Boko Haram and the Nigerian army - Two sides of the same coin?

Poppy Kemp

Boko Haram and the Nigerian army - Two sides of the same coin?

Poppy Kemp

Translating to ‘Western education is a sin’, Boko Haram has become infamous for its onslaught of terrorist activity in North Eastern Nigeria. In 2018 the Chief of Nigerian Army Staff declared ‘the ground war against Boko Haram has been won’1. However, they continue to subject civilians to child suicide bombings, kidnappings, rapes and executions, actions amounting to war crimes, in line with their self-proclaimed ‘job’ to ‘shoot, slaughter and kill’2 opposition. In the army’s attempt to rid Nigeria and particularly Maiduguri, Boko Haram’s stronghold, of the terrorists, they have adopted similarly brutal and illegal tactics, paradoxically fuelling a lack of trust in government and strengthening the ranks of Boko Haram. Only when these state crimes are properly addressed can progress be made and Boko Haram be defeated.

Boko Haram

The origins of the group are murky but it seems to have developed in the late 1990s, if not the early 2000s, and that it was largely peaceful in the first years of its establishment. However, this changed in 2009 when a government investigation into the group’s apparent attempt to arm itself led to a clash with security forces, killing 700 people. Since then, the group has conducted a spate of incidents: in the last 5 years, they have killed 5,000 civilians, abducted 2000 women and girls and forced many to marry fighters decades their senior3. This is followed by repeated rapes and, once married three times, as one girl, Famata, who was abducted and ran away from the group commented, ‘they strap a suicide bomb on you and send you off for jihad’ this is ‘because you’re no longer any use to them’4.This illustrates the nightmarish existence for those living under the organisation.

Extreme even amongst extremists, in 2015 when Boko Haram professed allegiance to the so-called Islamic State, IS rebuked them as too brutal. It is perhaps unsurprising that from a legal perspective, Amnesty International states that ‘these acts amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity which must be investigated and prosecuted’5.

The Nigerian Government and Army

However, the Nigerian government has failed to take Amnesty’s recommendations on board, instead adopting a different approach to the situation. Although in 2015 the Nigerian army enabled hundreds of civilians to return to their towns after the army forced Boko Haram from parts of North Eastern Africa and the Sambisa forest, these areas turned into ghettos in dire need of humanitarian aid. In short, the Nigerian army is acting in a morally dubious way, if not one which violates basic human rights standards.

However, this is just the beginning. In 2015, an Amnesty International report entitled ‘Stars on their Shoulders. Blood on their Hands. War Crimes Committed by the Nigerian military’ stated that at least 20,000 arbitrary arrests had been made ‘on numerous occasions, particularly following Boko Haram raids, soldiers have used unreliable hidden informants to screen entire communities of villages and towns in Borno and Yobe states’6. Furthermore, there have been 7,000 deaths in military detention, as well as 1,200 extra-judicial killings and mass unlawful detention of Nigerians without access to lawyers, medical attention or contact to family members. The government claims these people are all suspected of having links with Boko Haram; however, experts and family members claim this is largely untrue. Regardless, this is beside the point – these are war crimes and gross abuses of internationally recognised human rights standards.

What’s more, in almost all cases, family members are kept in the dark about what has happened to their loved ones or even why they have been, as one woman Hajja Gana, who’s son disappeared in 2011 puts it, ‘snatched’7. Not only does this prolong many families’ suffering, but breeds an immense distrust of the authorities – whom people ordinarily look to in times such as these. These attitudes have only been exacerbated by a series of secret trials of these prisoners, which as Stacey Dooley noted in a recent documentary on the conflict, only ‘plays into the hands’8 of Boko Haram. Indeed, the group’s recruitment strategies now focus on fighting back against the government and reunion with missing relatives.


In 2014, the #bringbackourgirls campaign, following Boko Haram’s kidnap of nearly 300 schoolgirls, raised huge public awareness for the situation in Nigeria and particularly for Maiduguri – the epicentre of the group’s activities. Since then, and with the addition of aid, progress has been made to support those affected by the conflict. Hamsatu Allamin supports women who were involved with Boko Haram and offers deradicalisation programmes for people indoctrinated by the extremists. This enables many, particularly vulnerable women, to move on and live fruitful lives9. Another major issue for those returning from Boko Haram after abduction is social exclusion. One make-up artist known as Mimi10, equips young women with business and make-up artist skills to help them reintegrate into society through providing them with employment while also offering them free make-overs to help improve their own self-esteem, proving a valuable contribution in fixing this fragmented society. However, one of the most significant actions is the establishment of schools11 for children whose parents were killed but were members of the army or Boko Haram, creating social cohesion for future generations.

It is actions like these which have helped empower many women to protest against the government and demand answers about their missing loved ones. The government has yet to formally respond.

What can be done

Prevention is undoubtedly better than cure, and so while these grassroots campaigns are invaluable at piecing together the community, the only way to actually beat Boko Haram is if the army changes its ways and wins over the support of civilians. Amnesty International urged the UN to ‘adopt a resolution calling upon the Government of Nigeria to urgently initiate thorough, independent, impartial and transparent investigations into crimes under international law by all parties to the conflict and to seek regional and international assistance and advice in the conduct of these investigations and any subsequent prosecutions’12. This, combined with a complete change in tactics, focusing on fighting Boko Haram as opposed to targeting fleeing civilians, informing families of the fate of their missing loved ones and solving the humanitarian crisis in many North Eastern towns would help restore trust in the army, without the need for significant financial injections, enabling it to effectively eradicate Boko Haram from Nigeria.

1. Norris-Trent, Catherine, Nigeria: the fight against Boko Haram, France 24, 14/09/28

2. Amnesty International, ‘Our job is to shoot, slaughter and kill’, April 2015

Amnesty International, Nigeria 2017/18, 2018

3. Amnesty International, Nigeria 2017/18, 2018

4. BBC, Stacey Dooley Investigates: Nigeria’s Female Suicide Bombers, 2019

5. Amnesty International, Amnesty International written statement to the 29th session of the UN Human Rights Council, 03/06/15

6. Amnesty International, Amnesty International written statement to the 29th session of the UN Human Rights Council, 03/06/15

7. BBC, Stacey Dooley Investigates: Nigeria’s Female Suicide Bombers, 2019

8. Ibid

9. Ibid

10. Ibid

11. Ibid

12. Amnesty International, Amnesty International written statement to the 29th session of the UN Human Rights Council, 03/06/15