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Opinion: Separating Fact From Fiction – 7 Questions About Boko Haram

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by Ryan Cummings

It has killed as many as 10,000 people, displaced an estimated 2 million others and seems set to spread beyond the confinement of Nigeria’s borders. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to deny that the Boko Haram insurgency is fast becoming the preeminent threat to stability both within Nigeria and its immediate neighbours. However, despite the magnitude of the Boko Haram threat, a lack of independent reporting and oversight has left much information related to the insurgency being rooted in conjecture. This has not, however, prevented such suppositions being presented as absolute truths in the Boko Haram discourse. Here I discuss a few such examples.

1. The meaning of Boko Haram?

Undoubtedly, the most pervasive misrepresentation of the Islamist extremist sect is rooted in the manner in which it is commonly referred to. The actual name of the group referred to as Boko Haram is Ahl al Sunna li al Da’wa wa al Jihad, loosely translated as “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad”. The origins of the appellation ‘Boko Haram’ is as widely disputed as its actual meaning. According to Nigeria historian, Andrew Walker, the word was coined by residents of Maiduguri who mocked the sect for its eccentric proselytization and aggressive anti-Western rhetoric. An assertion which has gained credence by the extremist sect’s frequent repudiation of the moniker.

As mentioned, the exact meaning of the term Boko Haram is also subject to contention. Although widely translated to mean ‘Western education is sinful’, with ‘Boko’ and ‘Haram’ accepted as local equivalents of ‘book’ and ‘sinful’, religious scholars and linguists continue to debate the denotation of the term. In his blog entry entitled ‘Boko Haram Whats in a name’, Assistant Professor in the African Studies Program at Georgetown University, Alex Thurston, elucidates on the etymology of Boko Haram. According to Thurston, who widely cites the research of Hausa linguist, Dr. Paul Newman, the term ‘boko’ is not etymologically derived from the English term book. Instead, ‘boko’ is a native Hausa word, originally meaning sham, fraud and inauthenticity. Both Newton and Thurston concludes, however, that name ‘Boko Haram’ is rooted in the sect’s belief that western education and institutions are deceitful.

2. Did Boko Haram declare a caliphate?

Another common misconception pertains to the sect’s purported declaration of an Islamic Caliphate in north eastern Nigeria — comparable to that professed by the Islamic State in the Levant. Suggestions that Boko Haram declared its nascent caliphate can be linked to a video released by the sect on 24 August 2014 following Boko Haram’s capture of the town of Gwoza. Over the course of the 52-minute video, it is claimed that Boko Haram’s firebrand leader, Abubakar Shekau had, in his native Hausa dialect, declared “Thanks be to Allah who gave victory to our brethren in (the town of) Gwoza and made it part of the Islamic caliphate”. The English translation of Shekau’s speech, which was widely circulated by various western media agencies, was flagged as incorrect by various agencies, most notably the U.S. government’s Open Source Center and senior fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Dr David Garstein-Ross. According to Garstein-Ross, Shekau had not one used the Hausa or Arabic term for caliphate, namely khilafah, much less declared one. Instead, the Boko Haram leader had referenced the term ‘dawlah’ which refers to the rule of a secular government. I also briefly discussed why, from a theological perspective, Boko Haram could not declare a caliphate comparable to that of the IS in my blog post entitled ‘Of caliphates‘.

3. Is Boko Haram copying Islamic State (IS)

There have also been growing insinuations that Boko Haram may be copying Islamic State (IS) and could even be operating as the group’s Nigerian proxy. Suggestions of synergism between Boko Haram and Islamic State were ostensibly driven by the aforementioned, and overtly fallacious, claims that Boko Haram had declared the creation of its own caliphate. However, even if such assertions were grounded in fact, it would hardy serve as evidence of Boko Haram’s was linked to, or even emulating, IS. From its inception, Boko Haram’s raison d’etre was to create a state in northern Nigeria would be governed under Sharia Law. As such, Boko Haram’s intention of forming a sovereign Islamist state predates even the formation of IS.

That said, linkages between Boko Haram and Islamic State cannot be discounted entirely. In his briefing entitled Boko Haram is increasingly acting like the Islamic State, Boko Haram analyst, Jacob Zenn, provides compelling evidence to suggest that, at the very least, Boko Haram was mimicking IS. Zenn argues that Boko Haram’s use of the IS rayat al-uqab flag, its use of IS’ national anthem in its videos and Shekau’s lauding of IS leader, Abubakr al-Baghdadi, may be indicative of a growing relationship between the jihadist organizations. Nonetheless, Zenn, however, falls short of suggesting that linkages between IS and Boko Haram were definitive.

4. Did Boko Haram kill 2,000 in Baga?

Boko Haram have been accused of committing several mass atrocities but none was as stark as claims that the sect may have killed as many as 2,000 people in Baga and its environs between 3 and 7 January. Although eyewitness accounts, supported by satellite imagery, confirmed that acts of mass violence was perpetrated in Baga and the wider Kukawa Local Government Area over this period, the fact remains that we have no verifiable evidence to corroborate the 2,000 death toll. For further reading on this issue, see my column in the Daily Maverick entitled Murder by the Numbers: Assessing the credibility of the Baga deathtoll.

5. Does Boko Haram control an area the size of Belgium in Nigeria?

An assertion which is also being pandered by several major media outlets is that Boko Haram has captured a landmass in north eastern Nigeria comparable to that of several Western states. For example, The Telegraph suggested that Boko Harams controls an estimated 52,000 square kilometres in Nigeria, equivalent to that of Costa Rica or Slovakia. The Guardian’s estimation of Boko Haram’s territorial appropriation is more conservative, with the media agency suggesting that the sect controls a land mass of around 20,000 square kilometres — comparable to that of Wales or the US State of Maryland. The Wall Street Journal’s estimate seems to find a middle ground by suggesting that Boko Haram has assimilated an estimated 30,000 square kilometres of territory or an area equivalent to the size of Belgium. But are these figures backed up by any facts?

The first mention of the extent of Boko Haram’s territorial expanse I tracked to an article by Nigerian online newspaper the Daily Trust. Published on 3 November 2014, the article claims that Boko Haram had captured 10 local government areas in Nigeria’s north eastern Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states, cumulatively amounting to 21,546.86 square kilometres of land. The problem with these figures, however, is that they are rooted in an ambiguous conceptual definition of captured territory. Eyewitness accounts have confirmed that Boko Haram does not operate as a quintessential occupying force. Many settlements claimed to have been attacked by the sect are often raided, abandoned and left to be repopulated by displaced communities. In many cases, existing governance structures uprooted in these areas are not restored. A dearth of independent reporting thus drives a flawed narrative that all ungoverned spaces in Boko Haram’s areas of operation is effectively under its control.

6. Is Maiduguri being surrounded?

A claim which has been circulating for a while now is that Boko Haram has city of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State. Suggestions of besiegement of Maiduguri gained further traction in January 2015 when the sect launched successive attacks on the city — both of which were repelled by Nigerian security forces. On 25 January, further credence was given to these claims when Human Rights Watch Executive Director claimed that ‘Boko Haram had completely surrounded Maiduguri’ via social media site Twitter.

But has Boko Haram actually surrounded Maiduguri? According to local reports, Boko Haram had secured control of 13 local government areas in the Nigeria’s north eastern states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa. Nine of these, namely that of Gwoza, Bama, Mafa, Dikwa, Kala-Balge, Ngala, Marte, Abadam and Mobbar, had been seized in Borno alone. In neighbouring Adamawa State, the sect was reported to have seized full control of the Michika and Madagali local government areas. In Yobe State, the administrative divisions of Gujba and Gulani were deemed to have fallen under Boko Haram control. Plotting these areas on a map delineates that Boko Haram has indeed taken up positions along Maiduguri’s eastern, southern and northern. However, it indicated that the city’s western front, which links Maiduguri to Yobe’s state capital, Damaturu, remained accessible for movements in and out of the city. In article entitled ‘Why Maiduguri is key to Boko Haram’s future’, published on 28 January 2015, journalist Simon Allison suggested that four of the main roads leading to and from Maiduguri had fallen under the control of Boko Haram. However, Allison noted that the western approach to Maiduguri remains in government hands.

Ryan Cummings is Chief Analyst for Africa for red24, a crisis management assistance company providing advice, support and response within crisis management, travel tracking, product recall, kidnap and ransom and travel security. Follow Ryan @Pol_Sec_Analyst

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.


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