Unraveling the Mystery of Boko Haram

The most entertaining mysteries are the ones with compelling protagonists, enigmatic and often surreptitious antagonists, and surprising or shocking conclusions.  Indeed, without these essential elements, one is unlikely to read the story at all.  However, when it comes to politics and geopolitics, somehow our mass media storytellers – the scores of journalists, military and counter-terrorism ‘experts,’ and establishment mouthpieces – fail to even point us in the right direction. Not only do they not follow the threads of the story, they prefer to pretend they simply aren’t there.

And so it is with the great ‘mystery’ of Boko Haram, a group that in just a few years has become one of the most recognizable terrorist entities in the world.  Having carried out heinous massacres of men, women, and children, abducted thousands of innocents, and destroyed whole towns, Boko Haram now symbolizes just that perfect blend of barbarism, religious and ideological fundamentalism, and non-white skin, which come together to cast them, in the eyes of westerners especially, as the manifestation of evil – the devil incarnate that can only be destroyed by the forces of righteousness.  You know, the ‘good guys.’

But what happens when there are no ‘good guys’ to be found?  What happens when you follow the story only to find the most cynical of intentions from every player involved?  Such is the case with this Boko Haram story, and indeed the regional politics and geopolitics of West Africa as a whole.

In trying to unravel the labyrinthine web of political, economic, and strategic threads connecting a number of significant actors, it becomes clear that no analysis of Boko Haram is worth reading unless it approaches the issue from three distinctly different, yet intimately connected, angles.

First, there is Nigeria’s domestic politics, and the issue of Boko Haram and the perception of the government and opposition’s responsibility for the chaos it has wreaked.  With elections scheduled to take place in February, Boko Haram and national security have, quite understandably, become dominant issues in the public mind.  The mutual finger-pointing and accusations provide an important backdrop for understanding how Boko Haram fits both into the public discourse, and into the strategies of political networks behind the scenes in Nigeria, and the region more broadly.

Second is the all-important regional political and economic chessboard.  In West Africa – an area rich in strategic resources – there are a few interested parties who stand to gain from Boko Haram’s ongoing attacks which amount to a destabilization of the entire Nigerian state.  Nigeria’s neighbor Chad has recently come under heavy scrutiny from Nigeria’s military apparatus for its purported role in financing and facilitating Boko Haram’s expansion. Chad sees in Nigeria potential oil profits as it expands its own oil extraction capabilities throughout the Chad Basin – a geographical region that includes significant territory in Chad, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Niger.  Of course, major oil companies, not to mention powerful western nations such as France, have a vested interest in maintaining their profits from West African oil.

Finally and, perhaps most importantly, is the continental and global perspective.  Nigeria, as Africa’s most dynamic economy, presents major opportunities and challenges for key global powers.  For China, Nigeria represents one of its principal investment footholds in Africa. A key trading partner for Beijing, Nigeria has increasingly been moving out of the direct orbit of the West, transforming it from a reliable, if subservient, Western ally, into an obstacle to be overcome.  Coinciding with these developments has been the continually expanding US military presence throughout Africa, one that is increasingly concentrated in West Africa, though without much media fanfare aside from the Ebola story.

The international media has seized on the heart-rending story of the girls of Chibok – the ubiquitous #BringBackOurGirls meme – and for most people that is all they know about Boko Haram.  However, such a superficial understanding of one of the most complex international stories in recent years does little to further the discourse, or bring about a resolution.  Rather, a more nuanced understanding puts Boko Haram into a larger international context, one which can go a long way to dismantling the organization, and the air of mystery that surrounds it.  While many of the details remain murky at best, with powerful players operating behind the scenes, the contours of a regional destabilization and a proxy war become discernible.

The Politics of Boko Haram

With national elections less than a month away, the competing factions of Nigeria’s political establishment are busily trying to scapegoat their opponents, with each side implying that the other is either in league with Boko Haram, or is deliberately trying to capitalize on the situation.  The two major parties – the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) led by President Goodluck Jonathan, and the All Progressives Congress (APC) –  have made Boko Haram into a political hot potato, passing it back and forth in hopes that voters will associate it with their opponent.

Last September, before Boko Haram once again made international headlines with their most recent offensives, the political mudslinging was already fierce.  The Chairman of the People’s Democratic Party Councillors Forum, Collins Onogu stated that:

Most of those who have been rendered homeless in the North Eastern part of the country by Boko Haram are PDP members. What is their offence? The spokesperson of APC…has neglected his duty and he is now making statements on behalf of Boko Haram….APC has been using the media to blackmail President Goodluck Jonathan, their plan is to make the country ungovernable for him, they have plans of diverting the attention of Nigerians but it will not work out.

While Onogu’s characterization of the issue is certainly debatable, it is quite clear the PDP sees the issue of Boko Haram as a major political liability for their party, and for President Jonathan.  It is for this reason that Collins and other PDP leaders have repeatedly threatened to “reveal the names of APC members sponsoring Boko Haram.”  It’s entirely possible that the PDP might do this purely to sabotage their opponents in the campaign.  However, it is equally true that the PDP is desperately trying to deflect the blame for a crisis that has developed while the Government has been under their control.  Either way, the PDP is smearing the APC in order to guilt them by association.

Conversely, the APC has not only denied all the charges, they have made their own counter-claims, alleging that former high-ranking PDP officials are intimately involved in financing Boko Haram. John Oyegun, national chairman of the APC said in September 2014:

Dr. Stephen Davis, a man hired by the President Jonathan-led Federal Government to negotiate with Boko Haram for the release of the Chibok girls decided to speak out, believing the best way to tackle the insurgency is to expose the sponsors. And who are they?…he named former Borno Governor Ali Modu Sheriff and a former Army Chief, Gen. Azubuike Ihejirika, as the sponsors of Boko Haram… The sponsors of Boko Haram are within the PDP and the Presidency. They are known friends of President Jonathan. He knows them and they know him.

These revelations, vehemently denied by the PDP and Nigerian President Jonathan’s administration, certainly raise important questions as to the networks supporting and financing Boko Haram, and when, where, and why they were originally organized.  According to leaked intelligence information obtained by the Nigerian news outlet Premium Times, the former governor of Borno State, and Goodluck Jonathan ally, Ali Modu Sheriff has been one of the principal financiers and organizers of Boko Haram, basing his operations out of Chad (more on Chad later).  The dated communications obtained by Premium Times “painted a picture of what appears to be a powerful regional support structure involving the Chadian president, Nigerian officials and Niger Republic, and spearheaded by Mr. Sheriff whom the intelligence presents as a powerful figure within this circle.”

Add to this information the findings of a presidential panel commissioned by President Jonathan:

The Report traced the origin of private militias in Borno State in particular, of which Boko Haram is an offshoot, to politicians who set them up in the run-up to the 2003 general elections. The militias were allegedly armed and used extensively as political thugs. After the elections and having achieved their primary purpose, the politicians left the militias to their fate since they could not continue funding and keeping them employed. With no visible means of sustenance, some of the militias gravitated towards religious extremism, the type offered by Mohammed Yusuf.

Certainly there are a lot of questions to answer here.  Is Sheriff simply a former ally who has since “gone rogue” and decided to establish his own private army to enrich himself and his foreign patron?  Conversely, could it be that Sheriff continues to be connected, if perhaps only indirectly, with the government in Abuja?  The communications between Sheriff’s network and Nigerian military officials as far back as 2011 does seem to suggest at least an indirect connection between them.  As such, there is obviously a complex web of relations connecting various parties in Nigeria, as well as its neighbors, with Boko Haram.

According to a 2011 intelligence memo from field officers in Chad, “members of Boko Haram sect are sometimes kept in Abeche region in Chad and trained before being dispersed.  This happens usually when Mr. Sheriff visits Abeche.”  So, even the most conservative analysis would have to admit there is undeniably a connection between the domestic politics of Nigeria, especially within the ruling party, and international actors who have their own agenda.  And it is those actors, and their motivations, that deserve careful analysis.

Regional Conflict, Resource War

West Africa’s vast riches have long since been a prize for colonial powers and post-colonial states alike.  Nigeria alone has become a global player in terms of oil production – supplying at least 8 percent of US oil imports – though it is debatable whether that has been much of a blessing for the Nigerian people.  Throughout the region, economic interests have been central to the policies and agendas of a number of states whose leaders have both dollar signs in their eyes, and hegemony on their minds.  This has only accelerated in recent years, especially since the imperialist war that toppled former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, perhaps the single force in Africa providing stability, and keeping peripheral actors such as Chad, Niger, and others more or less in line.  Naturally, Gaddafi’s impact was seen a bit differently by those rulers whose ambitions suffered because of it.

Perhaps no leader has been more ambitious in recent years than Chadian President Idriss Déby who has played a central role in the entire Boko Haram story, from accusations that his government has provided them safe haven, to his possibly genuine, possibly disingenuous attempts to broker a ceasefire between the terror group and the Nigerian government.  He has been linked with the aforementioned Ali Modu Sheriff, the alleged mastermind of the Boko Haram network.  Intelligence information from a number of sources does seem to point to a direct connection.  In addition, a 2009 US diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks revealed that:

A well-trained veteran Chadian extremist, Abu-Mahjin, who has limited ties to al-Qa’ida associates, recently traveled to Nigeria.  He may be planning to conduct or facilitate a terrorist operation…recent tearline stated, ‘Nigerian-based probable Chadian extremist is keen to obtain more funds…it is not clear when he will receive this additional finance.’

Could it be that Abu-Mahjin acted as a de facto intermediary between certain elements in Nigeria and Chad? It is certainly plausible that, at the very least, the connection between Chad and Boko Haram goes back to the very transformation of that organization into a terrorist entity.

But what can Chad offer? And why would they?

To answer the former question, one must dive into recent history to see how Déby came to power.  Curiously enough, his rise to the presidency was directly thanks to Gaddafi who, after years of war with Chad – war in which Déby himself led troops against Libyan forces – backed Déby against the former government of Hissène Habré who had been hosting a number of anti-Gaddafi Libyans with close ties to US intelligence, such as the once again relevant General Hifter.  As Time magazine noted in 2001, “While the full scope of Déby’s relationship with Gaddafi remains hazy, it is known that Libya equipped Déby’s army with as many as 200 Toyota land cruisers fitted with 23-mm Soviet-made cannons.”  It is quite likely that the military backing for Déby went far deeper than what is being acknowledged here.

In any event, the NATO-led war that toppled Gaddafi in 2011 radically changed the political character of the region.  Suddenly, someone like Déby could pursue his own regional ambitions without the ever-watchful eye of Gaddafi who stood against any forces that sought to destabilize West Africa in the service of western corporations.  With a long-established network of weapons and fighter smuggling, Chad became a major transit point for many of the weapons (and fighters) streaming out of Libya by the end of 2011.  While much of the military hardware went through the Sahel region, likely into the arms of the equally shadowy Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), it is probable that a significant amount of it went to Chad.  The long-standing ties with elements of the Libyan military only increase the likelihood that Chad became a refuge and/or conduit for countless weapons and fighters.

So, as Libya collapsed, and weapons and fighters came streaming out, Chad all of a sudden found itself in a position of strength, able to finally pursue an agenda to enrich itself, or at least enrich Déby and the clique around him.  But what is it that he wants?

In recent years, oil discoveries throughout the Chad Basin have transformed how the states of West Africa view their economic future.  At the heart of the basin is Lake Chad, surrounded by the nations of Chad, Cameroon, and Niger.  According to a 2010 assessment from the US Geological Survey (USGS), the Chad Basin has “estimated mean volumes of 2.32 billion barrels of oil, 14.65 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, 391 million barrels of natural gas liquids.”  The potential size of these resources certainly has whet a few palettes, both in the region and internationally.

All the countries of the basin have expressed strong desire in recent years to begin exploiting the energy reserves there.  However, thus far, Nigeria has been unable to do so due to the Boko Haram insurgency. E&P (Exploration & Production), the publication of Hart Energy, noted in March 2014:

Hopes of stepping up oil exploration in Nigeria’s Lake Chad Basin have been dashed by the brutal attacks of Islamic Boko Haram and the Ansaru sect terrorists in the country’s northeastern region…Between 2011 and 2013 the Nigerian government provided $240 million to facilitate oil and gas exploration activities in the Lake Chad Basin…Oil prospecting in the Lake Chad Basin was “yielding promising results and may lead to commercial exploration of oil and gas this year,” Nigeria’s Vice President Namadi Sambo said in 2013…But the deadly activities of the Boko Haram insurgents halted plans.

So, while Nigeria is forced to put the brakes on its oil exploration and development in the Chad Basin, its neighbors, most notably Chad, continue theirs. As Dr. Peregrino Brimah explained, “The Boko Haram insurgency has conveniently provided Chad, under the government of Idriss Déby, unfettered access to oil under Nigeria’s soils through 3D oil drilling from within its territorial borders, which the country exports.”  So, in true Daniel Plainview “I drink your milkshake” style, Déby has engaged in siphoning off Nigeria’s oil wealth, and exporting it for massive profits for himself and his cronies. But of course, Chad is not alone in this endeavor, as it has company from Cameroon and Niger, both of whom are doing precisely the same thing.

Standing above and behind this practice is the former colonial power France – the one-time colonial master of Chad, Cameroon, and Niger.  Today, France’s dominant role continues as its port of Le Havre is the final destination for the unrefined oil extracted from under the feet of West Africans.  Needless to say, there are very powerful interests both in Africa and Europe who want to ensure that the flow of their precious oil continues unabated.  Moreover, they will do anything to prevent the major oil exporting power of the region, namely Nigeria, from being able to cut in on their action.

And this regional rivalry is, at least in part, the reason why Boko Haram really has the potential to spark international conflict.  Last October, after Nigerian military forces launched an offensive against Boko Haram, the ensuing battle spilled across the Nigeria-Cameroon border where, depending on who you believe, either Nigerian forces retreated, or they pursued Boko Haram suspects.  In total, 107 Boko Haram militants were killed, along with 8 Cameroonian military officers and dozens of civilians. In this way, the resource war is transmogrified into a shooting war.  The destabilization of the entire region is not far off from that.

It is precisely this danger of a regional destabilization that has so many observers around the world biting their nails.  The obvious danger is that West Africa could become, like the Sahel and most of North Africa, a locus of extremism and terror.  However, the most pressing question of all is why.  In whose interest is it to see the whole region destabilized?  What is the global and geopolitical context for understanding these decidedly complex and interconnected issues?

Part 2 of this article will examine the geopolitical and strategic context within which these events should be understood. It will detail how the US and certain European powers are exploiting the situation for their own gain.

Eric Draitser is the founder of StopImperialism.com. He is an independent geopolitical analyst based in New York City. You can reach him at ericdraitser@gmail.com.

Eric Draitser is an independent political analyst and host of CounterPunch Radio. You can find his exclusive content including articles, podcasts, audio commentaries, poetry and more at patreon.com/ericdraitser. You can follow him on Twitter @stopimperialism.