terrorist group has also inhibited farming in the region as civilians are scared to wander outside of their towns for fear of being killed. Agriculture is Nigeria’s largest economic sector and provides a source of livelihood for most of the population. A 2019 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies states that between 2010 and 2015 the production of sorghum, rice, and millet in Nigeria’s Borno State declined by 82%, 67%, and 55%, respectively. Furthermore, the Nigerian government conducted an assessment in 2015 which concluded that the country’s agricultural profits were only USD 3.7 billion as a result of the conflict.
With limited government resources going towards rebuilding infrastructure and social services, northeast Nigeria has suffered from widespread malnutrition and extreme poverty. This has had severe impacts on the population. The prevalence of Boko Haram disproportionately affects Nigeria’s youth as the violence has limited children’s ability to access education. Boko Haram has killed at least 2,295 teachers and destroyed over 1,400 schools since 2009, most of which have not been reopened due to insecurity and irreparable damages. Many children will also face lifelong impacts from malnutrition if the situation is not properly addressed. In 2018, UNICEF stated that at least 900,000 children in northeast Nigeria were suffering from severe acute malnutrition. This does not include more than one thousand children that have been abducted by the terrorist group since 2013.
Moreover, international humanitarian organizations have essentially taken over government services in the war-torn areas, forcing them to work beyond their mandate and further increasing the Nigerian government’s dependence on external actors to provide social services to the population. The lack of political will from the federal government to create a unified counterterrorism strategy and to allocate funds to the affected communities will cause Boko Haram’s legacy to continue to affect Nigeria for years to come.
Abductions, indiscriminate killings, suicide bombings, and mass atrocities should not be considered the “norm” in any society. Yet Boko Haram’s persistence has limited many Nigerians’ ability to go to school or participate in daily activities, as the fear of being a victim of Boko Haram’s attacks remains more than a decade since the start of the violence. The inability of the Nigerian government and security forces to successfully eliminate the threat has had severe socioeconomic consequences for Nigeria. Alongside the national challenges surrounding internal conflict and corruption, the prevalence of terrorist activities has limited Nigeria’s ability to use its extensive population, natural resources, and growing economy to establish itself as a strong rising power on the world stage.