Every week, The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic driving headlines around the world. Today, we look at how Nigerian militant group Boko Haram is structured and what this means for efforts to free the Chibok schoolgirls.
In the week since the Nigerian government announced a ceasefire deal with militant group Boko Haram, insurgents continued to wage a bloody campaign in northeast Nigeria.
Nigeria said the secret deal, revealed on Oct. 17, meant that the release of more than 200 schoolgirls now held by the militants for more than six months was getting closer. A day later, however, militants reportedly kidnapped dozens more girls in a series of village attacks.
The ongoing violence and fresh abductions have raised significant doubts about whether the ceasefire is genuine. Both Nigeria and Chad, which mediated the deal, maintain that talks to free the girls will proceed, and blame the attacks on renegade factions of Boko Haram. Boko Haram's leadership has not made an official comment on the ceasefire.
The chaos in the wake of the ceasefire announcement raises the question of how credible the negotiations are and how reliable a partner Boko Haram negotiators can be. Richard Downie, deputy director and fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Africa Program, explained to The WorldPost that Boko Haram harbors many factions, and that it's unclear who represents the group.
Should we think of Boko Haram as a unified organization?
I don’t think so. It has become an umbrella brand or franchise that covers all kinds of activities. Its pretty hard to see who speaks for the group. There are at least three different strands under the Boko Haram umbrella with varying motivations.
First, there are the guerrillas who are motivated by political grievances. The origins of Boko Haram grew out of political grievances against the federal government and the established elites of the north. There are a lot of well-founded arguments that local politicians bankrolled the group at the outset and then lost control of the monster.
Second, there are those who follow a puritanical form of Islam, which is increasingly taking extremely violent forms.
The third group, we know the least about -- the out and out criminals who are using the broad name of Boko Haram. It’s amazing that after 12 years of a Boko Haram insurgency we know so little about who they are and their motivations.
Abubakr Shekau is usually described as the leader of Boko Haram. Do the militants report to a single leader?
I don’t know if talking about one leader has any meaning. This is partly about how an organization can organize an insurgency in a remote part of the world. This would require military-style discipline to maintain order. You can’t always control all those who operate under your banner.
It's hard to know if Abubakr Shekau is even the main leader. Obviously he had a leading position at the outset, but I'm skeptical about whether he speaks for the rank and file.
Is there any faction that could actually enforce a ceasefire or return the girls?
I don’t think anyone really knows the answer to that. It might be possible to identify which of these factions is responsible for the Chibok kidnappings and negotiate with them, but obviously this is complicated to do. I don’t know how centrally planned the kidnapping was or if it brought in different wings. We have seen several rifts emerge in Boko Haram, most notably the splinter group Ansaru. They thought Abubakr Shekau was killing too many Muslims and they got into the kidnapping game, especially of foreigners. It's hard to know which group is responsible for the Chibok kidnappings.
Many of the latest attacks since the ceasefire was announced are attributed to "suspected" Boko Haram militants. Is it clear who is taking part in the post-ceasefire violence?
Pretty serious attacks have occurred in the past few days, which makes the ceasefire seem somewhat meaningless.
There are two trains of thought on the ceasefire. First, that it is a gimmick by the government to gain popularity in the run-up to the coming presidential election. The second, which is more likely, is that they signed the deal with a wing that doesn’t have control over the group writ large and is not able to impose a ceasefire on the ground.
The Nigerian military has also said they’re continuing to go ahead with ground operations. A further complication is that not only do we not know who speaks for Boko Haram, we also often don’t know who is talking on behalf of the Nigerian government. There are many people claiming to speak for the government, often at cross purposes. This is particularly true now because of the international spotlight since the girls were kidnapped, and also because of the forthcoming Nigerian elections. Both the government and opposition have tried to gain an advantage from the situation, accusing each other of being responsible for Boko Haram.
Have Boko Haram's capabilities changed at all since the girls were taken?
In the aftermath of the kidnapping they appeared to become an even more potent threat, despite pledges of international assistance and the spotlight on the girls. We saw an evolution in their tactics as they sought to secure and hold territory for the first time, in what they described as an attempt to establish a Caliphate.
A few weeks ago it looked like Boko Haram might capture Maidguri, the capital of Borno state, but since then it seems that threat has been averted and the military has pushed the group back to an extent. But it is difficult to tell if Boko Haram is entering a phase of retreat.
If you look back at the history of the movement, the big turning point was in 2009 when Boko Haram ramped up attacks and the military killed hundreds of militants, including the leader of the group at the time, Mohamed Yusuf. Afterwards it looked like Boko Haram had disappeared, only for them to pop up again a year later more dangerous than ever.
This interview took place on Thursday, Oct. 25. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.