The Boko Haram crisis and socio-political dynamics in eastern Niger

In my project I look at the wider context of Nigeria's Boko Haram (BH) insurgency from the angle of Eastern Niger, a region severely affected by spill-over effects. From early on, BH also attracted supporters in Niger, mainly by diffusion of its ideology through Nigerien migrant workers in Maiduguri. Niger had also served as a zone for economic exploitation: In Mafia-like manner, and on a large scale, BH pressured protection money from traders in pepper along the Komadugu river and smoked fish from Lake Chad, who depended on the trade routes to Nigeria controlled by BH. When police repression in Nigeria started, Niger also became increasingly important as a zone for withdrawal. The porous borders, and more recently, in particular the immense, widely uncontrollable areas of Lake Chad, constitute significant tactical assets.

I argue that since its emergence in the early 2000s, BH established itself as a regional player through a process of integration on the regional social landscape – integration understood not in the sense of acculturation or assimilation, but as interaction in a wider systemic whole that can also be characterised by conflictual relations. This implies a view of BH not as a player outside of society, but as one who is part of it and who takes part in social processes. The social embedding allows to analyse learning processes of BH in a broader systemic perspective, which avoids reducing them to tactical and strategic adaptations for survival. Instead, they are understood as the result of processes of social interaction between different groups.

The principal groups to be named, besides BH and its different factions and offshoots, are moderately radical Islamic reformist movements, the institutions and proponents of mainstream Islam, the institutions of the state, traditional authorities, civil society organisations, and socio-economically and ethnically diverse local communities (Kanuri, Fulɓe, Buduma, Tubu, Arab). Besides these, there are the groups that BH's insurgency has produced: on the one hand refugees and IDPs, on the other vigilante organisations created on the local level for self-defence.

An underlying assumption is that people have multiple and overlapping identifications and are simultaneously part of different categories which can situationally be appealed to. 'Terrorists' or their supporters are at the same time also members of local communities, which facilitates social interaction. Social interaction, i.e., the dynamic interplay between persons or groups, results in modifications of the attitudes and behaviour of the persons and groups involved. An analysis of interactions on the local level and how they have developed and changed over time can thus mirror processes of adaptation and learning.

As revealed by testimonies documented in published sources, there are multiple levels of such interaction between BH and other social groups, or individuals belonging to different social groups: For example locals may cooperate as suppliers, as doctors, mechanics, messengers, informants or local guides, but also with a deeper involvement as fighters who might engage in attacks and then return to their everyday activities. The lines between groups, between members and non-members, are thus sometimes blurred.

The interactions between BH and other actors on the regional level have developed dynamically since the movement first emerged as a religious sect. This can be studied, for example, by analysing how recruiting mechanisms have evolved over time. In an early phase, the group under the leadership of its founder Mohammed Yussuf enjoyed relative support and sympathy among the local population – not only because people identified with the politico-religious cause of the movement, but also because BH acted as a social institution and offered economic incentives. Later, as local Muslim populations were increasingly targeted under the leadership of Abubakar Shekau, BH lost much of this popular esteem. The forms of cooperation have thus over time increasingly shifted from predominantly voluntary commitment towards forceful recruitment through intimidation, the threat of violence, and abduction. As a result, the lines are blurred even between members and victims of BH.

Another level for the analysis of processes of social interaction are the dynamics of inter-group conflicts. With the arrival of BH, a number of already existing inter-community conflicts developed new dynamics. As the presence of BH seems to have been regarded by some actors as helpful for their own agendas, this led to different sorts of local alliances and forms of collaboration. This, in turn, has led to the stigmatisation of certain population groups who are summarily suspected of cooperating with BH, and to the mobilisation of ethnicised militias. BH draws profit from using and manipulating these local dynamics to its own ends, i.e., for forging alliances and for destabilising the social system.

BH's history of fissions (internal splits) and fusions (pledge of allegiance to IS) equally makes processes of changing identifications and shifting alliances tangible. Learning processes can be hypothesised here, yet they remain to be substantiated with empirical evidence. One example of a fission is the more recent split of a faction led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, who left the major faction under Abubakar Shekau and adopted a strategy that avoids targeting Muslim civilians and suicide bombings. This group has also become the privileged interlocutor for IS, who proclaimed Al-Barnawi the new leader of their West African branch. This split, which at first glance might look like the result of a power play between rivalling leaders, can also be understood as the expression of internal dynamics of ideological differentiation and reformulations of identity claims. On another level, it can be interpreted as a tactical shift in order to regain credibility in the eyes of the population, who had been more and more repelled by the atrocities committed against Muslims, or as a reaction to a request from its new ally IS to change operational tactics. The alliance with IS, in turn, might be interpreted as part of an escalating chain of reaction and counter-reaction, in emulation of the state's internationalisation of coalitions.

Not only BH, the Nigerien state too is faced with the problem of a loss of support in case of too high costs for the civilian population. Some of the security measures in relation with the persisting state of emergency are extremely unpopular as they have either hampered economic activities (e.g. a ban of motorcycles) or caused extreme social hardship (e.g. semi-forced population displacement in the Lake Chad area). The restriction of access to the most fertile lands of the region – along the Komadugu river and on the shores of Lake Chad – has added to the dramatic decline in economic production caused by the general insecurity, and resulted in a severe food crisis. The unpopular counter-insurgency measures have further eroded the political rulers' already weak moral credibility. In this situation of disenchantment, a growing number of Nigeriens considers a society based on Sharia law as a desirable alternative to the secular state.

Against this background, a DDR program started in December 2016 on the basis of an amnesty granted by the Nigerien government to surrendered members of BH seems to reflect the insight that an exclusively military answer cannot resolve the BH challenge. Apart from deradicalisation and social reintegration, the program in a second step aims to offer economic alternatives to penitents. However, if not handled sensitively, the program bears the risk of new frustrations: Local communities question why members of BH should be rewarded with amnesty and economic start-up if those who stood up against the insurgents are not considered. The 'terrorist's' unlearning, just as the state's counter insurgency thus takes place in a more broadly negotiated social framework of interaction, in which processes of identification and taking sides play a major role.

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