Boko Haram: Interview with Dr. Comfort Ero, International Crisis Group

In this interview,  Dr. Comfort Ero, an Africa expert from the International Crisis Group, discusses Boko Haram, the radical Islamist group responsible for violent acts intended to destabilize Nigeria and ultimately create an Islamist state governed by Sharia law. Their recent attack on January 20th killed 178 people.

Dr. Ero said Boko Haram's violent campaign threatens the stability of Nigeria, and that she sees clear signs "the group has become ever more dangerous," though she believes that the evidence remains sketchy about the extent of Boko Haram’s networks with other terror groups.

In response to a question about creating an amnesty program, as was done for a situation in the Niger Delta, she said, "I doubt very much that the amnesty program is the answer to ending Boko Haram’s attacks. They do not appear to be after a 'sharing of wealth,' as is the case with groups in the Niger Delta. They appear to be pursuing a violent Islamic ideology."

Dr. Ero also discussed the removal of the controversial fuel subsidies, which were partially restored on January 1st in the face of huge protests, and the heavy-handed response from the government to both the protests and Boko Haram.

“The government’s response has tended to be heavy handed, heavily militaristic, which has further fueled tensions and has caused further civilian deaths and other problems," she said. “There is significant loss of faith and confidence in the ability of the government to address the threat posed by Boko Haram. Even more so when President Jonathan admitted earlier this year that his government may be infiltrated by Boko Haram–and the security services, too."

She added, "I think we need to look closely and truly understand who and what Boko Haram purports to be. One thing that deserves mentioning is that the traditional approach to security cannot continue as the response of the Nigerian government. A new strategy is required, one that is more political and not military in tone.”

When asked about the future of Nigeria and the possibility of optimism, she said, "The attacks have shocked Nigerians and the federal government, and there is a sense of nervousness. Having said that, the country still has huge potential, and continues to show economic progress."

"This is certainly a good opportunity for the government and respected personalities and intellectuals to come together and have a frank and honest debate," she said.

The interview was conducted by Ann Wright, International Peace Institute, on January 24, 2012.

Interview with Comfort Ero

Ann Wright (AW): Dr. Ero, thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. Let’s start by discussing the violence in the heavily Muslim Northern states of Nigeria, where the Islamist terrorist organization Boko Haram has killed 226 people so far in 2012, including 178 people on the 20th of January in deadly bombings in the Northern city of Kano. This attack was the group’s deadliest to date. Is it fair to say, based on these events, that Boko Haram is increasing its capabilities and becoming more sophisticated?

Comfort Ero (CE): It’s certainly clear, especially following the incident that happened on Friday, 20th January, that this gives the impression that Boko Haram has become more sophisticated in its attacks. It’s hard to tell if these attacks were coordinated, but the multiple explosions are clear indications that the group has become ever more dangerous.

AW: And do you think these explosions, these attacks that may be coordinated, are also a sign that Boko Haram may be receiving some type of training from al-Qaida affiliates on the continent?

CE: Well, there have been suggestions that the group may have external links. The evidence remains sketchy about the extent of Boko Haram’s networks, direct or indirect, with other terror groups in the region and further afield. Certainly, the new direction and escalation of attacks suggests that the group is growing dangerously confident and is willing to extend its reach, even perhaps wanting to portray itself as being on par with the more established terror groups such as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

AW: What do you think Boko Haram is ultimately trying to achieve through the use of violence?

CE: The group emerged in about 2002, in the northeastern state of Borno. Since then, the group has campaigned for Islamic law across Nigeria. Its ultimate goal would appear to be to delegitimize the Nigerian state and put in position one Islamic state, governed by Sharia law. This violent campaign of Boko Haram certainly threatens the stability of the Nigerian state. Boko Haram believes that the Nigerian state is run by non-believers, and therefore clearly envisions the creation of a new Nigerian state.

It’s worth saying that the attacks are not just against Christian or between Christians and Muslims. The group has deliberately targeted and pursued revenge against the police following the death of their leader, Mohammed Yusuf, in 2009. Since then, there has been a constant deadly confrontation between Boko Haram and police. I think it’s also worth adding that while Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for all the attacks in northern Nigeria since 2009, there are concerns—real concerns—that there are criminal elements involved in these attacks as well.

AW: You mention the deadly confrontations between the police and Boko Haram. Some human rights groups have criticized the Nigerian government’s response as being excessive. What is your assessment of the Nigerian government’s response to Boko Haram?

CE: The government’s response has tended to be heavy handed, heavily militaristic, which has further fueled tensions and has caused further civilian deaths and other problems. The human rights criticisms are therefore highly justified. The government has been criticized also for appearing slow and reactionary in its response. There is significant loss of faith and confidence in the ability of the government to address the threat posed by Boko Haram. Even more so when President Jonathan admitted earlier this year that his government may be infiltrated by Boko Haram–and the security services, too. An unfortunate admission, but it shows the reality on the ground.

AW: President Goodluck Jonathon’s administration has put together a committee to consider the possibility of negotiations with Boko Haram. They recommended an amnesty program resembling a similar one undertaken in the oil-rich Niger Delta, which offered members of the militant group Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) a stipend and job training to lay down arms. Do you think a similar program might work in negotiating a peace settlement with Boko Haram?

CE: The idea of the government offering a generous financial package as was done with the former militants in the oil-rich Niger Delta has been raised several times. The current amnesty program for the Niger Delta is part of the recommendations of a similar amnesty program. This recommendation was put forward, as you said, by this special committee by the president. But I doubt very much that the amnesty program is the answer to ending Boko Haram’s attacks. Further, it is an expensive program that has not brought peace to the Delta. I think it is important to emphasize that Boko Haram is distinctly different from the Niger Delta militants. Their vision and aims are very different. Boko Haram appears far more destructive, and it challenges, as I said, the very existence of the Nigerian state. They do not appear to be after a “sharing of wealth,” as is the case with groups in the Niger Delta. They appear to be pursuing a violent Islamic ideology. However, I think it’s worth saying that if the state–the Nigerian state itself–is more present to the north, if it is able to provide dividends of democracy, social benefits, and employment, the north would be less susceptible to groups like Boko Haram.

AW: Let’s talk more broadly, because the international community, and the West in particular, are concerned with rising fundamentalist Islam in West Africa. Do you see Islamic fundamentalism in Nigeria and in the sub-region as a serious cause for concern? If so, what type of regional and international response would you like to see?

CE: I’d like to stress that Islamic fundamentalism, or even radical Islamic tendencies, are not an entirely new phenomenon to Nigeria. The country has experienced at least three decades of different strains of Islam. And Boko Haram emerges from a tradition of intense and often violent religious fervor among Nigerians. So I think it’s important to note that point. It is strikingly similar to the Maitatsine group founded by a northern Cameroon preacher known as Marwa in the 1970s. But what marks the group out today is its resilience and tenacity to continue its operations against Nigerian national security services.

There are real concerns about Boko Haram’s networks and the nature of its attacks. It is hardly surprising that the group’s activities have propelled it to the international stage and have become a cause of concern, particularly for the US administration, but also for the UK and France, and the European Union. Fears that it may have links with AQIM [Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb] in North Africa has certainly brought it under the ambit of Washington’s intelligence interest and lawmakers.

In fact, a report from a subcommittee of the US House of Representatives issued in 2011 November and titled 'Boko Haram: An Emerging Threat' stated that the group was a threat to the US, western targets in Nigeria, and the wider region. It alleged that the group had other terror networks and went as far as to state, and I quote, “Based on Boko Haram’s evolution and recent public warnings by the US State Department to US citizens in Nigeria, Boko Haram may meet the legal criteria for State Department’s ‘Foreign Terrorist Organization’ designation.”

There are strong disagreements about extending this designation to the group. But, because there are significant concerns and indications about a lack of internal capacity within Nigeria’s security service to monitor and address the threat posed by Boko Haram, there have been suggestions that international assistance be provided to Nigeria to deal with terrorism. But I would urge that there are significant lessons to be drawn from other countries about the consequences of exacerbating and further radicalizing extremist groups, and I would caution about placing Nigeria under the category of a “war on terror” country. I think such a position could gravely impact on the abilities of the Nigerian government to address coherently the core underlying problems that fuel Boko Haram, and these underlying problems are deeply linked to poverty and socioeconomic inequalities in the country.

AW: So you would advise against international security assistance to Nigeria in the north?

CE: I would caution that we have to learn the lessons of other attempts to assist countries with radical strains in their societies. And as I said, I think we need to look closely and truly understand who and what Boko Haram purports to be. One thing that deserves mentioning is that the traditional approach to security cannot continue as the response of the Nigerian government. A new strategy is required, one that is more political and not military in tone. This is a deeply complex problem that requires a deeply sophisticated political response. Certainly, better intelligence is required. The Christmas Day bomb attacks on churches were, for example, the second in a row of attacks by the group on churches at Christmas.

I would also urge any kind of assistance to also address developmental and socioeconomic concerns that arise across Nigeria. The government needs to build cooperation with the local communities. Many Boko Haram members live in communities with ordinary citizens who suffer from chronic poverty and underdevelopment. Boko Haram has been able to tap into major grievances of some alienated communities. Many of the factors that have fueled Boko Haram attacks are common across Nigeria. Boko Haram is a Nigerian problem, and not just a northern problem. I think those factors need to be borne in mind when formulating any international assistance response to Nigeria.

AW: Let’s move on and discuss another grievance, over the decision of President Goodluck Jonathon to remove fuel subsidies on January 1st, which he has since partly restored due to strikes and protests across the country. Can you give us some background of how the government came to the decision to remove the fuel subsidy?

CE: President Goodluck Jonathon argues that he wants to end a policy that has benefitted a small but powerful oil cartel more than ordinary citizens. Only a select group of oil importers have traditionally enjoyed the fuel subsidies. The president provides a compelling argument that he wants to break the back of this powerful oil cartel, and that the country cannot continue to spend billions of dollars every year to subsidize the price of imported petroleum. Instead, he’s arguing that state funds are needed to invest in development and infrastructure, in the quality of health and education.

The idea of removing the fuel subsidies is not a new one. Successive governments have fought a review of the fuel subsidies and have also increased fuel prices for various reasons. The merit aside, however—and there are pros and cons to removing the subsidies—the president’s decision to lift the subsidy was ill-timed, poorly judged, and lacked a clear communication strategy. It was a controversial policy to pursue at a time when the country was faced with serious security problems, following the Christmas attacks by Boko Haram on several churches. The announcement came a day after the president declared a state of emergency in four northern states. So this was certainly not the time to frustrate an already nervous population.

AW: Do you believe that the week-long, large-scale protests, which really showed a unified Nigeria, combined with the growing use of social networking–we saw the Occupy Nigeria Twitter movement for example–in these protests, might indicate the beginning of a “Nigerian Spring?”Or how do you see these protests playing out?

CE: I think certainly the fuel subsidy came to symbolize much of the grievances felt by the population. It was certainly a rallying point, and gave an aggrieved society an outlet to protest about other major problems. Whether you want to call this a Nigerian Spring, within the context of the Arab Spring–well, the groups have vowed to continue their protests. The president’s concessions on the fuel subsidies certainly emboldened the Occupy Nigeria groupings. The January protests have awakened an appetite for inquiring into the cost of government and accountability in public life. But, we can also anticipate that the hand of government will become heavier in its own response if the Occupy Nigeria protests were to become more widespread in the country.

AW: Let’s end with a broad question about Nigeria’s future. Nigeria is currently facing civil unrest, sectarian strife, an Islamist insurgency, and pockets of violence across the country. What is your assessment of the Jonathon government’s ability to address these issues and establish security? Are you optimistic?

CE: I think after the Kano, multiple bombings on Friday [20th January], the government cannot continue to downplay the gravity of what confronts the Nigerian state. Boko Haram has raised its profile, and it now operates beyond origins in Borno State, and it is certainly one of the biggest security headaches for the government and President Goodluck Jonathon. One can envisage a long, drawn-out, bloody duel between the government and the group if the president does not end the current firefighting approach and begin to cast a new policy that proactively seeks to address a range of economic and political issues.

As for optimism, I think many observers within and outside Nigeria are moving fast to predict that Nigeria is on the brink of civil war, following on the first civil war from 1967-1970. Even the president has said that Nigeria is close to the situation facing the country at the time of the civil war. Indeed, the reality confronting Nigeria is grave; however the country is not on the verge of disintegration– but Nigeria is in dire straits. The attacks have shocked Nigerians and the federal government, and there is a sense of nervousness. Having said that, the country still has huge potential, and continues to show economic progress. Nigeria also has, in the past, remained resilient in the face of severe challenges.

But it must be sure that it can remain resilient in maintaining the unity of the country. To do this the president must put in place a transparent reform process that addresses chronic underdevelopment in the country, especially in the north. This is certainly a good opportunity for the government and respected personalities and intellectuals to come together and have a frank and honest debate about the future of the Nigerian state, including discussions of how to better accommodate the various groupings and various strains that constitute the Nigerian polity.

AW: It sounds like there are many challenges ahead. Dr. Ero, thank you again for taking the time to speak to the Global Observatory today.

About the photo: Comfort Ero during a C-Span broadcast on Sudan, 2011



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