Getting to Boko Haram's roots might have surprising implications

Is the militant group a self-styled Islamic insurgency, or part of a protracted civil war? The answer to that question matters.

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    This January 2012 image taken from video posted by Boko Haram sympathizers shows Imam Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the radical Islamist sect.
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A version of this post originally appeared on Africa in Transition. The views expressed are the author's own. 

There is much to think about Boko Haram and Nigeria during the current crisis.

One thought that occurred to me recently is that as long as Boko Haram is viewed as an insurgency or terrorist group, the policy implications that flow from this will tend to cluster around counter-terrorism operations. 

However, if Boko Haram is seen or regarded as an element in a civil war that is raging in northeast Nigeria, and which threatens to spread more widely, a different approach to treating with the group might be needed.

The latter viewpoint would mean an initiative more in line with President Barack Obama’s commencement address at West Point on May 28 is required.

Mr. Obama told cadets to get ready to work as a team, side-by-side with diplomats and development organizations.

That kind of multi-pronged “offensive” makes sense in a situation such as that in Nigeria.

Boko Haram is probably well aware that they do not need to fear the current efforts against them. Their leaders and members can be killed or jailed. But as long as nothing is done to improve the deteriorating socio-economic soil in which their roots grow, there will always be replacements for their fallen members and the group itself is not likely to be eradicated.

Yet the current analysis of the group usually does not address roots and soil, at least not from the perspective of ordinary people. The origins of long term grievances that sustain the movement are not explored.

Where, for example, are Nigeria’s inquiring journalists like Katherine Boo, or its poets and author's like James Agee, or its anthropologists like Oscar Lewis?

Interestingly, some treatment of the context of ordinary lives in Nigeria appears in some Nigerian science fiction -- hardly a staple of the foreign policy community.

In her recent novel Lagoon, Nnedi Okorafor’s character Ayodele (an alien) says to Agu, a soldier, “You come from a family of yam farmers; they are the salt of the earth to you. They represent the heart of Nigeria. You joined the army to protect them. Now you understand your army is corrupt. You need a people to join.”

How many real life soldiers at the bottom of Nigeria's military hierarchy feel this way?

As long as our analysis of Boko Haram remains within customary channels, we will not know.

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