The same bitterness that brought violence into Boko Haram’s once-peaceful movement belies terror prevention methods worldwide

International Alert’s experts in Nigeria and Mali scrutinise the global war on terror with our partner peacebuilders in the Philippines.

Young children and women gather around a disused car
People displaced by Boko Haram in the caliphate it briefly held in Gwoza, Borno State, 2014-2015 ©  SOPA Images/Alamy

“I remember many years ago when I used to hear about suicide bombs in Afghanistan and Middle Eastern countries I would be like, ‘wow, how are they surviving?” recalls International Alert Nigeria peacebuilder Mary Hwyere, speaking down the line from long-troubled Borno. It’s the state that gave rise to Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria.

Fast-forward to the present day and Hwyere has now supported some 5,000 female survivors of terror, along with many impacted males. This has been delivered through her role leading Alert’s work on social cohesion, reconciliation and reintegration for those that escaped Boko Haram captivity.

The Islamist group’s name translates as ‘Western Education is Forbidden’. Their structure is at a crossroads, with some fighters folding into the forest bases of Isis following the death of their movement’s feared leader Abubakar Shekau in June.

Shekau introduced the now internationally notorious tactics of abductions and armed violence following the death of his predecessor, Mohammed Yusuf, who was killed while in police custody in 2009. A critical moment in Nigeria’s recent history, it followed the failure of multiple government efforts to shut down the movement he had founded seven years earlier.

Boko Haram was “more or less peaceful” under its first leader, Hwyere says. “Yusuf started a religious complex and school that a lot of people came to. They were the rich and poor, but mostly they were the poor. His teachings appealed to their sense of reasoning or to their religion.”

Yusuf talked about bad governance in the country, he talked about corruption. People were going through a lot – are still going through a lot – of poverty. There’s feelings of injustice, feelings of marginalisation, between or among the people.

Yusuf’s death was not received well by many, though what followed seemed to take the country’s authorities by surprise.

“After he was killed, very little was said about Yusuf’s followers, not knowing that they were to prepare for revenge. It was Abubakar Shekau who took over. He came out more violent.” Boko Haram became ruthless, “attacking people in the market, in the bus stations… anywhere where there’s a crowd of people, they capitalised on that.”

Within five years the group had claimed power across seven regions (LGAs) of Africa’s most populous country, while drawing outrage and despair at the sexual enslavement of abductees.

Confronted with such atrocities, promises to sweep Boko Haram away proved popular at the ballot box. Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria’s sitting president, was voted in on a mandate to “crush” the insurgency within months of taking office. The restoration of security in the North-East was a key pillar of his campaign.

Supplies were cut off and the army became more forceful in repelling their adversaries. “People were really tired of the killings, the disruption, the loss of lives and property. That seemed to be real hope from hopelessness. And by 2016 he was seemingly winning the fight by claiming those LGAs back.”

“That was really commendable…people were really happy the government were fighting terror.” But Hwyere smiles wryly in recalling a government claim from the time that the war on terror had been won.

As in 2009, the Bokom Haram of 2016 licked its wounds before re-emerging even more vengeful, now targeting humanitarian workers for the first time. Meanwhile, another government approach, incentivising fighters to surrender in return for grants to initiate business enterprises, has also brought mixed returns.

“It has really caused a lot of grievances among communities who were displaced. There’s no form of compensation from the government, so they are feeling that ‘we are the victims, but the perpetrators are being rewarded for the crimes they committed.” Some of those feeling neglected see ransom banditry as a route to “a free square meal”.

From injustice to jihad

A sense of unfairness, when combined with prevailing poverty and lack of government support, has seen violent uprisings perpetuate across the globe.

“Injustices, oppression, and lack of government support are some of the factors that drive people to follow violent approaches,” explains Saripada Pacasum, a disaster risk reduction specialist Alert works with in the Philippines.

Members of the East Asian nation’s large Muslim community often report experiences of exclusion and oppression.

As in Nigeria, the war on terror as fought in the Philippines has seen hard security met by bitter grievance. Things came to a head during and after the 2017 battle of Marawi, waged between the Philippines government and affiliate groups of Isis, including the Maute and Abu Sayyaf Salafi jihadists.

“Events and incidents have caused discrimination among Muslims and these are mostly felt in urban areas where Muslims are considered as the minority,” Pacasum continues. “For example, people who evacuated and went to Metro Manila after the Marawi siege have often been branded as terrorists.”

A sense of injustice extends to many rural areas also. In Sulu, activists point to indiscriminate bombings in the countryside displacing communities across almost two decades.

Easy access to arms

Francophones, for their part, often speak first of Mali when reflecting on the protracted wars on global terror that have been observed across multiple conflict zones this century. The breadth of the security threats faced by a country that has experienced two coups in the last year alone weighs heavily on its people.

Oumar Arby, who manages Alert’s local peacebuilding programmes from Bamako, lists no less than eight extremist factions that have been active in his country for almost a decade: JNIM, Islamic State West Africa (ISWA), Islamic State Greater Sahara (ISGS), Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Al Mourabitoun, Ansar Dine, and Katiba Macina.

Impatience at the glacial implementation of ready-to-go policies to support the farmers, herders and fishers whose water-dependent vocations have been compromised by climate change has been key. Frustration has been ignited by easily accessible weaponry, involving arms imported down into the Sahel after the collapse of Libya.

“It is essential for the Malian state to identify the reasons for the attractiveness of the ideological extremists and the political and economic dimensions of their actions, which have undeniably brought them the support of some groups within the population,” says Arby.

The situation has forced some communities to arm themselves for self-protection. A comprehensive approach to improve security and fight terrorism, alongside efforts to protect civilians and restore both state authority and basic social services is needed from the Malian state and its international partners.

Terror’s power exists, of course, through the perceptions it creates. Videos circulating demonstrate both the arms and ambitions in play. Hwyere is just one of the millions of Nigerians sometimes kept awake at night by foreboding at what the future holds for their country, having witnessed the path to stability take one step forwards then two steps back with many of the prevention measures adopted to date.

Psychological ‘ventilation’

“Here in the north-east, you will not find one person who has not been affected directly or indirectly by this insurgency; this terrorism,” Hwyere shares. “Either someone has lost a daughter through these things, a friend, or a neighbour. Or they have lost their livelihood, their business, their source of income. So people are living with hatred.”

Hwyere’s colleagues build peace by confronting the trauma Nigeria’s north is living with, applying psychosocial techniques to erode sufferers’ yearning to repay their pain. “We have support sessions aimed at helping people. In psychology, they call it ‘ventilation’.”

We try to hear what their mindsets are, what they are feeling. They express bitterness, they express grievances, they become wild and they [also] cower over littler things. So that shows they are really traumatised. And some of them just want revenge. You have people who do not want to forgive, so if they are put in a position where they can kill the person, they will.

Different simulations are constructed to demonstrate forgiveness. The facilitator takes some stones and asks everyone to put them in their shoes and walk around for ten minutes – you can imagine how it feels. So the message is that if you carry unforgiveness, you are the one who is hurting.

Hwyere highlights one group fighting for power in Nigeria, the Fulani militias, as having had particular recruitment success recently in praying on traumatised men, emphasising the role psychosocial services must continue to play as the country adapts to threats beyond Boko Haram.

We had another practical session. We had a glass of coke and a bottle of water. The coke is like our state of mind, which is so darkened with pain, with regret, with unforgiveness. Then a bottle of water is poured over the glass. Over time the glass starts changing colour until it become clear.

The participants see the need to forgive and to let go.