LSE’s Dr Vanessa Iwowo analyses what impact militant groups Boko Haram and Mend could have on Nigeria’s next presidential election.
One of the biggest challenges of Goodluck Jonathan’s presidency has been how to curb Boko Haram’s reign of terror. Yet, just a few years ago, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend) was the militant group giving the country’s leaders an almighty headache.
Mend, of course, is a militant group based in the creeks of South-South Nigeria (or the extreme South), otherwise known as the Niger Delta which accounts for 95% of Nigeria crude oil production and export. It came to prominence in the mid-2000s by protesting against the sustained infrastructural neglect and environmental degradation by the Nigerian establishment and Multinational Corporations (MNCs).
Mend now threatens a resurrection, not to continue protest against neglect of the Niger Delta, but rather to provide a counterpoint to Boko Haram, the fundamentalist movement that vehemently repudiates westernisation. The group, whose official name is Jamā‘a Ahl al-sunnah li-da’wa wa al-jihād, is thought to have started life in 2001 as a peaceful organisation, founding a mosque and Islamic Centre which enrolled children from the poorer disenfranchised majority of the North-Eastern region.
With the passing of time, it is believed that the group became more susceptible to political influence with some members taking up arms, a situation which led to an investigation by the Nigerian government. After its leader Mohammed Yusuf died in police custody in 2009 and key members disappeared underground, the group re-emerged as a militant jihadist group declaring full-scale war on the government. There have also been allegations that the group is funded by aggrieved elite politicians from the North who swore to make the country “ungovernable” for a non-northern President. Nevertheless, its activities, resulting in human and economic loss of massive proportions in Northern Nigeria alone, have continued unabated, despite a recent military crackdown on the sect by government forces.
While both groups are fundamentally different in their cause, religious orientation and the region in which they operate, their operations arguably have some similarities. It is very clear that Mend is neither a religious nor a fundamentalist group; while Boko Haram espouses itself in word and operation as jihadist. However, the composition and activities of both groups appear significantly underpinned by a number of common denominators. Both groups are comprised of the young and unemployed, a situation which has increasingly fuelled youth restiveness coupled with a growing sense of disenfranchisement by the State.
On one hand, Mend is made up of those agitating for economic justice for a grossly exploited and impoverished region that rather ironically produces well over 90% of the country’s wealth. Boko Haram, meanwhile, finds recruits in the socio-economic malaise of the Almajiris – a section of poor northern Muslim youth who leave home between the ages of four to nine to learn the Koran under the tutelage of an instructor or Mallam and who often depend on begging for alms as a means of daily sustenance. It is believed that the wide propagation of the Almajiri System among the masses has not only legitimised poverty and economic underdevelopment in Northern Nigeria, but has also ensured that wanton corruption among the elite northern politicians remains largely unchecked by the ill-educated populace, who, vocationally bound to a Spartan lifestyle dependent on the former for alms, are more often than not “silenced” into unwitting acquiescence.
Another common denominator is the growing susceptibility of both groups to undue political influence within their regions. It has been alleged that group members have, more often than not, been recruited by partisan politicians to violently intimidate opponents and settle political scores. While such accusations are frequently denied, the issue of arms supply paints a rather contrary picture. For instance, given that a large percentage of the youths, particularly in the North are poor, the question of “Who arms them?” is a recurring theme. There is a belief that extreme poverty has not only pre-disposed restive youths to the undue political influences of those that disenfranchise them, but over time these may have transformed them into willing instruments for the settling of political scores and escalation of the accompanying conflict.
Of far more concern, however, are the implications that the activities of both militant groups have for the unity of the Nigerian state. Until now, both groups have maintained a mostly regional focus in their activities. However, in a recently recorded broadcast, Niger Delta militants have threatened to renew offensive attacks should the incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan – who hails from the area – fail to be re-elected at the polls come 2015. The accompanying issues are hydra-headed, at the core of which lies a growing resentment by the South (particularly in the South-South and South-East regions, much of which lie in the Niger-Delta) for what many view as the “born to rule” syndrome of the elite Northern political hegemony which has clung to power for 39 of the 52 years since Nigeria’s independence. Some argue that the idea of a President from the South has not gone down very well with the Northern oligarchy who ruled the country from Independence in 1960 before handing over to President Obasanjo in 1999 in the nation’s transition to democratic rule. In what some argue is “a gentleman’s agreement” of rotational power between North and South, President Yar’Adua emerged as Obasanjo’s successor in what was widely criticised as a flawed electoral process. However, in line with the Nigerian Constitution, the untimely death of the former led to the emergence of his erstwhile deputy, Goodluck Jonathan as the country’s first ever president from the oil-producing Niger Delta region, followed by election in his own right at the 2011 polls; a decision that was unpopularl with some of the earlier contenders who derided the electoral process as “flawed” and vowed to “make the country ungovernable”.
In light of the above, the question has lingered, is Boko Haram a non-partisan fundamentalist group or a mere instrument of “ungovernability”? Does it have any real interest in the future political ascendancy of Northern rule and, as such, ethno-political violence or is it wholly focused on its espoused jihadist cause? Its recent activities give room for such speculation, particularly the recent killing of 44 Muslims during prayers in a mosque in Kaduna. What can we expect from Mend in all of this? In a recent public broadcast, a key militant leader declared “Come 2015, we are watching!” So far, the activities of the former have been confined to the North, bu,t come the 2015 elections, it is unclear what dimensions these would take, particularly if the incumbent decides to run. For now, it is too early to speculate and I can only echo that “we are watching…”.