The vicious cycle of conflict in northern Nigeria

1 June 2015

Andrew Barlow assesses the relationship between the escalating Boko Haram insurgency and Nigeria’s vast inequality.


‘And so, to the end of history, murder shall breed murder, always in the name of right and honour and peace, until the gods are tired of blood and create a race that can understand[i].


So said George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar, when explaining to his lieutenants why he would not avenge the deaths of their compatriots and order retaliation on their Egyptian enemies. Violence, brutality and conflict are inherently cyclical, and Shaw’s Caesar understood this.  Boko Haram, and the situation in northern Nigeria today, is paradigmatic of such a cycle of conflict. The extremist Islamic group is a shocking and violent manifestation of the huge economic inequality and systematic social injustice that pervades modern Nigeria, further radicalised by a heavy-handed and often brutal militarised government response.

Nigeria is a nation divided. The predominantly Christian South is significantly more affluent, markedly more developed and comparatively better governed than the mainly Muslim North. 72 percent of northerners live in abject poverty—a statistic only truly comprehended when considered both in contrast to the less than 30 percent of southerners who live in the same conditions and in the wider context that Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy.[ii] Perhaps more worryingly, and certainly more drastically, female literacy rates in some parts of the North are less than 5 percent—as opposed to more than 90 percent in some southern areas such as those surrounding Lagos and Port Harcourt—and fewer than one in ten infants receive any basic vaccinations.[iii]

In September 2012, the Economist published an editorial on Boko Haram in which it reported that businessmen selling bulletproof doors are among the few that still prosper in the North,[iv] a fact that would almost be comical if it did not perfectly encapsulate the poverty, fear and hopelessness that exists in northern Nigeria and the drastic extent of the socio-economic divide between it and the oil-rich South. These conditions provided the ideal environment for the beginning of a radical new reactionary movement that promised equality, justice,  and—if necessary—violent retribution.

Boko Haram, which means ‘Western education is forbidden’ in the local Hausa dialect, was founded by the charismatic cleric, Muhammad Yusuf, around 2002 in the northeastern state of Borno. The insurgency began as an ultraconservative Islamic movement that opposed the corruption and secularism of the Abuja government and sought to implement Sharia law in northern Nigeria. Support for the movement proliferated due to the vast number of unemployed and impoverished Muslims that felt disenfranchised by a self-serving and detached political elite and disillusioned by the lack of economic opportunity.

The Boko Haram movement was largely nonviolent until July 2009, when a string of altercations between it and the Nigerian security forces ended in the summary execution of Yusuf, and the killing of almost one thousand of his followers. Many commentators have singled out this event as the decisive moment in the radicalisation of Boko Haram.[v] Those that survived the government crackdown went underground, and many traveled to train with established terrorist organisations such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) in Mali, and Al-Shabaab in Somalia. A year later, in May 2010, Boko Haram re-emerged under the leadership of Abubakar Sheakau as the ultra-violent Islamist terror group that it remains today. The government’s heavy-handed and indiscriminate response had set the cycle of conflict into motion, and Boko Haram had become intent on overthrowing the Abuja government by any and all means available to them.

In April 2014, Boko Haram sparked international outrage by kidnapping close to 300 schoolgirls from the village of Chibok, in Borno state. This was just one of a number of crimes committed by the group since its re-emergence. According to data collected by the Nigeria Security Tracker (NST), a project of the Council of Foreign Relations’ Africa programme, Boko Haram has been directly responsible for 10,759 deaths since Goodluck Jonathan’s inauguration as president on May 29th, 2011.[vi] Most recently, on January 3rd 2015, the group assaulted the northeastern town of Baga, close to Lake Chad. Reports vary, but some put the death toll at as many as 2000 people—almost all of them civilians.[vii] Overshadowed by the horrific terror attacks in Paris on Charlie Hebdo journalists in the same week, the assault on Baga received relatively little media coverage. However, the assault constituted Boko Haram’s most deadly crime to date, and signifies the growing strength of the group and its indiscriminate campaign of violence.

President Jonathan has called Boko Haram the latest front in the international war on terror, and has responded with force and force alone. In May 2013, Jonathan declared a state of emergency in the three north-eastern states most heavily affected—Borno, Yobe and Adamawa—and consolidated elements of the Nigerian army, state security service and police into a Joint Task Force (JTF) to combat the insurgency. Yet this military response has not only proved overwhelmingly ineffective—as the incidents in Chibok and Baga demonstrate—but has arguably exacerbated the problem. According to the NST, since President Jonathan’s inauguration, the JTF has been directly responsible for 5,083 deaths, and clashes between Boko Haram and the JTF have resulted in 9,306 casualties.[viii] Moreover, the JTF has also been repeatedly accused of gross human rights violations. Reports of looting, sexual violence, arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial executions and the indiscriminate killings of civilians are numerous and are often well substantiated.[ix] These reports could explain the continued support for Boko Haram among some alienated Muslims in the North as the JTF is perceived as a direct extension of the government.

The indiscriminate violence and human rights violations committed by the JTF, along with the decision of the government to entirely ignore non-military alternatives, has resulted in a counter-intuitive solution. In fact, the current policies of the Nigerian government have actually exacerbated the factors that led to Boko Haram’s inception. Food prices are soaring in the North, as farmers are either unable or unwilling to travel to markets to sell crops and produce for fear of terror attacks or an escalation of the conflict;[x] government salaries are paid late, encouraging corruption and collusion with Boko Haram;[xi] and hospitals lack both the supplies and the staff willing to put their lives at risk.[xii] Despite—or perhaps because of—these conditions, northern politicians rarely risk a visit to their constituencies;[xiii] and foreign aid agencies are increasingly unwilling to travel to areas that need them most.[xiv]                 Originally a symptom of Nigeria’s vast inequality, Boko Haram has been transformed into one of the principle factors perpetuating the very inequality that gave birth to it.

Despite the vicious cycle of violent conflict between the insurgents and the government, there is still some hope for peace. General elections are scheduled to take place in the coming months and a political win for a northerner could help to facilitate a return to the tacit agreement of alternating power between North and South—an agreement which might benefit the North as a region. However, this alone will not be enough. Effectively combating Boko Haram requires a complete reassessment of the current government’s strategy. Unfortunately, and according to a recent statement by the UN Security Council,[xv] Boko Haram’s brazen strength has reached a stage that necessitates military action. However, any armed response must be pursued in accordance with International Humanitarian Law, especially given that Nigeria is party to the 1949 Geneva Convention and its two Additional Protocols. Among other things, conforming to these agreements would require any official in the government or security forces accused of corruption or human rights abuses to be held accountable and appropriately prosecuted. In doing so the government would demonstrate a willingness to answer to the justifiable anger and resentment of many northern Muslims that feel betrayed by their own government and persecuted by the JTF.

Moreover—and possibly most importantly—any new government must look to temper military action with economic and social incentives aimed at undercutting support for the insurgency.  The government must invest in infrastructure in northern Nigeria, divide wealth more equally, provide much needed employment opportunities—especially in education and healthcare—and encourage foreign investment. Speaking at conference at Chatham House last month, the Nigerian Nation Security Advisor, Sambo Dasuki, publically stated that he wants to negotiate a better economic deal for the north;[xvi] a step in the right direction. However, promises such as these are too often left unfulfilled. If the new government fails to change soon and actually commit to understanding and addressing the root causes of the Boko Haram insurgency, murder will continue breed murder, violence will continue to breed violence, and a perpetual cycle of conflict will continue to devastate northern Nigeria.

[i] Shaw, GB. (1901).‘Caesar and Cleopatra’, in Three Plays for Puritans. Richards: London. pp: 194.

[ii] Bartolotta, C. (2011). ‘Terrorism in Nigeria: the Rise of Boko Haram’. Available: [Last accessed 22nd Feb 2015].

[iii] BBC. (2012). ‘Nigeria: A nation divided’. BBC NEWS. Available: [Last accessed 19th Feb 2015].

[iv] The Economist. (2012). ‘Nigeria’s Crisis: A threat to the entire country’.  Available: [Last accessed 1st March 2015].

[v] Campbell, J. (2014). ‘U.S. Policy to Counter Nigeria’s Boko Haram.’ Council on Foreign Relations. Available: [Last accessed 21st February 2015].

[vi] NST. (2015). ‘Nigeria Security Tracker.’ Council on Foreign Relations. Available: [Last accessed 22nd Feb 2015].

[vii] Kaplan, S. (2015). ‘How Inequality Fuels Boko Haram.’ Foreign Affairs. Available: [Last accessed 23rd February 2015].

[viii] NST. (2015).

[ix] Kaplan, S. (2015).

[x] Caulderwood, K. (2014). ‘Boko Haram And Nigeria’s Economy: Why The Poorest Suffer Most’. Available: [Last accessed 2nd March 2015].

[xi] The Economist. (2012).

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] All Africa. (2015). ‘Africa: UN Calls for Regional Military Coordination Against Boko Haram’. Available: [Last accessed 2nd March 2015].

[xvi] Omi, J. (2015). ‘Full text and video of Dasuki’s speech at Chatham House in London’. Available: [Last accessed 22nd Feb 2015].

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