Boko Haram: a Question that is not only Nigerian and not Completely ‘Islamic’

In this interview granted to Oasis, the Bishop of Sokoto, Mgr. Matthew Kukah, explains the genesis and the development of Boko Haram, a terrorist movement that is sowing division in Nigeria, a country that is poor and rich at one and the same time, with attacks and kidnappings which hit innocent victims such as girl students and children.

Boko Haram, questione non solo nigeriana e non tutta islamicaBy now, Monsignor Kukah, the Bishop of the diocese of Sokoto, is an expert on Boko Haram, the terrorist group that continues to attack Nigeria in a cruel way, kidnapping girls and boys and killing blindly. His diocese feels the heavy and constant threat of this terrorist group. The diocese of Sokoto, the city of the same-named caliphate, is more than 100,000 square kilometres wide and covers four States of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. It has a population of 12 million inhabitants, of whom 5% are Christians, and 60,000 Catholics.

Your Excellency, do you see a link between poverty and the situation of economic disarray and the birth and spread of a terrorist group such as Boko Haram?
This is a commonly opinion. Poverty is a necessary pre-condition but it is not sufficient to explain Boko Haram. This is not a movement that was started by poor people. It is a movement started by people who had access to important economic resources. So, it is not about poverty: the membership of Boko Haram today is made of young Muslims who have travelled to different parts of the world. They are children of very privileged people, as you know from the case of the underwear bomber who was going to blow up the plane going to the United States at Christmas 2009: his father is one of the richest people in Nigeria. So it is not all about poverty, it is about the radicalization of Muslim society. A lot of young Muslims from Nigeria are in contact with other Muslims because of pilgrimages to places where Al Qaeda and other extremist movements are dominant. Those were the people that came to Nigeria and they are largely responsible for the confusion that we now have.

So Boko Haram is only partially an internal problem of Nigeria. How much does it benefit from foreign ascendancy? Why is Nigeria not able to control its borders?
There is a lot of corruption in Nigeria, there is corruption in the bureaucracy, corruption in the military, corruption in the immigration services, too many bad people are paying to get into Nigeria. If you look at the northern part of Nigeria, the spaces are quite huge, where movements are very easy, because in Chad, in Niger, in parts of the Sudan, under the umbrella of religion, people move about freely. In Cameroon and other parts of Nigeria people speak the same language, so you do not know who is a criminal and who one is not. Nobody has the correct number but clearly a substantial percentage of people involved in Boko Haram are not Nigerian. There are people who come from different countries: Mali, Somalia, young Muslims just looking for action, especially with the collapse of the regime in Libya. That is one part of the problem: you cannot deal with Boko Haram if you do not control the borders. They have been funding themselves through the drugs trade, through criminal attacks on banks, they rob a lot of people and they also resort to kidnapping, largely of white people, foreigners, construction workers. From these kidnappings they have made huge sums of money because they always got families who paid millions of dollars. These are some of the criminal elements that funded Boko Haram, which is now about criminality, not about Islam.

Talking of kidnapping, the worlds was shocked by the kidnapping of hundreds of Nigerian girls and immediately the media campaign #BringBackOurGirls spread, involving various personalities. How was the campaign perceived by the Nigerians?
Even in my church we organized a Mass and we went out on the streets, we were almost 1,500 worshippers saying “bring them back”. So yes, we have participated in that campaign. The Catholic Church in Nigeria as a whole had a day when every diocese, every church that could, organized a one hour adoration in memory of the girls. So the campaign is something that has caused a lot of interest in Nigeria. As to the effectiveness of this campaign you can look at this effectiveness from two levels. It was possible to boost this campaign once people like Michelle Obama, David Cameron and actors and actresses or high profile individuals begun to sign, giving international attention to the campaign. And after that Obama said the Americans were coming to Nigeria, the Israelis are coming, the French are coming, the British are coming. So you can consider this a result of the campaign. The second point is that we know only in part the effectiveness of the campaign, because we do not know whether even the Americans, with the sophisticated equipment they have and their international intelligence, could bring the girls back, because it is clear now that they have already been separated and they are not in one particular spot.

If the solution does not come from the intelligence or the military, does the way of negotiations with Boko Haram remain open?
I think that the debate going on now in Nigeria is about dialogue with Boko Haram. They say they are open to dialogue but they have also said that part of the problem is that the Nigerian government is not faithful to them in dialogue. There are three critical points, Boko Haram says: “we ask for dialogue but we need three things. One: release our members. Two: pay us compensation, rehabilitate our mosques and homes that were destroyed.” Finally, they accuse the government of arresting some of their members who stepped forward for negotiations. If the government does not comply with these conditions, Boko Haram will not go into negotiations. Clearly with a little bit more sophistication and the government becoming more relaxed, I think it is quite possible that we could have some kind of informal negotiations. But now Boko Haram has said that it is no longer interested in negotiations, probably because of the frustration of some of the members of the Muslim community who had stepped forward and participated in these negotiations but came back and said that they did not think the government was serious. The former President of Nigeria, Mr. Obasanjo, was the first person to have a meeting with Boko Haram and he is still in contact with them. Unfortunately, for some strange reason, it seems the President has not cooperated with him. Mr. Obasanjo had a summit with Boko Haram emissaries and after the meeting he said that he is not sure the girls will come back. But he also said that the federal government had not publicly acknowledged his role or told him to go ahead. So we must consider this aspect, which is related to politics, too.

Therefore we cannot expect that a solution to the “Boko Haram problem” will arrive from the attitude of the government?
First of all it is important to understand that from September 11th until now, America has been fighting terrorism with all the sophistication and equipment that it has. In all of Europe everybody is literally covering the park and the absence of explosions in London, New York or Paris is a result of the effectiveness of checks and balances made by the USA: it is not a decision by these guys to surrender. So, for a country like Nigeria, with the size of this country, we must accept that there are no simple solutions. If the politicians of Nigeria were prepared not to make this political, it would be possible for us in the short term to gain a reprieve because part of the discussion with Boko Haram, as I understand it, included a period of ceasefire which Boko Haram seemed prepared to concede until the discussion broke down. Part of the problem, therefore, is that neither the Federal Government nor anybody else seems to have been able to have credible enough people to serve as mediators. For me that is the critical point.

Claudio Fontana | 08 July 2014