By Stuart Elden, University of Warwick and Monash University
The Sunni Islamic group known as ‘Boko Haram’, active in the northeast of the country since at least 2007, came to much wider Western attention in April 2014 with the kidnapping of the school girls at Chibok in Borno state. It then somewhat slipped off the radar with events in Ukraine and the rise of the so-called ‘Islamic State’ in Syria and Iraq. The ‘Islamic State’ was formerly known as al-Qaeda in Iraq, and then as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. Al-Sham is frequently translated as either the ‘Levant’ or Syria, but part of the point is to encompass a much wider geographical area, and the group has been explicit about its aim of dissolving colonial-era boundaries between states. Foremost among these is the much-hated ‘Sykes-Picot line’ between Iraq and Syria, the result of the 1915-16 agreement between the French and British about how they would divide the lands of the Ottoman Empire if they were to defeat them in the First World War. The peace of Paris, following the end of that war, did indeed set many of these divisions, though it took two treaties for this region: the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920, which never came into force because of the Turkish war of independence, and then the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. The borders of Syria, Lebanon, Mandate Palestine, Iraq and Turkey all result from these agreements.
In West Africa, the territories of states are also determined by their inheritance of colonial-era boundaries. Many boundaries run north-south, whereas Muslim-Christian divisions tend to run east-west. What this means, in Nigeria especially, is a seemingly stark division in the country. All of the northern states that have implemented Sharia legal codes voted for Muhammadu Buhari in the last presidential elections, whereas all the southern states except Osun voted for Goodluck Jonathan. When Umaru Musa Yar’Adua died in office in 2010, Jonathan, as his vice-president, succeeded him. Jonathan has since won an election in his own right, and has recently declared he will run again in 2015. To win, he wants to stabilize the situation with Boko Haram, something that seems increasingly out of reach.
Nigeria has seen political violence and challenges to its territorial integrity before, with the Biafran war of independence between 1967 and 1970, and there has been a long-running challenge to the oil industry in the Niger Delta. Boko Haram has to be seen within Nigeria’s political-geographical context, as a group challenging Christian rule, the inequitable distribution of resources within the country, with an aspiration of a stricter form of Islamic law.
But it can also be seen in a wider regional context. Africa has long been seen as a focus of a wider ‘war on terror’, though most attention was paid to the Horn of Africa. But the stationing of a drone base in Niger, the French-led intervention in Mali, and the challenge of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM), especially since the fall of Gaddafi’s regime in Libya, has brought more attention to this region. Many claims for Boko Haram’s links to AQIM or to al-Shabaab in Somalia have been made, though these are likely looser than generally suggested.
In the past few weeks Boko Haram has been back in the news, after the Nigerian government announced a ceasefire had been agreed and the release of the Chibok girls was imminent. Unfortunately this turned out not to be the case. Some days later Boko Haram’s leader, Abubaker Shekau, gave an announcement stating that no such agreement had been made, and there have been a series of bombings, kidnappings and battles with the Nigerian military. But alongside these all-too-familiar attacks, Boko Haram have also shifted tactics, seeking to take over territory rather than just launch short raids. Several towns and villages in the northeast have been taken over, including, most recently, Chibok itself. The major town of Mubi was seized and the retaken by the state. Boko Haram have also declared themselves an ‘Islamic State’ and, on some reports, a Caliphate, though by this they likely meant simply an area ruled by Islamic law. While Boko Haram has long worked as more than a military operation, earlier this month former US ambassador John Campbell has suggested they are in the process of ‘moving toward governance’ (2014). Just as Iraq, Nigeria faces a profound challenge to its territorial integrity.
About the author: Stuart Elden is Professor of Political Theory and Geography at the University of Warwick, in the Politics and International Studies department. In this role Stuart spends two months a year at the Centre for Urban Science and Progress at New York University, and at Monash University where he holds an adjunct appointment as Monash Warwick Professor in the Faculty of Arts.
Campbell, J (2014) ‘Nigeria’s Boko Haram Moving Toward Governance?’, Africa in Transition: Council for Foreign Relations, November 7
Elden, S. (2009) Terror and Territory: The Spatial Extent of Sovereignty, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Elden, S. (2014a) Boko Haram: An Annotated Bibliography. Progressive Geographies [open access]
Elden, S. (2014b) The Geopolitics of Boko Haram and Nigeria’s ‘War on Terror’, The Geographical Journal 180 (4), 414-25
International Crisis Group (2014) Curbing Violence in Nigeria (II): The Boko Haram Insurgency, Africa Report 216 [open access]
Mantzikos, Ioannis ed. (2013) Boko Haram: Anatomy of a Crisis, Bristol: e-International Relations [open access]
Walker, Andrew (2012) “What is Boko Haram?”, United States Institute of Peace Special Report [open access]