Boko Haram: rebels with a cause, or simple gangsters?

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By Euronews
Boko Haram: rebels with a cause, or simple gangsters?

A month has passed since on April 14 the Islamic organisation Boko Haram kidnapped 276 young girls from their school in Chibok, a town of over 66,000 people in the state of Borno, northern Nigeria. It is one of the radical group’s strongholds.

They released a film showing 100 of the girls, their school uniforms replaced by hijabs, in an unknown location.

A handful managed to escape, but 223 remain in the grip of Boko Haram. Those who escaped said they had been roused from their sleep in the school dormitory by men with guns.

“When this thing happened to us, we were in the school sleeping. We heard gunfire so we came out and we sat outside. All the staff, they ran away and they left us in the school,” said one who escaped, Godiya Simon.

Boko Haram has been waging a campaign of assassinations, attacks, and kidnaps to topple the government and create an Islamic state in Nigeria.

For the kidnapped girls, Boko Haram has changed its position since its leader first announced they would be sold as slaves.

“By Allah, these girls will not leave our hands until you release our brothers in your prison,” warned Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau. 

The mobilisation by the girls’ parents, and then the Nigerian diaspora, brought a global public’s attention to their plight. Social media was set on fire by the news.

“The power of social media is awareness. It keeps the issue burning, it makes sure that, you know, we never forget. But then of
course, things have to go beyond the social media, you know, on to the level of action, there is no doubting that fact,” says writer and social commentator Tolu Ogunlesi.

One young Pakistani woman, Malala, became a global icon for women’s rights and was saved from certain death by the power of global public opinion. She would not dispute that.

For a more in-depth analysis of Boko Haram, euronews’ Sophie Desjardin spoke to Mathieu Guidère, a Tunisian-born French university professor, writer, and an Islamic world and Muslim geopolitical specialist.

Sophie Desjardin, euronews:
“The mass kidnap of young Nigerian women has moved the entire world and there has been an unprecedented global mobilisation on their behalf. Why do you think that is, bearing in mind Boko Haram has been active killing and kidnapping for years, and will it produce anything?”

Mathieu Guidère:
“This mobilisation has two aspects, and it is very interesting and will certainly lead to something. It’s useful on an international scale because for once it throws light on the situation of women in Nigeria and what they have to put up with, especially in the north.

“But on a local level, unfortunately, the fact there’s been an international mobilisation, from outside, from abroad, and that Boko Haram is at the centre of this global communications campaign, makes Boko Haram look like the champion of all things anti-Western, refusing foreign interference and fighting it, and this will only raise its profile and help it recruit new members.”

“Boko Haram’s former leader Mohamed Yusuf was killed in 2009 by the Nigerian authorities, and was replaced by Abubakar Shekau who radicalised the movement, inspired by the Taliban. What exactly does he want?”

Mathieu Guidère:
“Until 2009 we knew more or less the group’s aims. It was opposed to Nigeria’s education system, based on the British model, and it wanted to replace it with a Sharia-based one.

“2009 was a turning point because leaders emerged, in particular the group’s current leader Shekau, who had a messianic vision: impose a system on the entire population of the north of the country. They began a strategy of revenge; attacks and reprisals that bred more violence, feeding off hatred. Today it’s very hard to see just what Boko Haram and Shekau really want.”

“You know Boko Haram well, and the media describes them as a ‘sect’. Behind the ideology, do you see a mere business scam?”

Mathieu Guidère:
“Both. Ideology serves Boko Haram no matter what, because although attacking schools and universities is the group’s hallmark, the reason for today’s change is interesting. Shekau and many others have adopted a quasi-medieval logic and are applying Salafist ideology within the group.

Some of the girls will be offered to convert to Islam, so they can be saved from death and slavery, but at the same time they’ll be locked into the group, become ‘sisters’, and married off against their will to fighters.

For the rest, theology applies, and they will continue to be treated as slaves or hostages, and, as such, subject to their ideology that condemns them to prostitution via different networks, or for Nigerian pimps. So the group gets a diversification of revenue streams beyond the one-off gains from kidnaps, racketeering, and black marketeering of all sorts including weapons or drugs.”

“1,500 people have died since the start of the year, with more than 200 of them children. How do you explain the government’s failure to act?”

Mathieu Guidère:
“This can be explained by a number of very complicated factors, but it comes down to geopolitics in the end. After internal power struggles both at federal and governmental level, there is no consensus on how to fight Boko Haram. And we are in a pre-election period for the presidency and both national and state parliaments”.