Elections In The Time Of Boko Haram
The threat of Boko Haram
NEW DELHI: Nigeria is set to go to the polls on February 14. This election is important because for the first time since the country moved from military dictatorship to democracy in 1999, the ruling People's Democratic Party -- that has easily sailed to victory each time -- is facing stiff competition from the recently formed All Progressives Congress.
The elections also have a religious character. They are being viewed as a face-off between a Christian presidential candidate from the south, Goodluck Jonathan (the current President who is running for re-election) and Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim candidate from the north (who lost the 2011 polls).
Perhaps most significantly, however, the elections are going to be taking place whilst Boko Haram -- a militant group -- continues to step up its offensive in the quest for establishing an Islamic State.
At the time of writing, a female suicide bomber blew herself in Nigeria’s Gombe city, minutes after President Jonathan left a campaign rally there -- killing at least one and injuring 18. Although Boko Haram did not comment on the blast, the group has been known to strap explosives onto women and children, and is active in the area.
In addition to disrupting election related activities through violence, the militants’ onslaught has left one million people displaced -- raising questions about their ability to vote in the upcoming polls. Boko Haram also controls about 20 percent of Nigerian territory or 20,000 square miles. Three states in the northeast remain under “states of emergency” -- limiting movement and the government’s presence and writ.
This combination of religion, militancy, parallel governments and displaced persons -- is the compounded by logistical difficulties. An NBC report noted that half of Nigeria's 60 million voters are still without polling cards. A suit has been filed in a federal court in Abuja seeking the nod of the court to postpone the elections until all eligible voters have collected their Permanent Voters Card (PVC).
Add to this the fact that elections in Nigeria, even without this unique blend of complications, tend to be fractious affairs. The 2011 polls -- considered to be the smoothest in post military-rule Nigeria -- resulted in nearly a thousand deaths in post-election violence.
As a result, the International Crisis Group has warned that the risks of violence in this election are “particularly high.”
“The Boko Haram insurgency, competing claims to the presidency between the majority Muslim north and majority Christian south, inadequate electoral arrangements and apparent bias by security agencies all point toward a very perilous contest,” the group warned in a report late last year.
Further, whilst Jonathan has been criticised for failing to address the threat of Boko Haram, questions loom regarding Buhari’s resolve and capabilities. Most importantly, the context leading to the rise of Boko Haram continues to be obfuscated.
The origins of Boko Haram, the official name of which is Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad, which in Arabic means "People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad", sheds light on the specific social-economic context that has determined developments. As parts of Nigeria fell under British control in 1903, locals came to view western education with suspicion, and this resistance continued as Nigeria gained independence, with many muslim families refusing to send their children to government run “western schools.” The problem was compounded by the lack of priority given to education by the state government.
Located in this context, in 2002, Muslim cleric, Mohammed Yusuf, formed Boko Haram in Maiduguri with the intention of setting up a religious complex, which included a mosque and an Islamic school. Many families across Nigeria and the region enrolled their children in Yusuf’s school. The movement did not remain restricted to education, with the eventual aim of an Islamic state being conceived within the struggle for power that was rooted in an anti-western discourse. In 2009, the group carried out a series of attacks on official buildings in Maiduguri. The group was defeated and Yusuf was killed, but fighters regrouped and in 2010, attacked a prison in Bauchi state, setting free hundreds of the groups’ supporters.
Since then, the group’s attacks have increased in severity.The context is far more complicated than a mere religious rendering can do justice to. Nigerian American author and columnist offered a voice of reason when he tweeted: “I understand the impulse to "do something." But Boko Haram is irreducibly complex. Makes Kony look like child's play” and “The history of the Nigerian military "doing something" about Boko Haram has been one of mass murder of civilians.”
Tackling Boko Haram involves reducing the region’s chronic poverty and building an education system which gains the support of local muslims - measures which are not being given priority to by either of the political candidates and thereby ensuring that no matter what the result, post-election Nigeria too will be straddled in the time of Boko Haram.