In Nigeria... and elsewhere, not a week goes by without Jama’atu Ahlul Sunna Lidda’awati Wal Jihad ("the community of disciples for the…


Boko Haram: Jonathan's gone... Viva Buhari?

In Nigeria... and elsewhere, not a week goes by without Jama’atu Ahlul Sunna Lidda’awati Wal Jihad ("the community of disciples for the propagation of holy war and Islam") displaying its deadly vision. This jihadist group, better known as Boko Haram ("rejection of teachings perverted by Westernization"), never fails to ghoulishly hog the headlines and, with atrocity heaped upon atrocity, is confronting this West African country ever more urgently with the issue of its eradication. If former President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan wasn’t able to appreciate and tackle the challenges facing him, his successor Muhammadu Buhari seems on the contrary more than ever determined to fight it out. As proof, his eagerness to declare the "technical knockout" of the movement. Does this mean that the death knell has begun to sound for Boko Haram?


Goodluck Jonathan's fault?

During Goodluck Jonathan’s tenure (May 2010 to May 2015), Boko Haram changed. It became radicalized and ended up becoming something ineffably dangerous and cruel, relentlessly sowing insecurity and instability. A flagrant admission of powerlessness for someone who promised to rid the country of it. And little more was needed to revive age-old antagonisms fuelled by suspicions of manipulation – for the Christian South to condemn an attempt to islamicize the entire country, led by Northern political elites looking to expand their own power to ultimately sap the foundations of a government presided over by a Christian. And for the Muslim North to decry the discredit heaped on Islam as a ploy by the oil-producing South to secede and shed the economic burden of the country’s impoverished regions. To the point that Jonathan was forced, right in the middle of the 2015 presidential campaign, to publicly deny: "Only a mad person can insinuate that the President is supporting Boko Haram!"

Goodluck Jonathan

In any event, manipulation or no, the black-hatted African leader was conspicuous by his inability to curb the rise of the sect formed in 2002 by Mohammed Yusuf. Who’s to blame? What’s to blame? Benjamin Augé, associate research fellow with the Africa Program at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) points to a casting error: "I don’t know whether he ‘used’ Boko Haram. In any case, he was sufficiently disinterested for the group to become what it was at the end of his tenure. By ‘disinterested’ I mean that it wasn’t him but the entire military apparatus that managed to do so." Since announcing his candidature in 2010, this "extremely manipulable" Southern Christian from the Ijaw minority has suffered "a real loss of legitimacy". This academic ultimately wasn’t able to face down the political-military-security apparatus that "pretty-much openly mocked his civilian status, a status rare among Nigerian politicians". 

Maiduguri. Northeast of the country, the fief of Boko Haram. ©Jordi Bernabeu.


In such conditions, how do you restore trust in a population disheartened by the excesses of the security forces and wheeler-dealing? What do you say to account for the disappearance of billions of dollars earmarked for the Departments of Defence and Interior that has left the armed forces resourceless and bled dry? How do you remobilize the soldiers who absconded in their thousands because they hadn’t been paid or disheartened by a lack of a clear strategy? How do you rebuild a creaky chain of command? How do you envisage regional cooperation between security services when the heads of neighbouring states – Chad’s Idriss Déby Itno for one – tease that they don’t know "who to call to reach Boko Haram in Nigeria"?

"Don’t forget, though, that between 2009 and 2011 Boko Haram wasn’t able operationally to withstand attacks by the Nigerian Army," says Samuel Nguembock, associate research fellow at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS) and an African Security specialist. "Its brutal repression was also the reason that the terrorist group’s key leaders fled. By 2011, Boko Haram’s operational capabilities on Nigerian soil had been remarkably reduced." But although he won some battles, Goodluck Jonathan ended up losing the war against endemic terrorism and corruption. A verdict that Muhammadu Buhari clearly doesn’t want leveled at himself. 

Nigerian police officer. ©AMISOM Public Information.

Buhari or the art of breaking with  institutionalized

I don't give a damn

A Northern Muslim, the new Head of State may, unlike his predecessor, boast of inspiring fear and respect. As Benjamin Augé says, simply the announcement of his winning the presidential elections in April 2015, put a stop to lots of illegal practices, without him lifting a finger to do so. Which speaks for the charisma of this former coup d’État General who never fails to demonstrate that it’s a strong hand taking over the wheel. Starting with firing people! Land, air and sea commanders! Chiefs of Staff! Sambo Dasuki, national security advisor, who earned his exit and his subsequent entry into prison by purportedly embezzling two billion dollars that had been earmarked for the fight against terrorism. Thus,"the most powerful people in the previous government are finding themselves in various degrees of difficulty," says the IFRI scholar. 

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. ©theglobalpanorama - Chatham House.


And the big cleanup clearly isn’t stopping there. Proof of which is the command center of the Nigerian armed forces being moved to Maiduguri. "A cosmetic measure at first sight, but it’s to keep a tighter rein on the command of the theater of operations in the Northeast of the country, the fief of Boko Haram," says Benjamin Augé. We can also cite the strengthening of diplomatic relations with Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Benin, which are all involved in the fight against the terrorist sect. Moreover, the one who is dragging the millstone of an authoritarian past enjoys proximity with the youth and forsaken of the North, he is able to deliver an image of Islam that is different from the jihadists’ and he is able to think in economic terms as he intends to invest in the poor northern parts of the country. Is Buhari the man of the hour? Only the future will tell.

Nevertheless, in its witchhunt the reputedly incorruptible military, propelled to lead Nigeria thanks to a coalition, will have to make sure it doesn’t shoot itself in the foot by attacking "people who aren’t totally clean but without whom he would never have become President," says Benjamin Augé. This "could ultimately block the process of voting-­in a Parliament and Senate", drafts close to the Head of State’s heart.

Bomb blast. ©ssoosay.

Boko, the beginning of the end?

Clearly, the leader of the economically most powerful State in Africa has lots to do. If Buhari hopes to prevent widespread insecurity and the international threat embodied by Boko Haram from taking root on his patch, he cannot content himself with seeing things simply through a military prism. The ex-General must, absolutely, as many experts recognize, take other factors into account: historical, social, ideological... Will his determination succeed in defining a governance strategy that matches the gravity of the situation? Clearly, that remains to be seen.

Sandra Wolmer
Journaliste spécialisée Affaires juridiques et Politiques