A woman holds a child as she marks the one-year anniversary of the mass kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls from a secondary school in Chibok by Boko Haram militants in Abuja, Nigeria, on 14 April 2015. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde
A woman holds a child as she marks the one-year anniversary of the mass kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls from a secondary school in Chibok by Boko Haram militants in Abuja, Nigeria, on 14 April 2015. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde
Report 242 / Africa

Nigeria: Women and the Boko Haram Insurgency

Women have suffered violence and abuse by Boko Haram, but they are not only victims: some joined the jihadists voluntarily, others fight the insurgency, or work in relief and reconciliation. Women’s experiences should inform policies to tackle the insurgency, and facilitate their contribution to peace.

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Executive Summary

Boko Haram’s rise and insurgency have dramatically changed the lives of thousands of women and girls, often casting them voluntarily or by force into new roles outside the domestic sphere. Some joined to escape their social conditions; others were abducted and enslaved. Seven years of war have caused gender-specific suffering. While men have disproportionally been killed, women are an overwhelming majority among the estimated 1.8 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the North East. As former wives, slaves or fighters, many bear the stigma of association with the insurgents and are barred from reintroduction into their communities, in part because the lines between militant, sympathiser and forced accomplice are blurred. Although Boko Haram faces strong pushback, it remains capable of launching attacks and conducting multiple suicide bombings. Understanding how women experience the conflict, not only as victims but also as actors, needs to directly inform policies and programs to tackle the roots of the insurgency and strategies for curbing it, as well as facilitate women’s contribution to lasting peace.

Since its emergence in 2002, Boko Haram has paid particular attention to women in rhetoric and actions, partly because of the intense debate surrounding their role in society in the North East. Among other revivalist Islamic movements, the sect called for tighter restrictions on them in some areas of life but also promoted their access to Islamic education and offered financial empowerment. With patriarchy, poverty, corruption, early marriage and illiteracy long thwarting their life chances, some women saw an opportunity in Boko Haram to advance their freedoms or reduce their hardship. Many valued the religious and moral anchoring.

Thereafter, Boko Haram began to abduct women and girls for both political and pragmatic ends, including to protest the arrest of female members and relatives of some leaders. The seizure of more than 200 schoolgirls near Chibok in 2014 was a much publicised spike in a wider trend. The group took Christian and later Muslim females to hurt communities that opposed it, as a politically symbolic imposition of its will and as assets. By awarding “wives” to fighters, it attracted male recruits and incentivised combatants. Because women were not considered a threat, female followers and forced conscripts could initially circulate in government-controlled areas more easily, as spies, messengers, recruiters and smugglers. For the same reason, from mid-2014, Boko Haram turned to female suicide bombers. Increasingly pressed for manpower, it also trained women to fight.

As vigilante militia members, including with the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), hundreds of women help security forces, particularly to frisk females at checkpoints, gather information and identify suspects, and also sometimes to fight Boko Haram. Others work in non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and women’s associations or care privately for war victims. In some cases, the war has opened opportunities for women’s activism, illustrated by the establishment of several new women-led NGOs in Maiduguri and the Nigerian involvement in the Bring Back Our Girls international campaign.

Boko Haram attacks, the military’s persecution of suspects and its strategy of emptying contested areas have forced over a million women and girls to flee homes. Some suspected supporters are in detention. Hundreds of thousands of females are in government camps where food is scarce and healthcare dismal; in unofficial camps, the situation can be even worse. Separated from husbands and sons conscripted or killed by Boko Haram or arrested by security forces, many women are now fully responsible for their families’ protection and economic wellbeing.

Harsh treatment of IDPs in camps and detention centres could undermine military gains. If corruption in aid delivery and abuses persist, communities may harbour grievances that could lead them to reject state authority. Meanwhile, the stigma carried by women and girls known or suspected to have been Boko Haram members risks leaving them and their children isolated and alienated, generating new frustration and resistance of the kind that gave rise to Boko Haram.

How gender dynamics play a part in fuelling the Boko Haram insurgency should be a clear warning that women’s integration into decision-making processes at all levels is critical to a durable peace. Countering the sect and rebuilding a peaceful society in the North East requires the government and its international partners to tackle gender discrimination, better protect women and girls affected by the violence and support women’s economic and social reintegration, as well as enhance their role in building sustainable peace. In the short term, reunification of families should be a priority. In the longer term, improvements and gender balance in accessing education, in both state schools and upgraded Quranic schools, is vital.


To better protect women and girls affected by the violence and respond to immediate humanitarian needs

To the Government of Nigeria:

  1. Screen the predominantly female adults from areas formerly controlled by Boko Haram with diverse teams that include protection officers provided by national civil society organisations and trained by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to ensure adequate treatment of both suspects and victims.
  2. Implement urgently greater accountability in distribution of food and gender-sensitive assistance in IDP camps and host communities, including access to sexual and reproductive health information and services for women and girls; give local and international humanitarian organisations access to IDP camps and transfer their management to civilian organisations as soon as possible.
  3. Develop urgently programs to increase women’s recruitment in local police forces and deploy them in IDP camps as soon as possible.
  4. Activate referral mechanisms for women and girls to report sexual and gender-based violence in IDP camps and host communities and ensure that authorities, including the judiciary and police, properly investigate allegations of abuses by security forces and/or the vigilantes that assist them.
  5. Develop special support programs, in partnership with women’s organisations, religious associations and health centres, for women victims of sexual abuse to ensure they and their children are free from discrimination, violence and stigmatisation.
  6. Distinguish Boko Haram ideologues from those who joined for other motives and ensure transparent and fair investigation of both male and female Boko Haram suspects according to international law, including taking account of the level of involvement and seriousness of their crimes; hold all detainees, including women, in humane conditions monitored by humanitarian agencies; and ensure children are granted adequate care.

To support women’s economic and social reintegration, as well as enhance their role in building sustainable peace

To the Government of Nigeria:

  1. Commit to greater representation of women in government-funded programs and support inclusive peacebuilding initiatives in the North East.
  2. Ensure that public and private development and reconstruction plans are based on a gender-sensitive analysis of the insurgency and counter-insurgency.
  3. Make reunification of families a priority, including by allocating more resources to the task and establishing a federal database to facilitate the search for missing persons.
  4. Facilitate access to credit and land for women, recognising that single females and especially widow-headed households need particular support to restart productive activities, for example in traditional crafts, trade or agriculture.

To the affected northern-state governments, especially Borno state:

  1. Engage community leaders, including religious groups, to facilitate reintegration and rehabilitation of all women released from Boko Haram and provide psycho-social support as possible.
  2. Design programs to strengthen women’s participation in politics and local governance.
  3. Prioritise increasing girls’ access to primary and secondary schools; and develop a program to upgrade Quranic education, ensuring equal access for girls.
  4. Develop community-based approaches and sensitisation to address social stigma around former Boko Haram wives and slaves as well as children fathered by Boko Haram members, including by dramatically increasing investment in schools in the North East so as to allow the latter to attend school with other children in the region; and improve coherence and open a public debate by producing a blueprint for reintegration of these groups.

To donors, UN agencies and international NGOs:

  1. Expand and improve gender-sensitive aspects of aid programs in all Boko Haram-affected areas.
  2. Strengthen programs, in partnership with women-led NGOs, to tackle gender stereotypes and raise awareness about women’s roles, including in relation to peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction.

Abuja/Dakar/Brussels, 5 December 2016

I. Introduction

President Muhammadu Buhari, elected in 2015, has reached out to neighbouring Lake Chad basin countries, Cameroon, Chad and Niger, and, despite the army’s structural weaknesses, mobilised a more powerful military campaign against Boko Haram, the jihadist insurgency that has destabilised Nigeria’s North East since 2010.[fn]For previous reporting on the North East and Boko Haram see Crisis Group Africa Reports N°s 168, Northern Nigeria: Background to Conflict, 20 December 2010; 216, Curbing Violence in Nigeria (II): The Boko Haram Insurgency, 3 April 2014; and Briefing N°120, Boko Haram on the Back Foot?, 4 May 2016. For more on the army, see Africa Report N°237, Nigeria: The Challenge of Military Reform, 6 June 2016.Hide Footnote  The regional effort seems to have put the movement on the defensive, but it still holds some ground, launches deadly attacks on civilians and security forces and has deep roots in certain communities. Even as the fight continues, the government, at state and federal levels, and its international partners must think carefully about how to address the war’s diverse effects on the region’s heterogeneous population, lest Boko Haram or similar groups remain a long-term regional threat.

This report analyses experiences of women and girls in the North East in order to inform interventions to better alleviate their suffering, facilitate their contribution to lasting peace and mitigate the threat from female Boko Haram members. It examines patriarchal norms the sect exploited to attract recruits and tracks the diverse, changing female roles, as valuable abductees, combatants’ wives and slaves, forced or willing fighters, heads of displaced families, community leaders, mothers, wives and daughters. It identifies policy priorities tailored to women’s experiences, including immediate humanitarian aid and protection, longer-term reintegration into normal life of those stigmatised by Boko Haram association and women’s roles in a peaceful North East.

The analysis is based on research in the North East, the federal capital, Abuja, and south-eastern Niger with Boko Haram victims, captives or supporters, as well as community leaders, government officials, humanitarian workers and academics.[fn]Boko Haram has affected neighbouring parts of Cameroon, Chad and Niger, but this report focuses on women and girls in Nigeria’s North East, where it was born and has been most active. The North East comprises Borno, Yobe, Adamawa, Taraba, Bauchi and Gombe states. Boko Haram has most affected Borno, Adamawa’s north and parts of Yobe, Bauchi and Gombe states.Hide Footnote  Scores of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees were interviewed in formal and informal camps in Nigeria and Niger and a rehabilitation centre for ex-sect members in Maiduguri, as well as Boko Haram suspects held in Niger.

II. Women, Patriarchy and Islam in the North East

Boko Haram’s appeal to some women and the significance of women and girls for the group should be understood in the context of the North East’s heavily patriarchal societies, a widespread adherence to Islamic tenets and challenges to established beliefs and practices. The region’s religious and cultural norms, codified in law, have defined women’s status through marriage and childbearing and largely confined them to a domestic role. Their private and public places have been hotly contested by both the male-dominated political and religious elite and civil society, including female activists. What Islam says and what should be codified have been at the debate’s centre.

A. Entrenched Patriarchy

Male dominance has by and large been entrenched in law. Colonialism did little to challenge patriarchal structures in the mostly Muslim north, and independence altered little.[fn]The colonial administration relied on “indirect rule” through the northern emirates and did little to promote girls’ education. Christian missionaries provided most Western education. The 1960 northern penal code, inspired by the Sudanese model, includes the right for a husband to act “for the purpose of correcting his wife”. Jamila M. Nasir, “Sharia Implementation and Female Muslims in Nigeria’s Sharia States”, in Philip Ostien (ed.), Sharia Implementation in Northern Nigeria 1999-2006: A Sourcebook, vol. 3 (Ibadan, 2007), p. 89.Hide Footnote  At the urging of religious conservatives, Borno and eleven other northern states enacted a stricter version of Sharia (Islamic law) in 2003, with elements of Islamic criminal law.[fn]On Sharia, see Crisis Group Report, Northern Nigeria, op. cit.; Johannes Harnischfeger, Democratization & Islamic Law. The Sharia Conflict in Nigeria (Frankfurt, 2008). That Sharia criminal law is implemented only in Bauchi state has been a main Boko Haram grievance.Hide Footnote  Other provisions reinforced male dominance and further restricted women’s freedoms and rights, including access to education and jobs. As is the norm throughout Nigeria, Muslim women in the North East do not usually own land or homes.[fn]Of the 56.2 per cent of the North East population who own land, 4 per cent are women, the lowest rate in Nigeria. “Gender in Nigeria Report”, British Council, 2012. Women own some household property, have access to farmland and are involved in the pastoral economy, but titles to individual and communal or family land are usually held by men or community leaders.Hide Footnote  While Nigeria does not recognise polygamous unions under federal civil law, the twelve northern states did so under state law at the beginning of the 2000s.

Northern Muslim women are politically marginalised. In 2007, only six of 360 state representatives in the twelve northern states were women, none in Borno. Wives of politicians and traditional rulers generally have no prominent public role, partly due to the practice of purdah (secluding women from society).[fn]Nasir, “Sharia implementation”, op. cit., p. 83. Only 53 of Nigeria’s 990 state representatives are women.Hide Footnote  This power imbalance, combined with high poverty, has contributed to a disproportionately lower socio-economic status for women and girls. Marrying soon after puberty is a main reason the North East has Nigeria’s lowest school attendance ratio and very high female illiteracy.[fn]In 2013, 49 per cent of North East men and 72 per cent of women were illiterate, compared to 15 per cent in the South East. Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey 2013 (DHS), National Population Commission, June 2014, p. 37. A 1990s study found many Kanuri marriages were between ages twelve and fifteen for girls, and eighteen and twenty for men. Editha Platte, Kanuri Women of Borno (Nigeria): Perspectives from the little kingdom of Musune (Maiduguri, 2011).Hide Footnote  This correlates with large age gaps between husbands and wives, reinforced male dominance and some of the world’s highest fertility rates. The average marriage age has increased slightly in cities and other places with girls’ access to education.[fn]The North East’s fertility rate of 6.3 births per woman compares to 5.5 (nationally) and 4.3 (the South) and about a third of North East girls begin to have children between fifteen and nineteen. DHS, op. cit., p. 68. Illiteracy, poverty, young pregnancies and limited clinic access explain high maternal mortality, 1,549 per 100,000 live births, five times the global average. “Gender in Nigeria Report 2012: Improving the Lives of Girls and Women in Nigeria: Issues, Policies, Action”, British Council Nigeria, p. 39. In 2013, the median age at first marriage was 16.4 for North East women now between twenty and 49 and 25.5 for North East men now 30 to 49. DHS, op. cit., pp. 57-58. Marriage practices vary according to ethnicity, religion, education and urbanisation.Hide Footnote

Many women and girls in the North East have long experienced oppression and gender-based violence, but stereotyped views need qualification. Despite a cultural, religious and legal setting that disproportionately restricts them, many women are economic providers in their own right; some sell goods in the market or from home, or perform farming activities, while others work in offices.[fn]Women who do domestic work or are secluded often sell food or other goods from home or send children to hawk on the streets or markets. This is a substantial source of female income in the North. Polly Hill, “Hidden Trade among the Hausa”, Man: Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, no. 4 (1969), pp. 392-409; Yakubu Zakaria, “Entrepreneurs at Home: Secluded Muslim Women and Hidden Economic Activities in Northern Nigeria”, Nordic Journal of African Studies vol. 10, no. 1 (2001), pp. 107-123.Hide Footnote

B. Contested Womanhood

Womanhood has become a central theme in male-dominated political debate, especially with the rise of revivalist Islam and its increasing influence on northern politics. Religious revivalists perceive the female body as a battleground in a global conflict between Islam and “the West”. All North East states thus refused to sign the 2003 Child Rights Act (CRA), which set eighteen as the minimum marrying age for men and women, thus preventing its implementation on their territory. Some Islamic revivalist groups also push for full purdah, long limited to religious and political elites.[fn]Salafist groups have surged in the North East since the 1970s and broadly share goals of promoting a purist vision of Islam based on Sharia, eradicating “heretical” innovations and, for many, establishing an Islamic state. Crisis Group Report, Northern Nigeria, op. cit., pp. 13-20, 57. Some northern politicians have argued that the CRA was “a ploy to introduce Western standards with the ultimate aim of reducing the Muslim population”. The quote is a summary by a critic of that position, then Federal Women’s Affairs Minister Hajiya Miriam Inna Ciroma, a Borno Muslim. “Islam is No Hindrance to Women’ Child’s Rights – Gov”, This Day, 29 August 2005.Hide Footnote

In what may seem to foreign observers a paradox, many women engage with non-violent Islamic movements such as Izala, Nigeria’s largest Salafi group.[fn]Izala was established in the northern city of Kaduna in 1978 by Sheikh Abubakar Gumi, the former Grand Qadi of the region, heavily influenced by Wahhabi doctrine.Hide Footnote  Salafi Islam embraces conservative interpretations, including on women’s public roles and relations with established Sufi Islam and non-Muslims. But it promotes women’s education, Islamic and Western, and allows believers to free themselves from an Islam mediated by established Sufi clerics. Many women find it useful for advancing in their lives on an Islamic basis on their own terms.[fn]Elisha Renne, “Educating Muslim Women and the Izala Movement in Zaria City, Nigeria”, Islamic Africa, vol. 3, no. 1 (2012), pp. 55-86; Adeline Masquelier, Women and Islamic Revival in a West African Town (Bloomington, 2009); Roman Loimeier, “Boko Haram: The Development of a Militant Religious Movement in Nigeria”, Africa Spectrum, vol. 47, nos. 2-3 (2012), p. 141.Hide Footnote  In a context of endemic corruption, widespread poverty and social anomie, many value the moral order Islam provides.[fn]This is why many women and most Muslim groups, including opposing ones such as Izala and the Sufi Tijaniyya, supported implementation of Sharia.Hide Footnote  Civil society groups in the North East occasionally invoke Islam to challenge patriarchal structures and gender inequalities.[fn]Ibrahim N. Sada, Fatima L. Adamu, Ali Ahmad. “Promoting Women’s Rights through Sharia in Northern Nigeria”, British Council and Department for International Development, 2006.Hide Footnote

While men have dominated the political and religious debate on the place of women in society, some women have also raised their voices. In Borno state, women in a number of civil society organisations and professions such as law, academia and health, and some female civil servants (including the few directors in state ministries) have advocated greater women’s rights and freedom.[fn]Women-led NGOs complain about lack of support from donors and international NGOs (INGOs), who were said to hardly work with female civil society activists or use their local knowledge. Crisis Group interviews, Maiduguri, August 2016. The difficulties faced by Muslim women’s NGOs are not new. See Fatima L. Adamu, “A double-edged sword: challenging women’s oppression within Muslim society in Northern Nigeria”, Gender and Development, vol. 7, no. 1 (1999), pp. 56-61.Hide Footnote

Boko Haram leaders made use of the opening created by patriarchy, constraints on women and girls (particularly by patriarchal family members) and grinding socio-economic hardship in the North East to attract followers. Similarly, the debate over a female’s place and role offered opportunity to invoke religious authority to back up the movement’s claims and made women and girls significant for its rhetoric and actions.

III. Boko Haram and Women’s Changing Roles

Boko Haram and the subsequent insurgency and counter-insurgency have dramatically changed the lives of thousands of women and girls, casting them voluntarily, by force or for lack of other options into new, evolving roles outside the domestic sphere. Some joined the movement, first as members of a religious community, later as insurgents, while many are targets of its violence. Some fight against it within local vigilante units; others play critical roles in relief and reconciliation, while many displaced by fighting find themselves with new responsibilities. How roles evolve and relate to discrimination or empowerment have significant implications for North East recovery and stability.

A. Mohammed Yusuf’s Female Supporters

Well before Boko Haram turned to mass violence, when it was essentially one of a variety of revivalist Islamic movements in the Nigerian North, its founder, Mohammed Yusuf, attracted female followers.[fn]At the time, his group was a vocal member of a galaxy of movements calling for Quranic study and purified Islamic practice as the answer to societal ills. Yusuf (1970-2009) led Boko Haram from about 2002 until he was extra-judicially executed by police. The following year Abubakar Shekau emerged as leader and, according to sources in Maiduguri, took a Yusuf widow as one of his four wives. See Crisis Group Report, Curbing Violence in Nigeria (II)op. cit.Hide Footnote  A reason Boko Haram, not unlike Izala, appealed to many, especially young women, was the opportunity to study the Quran and learn Arabic. Some had received Western education in government schools and, like men, tore up their certificates to show their new allegiance and rejection of the Nigerian state, which they deemed immoral and disappointing.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, female Boko Haram members, government safe house, Maiduguri, June 2016; Federation of Muslim Women’s Associations of Nigeria (FOMWAN) representatives, Maiduguri, 13 August 2016.Hide Footnote  Other factors were Yusuf’s encouragement of marriage within the sect and alleviation of traditional financial demands and social obligations, which gave young women some relief from family pressures. For women involved in hard labour such as farming or fetching water, purdah as promoted by the group may have been an attractive alternative.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Maiduguri, June, August 2016. A 55-year-old woman from Damasak, Borno state, stressed that the situation in her region changed under Yusuf’s influence, as he promoted quick, simple weddings and ordered the dowry to go to the bride, not her family. Crisis Group interview, refugee who escaped from Boko Haram, Chettimari, Niger, May 2016.Hide Footnote

Like many other Islamic Salafi leaders worldwide, Yusuf put special emphasis on treatment of the female body to show adherence to correct Islam. He encouraged wearing the niqab, a Saudi-style dress introduced in Nigeria in the 1970s that fully covers face and body.[fn]For men, Yusuf recommended the Wahabbi style, typically long beards, turbans and trousers worn above the ankles.Hide Footnote  Initially, women could hear him preach at the mosque, where they sat apart from the men. Subsequent debate among Boko Haram clerics over whether to allow women in public led to the decision they should be taught at home and not allowed in mosques. Yusuf considered mixing of sexes a proof of unbelief.[fn]Zainab Usman, Sherine El-Taraboulsi, Khadija Gambo Hawaja, “Gender Norms and Female Participation in Radical Movements in Northern Nigeria”, Nigeria Stabilisation and Reconciliation Programme, British Council, Department for International Development, 2014, p. 24. Muhammad Yusuf, This is Our Doctrine and Our Method in Proselytization (Ibadan, forthcoming), English translation of Hādhihi ‘Aqīdatunā wa-Manhaj Da’wa tinā (Maiduguri, 2009).Hide Footnote  A mixed Western style was a major reason to consider a school impure (haram). Unlike in Izala, purdah was required for female followers.

B. The Insurgency

A government crackdown after violent confrontations in June and July 2009 in Maiduguri and several other cities led to the extrajudicial execution of Yusuf by the Nigerian police, as well as the killing of a number of other sect leaders and at least 1,000 supporters.[fn]Female supporters did not play a direct part in the 2009 violence. “Although there were women among the followers of Muhammad Yusuf, none was arrested or found among the dead. This might be because the sect leader evacuated them to safety when the invasion of his enclave became imminent”. Usman Gaji Galtimari, “Report of the Administrative Committee of Inquiry into the Boko Haram Insurgency in Borno State” (Maiduguri, 2009), vol. 2, chapter 2.Hide Footnote  Many members fled to rural areas and neighbouring counties, where they reorganised and began to engage in revenge terror and guerrilla attacks, led by Abubakar Shekau, a Yusuf deputy. Boko Haram recruited women and men, primarily from Maiduguri and other urban areas, with a mixture of coercion and incentives. In 2013, the security forces and civilian vigilantes (the Civilian Joint Task Force, CJTF) forced it out of Maiduguri, but as its insurgency spread to rural areas, more women were recruited or forced to join from villages, cutting across classes. Many married Boko Haram members.

A. Women in Boko Haram’s insurgency

Women’s and girls’ importance for Boko Haram stems from their roles and how they are perceived in society – both in the North East and in Nigeria as a whole. As wives, they enhance social status and provide sexual or domestic services (sometimes forced), thereby becoming valuable incentives for potential male recruits. Their adherence, willing or forced, to the movement’s version of Islam can also contribute to the spreading of its ideology among other women, but possibly also young men. Women can perform roles very different from traditional stereotypes. As the war evolved, women have become recruiters, spies, domestic labour, fighters and forced or willing suicide bombers.

Targeting of women and girls in certain communities helped to attract supporters, establish a political ideology in opposition to the state and sometimes attack Nigerian institutions in areas where it was perceived it would hurt the most. During the insurgency’s early phase, from late 2010, militants targeted individuals, mostly men, suspected of assisting the security forces in their initial crackdown on the sect. Boko Haram began kidnapping women and children in mid-2013, initially Christians in the Gwoza area of south east Borno. Shekau publicised the captures, demanding the government release the wives and children of several Boko Haram leaders, including his own spouses, arrested in 2012, an issue he had repeatedly raised.[fn]Video of Abubakar Shekau, 30 September 2012, extract translated by Elodie Apard, “Le jihad en vidéo”, Politique africaine, no. 138 (2015), p. 146. In a January 2012 message to President Jonathan, Shekau said, “you took over our women and made of them whatever you wanted”. Ibid., p. 59 (Crisis Group translation).Hide Footnote  A deal was negotiated between the authorities and Boko Haram and an exchange was organised, but abductions of women became a core tactic.

On 14 April 2014, Boko Haram seized more than 200 schoolgirls in the town of Chibok, southern Borno state. This became a global affair, with leading female civil society activists throughout Nigeria joining in the Bring Back Our Girls international campaign. The state’s response was apathetic. It took three weeks for President Goodluck Jonathan to make a statement, and his wife, Patience, speculated that the abduction never happened.[fn]“First Lady Labels Women Activists Terrorists, Orders Arrest”, International Centre for Investigative Reporting, 5 May 2014.Hide Footnote  This so fed into a mounting debate on Jonathan’s performance that some of his allies claimed, without basis, that the abduction was a ploy by northern elites to weaken his government. Boko Haram said it would force the mostly Christian schoolgirls to convert, while trying to use them as bargaining chips.[fn]The Chibok girls were reportedly not forced to convert, but conversion under heavy pressure has been mentioned by other former captives. “Boko Haram did not rape, abuse freed Chibok girls – Source”, Reuters, 9 November 2016.Hide Footnote  They remain a major symbolic issue. Shekau’s release of 21 Chibok girls in October 2016 after negotiations has been good news for President Buhari.

There have been many more kidnappings. In April 2015, a well-documented report estimated Boko Haram had taken more than 2,000 girls and young women, most unmarried, over the previous twelve months alone. But that figure is a mere indication. Boko Haram probably controlled a few hundred thousand women at the height of its insurgency, and abductions were many. The practice remained extensive well into the second half of 2015, when the movement further expanded its territorial control in Borno state.[fn]“‘Our Job is to Shoot, Slaughter and Kill’: Boko Haram’s Reign of Terror in North-East Nigeria”, Amnesty International, April 2015. On more recent developments, see “‘Beyond Chibok’: over 1.3 million children uprooted by Boko Haram”, UNICEF, April 2016.Hide Footnote  Reports show that militants mostly killed men (civilian and military), but generally abducted women. In a video, Shekau told followers to kill men but “spare the old, women, the lunatic, and the repentant”.[fn]Of course, women have been killed in attacks in large numbers. For instance, 59 Shuwa women trying to escape from Kirenowa in June 2014 were pursued and shot dead at the mosque in the next village, Ngalori. Crisis Group interview, Shuwa Arab women, Maiduguri, 14 August 2016. But the bulk of available narratives indicate the insurgents kill many more men. For instance, a survivor said there were only three women among the 43 killed during a February 2016 attack on Kache, a Shuwa Arab settlement in Marte LGA, Borno state. Most women but only five men escaped. Crisis Group interview, Maiduguri, 18 June 2016. See also the incidents detailed in “Our Job is to Shoot …”, op. cit., pp 37, 40-41, 43, 48. Available data on Boko Haram deaths (eg, www.cfr.org and www.crisis.acleddata.com) do not distinguish between male and female victims. “Boko Haram: Shekau claims responsibility for attack on Giwa Barracks, threatens to attack universities, Civilian-JTF”, Premium Times, 24 March 2014.Hide Footnote

Beyond trying to free its own female detainees, Boko Haram’s reasons for abducting women and girls are probably mixed. In some local contexts, its actions have ethnic underpinnings; since it recruits more in certain communities than others, the history of hostility between communities has occasionally become part of its jihadist struggle. That it first abducted women in mainly Christian communities and pressured them to convert suggests it sought to spread its version of Islam as well as punish local adversaries.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, IDPs, Maiduguri, Yola and Jalingo, 14 June 2016. During the July 2009 uprising, Yusuf and his followers held Christians, including women, captive in their Markas (base) in Maiduguri and reportedly killed those who refused to convert. Galtimari, “Report”, op. cit.; Crisis Group interview, Borno state representative, Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Maiduguri, May 2016.Hide Footnote  There are early reports of gang rape of Christian women, while Muslims were spared.[fn]Atta Barkindo, Benjamin Tyavkase Gudaku, Caroline Katgurum Wesley, “Our Bodies, Their Battle Ground. Boko Haram and Gender-Based Violence against Christian Women and Children in North-Eastern Nigeria since 1999”, Nigeria’s Political Violence Research Network, working paper no. 1, 2013.Hide Footnote

Boko Haram probably controlled a few hundred thousand women at the height of its insurgency, and abductions were many.

There is much ex-captive testimony about insurgents trying to obtain allegiance through a mix of threats, preaching and enticements.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former captives and IDPs, Abuja, 3 June 2016.Hide Footnote  In so doing, Boko Haram seems to follow a pre-colonial Lake Chad-area pattern of raiding and enslavement, whereby women and children are captured and integrated into the victorious group.

With the state-sponsored emergence from 2013 of civilian vigilante groups to fight Boko Haram in all communities, the jihadists turned on both Christian and Muslim communities, killing men and capturing women, including Muslim women. For instance, when they captured Kareto, Borno state, in 2015, they treated Muslim women harshly because they had taken part, under military pressure, in desecrating the bodies of killed comrades.[fn]Crisis Group interview, refugee, Chettimari, Niger, May 2016.Hide Footnote

Economic motives may also explain the increase in abductions. As in the nineteenth century wars in the Lake Chad area, Boko Haram used women and girls as rewards to fighters, a significant enticement since raising the resources for marriage is not easy.[fn]“In the absence of lucrative trafficking and foreign financial support, Boko Haram compensates … by a stream of plunder. Human beings turn into wealth”. Christian Seignobos, “Boko Haram et le lac Tchad”, Afrique contemporaine, no. 255 (2016), p. 99. On the history of capture in sub-Saharan Africa, see Jane Guyer, “Wealth in people and self-realization in Equatorial Africa”, Man, vol. 28, no. 2 (1993), p. 243-265.Hide Footnote  A former captive reported overhearing lengthy conversations between fighters over marriage prospects. That Boko Haram has occasionally released older women, for instance when food stocks were low or the war moved on, but not younger women demonstrates the latter’s value.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, academic who interviewed former captive, Paris, 29 March 2016; former female captive, Chettimari, Niger, 19 May 2016.Hide Footnote

Management of marriageable women and girls, including widows, appears to have been a prerogative of leaders and a contentious issue within the sect. In a 2016 recording, Mamman Nur, a Boko Haram splinter faction leader, criticised Shekau for betraying his promise to marry the Chibok girls to sect members. Boko Haram seems to have distinguished between slaves and wives based on religion, protecting the latter more from abuse.[fn]“In Islam, it is allowed to take infidel women as slaves, and in due course we will start taking women away and sell them in the market”. “Boko Haram: Shekau claims responsibility of attack on Giwa barracks, threatens to attack universities, Civilian-JTF”, Premium Times, 24 March 2014.Hide Footnote  But even that has been controversial, with Nur criticising Shekau for enslaving Muslim women he deemed unfaithful to his version of Islam.[fn]“Since those [Muslim who are not followers of Boko Haram] are the apostates, then what they should do is to repent but not to be hold as slaves”. David Otto, “Boko Haram ‘Exposed’ – The Greatest Betrayal Ever – How Shakau Was Forced to Pledge Allegiance to ISIL”, 9 August 2016.Hide Footnote

Captured women have generally been kept under surveillance, required to wear the niqab and often compelled to listen to sermons and Quranic education.[fn]Lectures emphasised “looking after your husband, having good morals and learning Arabic”. Crisis Group interview, female ex-captive, safe house, Maiduguri, 16 June 2016.Hide Footnote  Eventually, they could be put to work, for instance as carriers, including in attacks, or cooks. While the sect’s claims to moral rigour may have given captive women some protection from sexual violence, as seems to have been the case for several Chibok girls, there have been reports of clandestine, extra-marital rapes in Boko Haram camps. Rape seemed more frequent after captives, sometimes quite young by local standards, were pressured to marry fighters.[fn]On the Chibok girls, see Abubakar Yahaya, “The ongoing violations of women’s rights in the context of insurgency in Borno State, Nigeria”, in Habu Galadima & Moses T. Aluaigba (eds.), Insurgency and Human Rights in Northern Nigeria (Kano, 2015), p. 44. More generally, see “‘Those terrible weeks in their camp’. Boko Haram violence against women and girls in Northeast Nigeria”, Human Rights Watch, October 2014, p. 3.Hide Footnote  

After the 2009 crackdown, some women already loyal to Boko Haram left Maiduguri, following their husbands to other towns or the Sambisa forest, a large savanna area south of Maiduguri where Boko Haram has bases. Others stayed behind to care for families or clandestinely support husbands. Yet others continued to join Boko Haram willingly.[fn]Crisis Group interview, community leader, Maiduguri, 14 August 2016.Hide Footnote

In Boko Haram-controlled areas, marriage could bring a measure of security and well-being for women and their extended family. In a village near Kerenowa in the Local Government Area (LGA) of Marte, Borno state, insurgents married 80 girls, offering dowries of 15,000 naira (about $70 in 2014), a considerable sum in a war-torn rural area.[fn]Crisis Group interview, project manager of local NGO, Maiduguri, 11 August 2016.Hide Footnote Some fathers gave their daughters to fighters under pressure from Boko Haram, and at times women chose such marriages against family wishes. A woman from Walasa, a Kanuri village near Banki, Bama LGA, divorced her husband and married the Boko Haram naqib of Banki. She said her new husband looked after her better and gave her a higher stipend than her first husband. She lamented losing the money she had saved when the military took back her village, burned their house and arrested her.[fn]Crisis Group interview, government safe house, Maiduguri, 15 June 2016. A naqib (Arabic for “he who investigates, verifies”) is above an amir (village head) in the Boko Haram hierarchy.Hide Footnote  In 2014, Kanuri elders and officials in Niger became increasingly worried about a small but increasing number of single women leaving the Diffa region for Boko Haram-controlled areas in search of business opportunities or a “lucrative” marriage.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kanuri elder, Niamey, December 2014.Hide Footnote

Economic motives may also explain the increase in abductions.

Some may have become Boko Haram wives more inadvertently. A nineteen-year-old from Banki said that when she married, in 2013, she did not know that her husband, a trader selling suitcases who would leave for weeks at a time, was in Boko Haram. She never saw him with a weapon until there was fighting nearby with the military, and they had to leave for the Sambisa forest. Her parents told her to go with him, possibly fearing violence from Boko Haram if they prevented her from accompanying her husband.[fn]Crisis Group interview, female ex-captive, government safe house, Maiduguri, 16 June 2016.Hide Footnote

The sect values Quranic education for women so they can take part in the religious community and obey its rules. Some women joined because they found this attractive and were eager to “acquire knowledge, to memorise the Quran and to learn about Islam more deeply … [all] unique opportunities”.[fn]“Motivations and Empty promises: Voices of Former Boko Haram Combatants and Nigerian Youth”, Mercy Corps, April 2016, p. 15.Hide Footnote  As they grew in militancy, they considered any non-supporter an apostate or non-Muslim and an enemy to be fought. Many were involved as domestic labour, but also recruiters of other women, their husbands or young men, as spies, messengers and smugglers (including of food).[fn]Ibid; Crisis Group interviews, IDPs, Yola, June 2016; Jacob Zenn and Elizabeth Pearson, “Women, Gender and the evolving tactics of Boko Haram”, Journal of Terrorism Research, vol. 5, no. 1 (2014), p. 46-57.Hide Footnote  For a time, as the army and CJTF focused on male suspects, women were well suited for these roles, as their supposed innocuousness allowed them to circulate more easily than male militants in government areas.

Unlike other West African insurgent groups, such as those in Liberia and Sierra Leone, Boko Haram has nothing like a women’s brigade. Yet, under manpower pressure, particularly from 2014, some women and girls were trained and joined in attacks.[fn]“Our Job is to Shoot …”, op. cit., p. 72; “Getting behind the profiles of Boko Haram members and factors contributing to radicalisation versus working towards peace”, Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers, Finn Church Aid and Kaiciid Dialogue Centre, October 2016.Hide Footnote  The wife of a Boko Haram leader in the Gwoza Hills reportedly carried a gun and killed a vigilante.[fn]Crisis Group researcher interview in another capacity, former captive, Abuja, September 2013; Crisis Group interview, CJTF chairman for Gwoza, Maiduguri, 22 June 2016; Adam Higazi, “A Conflict Analysis of Borno and Adamawa States”, unpublished report for the Danish Refugee Council, Yola, February 2016. The testimony of the former captive is partially recounted in “‘Those terrible weeks …’”, op. cit. p. 26.Hide Footnote  Armed female militants were sighted in the Sambisa forest, riding their own motorcycles. Women were said to be involved in a 2016 ambush on the military. On 10 July 2014, armed females between fourteen and 21 and fighting “like professionals” attacked Kirenowa in Marte LGA, Borno state.[fn]Crisis Group researcher interview in another capacity, women’s leader in IDP camp, Yola, 18 October 2015; Crisis Group interview, civil society leader and conflict analyst, Maiduguri, 12 August 2016; account recorded by the Nigeria Stabilisation and Reconciliation Programme (NSRP), seen by Crisis Group in Maiduguri, 12 August 2016.Hide Footnote

Use of young females as suicide bombers, the first instance of the tactic in Nigeria’s history, has attracted much publicity. The attacks, which have killed hundreds, have become symbolic of the insurgency’s brutality. The first suicide bombing was in 2011, but women bombers, usually with improvised explosives strapped to their bodies, became prominent only in the second half of 2014. Attacks grew in frequency and severity, but declined from mid-2015, mainly due to the army’s cutting of Boko Haram’s supply lines and improved prevention measures, including at checkpoints.

The youngest female bomb-carriers are often victims themselves, with little awareness, duped by relatives and possibly drugged.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former official involved in debriefing surviving perpetrators of suicide attacks, Abuja, February 2016; The first female suicide attack seems to have been in Maiduguri in June 2013, not in Gombe in July 2014 as has often been claimed. See Hamza Idris and Ibrahim Sawab, “Women as Boko Haram’s new face”, Daily Trust, 6 July 2013. For further analysis on suicide attacks, see Mia Bloom and Hilary Matfess, “Women as Symbols and Swords in Boko Haram’s Terror”, Prism, vol. 6, no. 1 (2016), pp. 1-8; and Patricia Taft and Kendall Lawrence, “Confronting the Unthinkable: Suicide Bombers in Nigeria”, The Fund for Peace, 2016.Hide Footnote  But the older bombers seem to have volunteered. A woman who spent two years as a captive in Gwoza LGA said she saw seven such women who were recruited as suicide bombers and deployed to Maiduguri around March-April 2015. They reportedly were moved by commitment to jihad and apparently indoctrinated over a long period, including with promise of direct admission to al-jinnah (paradise). Some were widows of fighters. Overall, there was supposedly no shortage of volunteers.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former Boko Haram captive, Jalingo, Taraba state, 14 June 2016.Hide Footnote

B. Fighting back

Some women have fought Boko Haram as part of the vigilante groups that emerged throughout the Lake Chad basin under various forms, notably the Borno state-based Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF).[fn]The emergence and impact of the vigilantes in the Lake Chad Basin will be the topic of a forthcoming Crisis Group report.Hide Footnote  This seems to have been a late development, partly related to the fact women were increasingly active in the insurgency. At the onset, there were none, but as time went on, females started joining for various reasons. Some joined out of outrage and bitterness, seeking vengeance after they had seen Boko Haram slaughter their loved ones. Other volunteered to help the CJTF at checkpoints following protests against men touching women’s bodies. Some offered the CTJF information discreetly on Boko Haram members and their activities within Maiduguri but did not join the group.[fn]Crisis Group interview, civil society leader, Maiduguri, 22 October 2016.Hide Footnote

There are presently 122 registered female CJTF members in Borno state, though more may work with the CJTF informally.[fn]Crisis Group, CJTF commander, Maiduguri, October 2016. On female vigilantes, see for instance “Stories of Borno’s fierce, female Civilian JTF personnel”, Daily Trust, 8 October 2016.Hide Footnote  Some have received military training, are armed with shotguns and other weapons and fight alongside men, at times in operations with the military. Female vigilantes also guard IDP camps and help identify Boko Haram suspects, for example by examining women and girls at checkpoints to prevent suicide attacks.

C. Working for peace

Though they may have been obscured by the violent shock between Boko Haram and the state, there has been non-violent female engagement for conflict resolution in the North East. Some women, often from prominent families which valued and could offer daughters an education, have long been active on the place of women in public and private life. They have usually been so from within Islam, rather than via external critique. That has been so for the Federation of Muslim Women’s Associations in Nigeria (FOMWAN), which has combined propagation of Islam with attempts to improve the socio-economic status of women, youths and children through training, education, health and humanitarian services, micro-enterprise and advocacy.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Federation of Muslim Women’s Associations of Nigeria (FOMWAN) representatives, Maiduguri, 13 August 2016.Hide Footnote  Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative (WRAPA) has been active against domestic abuse, female genital mutilation and child marriage and played a major part in the successful defence of two young women condemned to death under Sharia in the early 2000s. More recently, it has sought to engage imams over preaching on the rights of women.[fn]“Women’s rights: WRAPA ‘khutba’ to the rescue”, Daily Trust, 27 May 2016.Hide Footnote

As the Boko Haram conflict grew, these organisations have been involved in advocacy, notably over the Chibok abductions. They have found powerful allies in other international and nationwide campaigns, such as Bring Back Our Girls, a gathering of female activists (and some men) with particular anchoring in the political and economic capitals, Abuja and Lagos, that has kept the issue alive.

D. Forced to flee

Together, the insurgency and counter-insurgency have forced nearly two million people in the North East, more than half women and girls, to leave their homes.[fn]Some 1.8 million people have been displaced in Adamawa, Borno, Gombe and Yobe states. “Nigeria: Humanitarian Dashboard”, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), 13 October 2016. “Nigeria Regional Refugee Response Plan January-December 2016”, UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), December 2016. “Stories of Borno’s fierce, female Civilian JTF personnel”, op. cit. 53 per cent of IDPs are reported to be female. Some large IDP camps have more than twice as many adult women as men. Displacement Tracking Matrix, Round XI Report, International Organisation for Migration (IOM), August 2016.Hide Footnote  Widespread killing of civilians, the destruction of towns and villages by Boko Haram and the military, loss of livelihoods and lack of food in an increasingly ruptured economy are the main factors driving this displacement. Initially, people fled to urban centres, where they thought the government would protect them, or to neighbouring states or countries. As the insurgency gained ground, some have been forced to move several times. Maiduguri, repeatedly attacked but never captured by Boko Haram, hosts about a million IDPs. The counter-attack by the army, the vigilantes and Nigeria’s regional allies, which gained steam in 2015, created hundreds of thousands more IDPs, the civilians who had hitherto survived in Boko Haram-controlled areas and then fled for safety or were relocated by the army.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°120, Boko Haram on the Back Foot?, 4 May 2016.Hide Footnote

In many areas, women and children were the only ones left after Boko Haram either forcibly recruited or killed the men and older boys or the military arrested them.[fn]The lower number of male IDPs than female probably has several causes, but able-bodied men found in areas formerly held by Boko Haram come under strong suspicion by the security forces. Mass disappearances of adult men have been reported. Amnesty International released a video claiming to show the mass killing of prisoners in the North East. “Nigeria: Gruesome footage implicates military in war crimes”, 5 August 2014. Women brought to the Bama IDP camp staged a protest in 2016, asking the authorities to clarify the fate of “their” men, who had been separated from them and taken to an unknown location after the “liberation” of their area. Crisis Group electronic communication, humanitarian expert, October 2016.Hide Footnote  The security forces and state have had difficulty deciding what to do with thousands of survivors. The need to survive in Boko Haram areas and the blurred lines between victims and perpetrators have fed suspicion of IDPs. That suspicion, and the poor performance and abuses of Nigerian officials – and of some of their international partners – who are meant to assist the IDPs have combined to create a humanitarian crisis with serious long-term risks.

People found in areas “liberated” by the military are screened to pick out Boko Haram members. In Borno state, soldiers and the CJTF lead the process locally, often in consultation with community leaders, leaders of wards in towns and village heads. While Boko Haram suspects are transferred to detention centres in military barracks or elsewhere, others caught up in the conflict are sent to official IDP camps, where further screening can take place. Most IDPs then move into host communities or informal camps. Others are transferred to experimental deradicalisation programs. Only one such site caters for women at present, a “safe house” in Maiduguri, discussed below. There is also a rehabilitation centre in Maiduguri which functions as a transit point. In September 2016, 500 women and children held in military detention were sent there for social support, accommodation and food before release to families in November.[fn]Crisis Group communication, Maiduguri-based international official, 24 November 2016.Hide Footnote  The basis for the distinction is unclear.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security officials and international agencies, Maiduguri, June 2016.Hide Footnote

Screening is difficult, because in areas Boko Haram controls most people are compelled for their safety to have some association with the insurgents. Determining who is an active member is prone to error. The military can, therefore, end up incarcerating vulnerable women who were abducted, captured or prevented from leaving their communities by Boko Haram, along with women who actively supported the insurgency.

Detention of suspected insurgents occurs extra-judicially, with hardly any external scrutiny. Suspects, including some women and children in a separate section, are reportedly still held in Giwa Barracks in Maiduguri.[fn]Crisis Group interview, international official, Maiduguri, June 2016, and communication, November 2016.Hide Footnote  Amnesty International in June 2015 reported extensive allegations of torture, starvation and thousands of deaths at the site between 2011 and 2015. In May 2016, it insisted conditions remained terribly poor, noting a high mortality rate among detainees and the children and babies confined with them.[fn]See “Stars on their shoulders, blood on their hands. War crimes committed by the Nigerian military”, June 2015, and “If you see it, you will cry: Life and death in Giwa barracks”, 10 May 2016, both Amnesty International. The military said in August 2015 that it was pursuing some investigations; it called the 2016 report “baseless”. See “Nigerian military react to Amnesty International report of human rights abuse”, 6 August 2015, “Military debunks Amnesty report”, 12 May 2016, both defenceinfo.mil.ng. President Buhari has said there should be an official government investigation. “Nigeria’s Giwa barracks ‘place of death,’ rights group says”, CNN, 14 May 2016.Hide Footnote  International agency access to and monitoring of conditions has improved slightly since, but each entry is “a new negotiation” with the military.[fn]In 2016, the Nigerian authorities allowed UN personnel to visit women and children detained in Giwa Barracks. Crisis Group interview, Maiduguri, 22 June 2016.Hide Footnote

For those who make it through screening, conditions as an IDP depend on the security situation and type of settlement. More than 80 per cent are in host communities, the rest in government-run and informal camps throughout Borno state and in neighbouring states and countries. The camp in Bama, a deserted city surrounded by Boko Haram to the south east of Maiduguri, looks almost like an open-air jail, while IDPs in Monguno, north east of Maiduguri, are free to move around and have brought the market back to life. IDPs are generally guarded by the military, often in collaboration with police and CJTF. Movement in and out of the camps is monitored in locations like Bama, Banki or Maiduguri. Mobility restrictions are ostensibly for security reasons, to prevent attacks on IDPs outside the camps and stop Boko Haram infiltration.[fn]

In parts of central Borno, some women have been returned to their LGAs from camps in Maiduguri and elsewhere, but they are usually held in camps because their houses have been destroyed, and there is still a high security risk in more remote areas. Elsewhere, as in much of southern Borno, Yobe and northern Adamawa, the rural areas are becoming more accessible, and IDPs are beginning to return to their villages.

The humanitarian situation for IDPs is harsh, though varied by area. Massive food shortages and serious health issues have been reported. A blame game is being played by state agencies, federal government agencies, donors and international NGOs (INGOs).[fn]Compare for instance “IDPs protest caused by break down of agreement with NEMA – Borno govt”, Vanguard, 27 August 2016; “IDPs’ protest: NEMA denies breach of MoU with Borno Govt”, TG News, 28 August 2016; and “NSCDC alerts public on syndicates sponsoring protests in Borno IDPs camps”, Daily Post, 28 August 2016.Hide Footnote  Some government officials hold Boko Haram responsible, and certainly violence has ravaged agricultural production and health structures. But counter-insurgency has also deliberately stifled economic activity to deprive Boko Haram of supplies, trade and protection rackets. Other officials play down the humanitarian situation or accuse international organisations and IDPs of exaggeration. Corruption and diversion of food aid and relief funds by officials, as well as a shortfall in assistance, have certainly been part of the problem. IDPs have denounced mismanagement and corruption a number of times.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian workers involved in assistance in Borno state, Dakar, June 2016. “Humanitarian groups using Boko Haram crisis to make money, says Borno govt”, The News, 16 October 2016. “Borno IDPs protest inadequate food supply”, Vanguard, 26 July 2016; “Borno IDPs Protest Poor Feeding”, The New Telegraph, 26 August 2016; “Again, Borno IDPs protest poor method of feeding in camps”, Vanguard, 30 August 2016.Hide Footnote

IDPs outside government-run camps have generally received even less food and medical help, but several government-run camps have very high rates of mortality and children’s malnutrition and low rates of vaccination. This is true not only of camps close to remaining Boko Haram areas, where understandable movement restrictions constrain economic activity and access to health services, but also of those supposedly safe from Boko Haram, around Maiduguri city.[fn]Crisis Group Commentary, “North-eastern Nigeria and Conflict’s Humanitarian Fallout”, 4 August 2016. Crisis Group electronic communication, humanitarian officials, October 2016.Hide Footnote

Women and girls in the camps face specific problems. Locked up in compounds where most guards and much of the staff are men, many have experienced sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) or resorted to “survival sex” with camp officials and security personnel in exchange for food, money or permission to leave the camp. In several sites, sexual exploitation was said to be so frequent that parents preferred to marry their daughters at an early age.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, protection officers from international agencies and local NGOs, Maiduguri, August 2016. “Nigeria: Officials Abusing Displaced Women. Girls Displaced by Boko Haram and Victims Twice Over”, Human Rights Watch, 31 October 2016; “Rapid Protection Assessment Report, Borno State, Nigeria”, protection sector working group, May 2016.Hide Footnote

Crisis Group interview, INGO worker returning from Borno, Dakar, July 2016. On 30 January 2016, Boko Haram killed more than 80 in Dalori village, close to Dalori IDP camp, one of the largest in Maiduguri. Bombs were planted at Malkohi camp in Yola, Adamawa state, killing seven IDPs on 11 September 2015, and at Dikwa camp, Borno state, killing 60 on 10 February 2016.Hide Footnote

IV. Stigmatisation and the Dilemmas of Reintegration

The blurred lines between Boko Haram member, abductee, slave, wife, supporter, victim and sympathiser have left many women and girls with the stigma of association. That stigma – heightened if they have children born to Boko Haram fathers, even if the pregnancy was against their will – is a major obstacle to reintegration into community life. Children born to women who were raped or married (by force or choice) to Boko Haram fighters are seen in IDP camps and host communities in Maiduguri and elsewhere in the North East as having “bad blood” from their fathers and potential future security risks. President Buhari publicly sought to counter this attitude by holding a Boko Haram child in his arms. The consequences of exclusion from mainstream society are significant for both the individual’s social, political and economic prospects and north-eastern society’s cohesion and stability. Isolation and alienation risk generating new frustration and resistance of the kind that gave rise to Boko Haram. Children of stigmatised females may in time reject state institutions.

There is no evidence to confirm the suspicion of some observers that the harsh camp conditions are a deliberate attempt by some authorities to punish women and their children recently retrieved from Boko Haram areas.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian workers involved in assistance in Borno state, Dakar, June 2016.Hide Footnote  Yet, even women captured, abused or forced into “marriage” by the sect bear the stigma of association. Fear of “contagion” and, more concretely, suicide attacks, is part of the problem. As a result, there are restrictions in some areas on new influxes of IDPs into Maiduguri. In Bama camp, only children needing sustained medical support are allowed to go, sometimes without their caretakers. However understandable, this fear must be balanced against its cost. Restricting movement encourages official neglect, offers opportunities for abuse and extortion and can feed resentment.

Stigmatisation can also inhibit reintegration into normal community life. In Maiduguri’s IDP camps even women who were abducted and raped or enslaved are often socially isolated, labelled “Boko Haram wives” and “Sambisa women”. Given the prevailing norms, with sex outside marriage socially unacceptable, they may be rejected by their family, and their lot is likely to be worse if they have had children outside marriage, as they have no way to hide the situation. One should, however, beware of generalisation: social judgments can take into account the degree of support the individual gave Boko Haram. Those perceived to have been coerced are not necessarily seen in the same way as women believed to have stayed more willingly.

An ex-captive recounted how soldiers welcomed her at their outpost after she escaped Boko Haram. Muslim and Christian women interviewed for this study in host communities and IDP camps who had escaped after being held for months or even years by Boko Haram, or who had been liberated by the military, were socially integrated with other IDPs and recounted their experiences as victims of the insurgency. It helped that many had been through similar experiences and sometimes were freed or escaped together. Thus while many cases of stigmatisation have been recorded, some women are traumatised, not stigmatised. The problem of stigmatisation and trauma varies between families, individuals and communities.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Abuja, 3 June 2016; Fufore, 8-9 June 2016; Jalingo, 12-14 June 2016; “‘Bad Blood’: Perceptions of children born of conflict-related sexual violence and women and girls associated with Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria”, UNICEF and International Alert, February 2016.Hide Footnote

A few of the wives and children of Boko Haram members have been placed in a centre for “deradicalisation”, a “safe house” established in Maiduguri for that purpose by Borno state authorities in May 2016. From the outset, it accommodated 62 women and adolescents from two villages in Bama and Dikwa LGAs, Borno state, most of whom, as wives of insurgents, are regarded as security risks, and their 26 children. They are under the responsibility of female social workers and are prohibited from leaving the premises, which are under armed guard.

This pilot project exemplifies the dilemmas of reintegration and deradicalisation. The challenge lies in defining what aspect of “radicalism” the programs seek to counter: use of violence, certain violence, the ideology or an aspect of an ideology? Only some Boko Haram women handled guns and fought. Most seem to have had a more domestic role and were not necessarily involved in or exposed to mass violence. They were indoctrinated to differing degrees, with some still holding to the creed, while others had discarded it. It seems some could be more easily reintegrated into society than others, but there could be resistance from local populations. They still showed some reluctance to acknowledge atrocities, which they often saw as part of a two-sided conflict. Some “deradicalisation” work in the safe house is meant to educate on the effects of violence, notably suicide attacks.[fn]A female staffer explained that a Maiduguri NGO plays videos to expose the women and girls to the reality that, unlike what Boko Haram told some, suicide bombers and others are killed in the explosion. Some women were reportedly shocked because they knew the bombers and had not realised what attacks actually involved. Crisis Group interview, Maiduguri, 10 August 2016.Hide Footnote  Islamic preachers visit to teach counter-narratives to sect doctrine, and female social workers interact with them daily. Some expressed a wish to go to school to supplement their Islamic education; and some were attending classes in the safe house.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Maiduguri, 15-17 June 2016. “Nigeria: The Women Who Love and Loved Boko Haram”, Al Jazeera, 22 September 2016.Hide Footnote

V. Taking Women into Account: A Policy Agenda

Given the situation of women in the North East, the state and its international partners should quickly address the full spectrum of challenges. Action is needed to tackle the immediate protection and humanitarian issues, as well as the longer-term subject of reintegration. All this is required in the context of a larger drive to improve the condition of all women in the North East. Like many wars, that against Boko Haram has worsened the economic situation. Disruption of established patterns gives some women opportunity to find more fulfilling roles, but the effect for most is more disempowerment. Violence has scattered families. Many women are isolated in camps or urban centres, without news of husbands, parents or children. Their homes are too dangerous for return, and in most areas their property has been destroyed or looted by Boko Haram or the army. Single female-headed households are a majority in some IDP camps.[fn]IOM recorded 1,200 single-female households in the General Hospital IDP camp, Bama, meaning female heads-of-household are 12.8 per cent of its population. Displacement Tracking Matrix, op. cit.Hide Footnote  The tragedy of war and challenges of recovery and reconstruction are strong arguments for efforts to meet women’s immediate needs, but also to empower them as agents of change.

A. Upgrade Screening

In a war in which one side has relied massively on forced recruitment, the distinction between victim and perpetrator is not easy. The authorities should ensure that the army does not systematically detain all women found in areas newly recovered from Boko Haram. The ambiguous tactics some women have had to adopt to survive should not be held against them indiscriminately. Necessary security screening should also make use of protection officers of both genders who are provided by national civil society organisations and trained by UNHCR. Those in charge should be sensitive to the difficult situation many women faced.

B. Provide Appropriate Care and Protection for Female Victims

Camps may seem an appropriate solution for people found in areas newly seized from Boko Haram, if only to protect them from retaliation and community suspicion until reintegration is worked out. It is essential, however, to give appropriate assistance to these new IDPs, as well as to the ones long settled in safer areas, and their host communities. There should be greater accountability in distribution of food and aid and to facilitate the access of local and international humanitarian organisations. The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), which runs the official camps, should ensure IDP protection, notably from SGBV. The management of access to the camps, currently controlled by the military, should be transferred to civilian organisations as soon as possible.

Addressing the particular vulnerability of the predominantly female IDP population requires special attention to sexual and gender-based violence and ensuring access to sexual and reproductive health information and services. The authorities should activate referral mechanisms for women and girls in IDP camps and host communities. Allegations of abuses committed by security forces and/or CJTF should be properly investigated, with attention to ensuring proper judicial procedures and publicising appropriate cases.

The predominantly male composition of organisations involved in protecting and managing mostly female IDP camps is a weak point.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian workers involved in assistance in Borno state, Dakar, June 2016.Hide Footnote  Federal and state governments and international partners should cooperate urgently to develop programs to increase women’s recruitment in local police forces and other bodies involved in operating IDP camps.[fn]It was recently announced that 100 female police officers would be deployed to IDP camps following allegations of sexual abuse. “Northern Nigeria Internal Security Sitrep Week Ending 12 November 2016”, peccaviconsulting.wordpress.com, 15 November 2016.Hide Footnote  International experts should also provide gender-sensitive civilian-protection training to soldiers, police and NEMA officials and the Borno state Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) deployed to the camps.

C. Treat Suspected Female Perpetrators of Violence Fairly

While not ignoring accountability for suspected female perpetrators, the government should ensure a fair and transparent process in handling all Boko Haram cases; distinguishing Boko Haram ideologues from those who joined from other motives will be vital. Detention of those who, after screening, are held before they appear in court should be civilian, not military, and in acceptable conditions, with access to humanitarian agencies. Children should be granted adequate care. Given the scope of the violence, involvement in abuses by both the insurgents and security force elements and judicial system weaknesses, a proper adjudication procedure must be devised for all suspects, who cannot be left in legal limbo indefinitely. That procedure should include participation of women, particularly from the North East.

D. Reintegrate Female Victims into Community Life

The reunification of families, the only safety net for many, should be a priority. A federal database should be established to facilitate the search for missing persons and more resources made available to reunite families. Likewise, an effort is needed to combat stigmatisation. To help with reintegration and rehabilitation of women and girls released from Boko Haram, a community-based reconciliation process with significant female participation should be encouraged, notably by inviting women’s groups from different parts of Borno to participate in dialogue.

All development and reconstruction plans, public and private, should be based on gender-sensitive analysis of the insurgency and counter-insurgency. Programming should acknowledge that in the North East religion can facilitate assistance and be a driving force for promoting positive change for women generally. Muslims and Christians should be involved together, to help bridge the divisions that have increased with the insurgency. Programs are needed to ease women’s access to credit and land. Single female-headed households require particular support to restart productive activities, for example in crafts, trade or agriculture.

Widows should receive special attention, because isolated women are more susceptible to manipulation by jihadists. As in Rwanda, plans should be made to provide a monthly allocation to war widows for a number of years, and local NGOs should be supported to give free legal assistance for inheritance and property matters.[fn]Under Sharia, widows can inherit a husband’s assets if they have supporting witnesses or records from village or district heads, but that may prove more difficult for some.Hide Footnote  That the families of soldiers killed in the conflict often receive little support has the potential to damage military morale. The widows of soldiers should receive a stipend from the federal government, eventually covering accommodation if they are made to leave the barracks.

Children fathered by Boko Haram members and their mothers must not be allowed to become outcasts. Community-based approaches and sensitivity training are needed, as is a significant increase in educational investment overall and prioritisation of the integrated education of these children with other children in the region.

E. Step Up Efforts to Empower Women in the North East

With a view to more structural changes in gender imbalances, effort is needed in three main directions. Attention should be paid to programs to strengthen women’s participation in politics and local governance, including consideration of an affirmative action policy with quotas, as in many other West African countries. Increasing girls’ access to primary and secondary schools should be a priority, but given the interest in and legitimacy of Quranic education in the North East, it should also be upgraded by introducing a dual curriculum (as in Kano state) and paying teachers’ salaries so pupils do not need to beg for upkeep. Strict provisions should apply to the intake of supported schools in order to encourage gender balance.

Mainstream Islamic groups should empower female members to do their part to help alleviate the humanitarian crisis. They could also play an important role in countering violent religious ideologies and building support for women’s education and civic participation. Lastly, the state should take steps to combat gender discrimination and stereotypes rooted in law and practice, to ensure women and girls have more control over their lives.

VI. Conclusion

Women in the North East suffer from appalling violence and abuse that add to the burdens of stifling patriarchy. Boko Haram’s exploitation of them, including sexual and gender-based violence, markedly deviates from modern mainstream Islamic social norms and is closer to nineteenth century and earlier patterns of enslavement and raiding. Nevertheless, the view of women as Boko Haram’s passive victims that became widely accepted after the Chibok girls’ abduction is misleading and needs substantial revision. Violence against women should not obscure the fact that many are also actors in the conflict and at times perpetrators. Many have been exploited, abused and displaced, while others have played active roles in the insurgency and the counter-insurgency.

Conversely, Nigeria’s recovery of Boko Haram-controlled territory does not necessarily alleviate women’s suffering. In a deeply divided, traumatised society, it also fuels new forms of violence, exclusion and coercion against those suspected of complicity with the insurgents. Recognising the military’s improved efforts to tackle Boko Haram under President Buhari should not mean turning a blind eye to official abuses that could sow the seeds for renewed rebellion.

The multiple ways women experience and engage with the conflict need to be fully understood and directly inform policies for alleviating their suffering and paving the way for reconciliation and rebuilding society. Women need help from the authorities and their international partners, but careful thought and planning is required to ensure its effective delivery. All should take into consideration the historical context of gender discrimination rooted in law and cultural practice, and how the insurgency has further affected women in various ways, from sexual abuse to lost economic opportunities, and diversify programs accordingly. They should also make sure that development and reconstruction plans are based on a gendered analysis of the conflict. Finally, women need support not only to gain more control over their lives, but also to become actors and decision-makers in reconstructing the North East. Federal authorities and their partners should recognise that although the state has a central role to play, religion too can be a resource for facilitating this process and for promoting positive change for women more generally.

Abuja/Dakar/Brussels, 5 December 2016

Appendix A: Map of Nigeria

Map of Nigeria. CRISIS GROUP

Appendix B: Borno State: Estimated Number of IDPs Per LGA

Borno State: Estimated Number of IDPs Per LGA. IOM based on data from OCHA, NEMA and other partners.

Appendix C: Glossary of Terms

amir: Arabic for chief, village head in the Boko Haram hierarchy.

CAN: Christian Association of Nigeria, Nigeria's largest Christian ecumenical body.

CJTF: Civilian Joint Task Force, a vigilante force which developed in Borno state in 2013 to fight Boko Haram.

CRA: Child Rights Act, a federal law designed to improve the protection of children’s rights.

DHS: Demographic and Health Survey, a global program to provide accurate data on demography and health.

FOMWAN: Federation of Muslim Women’s Associations in Nigeria.

Haram: Arabic epithet to designate all things impure and forbidden according to the Quran.

IDP: Internally Displaced Person.

INGO: International Non-Governmental Organisation.

IOM: International Organisation for Migration, the UN migration agency, involved notably in assisting IDPs and refugees.

Izala: Arabic for “removal”, short designation for the Society for the Removal of Innovation and the Re-establishment of the Sunna, a Salafi Islamic movement born in northern Nigeria.

LGA: Local Government Agency, the intermediary administrative level between the village and the state in Nigeria.

NEMA: National Emergency Management Agency.

NGO: Non-Governmental Organisation.

Naqib: Arabic for controller, a local official in Boko Haram’s hierarchy.

Niqab: Full veil covering all the body but the eyes typical of Salafi Islam.

Purdah: A form of seclusion of women practiced in certain Islamic cultures.

SEMA: State Emergency Management Agency.

SGBV: Sexual and Gender-Based Violence.

UNHCR: UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN refugee agency.

WRAPA: Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative, Nigerian advocacy organisation involved in the promotion of the rights of women and girls.

A photo shows a campaign signboad displayed by the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) to show its readiness to defeat Boko Haram Islamists on assumption office, Ogun State, Nigeria, 3 July 2015. AFP PHOTO/PIUS UTOMI EKPEI
A photo shows a campaign signboad displayed by the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) to show its readiness to defeat Boko Haram Islamists on assumption office, Ogun State, Nigeria, 3 July 2015. AFP PHOTO/PIUS UTOMI EKPEI
Briefing 120 / Africa

Boko Haram on the Back Foot?

Boko Haram is losing ground, resources and fighters. But defeating the group and preventing a future insurgency needs more than military success. The 14 May summit in Abuja is an opportunity for Nigeria and its Lake Chad basin neighbours to prepare and implement what's been long overdue: a holistic response to the extremist group.

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I. Overview

Under its new president, Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria has regrouped, and neighbours are collaborating with it more meaningfully, taking a more powerful military response to Boko Haram into rural areas where the jihadist group remains strong. Other international partners also are supporting the effort against the insurrection that since 2009 has cost tens of thousands of lives, uprooted millions and spread to other Lake Chad basin states, damaging local economies and cross-border trade. Boko Haram is seemingly on a back foot, but formed of dispersed segments spread over a vast area (Borno state alone is 92,000sqkm) and accomplished in terror attacks, it is unlikely to be eliminated in a decisive battle. The Lake Chad basin states and their international partners, who meet in Abuja on 14 May 2016 at their second regional summit, must use their new collaboration to move beyond military cooperation and design a more holistic local and regional response, lest Boko Haram or similar groups remain a long-term threat to the entire Lake Chad basin.

In response to the regional campaign, Boko Haram is adapting to the new conditions, including by making greater use of women and children as suicide bombers to attack softer targets, though it can sometimes still launch large raids. It remains challenging to develop a clear picture of how the group has evolved over the past seven years and what motivates its leaders and rank-and-file. Many reports, as well as some books, are available, but most build on few first-hand sources, beyond statements and sermons by the movement’s leaders. Nigeria and its allies should more effectively collate and use information gathered from captured fighters, supporters and civilians in occupied areas. New accounts beginning to emerge from former abductees, jailed militants and defectors should help to produce an assessment of the continued threat, the best strategy for curbing the insurgency and, more generally, shape new thinking and measured policy options for responding to terrorist attacks from other extremist groups.

The Abuja summit is a major opportunity for Nigeria, its Lake Chad basin neighbours – Cameroon, Chad and Niger – and wider international partners, namely the European Union (EU), U.S., France and the UK, to address vital policy issues, including:

  • the bleak humanitarian situation, especially how to better support the region’s 2.8 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees, including how to limit or mitigate the short- and medium-term impact on local communities of military embargoes on trade believed to sustain Boko Haram;
  • ensuring return of the rule of law and ending state-ordered or state-sponsored counter-insurgency tactics that exacerbate local grievances and push youths to join armed groups and further alienate communities whose support is essential to combatting militancy;
  • releasing some of those detained on suspicion of supporting Boko Haram and retrying individuals sentenced without adequate legal representation;
  • preparing avenues for the rehabilitation of the movement’s rank-and-file, who join for diverse and often non-ideological reasons, while remaining open to engagement, public or discreet, with those Boko Haram leaders who may be looking for a compromise;
  • rolling back the use of vigilante groups to fight the insurgents, which if not properly managed, could pose a longer-term threat; and
  • returning government administration to marginalised peripheries, so as to provide crucial basic services – security, rule of law, education and health – and address factors that push individuals to join movements like Boko Haram.

This briefing builds on Crisis Group’s past work on violent Islamist radicalism in Nigeria, current field research there and in Cameroon, Chad and Niger, and its March 2016 special report, Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. It sets the stage for a series of publications analysing Boko Haram’s evolution from a small protest movement in north-eastern Nigeria into a regional menace and the responses of the Lake Chad basin states and their allies.

II. Boko Haram, “Technically” Defeated?

On 24 December 2015, President Buhari declared that “technically” Nigeria has “won the war” against Boko Haram.[fn]“Nigeria Boko Haram: Militants ‘technically defeated’ – Buhari”, BBC, 24 December 2015. Supporters tend not to use the term “Boko Haram” which they see as a derogatory designation probably popularised by militants of Izala, a non-violent Salafi movement eager to distinguish themselves from and mock the more radical groups, including Boko Haram, born among them. Boko Haram went through several internal designations, replacing its formal Arabic name, Jama’tu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad) with the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), after its affiliation with the Islamic State (IS) in 2015. There are reports that some groups involved in the insurgency oppose the IS affiliation, so may not accept that name. On divisions with the insurgency, see below. For clarity, and given its wide recognition, “Boko Haram” is used in this briefing. It is true that for several months, the group has carried out fewer attacks, and those smaller, on softer targets and with reduced success. As recently as December 2013, hundreds of Boko Haram fighters overran the air force base in Maiduguri, the Borno state capital.[fn]For background on Boko Haram, see Crisis Group Africa Reports N°s 213, Curbing Violence in Nigeria (II): The Boko Haram Insurgency, 3 April 2014; and 168, Northern Nigeria: Background to Conflict, 20 December 2010. Today, the group seems to deploy fewer fighters, who mostly attack remote villages and refugee camps, and it relies increasingly on terrorist attacks, notably suicide bombings. Its four-wheel drive fleet is depleted, and many of the armoured vehicles it seized from Nigerian forces are destroyed or recaptured.[fn]It had more than 150 four-wheel drive trucks with mounted weaponry in Gwoza at the beginning of 2015. Crisis Group electronic communication with military expert, 10 March 2016.Hide Footnote  Its last terror attack in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, was in October 2015. On 27 March that year, it lost its own “capital”, Gwoza, in south-east Borno state.[fn]On 7 March 2015, Shekau pledged allegiance to Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The area Boko Haram controlled was called the Wilayat Gharb Afriqiya (West Africa province) of the IS caliphate.  

While from 2011 insurgents were very active in the other north-eastern states of Adamawa, Yobe and Gombe, they now seem largely limited to Borno’s north-eastern quadrant. In February 2016, a Borno senator claimed controversially that Boko Haram still could operate in half the state and had full control of three of its 27 local government areas (LGAs).[fn]“Boko Haram controls half of Borno, says Senator Garbai”, Punch, 7 February 2016. The three LGAs were Abadam, Mobbar and Kala Balge, all bordering either Niger or Cameroon. The army said it captured Kala Balge on 23 March 2016. What seems clear is that it retains presence and capacity in some rural areas, including several permanent bases, particularly in the Sambisa forest, along the borders with Cameroon and Niger and on Lake Chad islets, from where it can launch raids, including into neighbouring states.[fn]“Boko Haram militants attack village in Adamawa”, Naij.com, 17 February 2016; “Boko Haram raids Yobe state on horseback”, Naij.com, 20 April 2016. Since 2011, Boko Haram has had logistical networks in Cameroon’s far north, notably Kousseri. Crisis Group interviews, security forces, administrative authorities, lawyers and traders, Kousseri, March 2016.  

Boko Haram’s reach into Chad, Cameroon and Niger appears to have peaked in 2014-2015. Attacks in Chad and Niger seemed to diminish at the start of 2016, and it has turned to suicide bombings against Cameroonian towns and garrisons.[fn]The first incidents in Niger occurred in December 2014. According to one count, attacks peaked with 24 in February 2015; there were nine in November and only three in February 2016. “Niger-Diffa: Access, Insecurity and Internal displacement”, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 10 March 2016. After it joined the regional fight in January 2015, Chad was targeted with guerrilla attacks in and around Lake Chad throughout the year and deadly suicide bombings in N’Djamena and some other localities in June and July. Since January 2016, there have been only small guerrilla operations in the country. Crisis Group interview, security expert, N’Djamena, April 2016. Aside from 2013 kidnappings of Western hostages, Boko Haram’s first attack in Cameroon was in March 2014. The country has suffered the most in recent months; 88 were killed in January 2016, 79 in February, 23 in March and sixteen in April. Crisis Group Africa Report N°229, Cameroon: The Threat of Religious Radicalism, 3 September 2015, pp. 17-20; and observations, northern Cameroon, March 2016. Crisis Group plans to publish briefings on Boko Haram in Chad, Cameroon and Niger over the coming months.  

Equally notable, Boko Haram has produced many fewer statements and videos since the end of 2015. There has been no credible proof of life from its leader, Abubakar Shekau, in at least a year.[fn]The controversy over whether Shekau is alive continues; Nigerian authorities have long claimed he was killed in 2013 and replaced by impersonators. Some Cameroonian soldiers in Mabass said Shekau was in Madagali, Adamawa state, 10-27 February 2016. Madagali shares borders with Mabass and Ldamang towns (Mayo Tsanaga), Cameroon. Crisis Group interviews, security forces, Mabass, Cameroon, March 2016. Boko Haram watchers are divided. Compare Andrea Brigaglia, “Abubakar Shekau: The Boko Haram Leader Who Never Came ‘Back from the Dead’”, Annual Review of Islam in Africa, vol. 12, no. 1 (2013-2014); Jacob Zenn, “Boko Haram and the many faces of Abubakar Shekau”, African Arguments, 30 September 2014; “Salkida: Shekau alive, still controlling Boko Haram”, The Cable (Nigeria), 16 August 2015; and Crisis Group electronic communication, researcher working on Boko Haram, 14 April 2016. A video released on 24 March that shows him was doctored, according to several experts; one on 1 April only featured supporters insisting he was still the leader, though it also depicted well-equipped fighters and four-wheel drive trucks with heavy weapons, including a heavy artillery piece.[fn]Crisis Group electronic communications, researchers and an analyst working on Boko Haram, April 2016.  

At the least, Boko Haram has demonstrated that it remains a potent asymmetrical threat. While ostensibly on the back foot, it is not yet defeated. In mid-April, it launched a large attack against Nigeria’s 113th battalion in Kareto, northern Borno state. The nature of its tactics and geographical reach will make the group’s comprehensive defeat difficult. Current attacks seem to be less about military strategy than extracting resources and sending a violent message that it is surviving. Increasingly they are on targets that offer easy plunder, including young captives, many of whom are turned into “wives” and child soldiers. 

In its desperate and violent search for resources through plunder, Boko Haram shares some characteristics with late nineteenth century warfare in the Lake Chad area, in which states sustained themselves through raids for goods and people became a tool to sustain (temporarily) the state.[fn]Kyari Mohammed, Borno in the Rabih Years, 1893-1901: the Rise and Crash of a Predatory State (Maiduguri, 2006). Rabih Fadlallah was a Sudanese warlord and slave trader who conquered the Borno Empire in 1883 and ruled it until 1900, when he was killed by French forces. Rabih’s forces regularly raided the countryside for plunder and to capture slaves. It seems even more strikingly similar to the current Uganda-born Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a force also originally formed around a radical, religion-based rejection of society that has deteriorated into a roaming gang, surviving by plundering goods and people.[fn]On the LRA’s religious dimension, see Heike Behrend, Alice Lakwena & the Holy Spirits: War in Northern Uganda 1986-97 (Oxford, 1999). On later transformation, see Crisis Group Africa Reports N°s 182, The Lord’s Resistance Army: End Game?, 17 November 2011; and 77, Northern Uganda: Understanding and Solving the Conflict, 14 April 2004. But because of its connection to the global jihad, it has, unlike the LRA, an understanding of the special power of terror attacks. Much like other jihadist groups, such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), it may become less a guerrilla force attached to a specific territory and more a terror group with a longer reach.[fn]Crisis Group interview, international military expert, N’Djamena, Chad, 27 April 2016.  

Initially, Boko Haram members attacked “strategic” individuals (local officials, civil servants, chiefs, imams, traders who refused to cooperate and turncoats). They moved on to greater violence against specific communities, including those that formed vigilante groups to resist them, such as the Civilian Joint Task Forces (CJTF, see below). They now appear to be motivated by a broader anger against all who do not support them, including communities over which they have lost control. In so acting, they may be destroying what little appeal they once had among segments of the local population.[fn]Crisis Group electronic communication, researcher working on Boko Haram, 25 March 2016.  

The insurgency has badly damaged the Lake Chad basin economy, destroyed or driven away the little services (and cash infusion) the state provided and forced some traders to flee. But in an effort to break its financial base, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria have deliberately targeted economic activities they believe have been benefiting Boko Haram, through tribute, a criminal racket or direct militant participation in certain businesses. States have ordered a variety of bans, such as on motorbike taxi service in the countryside, rural markets, the sale of fuel and trade in fish, pepper, cattle and dried meat. Some trade prohibitions have been lifted after civil society groups raised concerns, but there is little doubt that the local economies are suffering.[fn]The pepper trade in south-east Niger resumed in February 2016 after civil society took a stand. “Déclaration de la Société Civile Nigérienne”, Fondation Frantz Fanon, 20 May 2015.  

Under pressure from the region’s armies, Boko Haram faces growing challenges to exact tribute from trade flows that have largely vanished and has difficulties finding suppliers willing to engage in risky illicit commerce.[fn]Boko Haram is reportedly using groundnut oil as motorcycle fuel. “Boko Haram, facing fuel shortages, makes its own: security sources, escapee”, Agence France-Presse, 18 April 2016. The money from bank robberies and ransoms has either run out or become more difficult to spend.[fn]An estimated $11 million was reportedly paid to Boko Haram for release of captives in five separate incidents, 2013-2014, in Cameroon’s Far North alone. Crisis Group interviews, administrative and municipal authorities, negotiators, journalists, Yaoundé, Maroua, Mokolo, February-March 2016. “Les contours de la libération des 27 otages enlevés par Boko Haram”, L’oeil du Sahel, 16 October 2014; “Nigerian Islamists got 3.15 USD millions to free French hostages”, Reuters, 26 April 2013. Raids have replaced the tribute once exacted from villages, another indication that its revenue base is being stifled, though the group may still have control of markets in some areas. There is one recent report, quoting security sources, that militants were surrendering out of starvation.[fn]“Boko Haram: 76 starving members surrender to Nigerian military”, Newsweek, 3 March 2016. Pictures released by the Nigerian military of alleged militants killed or captured in combat show emaciated bodies. Nevertheless, that Boko Haram is losing resources and fighters does not mean the governments have quite regained control. 

As Lake Chad basin states push further to dislodge Boko Haram and regain access, further research may shed light on the movement. Since the killing of Mohamed Yusuf, its founder, in police custody in 2009, the evasive Abubakar Shekau, once a Yusuf deputy, is the best-known figure. A known sub-group (or faction), Ansaru, publicly confirmed its existence in 2012. It formed around Nigerian radicals associated with AQIM and had links to, but sought to distinguish itself from Boko Haram. It is not clear whether it was completely dispersed by the security forces, was absorbed into Boko Haram or transformed and survived as something distinct. It is not clear either how deep doctrinal differences run within the organisation, notably over the affiliation to the Islamic State (IS).[fn]Drawing on the work of Nigerian commentator Fulan Nasrullah, counter-terrorism analyst Jacob Zenn considers Boko Haram is actually two main active organisations that sometimes cooperate: Shekau’s ISWAP, along Lake Chad, by the Niger border and in central Borno state, and Khaled al Barnawi’s Harakat-al-Mujahrin, an Ansaru spin-off content with anonymity, in Cameroon and along its border. “Wilayat West Africa reboots for the Caliphate”, 15 September 2015. Nigerian authorities reported al Barnawi’s arrest in April 2016 in Kogi state, far from Cameroon’s border.Hide Footnote Organisational charts in literature on Boko Haram are hypothetical, with many empty boxes and question marks. Likely the assaults have weakened the centre of the movement’s network, making it less capable of securing obedience and coordination, and fragmenting it into smaller, more local units, tied to specific areas and resource bases.

In its areas of influence, Boko Haram tried to set up a quasi-administrative structure, linking the “imam” (Shekau) and its Shura council to designated emirs (locals or outsiders) charged with organising levies in recruits and kind from local communities. In some areas where its control was most intense and durable, it tried to implement its version of Sharia (Islamic law), controlling male and female dress, limiting female mobility and forcing attendance at Quran classes and prayers.[fn]Crisis Group interview, researcher working on Boko Haram, Paris, 30 March 2016; Adam Higazi, “A Conflict Analysis of Borno and Adamawa States, Northeastern Nigeria”, unpublished field report, February 2016. However, some consider the notion of Boko Haram as a structured organisation a state-centric misunderstanding of a group that should be viewed as a network of networks.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Yaoundé, 25 February 2016. Boko Haram, as it deployed in the rural areas and along the border apparently integrated smaller, pre-existing networks – some of which did not have a religious agenda – such as of illicit traffickers or bandits. Some of these are returning to their previous lives but may still be using Boko Haram’s name and notoriety. 

It would be wrong, however, to consider the movement a spent force. Since the beginning of 2016, its network along Cameroon’s border has been able to attempt 35 suicide attacks.[fn]Seventeen such attacks succeeded. Crisis Group interviews, security forces, Maroua, March 2016.

III. The Regional Fightback

Boko Haram has been weakened by a stronger, coordinated military response that began in 2015. A combination of regional and wider international support that increased notably with Buhari’s election has put it on the defensive.

After years of inaction and a series of spectacular setbacks in 2013-2014, Buhari’s predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, tried to fight back as the 2015 elections approached. Reaching out to Russia and China, among others,[fn]Including some East European countries. See “Analysts Weigh Nigeria-Russia Arms Deal”, Voice of America, 10 December 2014; “Nigeria reportedly takes delivery of ‘Super Hinds’ – Analysis”, FighterControl.co.uk, 9 January 2015; “Musings on this week’s deliveries of MRAPs, Armour and Combat Helicopters from China, Belarus and Russia”, Beegeagle's Blog, 15 January 2015; “Nigeria receiving T-72s and other weapons from Czech Republic”, DefenceWeb, 2 February 2015 and “Photo of Chinese-Built CS/VP3 ‘Bigfoot’ MRAP Vehicle of Nigeria Army”, Defence Blog, 26 August 2015.Hide Footnote he secured training and weapons and arranged for a South African private military company to train and operate a small force in Borno state from December 2014 to March 2015. Most significantly, forces from Chad and Niger were allowed to intervene on Nigerian territory around Lake Chad that February-March. Boko Haram was pushed out of some areas, sometimes for good (Gwoza and Dikwa), but sometimes not, for failure to maintain a permanent deployment (Gambaru and Abadam, which are further north, along the Cameroon and Niger borders respectively). Nigeria’s own army is not large enough to secure the entire north east and cannot depend on the deeply troubled federal police to help secure urban areas.

The armed response strengthened further after Buhari assumed the presidency in May 2015, although given the military’s history, there remains scepticism about the coherence of the fight against Boko Haram. A retired northern general with strong anti-corruption credentials and military governor experience in the north east (1975-1976), he boosted the morale and capacity of Nigeria’s armed forces, which had been compromised by years of mismanagement and wide-scale graft and fraud. Several of his acts have improved the military response: a thorough command change, transfer of the operations base from Abuja to Maiduguri, moving tactical formations’ headquarters forward and quick improvements in logistics, wage-payment, air support, rotation of troops and equipment procurement.[fn]“Buhari names new Service Chiefs, NSA”, Premium Times, 13 July 2015; Crisis Group interviews, senior military officers, Abuja, January and February 2016; Lieutenant General Tukur Buratai, lecture delivered at National Defence College, Abuja, 13 January 2016.Hide Footnote To reflect the more aggressive disposition, Nigeria’s counter-insurgency operation changed names from Operation Zaman Lafiya (We will live in peace) to Operation Lafiya Dole (Peace by All Means). 

The armed forces have sustained an offensive posture, catching off balance insurgents who were used to facing a demoralised army largely confined to fixed locations.[fn]Plans to further strengthen military capacity with significant additional security force recruitment are under way in Nigeria as well as Cameroon.Hide Footnote To boost morale and improve capacity, the president also ordered investigations of more than 300 companies and prominent citizens, including senior serving and retired officers, believed involved in security budget mismanagement. Some have been detained.[fn]“Nigeria targets 300 army officers, firms, in widening corruption probe”, Reuters, 25 March 2016; “Why Dasuki will remain in detention – Presidency”, Daily Post, 29 March 2016.Hide Footnote

Another important change has been the growth and spread of vigilante CJTF groups. Born and nurtured in Maiduguri by local authorities in 2013, they played an important role in pushing the insurgency out of that city, and they eventually formed in Borno’s rural areas and in neighbouring states; the Cameroon and Chad equivalents are known as comités de vigilance.[fn]In Cameroon, the comités de vigilance are widely praised by security forces and local administration for their role in fighting Boko Haram. Crisis Group interviews, administrative authorities, security forces and vigilante groups, Yaoundé, Maroua and Mora, March 2016. In Chad, many vigilante groups were formed at the authorities’ demand after the suicide attacks in Baga Sola in October 2015. In villages, they would stop-and-search newcomers and protect markets and NGO-organised food distribution. They do not always have guns, often carrying spears, machetes or whips. Crisis Group interview, vigilante, Andja (near Baga Sola), Chad, April 2016.Hide Footnote They are alleged to have been involved in serious abuses, including extrajudicial executions and rapes, sometimes in association with security forces.[fn]“Stars on their shoulders. Blood on their hands. War crimes committed by the Nigerian military”, Amnesty International, 3 June 2015; “Civilian JTF’ members caught on video torturing Boko Haram suspects”, Sahara Reporters, 21 October 2015.Hide Footnote But in rural areas, they have provided essential local knowledge and intelligence to the security forces and, more importantly, given people a chance to reconnect with the state who otherwise may have looked to Boko Haram for protection.

Nigeria’s more cogent response and the insurgency’s growing cross-border footprint have done much to mobilise Cameroon, Chad and Niger, as well as Western partners. As early as 2012, in the framework of the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC), there were attempts to revive the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), an unsuccessful regional anti-banditry operation established in 1998, at a time when bad memories and suspicions between Nigeria and its neighbours, particularly Cameroon, were high.[fn]The members of LCBC, created to manage the resources from Lake Chad, are Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria, as well as the Central African Republic and Libya. Benin, on Nigeria’s western border, also pledged 800 troops to the MNJTF along with LCBC members, in May 2014. In March 2016, a MNJTF communiqué announced Benin was ready to deploy 150, “expected to perform garrison duties, provision of escort and security to humanitarian operations, protection of Very Important Personalities”. “Boko Haram: Benin Republic to deploy 150 military troops to MNJTF”, thepost-ng.com, 15 March 2016.Hide Footnote However, Chad and Niger pulled out in 2013 and 2014 respectively, and Boko Haram overran the MNJTF headquarters near the Nigerian town of Baga, on the shores of Lake Chad, in January 2015.[fn]“Stars on their shoulders”, op. cit., p. 12.Hide Footnote

Baga’s fall was a wake-up call. Seeing its trade routes to the sea under threat, Chad sent two large columns, one through Cameroon, one through Niger, and supported by a Niger contingent, to fight the insurgents in Nigeria.[fn]“Chad troops enter Nigerian town in pursuit of Boko Haram”, Reuters, 3 February 2015. Chad reportedly sent some 400 vehicles and 2,000 soldiers to Cameroon in January and into Nigeria in February 2015. Crisis Group analyst interview in a previous capacity, security actor, N’Djamena, February 2015. The other contingent entered Nigeria from Niger in March 2015.Hide Footnote Faced with mounting criticism for collateral damage, the intervention’s heavy human and financial toll and what it considered insufficient regional and wider international support, as well as an increase in Boko Haram activity on its territory, however, Chad quickly pulled out of Nigeria, somewhat frustrated. It has since focused most of its operations on its Lake Chad’s islands and shore.

Buhari revived regional cooperation that had seemed dead at mid-2015 by paying special attention to neighbours. The MNJTF settled into an expanded N’Djamena headquarters, led by a Nigerian general officially in command of all Lake Chad basin operations. In reality, there has been no force integration: the MNJTF is about coordination, and national contingents re-hatted as MNJTF operate primarily in their own country and report to their own capital.[fn]Crisis Group interview, international security officials, N’Djamena, April 2016.Hide Footnote But the task force allows a level of cross-border operational coordination, while assuaging sovereignty concerns and helping to “erase the borders a bit”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, MNJTF official, N’Djamena, November 2015.Hide Footnote  

Not without difficulties, it also coordinates intelligence and does some joint planning.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, international security officials, MNJTF officers, N’Djamena, November 2015 and April 2016; MNJTF officers, Mora, Cameroon, March 2016. “Failure to share data hampers war on Boko Haram in Africa”, The New York Times, 23 April 2016. For internal communications, Boko Haram has been using cell phones; several years ago Nigeria shut down the network in the north east and is currently pushing hard for all SIM card purchasers to be identified. (In 2015, Nigeria fined South African operator MTN $5.2 billion for failing to provide the identity of 5.2 million users. The fine is currently the object of negotiation involving the South African authorities.) With the network down, Boko Haram and others would travel east to use the Cameroonian network. In the ongoing offensive, the army has seized many cell phones, as well as laptops powered by solar panels. Nigerian authorities claim to have used seized cell phones to track other members. Western intelligence agencies also track communications. It is unclear how much product is shared with local allies. Crisis Group interviews, Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria, Washington, 2015-2106.Hide Footnote It likewise performs a function common to many African regional organisations, that of a recipient and coordination point for international technical and financial aid. Several bi-lateral and multilateral partners provide funds and seconded officers directly to the intelligence cell (Cellule de Coopération et de Liaison, CCL), support which may not have been available purely bilaterally.[fn]Thus, the EU is about to start giving funds to the African Union (AU) for the MNJTF. It considers the MNJTF inadequately configured to receive funds directly. The AU will use the money to provide in-kind assistance. EU support would have been unavailable if the MNJTF was not a joint command. Some officials from the Lake Chad states have, however, expressed suspicion and frustration, notably about the slow delivery and longer management chain. Crisis Group interviews, diplomats, Paris, March 2016; international official, Addis Ababa, April 2016.Hide Footnote  

Western aid, particularly from France and the U.S., but also the UK and other allies, had already begun accruing to Nigeria’s three neighbours in the form of training, equipment and intelligence, including from U.S. drones operated out of northern Cameroon. Buhari’s reformist agenda has allowed the West, notably the U.S., to commit or pledge more support to Nigeria as well.[fn]Crisis Group interview, diplomats, Abuja, February 2016.Hide Footnote

IV. Understanding Boko Haram’s Staying Power

Even if it may be on its back foot, Boko Haram is likely to be difficult to eradicate, because it originates from Nigeria’s deep structural challenges. Key factors include: demoralisation resulting from massive, oil-fed corruption; chronic mismanagement; growing inequalities between regions, with high birth rates, poverty and low levels of formal education particularly acute in the north east; instrumentalisation of Sharia by northern elites in a context of sudden democratisation; and dysfunctional federalism.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Northern Nigeria: Background to Conflict, op. cit. Among the books available, see in particular Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos (ed.), Boko Haram. Islamism, Politics, Security and the State in Nigeria (Ibadan 2014).Hide Footnote Climate change has probably also had a part, though contrary to received wisdom, Lake Chad has not retreated in recent years.[fn]Ayo Obe, “Environmental Degradation, Climate Change and Conflict: The Lake Chad Basin Area”, Crisis Group, The Future of Conflict, 27 October 2015.Hide Footnote The insurgency’s specific home in the north east owes something to Yusuf’s appeal in his region of origin and ethnic community, the Kanuri. That region has also been propitious for the insurgency; the long international borders have allowed it to seek refuge, develop support networks and procure weapons in the Lake Chad basin, an area both of porous frontiers and of regions that are marginal peripheries in their own states.

But another local factor mattered for the insurgency’s origin and continuation: the history of violence in Nigeria, and particularly in the north east. Globally, jihadist groups have tended to emerge or gather strength during conflict at least as much as initiate it.[fn]Crisis Group Special Report, Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, 14 March 2016.Hide Footnote When Boko Haram took root and grew, north-east Nigeria and the broader area of the Lake Chad basin were not home to an open, large armed conflict, but there was diffuse, daily, structural violence. Cattle-rustling, banditry, vigilantism, the protection needed for a lively illicit economy and abuse by state officials have all been pervasive and inter-connected.[fn]See Janet Roitman, Fiscal Disobedience: An Anthropology of Economic Regulation in Central Africa (Princeton, 2004); Issa Saïbou, Les coupeurs de route: Histoire du banditisme rural et transfrontalier dans le bassin du lac Tchad (Paris, 2011); Marielle Debos, Le métier des armes au Tchad. Le gouvernement d’entre-guerres (Paris, 2013).Hide Footnote It is a region where trade and the requisite mobile protection have been more important than production, and the 1990s’ economic liberalisation did not change this. Untying the nexus of wealth and violence is the region’s key structural challenge. A new study of ex-Boko Haram fighters’ attitudes tellingly notes that “[a]bout half of former members said their communities at some time supported Boko Haram, believing it would help bring about a change in government”. State legitimacy is the core problem.[fn]Motivations and empty promises. Voices of former Boko Haram combatants and Nigerian youth”, Mercy Corps, April 2016, p. 14.Hide Footnote

The challenge has been heightened by a violent counter-insurgency campaign to which little thought has been given about how it could further fuel insurgency. The brutal summer 2009 military crackdown in Maiduguri, Yusuf’s extrajudicial execution in police custody and heavy-handed attempts to crush the movement made things worse. Repeated pledges by the states involved to comply with the laws of war have had minimal follow-through; there are still too many troubling reports by human rights NGOs.[fn]“Stars on their shoulders”, op. cit.; “Human rights under fire: Attacks and violations in Cameroon’s struggle with Boko Haram”, Amnesty International, September 2015. Hide Footnote A human rights expert contended that, throughout the region, security forces were probably more deadly for civilians than Boko Haram.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Dakar, 21 April 2016.Hide Footnote Even accounts from the security forces are dispiriting reads. How, for example, did Nigerian forces know the 58 they killed on 21 March 2016 in the village of Musari were insurgents if they seized only two grenades afterwards?[fn]“Nigerian troops kill 58 Boko Haram insurgents, cut terrorists’ logistics – Army”, Premium Times, 22 March 2016.Hide Footnote

This context explains some of Boko Haram’s success in penetrating rural areas, an essential but little analysed issue. It put rural civilians before a false choice. On one side was a state that has often made itself felt through unfulfilled promises of development and the taxations, seizures and predations of its agents, many of whom do not speak local languages, and their local allies – the chiefs and government officials. On the other was the presence of armed militants with sticks, but also some carrots – access to a gun, money, a motorbike, protection for trade (or the loss thereof), promises of plunder or a bride, chance for revenge against state abuse and moral justification couched in an understandable religious discourse. Boko Haram has also provided opportunities for communities, not only individuals. Along Lake Chad, for instance, significant segments of Buduma fishing communities have rallied under its flag to counter the economic dominance of Hausa traders.[fn]Christian Seignobos, “Boko Harm et le lac Tchad. Extension ou sanctuarisation?”, Afrique contemporaine, no. 255 (2016).Hide Footnote

It is probable, too, that Boko Haram was a chance for some rural youths to gain leverage in a sclerotic patriarchal social system that gave them little, while delaying access to marriage and formal adulthood.  The movement has abducted many women. There have been reports of rapes, particularly against Christian women. It seems many of the captives have been forced into marriages, which has led to marital rape.[fn]See “‘Those terrible weeks in their camp’. Boko Haram violence against women and girls in Northeast Nigeria”, Human Rights Watch, October 2014, a report that draws almost exclusively on the cases of Christian abductees but mentions, however, the possibility that rapes are under-reported.Hide Footnote Reportedly, fighters spent much of their off-duty time talking about marriage prospects.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, male refugees and former Boko Haram captive, Minawao and Yaoundé, March-April 2016. Hide Footnote The easy access to brides, via coercion or otherwise, Boko Haram gives young militants, an aspect observed in some other Muslim reform movements across West Africa, has probably been a major pull factor for the insurgency.[fn]Ibid. Crisis Group interview, researcher working on Boko Haram, Paris, 29 March 2016. Hide Footnote  

Analysis of women’s experience with Boko Haram has often been centred, understandably, on the plight of the female captives and girls used as suicide-bombers. It should not be ruled out, however, that some women may have seized on Boko Haram as an opportunity for a kind of emancipation observed in other mobilisations drawing on radical Islam. A recent study notes that for some women, particularly young ones, the group offered “unique opportunities”, notably access to Islamic education and a form of social power.[fn]“Motivations and empty promises”, op. cit., p. 15; “Strategy of terror: the suicide bombing girls of Boko Haram”, Der Spiegel, 29 April 2016. Hide Footnote Overall, the relationship of many civilians to the movement has certainly been more varied than usually thought, combining fear and opportunity in complex ways, with each person joining for diverse reasons. That complexity must be understood and dealt with if Boko Haram is to be degraded.

V. Uncertainties Remain

The military balance is currently tipped in favour of the Lake Chad states, and Boko Haram is not likely to create a large territorial enclave as IS has done in Iraq and Syria. There are, however, substantial long- and short-term uncertainties that still threaten Nigeria’s far north and neighbouring countries and must be carefully monitored.

First, Boko Haram is trying to adapt to military defeats. Its networked nature may mean it is unlikely to collapse from the top and is well-suited to surviving as a loosely-coordinated structure. Some bastions, such as the Lake Chad islets or the Mandara hills, may offer long-lasting cover for guerrilla operations. Other militants could drop the attempt to maintain a guerrilla force, complete with families, in favour of a slimmer structure with a longer reach and a focus on terror acts. Some may move to new areas. While Boko Haram has a primary audience among the Kanuri, the dominant ethnic group in Borno state and surrounding areas (and Yusuf’s and Shekau’s community), it has been able to reach further.[fn]Kabiru Umar, convicted for masterminding the Christmas Day 2011 bombing of St. Theresa Catholic church in Madalla, Niger state, which killed at least 44, was from Gagi Village, Sokoto state. Aminu Sadiq Ogwuche, arrested in connection with the 14 April 2014 bombing of a bus station in Nyanya, Abuja, in which about 130 were killed, came from Orokam in Benue state.Hide Footnote The daily violence of banditry and cattle-rustling prevalent throughout northern Nigeria and the region could open up new areas of operation.[fn]In what seems like an attempt to manipulate public opinion, some have blamed a number of recent violent clashes in northern Nigeria between ethnic Fulani herdsmen and farmers on Boko Haram. But an escalation in violence could make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. “B/Haram attacking Nigerians under guise of herders/farmers’ feud – Dambazau”, Daily Trust, 15 April 2016. Crisis Group electronic communication, researcher working on Boko Haram and Fulani pastoralism, 27 April 2016.Hide Footnote  

Another uncertainty is the potential to reach out to other jihadist movements. There has long been evidence of some links, notably with AQIM or ex-Ansaru militants.[fn]In October 2014, French troops arrested in Niger a senior member of al-Mourabitoune, a jihadist organisation linked to AQIM, who was returning from Nigeria where he was giving Boko Haram media training. Crisis Group interview, Nigerien security official, Niamey, November 2014. Crisis Group Report, Curbing Violence in Nigeria (II), op. cit., pp. 23-26.Hide Footnote Several sources noted the presence of a few Maghreb Arabs among Boko Haram ranks, and Shekau pledged allegiance in March 2015 to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. U.S. officials have recently claimed links between IS and Boko Haram are tightening, but evidence so far is slim.[fn]“Boko Haram and ISIS are collaborating more: US military”, The New York Times, 21 April 2016; also, Jacob Zenn, “Nigerian al-Qaedaism”, Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, 2014. For a critical take on Zenn’s insistence on Boko Haram’s global links, see Abdul Raufu Mustapha, “Understanding Boko Haram”, in Abdul Raufu Mustapha (ed.), Sects & Social Disorder in Muslim Identities & Conflict in Northern Nigeria (Oxford, 2014), p. 148. Some military sources warn the evidence of collaboration is slim. Crisis Group electronic communication, military expert, 10 March 2016; interviews, ex-Boko Haram captive, Yaoundé, April 2016; military expert, N’Djamena, Chad, 27 April 2016.Hide Footnote Nigeria articles in IS’s magazine, Dabiq, are of poor quality, unlike its coverage of the fronts where IS is clearly present. With the exception of the 27 November 2015 attack on a Shia gathering near Kano, Boko Haram’s targeting seems to have been less global recently. 

Nigeria’s ability to capitalise on Boko Haram’s current weakness and curb it is another uncertainty, particularly with oil prices low and the naira falling. The neighbours’ strengths are also unknown. Each in its way is fragile. Cameroon confronts a delicate presidential succession in 2018, a security apparatus with internal tensions and a north with a large (not exclusively) Muslim population that feels marginalised. Niger is tense, fresh from controversial presidential elections, with budget problems, a partial criminalisation of the state due to illicit trafficking and a military used to meddling in politics.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°208, Niger: Another Weak Link in the Sahel?, 19 September 2013.Hide Footnote Chad is also fragile, with a long history of armed rebellions, essentially controlled by a tribal army awash with aspiring men-at-arms, reeling from the oil-price collapse and just past the controversial election in which President Idriss Déby, in power since 1990, won a fifth term.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°233, Chad: Between Ambition and Fragility, 30 March 2016.Hide Footnote Such frailties could, in various ways, offer ground for an extension or more indigenous mutation of Boko Haram, as well as the emergence of other violent actors, jihadist or not.

VI. A Mounting Humanitarian Toll

The humanitarian impact has been huge. There is no solid body count, an indication of state weakness and dearth of local civil society, made worse by security concerns. The Council on Foreign Relations (U.S.) assesses that Boko Haram and state actors together have killed 28,000 since 2011 in Nigeria alone, but the toll may be higher.[fn]“Nigeria Security Tracker” (www.cfr.org). See also Higazi, “A conflict analysis”, op. cit., p. 8. Hide Footnote There are now 2.8 million displaced persons in the Lake Chad basin, about 200,000 of them refugees. With limited resources made worse by weak capacity, the states and aid community have struggled to handle the crisis.

Regional governments’ policies have not always helped the displaced. Authorities have seemed keen for civilians to leave and stay away from Boko Haram-held territory (where they could be a potential source of voluntary or coerced support for the insurgents) but are at the same time embarrassed by the massive IDP camps, fearing they may turn into hotbeds of discontent.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Nigerian, Cameroonian, Chadian national and international humanitarian actors, Abuja, February 2016, Yaoundé, February-March 2016, N’Djamena, April 2016. Hide Footnote Also, such camps have reportedly attracted human trafficking and sexual abuse.[fn]“Grim tales of rape, child trafficking in displaced persons camps”, International Centre for Investigative Reporting, 29 January 2015. This information was confirmed by a human rights expert. Crisis Group electronic communication, 7 April 2016. Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), however, denied the report. “NEMA denies allegation of sexual abuse, others in IDP camps”, The Guardian (Nigeria), 16 July 2015.Hide Footnote  

President Buhari’s initial plans to push IDPs back to their home areas have apparently been dropped, and Nigeria seems to be preparing for massive long-term displacement.[fn]“Boko Haram: it’s about human lives, not territories”, salkida.com, 16 February 2016.Hide Footnote Cameroon is not keen on retaining Nigerian refugees and is pushing for swift repatriation, at the risk of returning them to areas still plagued by insurgency and possibly to starve. Niger and Chad have pushed Nigerian refugees and nationals – not always an easy distinction – away from the insurgent-infested Lake Chad islands, sometimes forcibly, and are trying to prevent returns. The future of IDPs, stuck in camps often removed from their resource bases, is sombre. 

Displaced or not, 9.2 million of the 20 million living in the affected areas require humanitarian help. Nearly half face severe food insecurity, and in Borno state some 50,000 are starving.[fn]“Lake Chad Basin Emergency: Humanitarian Needs and Response Overview 2016”, OCHA, January 2016.Hide Footnote Agriculture is at a standstill, with labour drained from rural areas, movement of goods and people complicated and poor rains. While many civilians have fled to urban centres, there still seem to be many in the bush, with little to no mobility, and the lean season has not even begun.[fn]“Trade seen as key to return to normality in NE Nigeria”, Agence France-Presse, 13 March 2016. Hide Footnote Hasty return to rural areas without sufficient seeds, tools or fertilisers will not help. At this stage, if rural populations are not supported adequately by government, they may be vulnerable to Boko Haram offering similar supplies.

With the size of the impacted areas, security concerns, intermittent international attention and Nigeria’s perceived sensitivity to external involvement, aid organisations are struggling to increase their activity.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, diplomats and humanitarian actors, Abuja, 16-19 February 2016.Hide Footnote Humanitarian aid is nevertheless indispensable, as bans on economic activities, which seem to have proven militarily effective, will likely continue. Even if states were willing to reverse them, it is far from certain that would produce a rapid improvement in local livelihoods, since many IDPs and refugees are cautious about returning, and traders are reluctant to re-enter the markets. Whether pushed back to unsafe areas or stuck in insufficiently supplied and protected camps, the displaced would be easy targets for voluntary or coerced Boko Haram recruitment.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Chadian national and international humanitarian actors, N’Djamena, April 2016.Hide Footnote

VII. Conclusion

Though the military response to Boko Haram has become more cogent, the Lake Chad states should not too quickly proclaim “mission accomplished”. Even if they are made to abandon all territorial pretensions in Nigeria’s north east and the Lake Chad area, or are forced to abandon their guerrilla war, some Boko Haram militants at least are likely to seek to continue their insurgency in some form, probably through terror attacks. For Nigeria and its neighbours, the job will only become more complicated. Beyond military action, more complex governance and development challenges need to be addressed. In the coming year, Crisis Group will look at Boko Haram’s regionalisation and transformation, its social impact, patterns of recruitment and radicalisation, female experiences, MNJTF effectiveness and regional cooperation. 

The 14 May regional security summit, two years after the first was held in Paris, is an opportunity to consolidate regional and wider international cooperation and, crucially, to review the current policies of Nigeria and its partners. The summit’s concept note indicates that the Lake Chad states and their international partners recognise the numerous steps and initiatives needed to curb Boko Haram, including restoring security to long-neglected peripheries and borders while respecting rule-of-law, protecting victims and beginning infrastructure development in insurgency-affected areas so IDPs and refugees can go home.[fn]However, as a development expert noted, we are still at the stage of an humanitarian emergency, and investments will not resolve important governance challenges. Crisis Group electronic communication, international development expert, 26 April 2016.Hide Footnote These are all important to help restrict the rebellion, but preventing future insurgencies must also be part of the summit’s focus. Policies and initiatives should aim at developing strategies and tactics that invest in the longer-term goal of conflict prevention and focus on: 

  • Attention to the conflict’s humanitarian consequences. Response to the human consequences has been dramatically underfunded and insufficient. More aid, both humanitarian and developmental, is urgently needed, with priority on the swift return of IDPs and refugees to rebuild local economies, though constrained by reasonable security concerns. Promises of assistance should be implemented speedily, without gaps between people returning and the arrival of support. Special support for agricultural production should be provided. Attention must also be paid, in both humanitarian interventions and development programs, to managing land rights and, particularly, relations between affected communities. Boko Haram has, in some places, driven wider wedges between communities that were already rivals for scarce resources. 
  • It is not just about making sure victims are taken care of and protected. The handling of populations that lived under Boko Haram, whether willingly or as captives, needs to be carefully thought through, including with regard to rehabilitation; many are psychologically, socially and culturally vulnerable. Humanitarian support must make special provision for women and children.
  • Reform state and state-sponsored counter-insurgency strategy. Nigeria and its neighbours have relied on massive, often indiscriminate violence to combat Boko Haram. Security forces and their proxies have been allowed to operate with near total impunity. This may have achieved military gains, but it is likely to prove counterproductive over time. With Boko Haram apparently on the back foot, authorities must establish a calendar to end the state of emergency and return to the rule of law, especially by encouraging security forces to use force more judiciously.
  • Manage captured and ex-fighters wisely. As regional governments close in further on Boko Haram areas, they should consider how to treat captured and ex-insurgents to prevent further violence and mitigate future recruitment. If they are handled appropriately, it should be possible to obtain crucial information systematically on the insurgency, its recruitment process, including profiles and reasons for joining, and the patterns and intensity of radicalisation. It is essential to avoid casting all Boko Haram recruits as hardline, which could provoke further tensions. Governments should also be prepared to engage, openly or discreetly, with Boko Haram leaders who may be looking for a compromise.

How governments treat and distinguish Boko Haram ideologues from those who joined from other motives will be vital. Dealing appropriately with ex-members is the first step to lessen recruitment. This includes developing adequate confinement conditions, de-radicalisation programs and well-designed assistance for community reintegration. Though even more of a challenge in areas devastated by insurgency, a more transparent justice process is critical for restoring rule of law and the state’s credibility. While not neglecting accountability for serious crimes and respecting international commitments, the governments should not rule out engaging with leaders willing to negotiate and should provide avenues for reconciliation. 

  • Rolling back the use of vigilantes. The CJTF and other regional vigilante or irregular forces have been important in the fight against Boko Haram, and government support of them as an immediate measure was understandable. It is now time to think carefully about further reliance on them, however, and about their demobilisation, lest longer-term problems result, including increased risk of local, communal violence. Many could become tools for local politicians to misuse. 
  • Bringing back the state. Planning is required for returning more trusted, transparent authorities, including professional security forces, to regions that over time have come to distrust central government. This is critical to curbing the insurgency, particularly in rural areas, where anger against states seen as more predatory than protective has been a push factor for Boko Haram. While diverse factors drove the insurgency, structural insecurity is dominant in the Lake Chad area. Governments must move more urgently to curb impunity, particularly of security forces, and restore social services. The link between underdevelopment and radicalisation is complex, and it rarely makes sense to explicitly label reconstruction or development activities as “de-radicalisation” or “preventing violence extremism”.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Exploiting Disorder, op. cit. Hide Footnote That said, improved service provision is essential to rebuilding the state legitimacy that can sap support for movements like Boko Haram. There is little doubt service provision, which goes beyond rebuilding infrastructure, can help states recover legitimacy.

The states around Lake Chad have been challenged by Boko Haram to find ways of cooperating. At some levels this has been successful, but the success is principally military and tactical and has not been without frustrations and suspicions. The positive elements should now be extended to include issues such as prisoner handling, refugee returns, cross-border recruitment and criminality. The bigger challenge may well be to turn this regional cooperation toward transforming the economies – and political economies – in all four Lake Chad countries.

Dakar/Nairobi/Brussels, 4 May 2016

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