Boko Haram has been busy again this week, killing more than 140 people in new gun and bomb attacks across northern Nigeria. A raid on two villages near Chibok, the scene of last month’s schoolgirl abductions, killed 26 people, while a bomb attack in the city of Jos killed about 118, putting it in the record books as one of the bloodiest in Nigerian history.
While the world’s attention has focused on the horror of the kidnapped schoolgirls, this is a reminder that Boko Haram is even worse when just doing business as usual. No hostages, no #bringbackourgirls campaign, just a mountain of corpses and a few news agency headlines.
All of which raises the following question: what exactly does a group as nihilistic as this really want?
To judge by the rants of Boko Haram’s leader, Abu Bakar Shekau, the answer is fairly simple. First of all, they seek to exchange their schoolgirl hostages for the release of some of their prisoners. Then, they want Nigeria’s Islamic caliphate to be restored, reverting to the days of the country’s first Islamic empire 600 years ago, with no Western education, no drinking, and no modern innovations (save, perhaps, for the telly, so that Shekau can continue to broadcast his rants).
It doesn’t take a cynic to realise that this is probably unrealistic. Yet while Shekau himself is clearly something of an idealist – with a $7m price stuck on his head by the Americans, he doesn’t have much incentive for compromise – many other commanders in Boko Haram’s loose-knit coalition may be prepared to forget their high-minded goals of an Islamically-pure state. All it needs, it seems, is for someone to slip them a few quid – enough for a few nice cars and a flash villa, perhaps, plus a generous monthly salary for their foot-soldiers.
That might sound an odious concession to men who have slaughtered about 4,000 of their own countrymen in the last five years alone. But in Nigeria, it’s not entirely without precedent, as Boko Haram’s fighters know all too well. Many analysts are convinced the group is holding out for a repeat of the amnesty offered in 2009 to Nigeria’s Delta insurgents, who caused mayhem in the oil-rich south until a deal in 2009.
“Amnesty”, admittedly, is perhaps a rather polite word for it.
Officially, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND, waged a war for a more equitable distribution of the country’s oil wealth. But rather like Boko Haram, the idealists in its ranks were accompanied by large numbers of criminals, bandits and opportunists, for whom it was simply a way to earn money through kidnapping and robbery.
Nonetheless, with MEND’s assaults on the oil industry threatening Nigeria’s only cash cow, the government had little option but to negotiate. Since 2009, some 30,000 ex-fighters have been granted amnesty under the MEND deal, each receiving an allowance of around $400 a month.
That’s a fortune by Delta standards, where the vast majority of people live on around $2 a day. Their commanders have often fared even better, taking up lucrative posts as “security consultants” to the oil industry. The mosquito-ridden slums of the Delta area are now scattered with palatial villas built by retired MEND operatives, while others have upped stakes altogether and moved to the balmier climes of Nigeria’s purpose-built capital, Abuja.
It’s unfair to criticise the Nigerian government too much for doing this. The costs of the program are tiny compared to the amount saved in reducing disruption to the oil economy. And the fighters aren’t just being given hand-outs – there’s also a rehab program designed to train them up for more honest trades. But at the same time, the scheme has inevitably sent out a message to some extent that crime pays. Not surprisingly, it’s now widely speculated that this is precisely the kind of deal that many factions of Boko Haram are now hoping for.
The question, though, is whether the Nigerian government is willing to treat Boko Haram in the same way as MEND. While MEND carried out many attacks on the Nigerian army, it has never committed the kind of atrocities that Boko Haram does routinely. MEND also had the advantage of holding a gun to Nigeria’s strategically vital oil industry, while Boko Haram only holds a gun to poverty-stricken fellow Nigerians in the north. Sadly, they may not count for quite as much – hence the group feeling the need to be all the more brutal to get itself to the bargaining table.