The destructive militant group sowing chaos across Africa

An ex-combatant leans against a window of a dormitory room at an internment camp for ex-Boko Haram fighters, in Goudoumaria, Niger, in August 2018. (Jane Hahn/For The Washington Post)
An ex-combatant leans against a window of a dormitory room at an internment camp for ex-Boko Haram fighters, in Goudoumaria, Niger, in August 2018. (Jane Hahn/For The Washington Post)

My last international trip before the covid-19 lockdown was to Nigeria’s neighbor Chad. It wasn’t my first visit to the north-central African nation of some 16 million, which ranks last on the World Bank’s Human Capital Index, but it was unique. I ventured to the Lac region, the country’s principal agricultural region, an area impoverished by climate change, corruption, diseases, dictatorship — and now, the militant group Boko Haram. Having monitored the advent and transformation of Boko Haram in Nigeria, I knew that the group had inflicted substantial damage across the Lake Chad region, but I wanted to see and feel the situation for myself.

What I found was much worse than I had imagined. Repeated sights of burned or abandoned homes, farmlands and schools ensured the three chatty passengers of our Land Cruiser remained silent in the final and most dangerous lap of the journey. The local head of the United Nations in Baga Sola, where we stopped en route to a camp housing thousands of Nigerian refugees, lamented that their “major concern now are Boko Haram land mines that are scattered everywhere,” and showed us graphic photographs of the latest blasts.

Thus, the perception that Boko Haram is just a threat to Nigeria is misguided. Even in the case of Nigeria, only the most heinous or large-scale atrocities, such as the 2014 abduction of the Chibok girls, are widely known. But Boko Haram went transnational in 2012, when its violence started to collaterally spill into parts of Niger, Chad and Cameroon. Now, it is a security threat that continues to destroy lives and livelihoods daily across the region, though it remains a blind spot in much of the international coverage and attention.

Niger, Chad and Cameroon became its deliberate targets since 2015, when they joined Nigeria’s military efforts to rout the group. In 2016, the share of Boko Haram’s attacks outside Nigeria grew from roughly 30 percent to nearly half, and it has remained in that range since.

Boko Haram has killed hundreds and displaced more than 100,000 people in Chad. But the worst-hit of Nigeria’s neighbors is Cameroon. The situation is getting even more desperate in its Far North region, where more than 5,000 people have been killed and over 320,000 displaced. In 2020, Cameroon recorded more attacks on civilians than Nigeria, Niger and Chad combined. With the targeting of state forces, which are also struggling with an escalating Anglophone separatist crisis, concerns are rife that Boko Haram could make more advances into the former French colony. Niger has also seen its fair share of attacks and displacements.

More worrying, however, is the transnational spread of Boko Haram’s ideology. In Niger, a small group of Boko Haram members formed in Diffa’s central mosque as far back as 2007. In Cameroon, it was a Boko Haram founder who fled to his mother’s village across the border in the wake of the group’s first clash with Nigerian security forces in 2009 and planted the seeds of the group. From 2014, thousands of Chadians joined the Boko Haram’s self-declared Islamist caliphate, the size of Belgium.

This transnational spread was facilitated by shared ethnicity and culture among the border communities that historically belonged to a powerful Islamic empire, along with similar sociopolitical and economic grievances and porous borders.

Boko Haram’s influence also extends to the Sahel. The group’s Islamic State-allied faction, Islamic State West Africa Province, administratively oversees the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara operating in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, and it takes credit for attacks in the Sahel.

In fact, Boko Haram’s sway has carried thousands of miles beyond West Africa. The group’s unique tactics and ideological features are visible in Ansar al-Sunna, the Islamic State affiliate wreaking havoc in northern Mozambique that some respected experts describe as Mozambique’s Boko Haram. All of this makes Boko Haram one of Africa’s — and the world’s — greatest security threats now and moving forward.

Properly tackling Boko Haram requires a recognition that it is a potent threat not just to the entire Lake Chad region but also far beyond. This necessitates close transnational coordination not only in military efforts but also in countering the group’s ideological appeal, rehabilitating former members and addressing the underlying socioeconomic and political root causes.

After all, the two decades since the 9/11 attack demonstrate clearly that violent extremism is infectious and lethal; that bullets and bombs alone cannot surmount this complex challenge; and that no country can do it alone.

Bulama Bukarti is a senior analyst on sub-Saharan Africa at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, a senior nonresident associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a columnist at Daily Trust.

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