September 9th, 2011
05:00 PM ET

How to undermine Nigeria's growing Islamist threat

Editor's Note: John Campbell, the former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007, is the Ralph Bunch Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

By John Campbell, Foreign Affairs

On August 26, a suicide bomber drove an explosive-laden Honda into the United Nations headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria, killing 23 people and injuring 81 more. Boko Haram, a shadowy radical Islamic movement that has been waging daily attacks in the north of the country, claimed responsibility. Some have argued that the sophisticated tactics are evidence of Boko Haram establishing links with international terrorist networks, most likely al Qaeda in the Maghreb or al Shabab in Somalia. Even before this attack, the United States, Britain, and Israel had publicly supported providing counterterrorism assistance to the Nigerian government. Now, momentum for such a solution is growing.

But such an approach could do more harm than good - for Nigeria but also for Washington, which cannot afford to alienate Africa's largest Muslim population. Since his election to the Nigerian presidency in April 2011, Goodluck Jonathan has undertaken an exclusively security-driven strategy for dealing with Boko Haram, stationing large numbers of military and police in the north, especially in Maiduguri, a city on the edge of the Sahara near the border with Chad, and the states of Bauchi and Borno. Although the military and police are made up of various ethnic, religious, and regional groups, few are native to the areas in which they serve and can be hostile to the local populations. For example, following a bombing in Maiduguri, Amnesty International reported that the Nigerian military "responded by shooting and killing a number of people, apparently at random, before burning down the market." That significant numbers of people have fled the area adds credibility to such accusations, as does the fact that some local leaders are calling for a reduction of the military and police presence in their communities.

Instead of associating itself with Abuja's heavy-handed military response, the Obama administration should urge Jonathan to address what are essentially political problems: poverty and the corruption-driven alienation felt by the population of northern Nigeria, factors that contribute to Boko Haram's popular support.

Indeed, it is misleading to think of Boko Haram as an organized terrorist group or a conventional insurrection. Even its name - commonly translated as "Western education is forbidden" - implies more organization than appears to exist and is used only by outsiders, such as the police and media. In fact, Boko Haram more resembles a cloud of inchoate rage shaped by Islam. It has no central leadership, and its attacks appear to have been uncoordinated. This structure may change: Since mid-June, Boko Haram has maintained a blog that purports to represent the "organization." But the site has not been updated for more than a month.

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The movement's rhetoric - used by alleged spokesmen in contact with the English-speaking press, imams and malams preaching in Hausa on the street and in mosques, and anonymous pamphlets and posters - draws on a long-standing local tradition of Islamic radical reform that emphasizes the pursuit of justice for the poor through the imposition of sharia. Adherents generally despise Nigeria's secular leadership and the country's traditional Muslim elites, whom they see as having been co-opted by the government. Thus, Boko Haram recently murdered the brother of the Shehu of Borno, the preeminent Islamic traditional ruler in Maiduguri, as well as a number of local government officials.

Boko Haram emerged from this tradition and an inward-looking community of extremists led by a young, charismatic preacher, Mohammed Yusuf, whose followers were centered in Maiduguri. In 2009, Yusuf led a bloody insurrection there that the secular authorities suppressed with difficulty. What triggered the violence remains obscure, although it has been connected to a dispute over wearing motorcycle helmets. In its immediate aftermath, Yusuf, his father-in-law, and a few other close associates were brazenly murdered by the police, providing the movement with its martyrs. Boko Haram subsequently went underground and regrouped. Since Yusuf's death, however, no leadership has publicly surfaced.

The goals of Boko Haram's adherents range from the release of their sympathizers from prison and the enforcement of sharia in areas where it is already formally in place to the establishment of God's kingdom on earth and the destruction of the secular state, to be replaced by an Islamic one. Until the attack on the UN building, Boko Haram had waged its battle locally, primarily targeting facilities and personnel deemed un-Islamic or complicit with the Nigerian federal government, such as army barracks, police checkpoints, beer halls, brothels, local and federal officials, and in a few cases, churches and Christian clergy.

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Since Nigeria's national elections in April, Boko Haram attacks have escalated and grown more sophisticated, drawing on masses of unemployed youths. More than 70 violent incidents have been documented since late May. There is a widespread belief in the north that Jonathan rigged the election and stole his victory from the northern Muslim candidate, Muhammadu Buhari. Following the announcement of the election results, mobs in the north killed an estimated 800 people in three days. The houses of traditional Islamic rulers believed to have supported Jonathan were burned down.

Instead of relieving pressure by offering northerners positions in his inner circle, Jonathan surrounded himself primarily with members of his own Ijaw ethnic group and others from his southern home state of Bayelsa and the Niger Delta. His recent attempt, now abandoned, to lengthen presidential term limits from four to six years and his support of the constitutionally ambiguous decision by the National Judicial Council to remove the president of the court of appeals, who was presiding over petitions challenging the results of the 2011 elections, have further alienated the north.

Jonathan needs to address this northern alienation, of which Boko Haram is only a symptom. Washington should also urge him to challenge the corruption that pervades much of Nigerian government and society, which would go a long way toward soothing the genuine political and economic grievances that motivate Boko Haram's violence and fuel its popular support.

There are concrete ways the United States can aid that process. If Jonathan demonstrated a genuine commitment to military and police reform, for example, the United States could provide much-needed training in improving relations with the civilian population. It could also support Nigerian strategies to make modern education more palatable to an Islamic population. There are already successful examples of state governors in the north financially supporting madrasahs (Islamic schools) in return for the introduction of modern science in the curriculum.

If Jonathan balks, the United States should strengthen its ties with the north by expanding soft diplomatic initiatives, beginning with the establishment of a consulate in Kano. The consulate could then facilitate exchanges between American and Nigerian academics, especially Islamic scholars, and accelerate an existing U.S.-supported program of cataloging and preserving ancient Islamic manuscripts, a proven tactic for affirming the international importance of northern Islamic culture. Such steps would counter the widely held view in the north that the United States is anti-Islamic.

Even if Boko Haram expand its operations and establish significant contacts with international terrorist organizations, the Obama administration should not let counterterrorism considerations trump these public diplomacy strategies. Too heavy a hand would risk alienating Nigeria's 75 million Muslims, who already have legitimate grievances in the north. This, in turn, could undermine the very unity of Nigeria - something neither Washington nor Abuja can afford.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of John Campbell. Copyright by the Council on Foreign Relations. 

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Topics: Africa • Terrorism

soundoff (19 Responses)

    NIGERia, must be at least concise, if they can.

    September 9, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
  2. Onesmallvoice

    I kind of figured that those idiots in Washington will sooner or later drag us into this conflict, too! They just can't seem to get enough of that war to my disgust! Then again, those idiots will go almost to any length to get our minds off of the bad economy here at home!!!

    September 9, 2011 at 7:53 pm |
  3. TowelHeadsAreMorons

    Islame is vile.

    September 10, 2011 at 1:58 am |
  4. Garden-City Boy

    It is the same Jonathan bashing by a paranoid islamic terror.Radicalized islamists are good for Nigeria, but not for the US and the West. It will certainly do everybody. a lot of good should Campbell's recommendations on are accepted by Washington and get this Islamic monkey off our backs. Nigerians are not ready to cut deals with terrorists and murderers. After all Sudan is a case in point. Since nothing except islamic leadership is good enough for John Campbell, then too bad. He may have to look elsewhere. We are fully braced for the cataclysm of his prophetic gloom and doom. We urge. Campbell and his terrorists friends bring it. Yet John Campbell believes President Jonathan is under an obligation to make the 'bitter pill' of modern and conventional education "palatable" to islamist jihadists. The next exercise is to ram it down extremists who loathe modern education in the first place.Anybody waiting for that to happen can wait forever, because it will never happen. then ram it down murderers, then education. They have never made any preteses as to their stand on Western education. There must be something ulterior and sinister about the Campbells campaign against Nigeria and President Jonathan. He couldn't be crying more than the bereaved for nothing.

    September 10, 2011 at 6:50 am |
  5. Nigerian

    This nonsense was written by a former American Ambassador (now being employed by a corrupt Nigerian Muslim politician). I can now see why American foreign policy is so dumb.

    September 10, 2011 at 8:06 am |
  6. j. von hettlingen

    I think a partiitioned Nigeria would should the north/south conflict!

    September 10, 2011 at 8:09 am |
    • j. von hettlingen

      please read would SOLVE the north/south conflict!

      September 10, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
  7. Nigerian

    "If Jonathan balks, the United States should strengthen its ties with the north by expanding soft diplomatic initiatives, beginning with the establishment of a consulate in Kano. The consulate could then facilitate exchanges between American and Nigerian academics, especially Islamic scholars, and accelerate an existing U.S.-supported program of cataloging and preserving ancient Islamic manuscripts, a proven tactic for affirming the international importance of northern Islamic culture. Such steps would counter the widely held view in the north that the United States is anti-Islamic."

    Your proposal does not go far enough. Why not go ahead and convert the US embassy into a Mosque and hold daily prayers there?


    September 10, 2011 at 8:14 am |
  8. Obyno

    Dear Mr. Campbell,
    There is something about Nigeria that you are yet to understand and that thing is "background dependence of advice". You just suggested to Mr. Jonathan to surround himself with northerners instead of people he could trust or people that believe in his dream for Nigeria. I seriously suspect your neutrality or objectivity in this write-up. Aguyi Ironsi did want to reconcile Nigerians, he did this by populating his inner circle with Northerners, I hope you know what happened to him.
    The only part of your write-up that I might look at is the part that talks about poverty and corruption. However, you should be aware that almost all the northern states get more allocation per month from Abuja than Anambra state for example, but education and the GDP of Anambra state are far more higher than any of the northern states.
    In summary, poverty in the north should not be tackled as an isolated incident by Jonanthan because there is no reason to, rather the governors of the states responsible, should initiate policies that will liberate their people.
    If you ever want the United state government to help Nigeria, advise them to start deporting anyone from Nigeria that have held or is still holding a political position in Nigeria that lives in the US, They should enjoy the country they helped impoverished. Before I forget, they should deport the governor of Bauchi state who has chosen to lead one of the states you are sympathetic about from the US.

    September 10, 2011 at 10:39 am |
  9. leeintulsa

    Maybe if the news media stopped calling it "islamist threat", and instead called it "terrorist threat", we could get some of the confusion and hate out of the equation.

    September 10, 2011 at 11:26 am |
  10. Olajode Olakanpo

    This so-called expert sets himself an essay topic but proceeds to write completely off the point. There is nothing about undermine growing Islamic threat in his uninspiring, off-target write-up. If anything, he did the direct opposite; it is the recipe on how to empower terrorists and glamorize their crime. This self- acclaimed expert in African politico needs to propose this good faith recommendations to the US State Department. I can assure him a place in !st 10 on the CIA watch list. If he is lucky, he would bag an indictment for quackery. and falsely parading himself as an expert in African political issues.
    How would a man with head on his shoulders suggest that Mohammed Yusuf, the leader of the Boko Haram murderers, was "CHARIMATIC". By inference, Campbell insinuates that the US Government should accord Osama Bin Laden a "Charismatic" status. And having done that, a remorseful President Obama should personally apologize and appease Bin Laden's terrorist followers for causing the death of the 'charismatic' Al Qaeda leader. That is exactly his proposal for the Federal Government with Boko Haram. It is an approach that should be good enough for the US should the ex-ambassador turned bogus expert considers it good for Nigeria. His demagoguery stokes all the mayhem in Maiduguri and has served to embolden the terrorists, who see support in his misleading articles and commentaries.
    From these sound-bytes, John Campbell has manifested an insider knowledge of the genesis of the deadly post-election rampage. There is no question he has very intimate Boko Haram connections, as well as good knowledge of the sponsors. His aim at all times is to demonize the Nigerian President for "stealing" the election victory from an islamic Northerner. By his count, there are 70 million God-annointed Moslems in Nigeria. In his illogical opinion, the will and interest of the remaining 80 million non-moslems must subordinate to those of the 70 million Moslems. And that is the gospel of Democracy according to Campbell, which he deems fit for Nigeria. His rather very recurring emotive complaint over President Jonathan is such you would believe John Campbell suffered a very serious personal loss from his presidency. Electing himself the mouth-piece for Buhari and the Boko Haram terrorists is a little more than just curious. There must be quite a bit about John Campbell and his meddlesome campaign than meets the uneducated eye.

    September 10, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
  11. sharon

    my country men has brought their EDUCATED ILLITERACY COMPLEX to CNN again Campbell has just made a suggestion to solve the problem which he has painted very clearly more than our partisan national daily.
    I personally as a Nigerian I will say a pig cannot clean a sitting the president will do nothing because he him self is rooted in corruption the fight with BOKO HARAM i can bet will not be stopped by the president, because he is less concerned

    September 12, 2011 at 10:40 am |
    • Maduka

      What is this drivel? When the US was attacked by Osama Bin Laden, did they negotiate with Al Qaeda?

      September 12, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
  12. Ebuka

    I strongly believe that Mr Campbell is either extremely ignorant of the real security situation in Nigeria or simply part of our security headache and should be properly investigated. Nigeria's entire existence has been hinged on dragging along the massively but willingly illiterate northern moslem population. a move that has given them a false sense of importance. They thus believe that they must always get what they want or the whole country must be burned down. For Nigeria to survive this latest threat to its unity, we must let the radical islamists in the north and there cronies elsewhere know that their opinions are unwelcome.

    September 16, 2011 at 11:38 am |
  13. Emeka

    Am glad with the insight given by John Campbell, he is one of the very few people that tell us the way it is. The government has to open up channels of communication with the group and bring them out to the fore. This would make them come to a roundtable for discussions.

    September 19, 2011 at 9:26 am |
    • James

      Holding Nigeria
      to ransom is not a good way to be patriotic. What is wrong in thinking in a positive direction to affect other lives instead of giving them bombs for a present?

      October 9, 2011 at 9:50 am |

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