National Security

Boko Haram: Addressing Oil and Religion

Boko Haram is a terrorist organization in the northern portion of Nigeria, about the middle portion of the Sahel, that follows and enforces the Wahhabi Islamic ideology. Because they follow Wahhabism, Boko Haram desires to enforce a “traditionalist” view of Sharia law. Boko Haram has publicly called for a war against secular authority and Christianity with a goal of establishing an “Islamic State” in Nigeria. The organization operates in the northeastern part of Nigeria. Their operations include guerrilla warfare, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), small-arms, and indirect fire. They commonly target supranational organizations like the United Nations (UN), Nigerian state actors, schools, and any portion of the population that harbors a perceived “western” ideology and does not agree with Boko Haram’s ideology. It is expected that Boko Haram will utilize any available armament to continue the spreading of Sharia law. The government and opposition should prepare to protect locations that do not follow the strict enforcement of Sharia per the Wahhabi Islamic ideology as well as key infrastructure that supports targeted populations. Opposition operations should be thwarted by hardening supply routes to and from said locations, confining conflict regions with terrain, and restricting access to the oil pipelines within the protected regions.

The countermeasures that need to be taken must not gain the identity of an outside force and restrict Boko Haram’s finances and munitions. An us-versus-them scenario will only increase the influence of Boko Haram and unite fragmented populations against Nigerian state actors.

History and Development

In 1914, British colonialists formed Nigeria by uniting the northern and southern portions of Lagos. By 1954 there were three dominant ethnic groups that represented the three regions that became Nigeria. The ethnic groups were the Hausa-Fulani in the north, the Yoruba in the west, and the Igbos in the east. Nigeria received its independence in 1960. The state was then obligated to operate independently. Because the north received less influence from the colonists and kept its predominant Muslim heritage, the colonial-educated and Christian south didn’t become a unified nation state. Regardless of the differing ideologies, the state started to increase its economic opportunities in the post-colonial period with the naturally occurring resources in the south, oil. Due to the fact that there was a division between the population, the north (Muslims) perceived the control of the oil by the south (Christians) as a threat.

When the colonial period ended, the state also established its military system by a regional quota system, 50 percent of the force was contributed by the north and 25 percent each to the east and west, respectively. The north used its dominance to obtain higher positions within the military and maintain control over the entire nation state. Eventually the abuse of power, inequality, and misrepresentation of the regions led to a bloody military coup from the south in 1966. From 1966 to 1999, military rule within the state became normal, except for four-years of civilian control from 1979 to 1983. In 1999, the Nigerian state drafted its constitution and is now a democratic state. Through the division from the coup, the instillation of military order, and now a democracy that elects officials, the Muslim- dominant north has united as a seemingly separate entity.

In 2002 Mohammed Yusuf utilized Islam to unite those against the westernization of Nigeria, and formed Boko Haram. This unification is not only against westernization, it is also against the regions that were a part of the coup against northern leadership in the 60s. The adopted title by the Muslim-dominated north, Boko Haram, further explains the anti-western motivation. Boko meaning “Animist, Western, or otherwise non-Islamic education” and the Arabic word haram meaning “sin or forbidden,” literally connotes that education spread by westernization/colonization is forbidden and therefore rejected.

Boko Haram, al-Qaeda, and the Sahel

Currently, Boko Haram’s most visible leader is Abubakar Shekau. However, the State Department has named two other individuals linked to Boko Haram, Khalid al Barnawi and Abubakar Adam Kambar. It is estimated that the organization has between 4,000 and 6,000 fighters. The fighters operate and maintain the funding of the organization by conducting criminal activity such as bank robberies, kidnappings, assassinations for hire, trafficking, and various types of extortion. In addition, Boko Haram has pledged allegiance with other violent actors like al- Qaeda.

Much like Boko Haram, al-Qaeda is an Islamic organization that seeks to instill Sharia law, except it is more internationally focused. By maintaining the northeastern portion of Nigeria, that portion that connects to the Sahel, Boko Haram has been able to obtain weapons and munitions to facilitate their operations. The Nigerian government is allied with the United States, French, and British to help combat the spread of extremism. Through allied technologies, assisted surveillance, and direct assistance, the Nigerian government has greater capabilities than Boko Haram but still has not been able to claim a victory.

External Interests and Manipulation

Oil is the main resource in Nigeria. Controlling oil production from the region leads to other interested parties. One of the largest oil-producing countries in the world, that shares the Wahhabi Sunni ideology, is Saudi Arabia. Along with the proximity of Nigeria to Saudi Arabia and their shared interest, China’s increased interest in Africa, and the tariffs over trade, it is highly probable that Nigeria’s resources, along with the rest of Africa, will become pivotal ground between east and west.

The religious indoctrination of the Wahhabi Islamic ideology to the population in the north has led to an extremist view. It calls for the suppression of western ideologies and instillation of Sharia law, which justifies jihad, holy war. Similar to the Milgram Experiment, the call for holy war from a respected authority figure can lead to very scary measures. Boko Haram is already carrying out this goal by attacking soft targets as well as killing opposition. In addition, the attacking, killing, and kidnapping of individuals gains attention through the media and helps spread fear, which further deters the general population from resisting the organization. However, the Nigerian government continues to push back.

Failures and Setbacks Within Nigeria

The Nigerian government continuously conducts counter-insurgency (COIN) operations with the aid of western states without avail. Nigeria’s military failure is attributed to three reasons: The erosion of military professionalism, poor handling of the insurgency, and lack of decisive leadership by the civilian elected officials.

The erosion of military professionalism is attributed to the lack of accountability and expenditure of military funds by the Nigerian government, poorly paid soldiers receiving bribes, various forms of inaction that the individual soldiers were not doing for the civilian population, and corruption, as viewed by the population. Boko Haram has used suicide bombing, guerilla warfare, extortion, and external allies to systematically attack “hard targets” which has sent a message that no one is safe. The fear that the soldiers possess has caused a lack of commitment on the individual level. In addition, the former coup has resulted in a general lack of trust within the military itself. The state does not trust those that are working for it, and those working for the state do not trust the agenda. It is in this light that the counter-culture must change.

Recommended Solutions

As a combination of failures and lack of historical examples, the Nigerian state must try to resolve the conflict in a new manner. Any approach to fully address Boko Haram must seek to change the social environment and reduce the possibility of physical violence. Both aspects must come from the indigenous people for a full change. Therefore, the social aspects must be fully recognized in phases that will allow the people to actually want to push back on extremist indoctrination.

  • Social:
    • Raise awareness of the Boko Haram threat and the goals of the state to the local population through propaganda and open forums
    • Raise awareness to Boko Haram about the state of life outside of religious indoctrination
    • Gain permission from the local population to eradicate Boko Haram and the black-market hold on the Sahel
      • At this point: If there is no support a new approach must be identified
    • Provide aid to local businesses and communities to gain the trust and support of the local communities
    • Enforce standards
  • Physical:
    • Identify enemy anchor points and strongholds
    • Identify enemy supply routes
    • Contain enemy areas and cut off supply routes
    • After containment of the enemy and their resources have been depleted, ask for defectors to turn themselves over
    • Arrest/fight the remaining resistance
    • Continue to support local populations
    • Seek aid and assistance when necessary
    • Monitor progress and change as necessary

Fighting Boko Haram is not just fighting a secondary group, it is fighting an ideology. The group harbors a violent extreme belief about the world that stems back to learned behavior from the colonial period. Since Nigeria has become independent, it has had trouble finding an equal balance. Both sides believe that their sovereignty is threatened by the opposing side, and therefore each vies for domination. The Sahel is accessible by the north and provides an easy avenue for revenue and black-market goods. Regardless of the divergent avenues related to economy and funds, a line must be drawn between free progression and violent dogma. The state must seek to provide equality where all sides can be heard and represented to an acceptable standard. Any involvement without the inhabitants may result in further rebellion against perceived imperialists. The resolution must target a grass- roots campaign that addresses the social construct and physical aspects of the conflict.

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Guy Barnes

Guy Barnes is a U.S. Army Veteran and former tank commander with service in Iraq and Korea. He has helped train foreign militaries and developed diplomatic ties around the world. He completed his formal education through American Military University, George Mason University, and Oxford University. Although his current focus is largely on anti-social behavior, espionage, sociopsychology, diplomacy, foreign policy, and national security, he aims to conduct further research into the correlation between extreme ideologies and the sociopsychological aspects of international relations.

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