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Boko Haram: Cash Cow of the Sahel, or Part of a Grand Strategy?


[caption id="attachment_11231" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Many thousands remain displaced by Boko Haram. Photo by EU/ECHO/Isabel Coello, via Flickr. Creative Commons.[/caption]

Between 2002 and 2011, the BBC and the Guardian consistently rated Nigerians as the world's happiest people. In sharp contrast, by 2013 a Forbes Magazine survey ranked Nigeria as the 20th saddest place to live on earth and the country ranked 123rd on the Legatum Prosperity index. This paper does not attempt to make an analysis of where it all went wrong, as such an endeavour would constitute a voluminous series. However one major factor responsible for this negative attitude transformation is the rise in militancy in the south and terrorism in the north of the country, the havoc wreaked in terms of lives and property, and the growing insecurity. The most notable among these groups is Boko Haram, an Islamist terrorist group that has plagued the north-east of the country and captured international media attention. This article contends that Boko Haram's stature as Nigeria's chief security menace was sustained by certain members of Nigeria's elite, since it had become a cash cow for them.

Corruption and Impunity

Between 2013 and 2015, Nigeria's press was awash with stories of military defeats and soldiers fleeing battle with Boko Haram. In 2014, the case of the 54 soldiers accused of mutiny for refusing to fight Boko Harambrought to the fore what Nigerians had begun to suspect. The country's military, once arguably rated as Africa's best, was under equipped and in no shape to fight a terrorist group nowhere near its size. Surprisingly, observers failed to ask how Nigeria's military could be so ill-equipped despite rising budgetary allocations since 2012.

From $1.4 and $2.4 billion in 2010 and 2011 respectively, defense got a 100 percent increase in 2012 to $5.7 billion. The Armed Forces received $2.1 billion alone that year which exceeded the whole of the defense budget (including the police and Defence Ministry) in 2010. The Armed Forces allocation rose to $3.6 billion in 2013, again exceeding the whole defense budget for 2011. The $6 billion received by the defense sector in 2014 was 20 percent of the entire country's budget that year. These increases were premised on the justification of fighting Boko Haram. Yet from 2013 until early 2015, Boko Haram was on the ascendency because Nigeria's military was grossly ill-equipped. So where did all the money assigned to defense go? For a country seriously lacking in accountability, the increased defense allocations meant more money to misappropriate. There is the anecdote that, money spent on defense is hardest to trace especially in times of conflict since it is impossible to account for every bullet used. As long as the Boko Haram threat remained, there was a great deal of money to be made by certain members of Nigeria's elite, irrespective of the number of lives lost or hardships induced on its citizenry.

It is ironic that the increased defense allocation from 2012 to 2015 met with an increasingly ill-equipped Armed Forces over the same period. Glaring as this is, Nigerians did not seem to notice nor question until the $2.1 billion Arms Deal scam involving the former National Security Adviser (NSA) Sambo Dasuki, now popularly known as Dasukigate. The furor that greeted this revelation was appalling, not because of the crescendo it attained, but because of how beguiled and aloof it showed Nigerian society to be. The signs of misappropriation of funds were obvious from the military's battle field performance from 2012 through 2014. In 2015, with popularity at an all-time low and elections around the corner, the Goodluck Jonathan administration tried to plug these leakages. The momentum quickly swung in favor of the Nigerian Armed Forces, but it was too late to save his presidency.

Something More

Much of the suspicion of Nigerians on the sustenance of Boko Haram focused on power brokers in the north who were opposed to political power residing in the South. This suspicion was sustained by statements made by certain northern thought leaders about making the country ungovernable for President Jonathan's regime. Lawal Kaita, for example, averred in 2010 and then in 2014 that the country would be made ungovernable should Goodluck Jonathan be elected president. The late General Owoye Azazi, former Chief of Army Staff, and Chief of Defence Staff (2006) stated at a conference that beyond the root causes of poverty and religion, the desire of some to rule Nigeria perpetrates the Boko Haram menace (also see the Premium Times).

Now power is back in Nigeria's north and Boko Haram is depicted as severely incapacitated. Are the forays of a rejuvenated military entirely responsible or has the objective for sustaining Boko Haram been achieved? Where did all the men and guns go? If Boko Haram had political backers, what task would these patrons put their militias to? Two recent developments bring these questions to the fore. Nigerians and the international community should not stay ignorant of the answers.

First, it is well known that Boko Haram was a bigger problem and has been present longer in Nigeria than in Chad and Cameroon. While the latter states have prosecuted captured members of the sect and found them guilty, Nigeria has not. Nigeria likely has a much larger number of captives, but has succeeded in prosecuting just three members of the sect, which made national headlines. Who is stalling the judicial process? Even now, there has been talk of granting members of the group amnesty, a gesture that belies political science theory. Truces are negotiated when it is apparent that without one, casualties will be high and the cost grim. Now that the Nigerian government has pulverized Boko Haram, why consider granting amnesty? The suggestion defies all known theories of conflict and justifies the contention that Boko Haram was part of a grand ethnic-elite strategy, and its patrons would not allow their stooges to hang.

Second, with the gradual dispersion of Boko Haram from the north, there has been a systematic rise in attacks by well-armed Fulani herdsmen on villages in Nigeria's middle belt, the mid-west and south east, a rise that may not be coincidental (see Ventures Africa, This Day, and background on the conflict from the BBC). The Institute for Economics and Peace's 2015 Global Terrorism Index report referenced a link between Boko Haram and some Fulani herdsmen groups, particularly in regard to smuggling and organized crime. Experts have suggested that Boko Haram could use existing ethnic tensions to its advantage in the Fulani conflict, and infiltrate or instigate further violence. Newspaper reports of a recent attack on the south-eastern city of Enugu alleged that the Fulani herdsmen who coordinated the raid numbered about 500. Where and how could these nomads have organized themselves in such large numbers and where did they get their sophisticated weapons? It is not extreme to contemplate that the patrons of Boko Haram have found some other cause for their misguided radicals. After all, attacking 'infidels' and burning non-Islamic places of worship, as evidenced in recent attacks by Fulani herdsmen, is part of the dictum of Islamist extremist sects (for more on the attacks see Newsweek, Punch, and Vanguard).

Boko Haram arguably was, and is likely still a tool in the hands of certain members of Nigeria's political elite. They were used to prosecute an agenda and served as a cash cow as their actions justified increased defense expenditure which was siphoned into the hands of those elite. With its likely objective achieved, and its members still around, its patrons are compelled to find some other 'worthy cause' to satisfy their blood lust. If the amnesty deal for Boko Haram pulls through, then its 'international terrorist' label was a ruse, for what it really was all along was an ethnic militia, now being rewarded for a 'mission accomplished.' Events in the near future will tell if Boko Haram was really an international terrorist group prompted by deprivation and religious bigotry to redress a status quo, or if its bloody existence was part of a grand plan for which millions of innocent Nigerians suffered.

Please note that the views expressed in this article are solely the responsibility of the author, and not those of the Wilson Center.

Jude Cocodia is a Lecturer at Niger Delta University, Nigeria and a Ph.D. candidate at the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham.

About the Author

Jude Cocodia

Associate Professor, Niger Delta University Nigeria; Research Fellow, University of the Free State South Africa.

Africa Program

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