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Nigerian security forces have killed as many people as the militant group Boko Haram in the ongoing war against terror. What must be appreciated is that Boko Haram is a symptom of serious economic and social problems and an indication of the level of despair that many poor people feel. Military force alone will not quash the insurgency

President Goodluck Jonathan brought the ‘war on terror’ to the people of North East Nigeria last year with the declaration of a state of emergency. This war hit the world headlines in April when Boko Haram abducted some 300 young women from a secondary school in Chibok.

Some bravely managed to escape, but the majority are still being held. This is despite the intervention and support of several world powers ( United States, United Kingdom,, France, China and Israel). Only negotiation, amnesty and resettling the insurgents or armed rebels will ensure the students of Chibok come home safely.

In May last year, fighter jets, helicopters, armoured personnel carriers and thousands of soldiers were deployed to enforce the state of emergency. This situation of de facto martial law has and will continue to lead to thousands of deaths and many more people fleeing across the borders.

Amnesty International has described a cycle of attacks, reprisals and extrajudicial executions. For example, hundreds of Boko Haram militants were said to have taken part in the 14 March 2014 attack on the Giwa barracks in Maiduguri, initially freeing over a thousand inmates. Captured Boko Haram suspects were often detained in Giwa barracks and human rights groups say hundreds had died or been subjected to torture there.

One eyewitness told Amnesty that in the aftermath of this attack, they saw soldiers shooting suspected Boko Haram supporters who had been ordered to lie on the ground. “I counted 198 people killed at that checkpoint" said one witness. Amnesty estimates that in total more than 600 people were killed by the security forces following this attack by Boko Haram.

At least 21 suspected Boko Haram supporters were also killed in March this year, during a so-called attempted escape from Nigeria's secret police headquarters in the capital city of Abuja. The authorities’ excuse was that early on 30 March 2014, one of the suspects attempted to disarm a guard by hitting him at the back of his head with his handcuff. They do not explain why 21 detainees died whilst only two service personnel were injured. The secret police in Nigeria are now being trained by the Israeli secret service, Mossad.

This is reminiscent, but on a larger scale, of the murder in custody of the former leader of Boko Haram, Mohammed Yusuf in 2009. He had been captured by the army and was handed to the police, but his body was later shown on state television. The army also killed around 800 other Boko Haram supporters at this time during an uprising sparked by the imposition of a motorbike helmet law.


Credible international experts continue to estimate that the Nigerian armed services and Boko Haram have killed approximately the same number of people in recent years.

In late 2012, a Nigerian senator claimed that the “Security agencies are the number one killers in terms of number… If one army officer is killed in an area, they will come and cordon off the whole place and kill people they can get hold of and then burn all the property in that area.”

"The scale of atrocities carried out by Boko Haram is truly shocking, creating a climate of fear and insecurity," said Amnesty International's Netsanet Belay. "But this cannot be used to justify the brutality of the response that is clearly being meted out by the Nigerian security forces."

According to a recent Channel 4 TV program in Britain, human rights investigators say as many as 4,000 people have died in military custody since the conflict escalated two years ago. Amnesty International also recently released a video showing a group of men described by witnesses as Nigerian soldiers and militiamen cutting the throats of several young men.

Despite the continued state of emergency and the level of atrocities by the Nigerian army, Boko Haram appear to be getting stronger. Human Rights watch has estimated that they killed over 2,000 civilians in nearly 100 attacks during the first half of 2014.

"Boko Haram is better armed and better motivated than our own troops," Borno State Governor, Kashim Shettima, said in February 2014. "Given the present state of affairs, it is absolutely impossible for us to defeat Boko Haram."

In early August they captured Gwoza, a town of perhaps 250,000 people. They have now held the town for several weeks, and later in the month they attacked a nearby police academy for the second time. In late August Boko Haram declared an Islamic state covering Gwoza and other areas that they control. At about the same time, they chased nearly 500 soldiers across the border in to Cameroon.

The soldiers returned to Nigeria a few days later, contradicting the idea that they had deserted. However, there have been reports of several mutinies within the army ranks and recently soldiers' wives protested at the deployment of their husbands, saying they were ill-equipped to fight the insurgents.

Even the governor of one of the states where Boko Haram is most active expressed his ‘very strong exception’ to the most recent extension of the state of emergency. He also lamented that the army has not ”worked to build and sustain the confidence of the people in the affected states.”


Boko Haram is a symptom of serious economic and social problems and an indication of the level of despair that many poor people feel. People within the local communities are voting with their feet and leaving the country to get away from the army. Earlier this year the United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that up to 600,000 people had fled their homes, with some seeking refuge in Niger, Cameroon and Chad.

While the few super-rich of the Nigerian elite live ostentatious lives, most people are embroiled in poverty, illiteracy and disillusionment. The real terror in the world today is not Al Qaeda or Boko Haram, but poverty resulting in the deaths of at least 3,000 people across the world every single day.

The rate of youth unemployment in Nigeria is officially between 45% and 60%. Whilst the National Bureau of Statistics notes that the unemployment situation in the north-eastern region where Boko Haram is most active is the worst. When so many secondary and university graduates are unemployed is it any wonder that Boko Haram supporters question the value of ‘western’ education?


Boko Haram has a contradictory nature. On one hand, it involves sections of the ruling elite for whom religion-as-politics is a tool for mobilisation of mass support for their aims. We saw examples with the political Shari’a wave that swept through 12 northern Nigerian states in the early 2000s. Specifically, Senator Ali Modu Sheriff courted Boko Haram in his successful bid for the governorship of Borno State in 2003.

However, elements of the anti-establishment demands of Boko Haram find resonance in the hearts of many poor and dispossessed people who are fed up with the corruption and flamboyant lifestyle of the elites, in the face of their own poverty and hopelessness. Since it was established in 2002, Boko Haram has provided Koranic education, housing, healthcare and offsetting of debts. Providing services that the state has failed to supply.


The war being waged against Boko Haram is not in the interest of the poor and working people. Similarly, militant Islamists cannot generally be described as ‘reactionary’. Its supporters are a complex collection of different groups including some of the political elite, but also many poor and impoverished driven to desperation by their situation..

In principle, working class activists are against any form of ‘state of emergency’ and the curtailment of democratic rights of the poor and working people. But we have to go beyond merely mouthing such ideas like the need for workers’ self-defence.

The January 2012 Uprising across Nigeria, against the threat to end fuel subsidies, showed us how superfluous ethno-religious conflicts become within a mass political struggle for a better society. Boko Haram had issued an order for non-northerners to leave the north, just before the working masses shock the country to its foundations with an eight-day general strike and mass protests across some 57 cities and towns.

In the heat of such a mass struggle, working people established self-defence militias in some places in the north. These guarded churches against attacks by Boko Haram, whileinn the south Christians protected Muslims at prayer.

Some members of the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) are paid the minimum wage. The relationship between the CJTF and state security forces have not always been cordial, with reported cases of police brutality against some youth vigilantes. In a recent protest, many angry youths took to the streets chanting anti-military slogans in Hausa, 'sojoji ne Boko Haram, Soja oga-Boko Haram' (translation: soldiers are the real Boko Haram, soldiers are masters of Boko Haram).

One of the most urgent tasks is the establishment of a united front against the state of emergency. There are several social forces that are against the state of emergency for diverse reasons. Socialists and other militants in Nigeria need to take up the argument against the state of emergency in trade union branches and other working class bodies. They need to argue that Boko Haram is basically a symptom of poverty and despair.

It is unlikely that Boko Haram will be defeated militarily. We need negotiation, amnesty and resettling to ensure the students of Chibok come home safely. The US army is retreating from Afghanistan where they failed to defeat the Taliban. Obama recently negotiated the release of five Taliban held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for one US soldier. The British government negotiated with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to bring peace to Northern Ireland. The Spanish government negotiated with Basque National Liberation Movement (ETA) to bring peace to the Basque region. The Nigerian government negotiated with militants of the Niger Delta: So, what is so different about negotiating with Boko Haram?

The mother of a British Boko Haram hostage, who died in 2012 after being held for 10 months, has backed a swap deal to free his killers in return for the Chibok students: So, why is the Nigerian government not negotiating such a deal?

Nigerians need a real fight against corruption and an increase in the level of taxation of the rich elite to fund decent education and health services for all. They need further training and job creation schemes to ensure all youths have the opportunity to use their talents. Furthermore, they need to turn the ‘war on terror’ into a fight against the real terror of inequality and poverty.

* Andy Wynne is a British socialist working in sub-Saharan Africa, currently based in Nigeria.



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