Small Wars Journal

Reign Without Rule: Borno State in Northeast Nigeria

Fri, 10/20/2017 - 3:13am

Reign Without Rule: Borno State in Northeast Nigeria

Christopher Keith Johnson

With a significant decline in news coverage in the last year, for many, the crisis in northeast Nigeria, especially in Borno state appears to be contained. Boko Haram has largely disappeared from the 24-hour news cycle in much of the world outside of West Africa.

Nigeria, however, remains a fragile state fighting what many believe is a misguided war on terror to hold itself together as a republic. While a state response to political violence is necessary, and Nigeria has made significant progress on the battlefield, its conflict, like so many others globally, is in part the result of a failure to address fundamental flaws in basic governance. These shortcomings repeatedly flare up into skirmishes, regional conflict, and all-out war. There has been an almost continuous climate of crisis in Nigeria since independence. The survival of the state has been under threat throughout.

In recent times, before the drop in commodity prices, Nigeria had easily outperformed its two continental rivals, Egypt and South Africa to firmly proclaim its position as Africa’s largest economy. That it could do this in 2014 with no less than two regional conflicts in the northeast and middle belt, growing tension in the east, and one uncertain peace in the Niger Delta was less a testament to its ability to manage a growing economy and more of its willingness to export commodities for profit with little to no regard for the wellbeing of its own domestic market or citizenry. Nigeria perhaps is the clearest example of the fallacy of using GDP as a measure of state progress.

Other forms of measurement have been employed to counter the limits of GDP as a marker. The Human Development Index (HDI) and Transparency International’s Corruption ranking being two among many. Nigeria has a low ranking in both (TI, 2015; UNDP, 2015). 

Alan Thomas’ nine points of human centered development is of value in going beyond a GDP based criteria for development progress (2000). The Thomas model is multifaceted. Its use would result in a more nuanced examination of what development means. And how the term must connect to progress for all members of a community, not solely those who control capital. The nine points engage: measurements of material poverty, unemployment rates, relative equality, democratization of political life, a critical examination of what national independence means, literacy and education, gender equality, a community’s ability to sustain itself, and human security.

The People centered approach has evolved from theory to a legitimate measure of development through it being operationalized through the work plans of various organizations. Perhaps most notably the United Nations Development Program (UNDP, 2011, p. 2).

Can Nigeria be considered a success if its wealth rests in the hands of a select few? Does it truly graduate into the ranks of a developed nation if certain regions of the country have not benefited from the sale of its most important export? The BBC used data from the Nigerian government that paints an alarming picture of the socio-economic conditions in the country’s troubled northeast--See Figures 2-4. Under the Thomas model, Nigeria would have difficulty justifying a claim of being anything more than a poor country despite its designation as lower middle income by the World Bank (2016).

But a look at the data which varies by source indicates that in most cases Borno is not the worst state as it relates to the various indicators illustrated by the BBC. The Economist Intelligence Unit claimed that Borno’s poverty rate while above the national average was lower than some southern Nigerian states (2012). The stats are useful in that in the case of Borno it is not one cause alone, poverty, which has fueled the insurgency.  

In the early days of the armed conflict, there was growing support for Boko Haram in Borno as many believed it to be more honorable, or at minimum no worse than the Nigerian state. A report from the period stated:

JTF as 'stick'.

Since the deployment of the Joint Task Force (JTF) to Borno State in June, there has been an upsurge of violence. Public opinion has turned against the military, which is perceived to be a greater source of insecurity in Maiduguri than Boko Haram. Soldiers are alleged to have been extorting money and illegally detaining and killing innocent people; consequently people have been leaving Maiduguri. The Borno Elders Forum and other local leaders have called for the soldiers to be withdrawn. This is unlikely in the short term, but there is now pressure on the military to avoid antagonising the local population.


The security response to Boko Haram has been combined with moves to appease the movement politically. Boko Haram has threatened prominent Nigerian politicians and demanded public apologies for the killing of their leader, Muhammad Yusuf, and other members of the group. Yusuf and others were killed in police custody during the July 2009 crackdown (see NIGERIA: Military cracks down on Islamist fighters - July 29, 2009). Many bystanders were also killed, which may inadvertently have helped Boko Haram regroup with new recruits. During the last two months, the former governors of Borno and Gombe States have both issued apologies to Boko Haram in Nigerian newspapers. At the same time the federal government has floated the idea of an amnesty to Boko Haram militants, along the lines of that granted to Niger Delta militants […] (Oxford Analytica, 2011, p. 2). 

In these early days many Borno residents and their leaders viewed Boko Haram more favourably than the Nigerian government. At least Boko Haram was local actor, not an occupying force as was the JTF. These sentiments of what is local and foreign were never resolved upon independence in Nigeria. At one point a local solution was preferable to federal government intervention as the latter came with its own unique set of concerns.

In addition, West African religious fundamentalism and support of jihad has never been extinguished as a viable solution to the dysfunction of the state. This is not a new post-Cold War occurrence. It is deeply rooted in the political history of Nigeria and West Africa. The rise of Boko Haram fits squarely within that history (Curtin, 1971; Obayemi, 1978).

A tale of the power of religious fundamentalism especially in the absence of accountable, responsive governance is told by Ahmad Salkida. Arguably Salkida was provided greater access to Boko Haram leadership in its early years than any other journalist. So close were his ties that he was jailed with the Boko Haram founder and witnessed his execution. He never claimed membership in the sect but provides a very balanced reading of its motivations.

Yusuf, who named his sect, People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad, reasoned that elements in the modern education system conflicted with this interpretation of Islam – hence his movement’s nickname. On education, he did not want mixed schools, or the teaching of evolution. He wanted children to have more time to study their religion […] But it was not just education. Democracy was alien to him, and he said he could not support a government whose constitution was not based on the Koran.

In northern Nigeria, sharia law was already in place before Boko Haram launched in 2002. But it was applied mildly and failed to check the rampant corruption, inequality and injustice. Poverty levels were high, and growing, and for most young people there were few job prospects.

Boko Haram was founded on ideology, but poor governance was the catalyst for it to spread. If there had been proper governance and a functioning state, Yusuf would have found it very difficult to succeed […]Before Yusuf’s execution, Boko Haram had a microfinance system, operated a farm and its own ruling council and emirs […] His following stretched far beyond Maiduguri and Borno state, across northern Nigeria, as well as into neighbouring Niger, Cameroon and Chad. Mr. Salkida witnessed the fervency of Yusuf’s followers when violence first erupted in July 2009. On capturing a policeman – a fellow Muslim – they slaughtered him like a goat. At the same time, hundreds of Boko Haram members were thrown into police cells – as was Mr. Salkida. […]Yusuf was executed by an impromptu firing squad behind Mr. Salkida’s cell. [Salkida did not believe] that the police were acting on orders, but emotions. Boko Haram was killing their colleagues.

Yusuf was also growing increasingly militant. In an interview with Mr. Salkida days before his death, he said: “Democracy and the current system of education must be changed otherwise this war that is yet to start would continue for long.”

Mr. Salkida returned to Maiduguri as a freelancer in 2010. Yusuf’s mosques and many homes had been destroyed, causing huge resentment. Some sect members who survived fled to neighbouring countries selling their stories of injustice […](Rice, 2012).

Salkida is not praising Boko Haram but stating that in the absence of accountable and responsive governance that the growth of insurgency should not be surprising. Through Boko Haram, members received an education, albeit one limited to teaching of Islam, and various poverty alleviation programs were initiated. More recently, perhaps under pressure to increase recruitment, the separatist group offered small business loans in exchange for intelligence gathering and taking up arms against the state (Abrak, 2016). With an economy the size of Nigeria’s the above should have already been on offer to the citizens of Borno through either the federal or state government. This was Nigeria’s promise imbedded in its description of democracy.

Democracy was never in the mission of Boko Haram. Services and support were provided to adherents to its doctrine based on total submission to a singular, authoritarian interpretation of Islam. From Salkida’s observation it is doubtful that Boko Haram would have attracted more than a small following if the Nigerian government—local, state, and federal—had chosen accountability over neglect in Borno state. 

The conditions for the residents of Borno were dire (BBC, 2015). While Boko Haram’s program was tied to a strict and unforgiving interpretation of Islam it could at least be felt.  Even the sharia law in force in the region was delivered in a way very similar to how Nigerian state institutions functioned—decree without action/implementation.   What Boko Haram shared with the state was a propensity for violence. Violence, not democracy was the visible change agent in Borno. Its power was easily understood.

Following Yusuf’s murder, the sect was taken over by Abubukar Shekau. There was little in the way of diplomacy or tact in his leadership style. He was less theologian or politician than he was a soldier and jihadist. More of a hard liner than any leader in the sect, he set the tone for engagement with the Nigerian government. Shekau minimized aspects of charity and placed Boko Haram on war footing. Whatever might have been achieved through attempted dialogue with Boko Haram under Yusuf’s direction was erased under Shekau’s. A 2014 statement made after close to five years of military engagement with the state leaves no doubt where he stood:

Oh you followers of constitution, have you forgotten your laws? Since the time we were preaching in Maiduguri, in your constitution in Section 8, verse (paragraph) 2 to 3, in your accursed book called Constitution, which became law for those who are not fair to themselves on earth.

You shamelessly declared in your radio and newspapers that you were fighting those determined to establish an Islamic state.

Because of that constitution that barred us from preaching in Maiduguri, we moved out and migrated as Allah ordained (quoting from the Koran). […]

Our goal is to see only Koran being followed on earth. This is our focus. […]

It is said Shekau is a position. Bravo to you Orator. Well done to you who studied in Israel. Well done to you the expert in Psychology, well done you expert in Biology, well done you believer in ‘I pledge to Nigeria my country’. This is what you said.

You pledge to Nigeria your country. Right? Me, me Shekau I pledge to Allah my God. If you don’t know, today you will know.

I pledge to Allah my God, to be faithful. This is Shekau. Idiot like you!

This is just my speech in brief.

You should repent and turn to Allah and follow the Koran. You should follow the Koran. You should follow the Koran. You are so unfortunate as to be preventing those who follow the Koran obeying Allah. It is a lie. It is a lie. Whoever refuses to listen will be dealt with by Allah (Sotubo, 2014).

Shekau mentions the state’s prevention of the sect from practicing its religion as a spark for conflict. He questions the selective application of the constitution as it refers to fundamental freedoms. He displays awareness of rule of law but believes it to be selectively applied and thus hypocritical. Through the elimination of a more refined leader, the Nigerian government was in part responsible for the emergence of Shekau. Yusuf by most accounts could be reasoned with. Shekau in his own words wanted nothing to do with the state short of engaging in conflict to eliminate it. His sweeping statements are as clear and limited as anything uttered during the early days of the global war on terror. Residents of the state were either with Boko Haram or against it. No grey area. If you opposed it, you were worthy of death. Without an understanding of the history of Jihadist movements in West Africa; the religious conservatism of northern Nigeria; the way dissent is viciously dealt with by the Nigerian state, or its own absence of leadership and governance in northeast Nigeria; an outsider/casual observer would truly question the appeal of affiliation to what in the words of its supreme leader appears to be an Islamic death cult.

The citizens of Borno are an isolated population. They are tolerated rather than supported in a geographical space that was at the time of little economic importance to the government. The general population could be dealt with harshly without consequence. On the other end when not brutalized, that segment of the population could be ignored altogether. This is not a style of governance unique to Nigeria. The end of the Second World War and the rise of globalization made it more common. Borno state is a victim of a style of governance described by Mick Moore:

Changes in the international system since 1945 have helped perpetuate conditions under which state elites located in capital cities formally reign over territories and populations that they do not actually rule. Once the United Nations Organization was created and the former European colonies in Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the Caribbean became independent, the operative rules of the international state system were substantially rewritten. Effective control of territory and populations is no longer the main condition for recognition of statehood by other states (2001, p. 396).

The embarrassing military defeats and frequency of Boko Haram orchestrated attacks from 2009-2015 illustrated the federal government’s inability to adequately control or protect its own territory. It was as if Borno itself was somehow outside of Nigeria as there appeared to be no connection to the population by the federal government leading to weak intelligence gathering and subsequently repeated setbacks on the battlefield. But this failure under the terms of Moore’s thesis could more accurately be describes as disinterest. There was simply no need to govern a region with nothing attractive to exploit. Or that had been a stronghold for the then opposition party—the All Progressives Congress (APC) See Figure 5 (BBC 2015).

The current government of Muhammadu Buhari, strongly supported by Borno’s voters, has mentioned the need for oil and gas exploration in Borno state thus it would be connected to the main national economic driver—petroleum (Marama, 2015; The Sun, 2016).  The previous administration was largely silent in regarding a financial motivation to quell the insurgency. Buhari has unearthed one. With this and the success of his political party, the APC, which won Borno in a landslide victory there is a political and economic reason to inject some semblance of responsive governance to Borno state.

Boko Haram has evolved over time. Never widely beloved, it transitioned from a small religious cult to a wide reaching, heavy-handed instrument of resistance against the government and noncompliant civilians. It is a fluid movement that has exploited Nigerian state weakness, frustration with government, and impatience with the slow opening of democratic space (de Montclos, 2014, p. 4).  There is a growing catalogue of its atrocities against civilians. As its tactics hardened, its view of what constituted the state of Nigeria began to change. In the absence of visible leadership, the state shifted from the military, police, and elected officials and bureaucrats; to teachers, medical professionals, and informal economy workers. Basically, anyone perceived to accept the authority of the Nigerian government became subject to slaughter.

Educators and the institutions that they serve have been hit particularly hard by Boko Haram. See Figure 1 which details Boko Haram attacks on schools in northern Nigeria (Human Rights Watch 2016). According to the Nigerian Union of Teachers (NUT) Borno State Wing, 386 teachers had been murdered by Boko Haram from 2012-November 2015. It counted victims in 24 of the 27 local government areas in Borno—both educators and students. Among the LGAs listed was Chibok, the sight of the mass abductions that triggered the Bring Back Our Girls Campaign (NUT Borno State 2016). 

But why would Boko Haram target the education sector? What sentiment, if any, could it be tapping into by waging war against educators and students? Besides the obvious as can be extracted from the widely accepted English translation of its name is another reason. Exclusion. In notes taken in an interview with an official from the National Defence University in Abuja it was recommended that the statistics on the availability of education before the insurgency should be studied closely (NDC Staff Member 2015). In the best of times Borno was among the 36 Nigerian states with the lowest percentage of secondary school attendance. In much of Nigeria, particularly its northern states, an education is a privilege not a right. Destroying this site of privilege would do several things. It would either eliminate or absorb state property. It would punish the wealthy or those supported by the wealthy through abduction and/or murder of personnel and youth connected to the school. According to my NDC contact it would also prevent the civic and social studies curriculum of Nigerian schools from being taught. This curriculum promotes unity along religious, ethnic, and geographical lines. Boko Haram perhaps views the last objective as key as it exposes what it perceives to be a false narrative of national unity being taught in a region where poverty, inequality, and neglect by government make the state “in” but not “of” Nigeria.

The above is tied to the reign without rule approach to governance in Nigeria. Although its leadership might be educated, many of Boko Haram’s followers are not. The notion that western education is a sin is much easier to sell to soldiers that have never benefited from formal education. The education system therefore becomes the equal to the police, military, and civil service if not worthy of greater derision.  There is an embedded class element to this warfare as youth being abducted whether wealthy or not are likely more advantaged than the captor himself.

For years, Boko Haram grew in the absence of visible state governance in Nigeria. Deficiencies in service delivery coupled with brutal security force response to any organized forms of dissent was a recipe to fuel terrorist growth in what had been for years an isolated border state of little economic or political importance to the Nigerian ruling class. The notion that a military victory alone could erase decades of neglect doomed early efforts to reverse battlefield losses by the state. Its recent success, at least in isolating Boko Haram to a much smaller geographical area, was in part due to an awareness of its pre-conflict neglect of the region. Will the multi-layered root causes of the insurgency be addressed with similar urgency as has been illustrated by Nigeria’s improved military strategy? A question for another day.


Figure 1: School killings and abductions in Northern Nigeria (Human Rights Watch 2016)

Figure 2: Poverty: States showing percentage living in absolute poverty (BBC 2015)

Figure 3: Literacy: Secondary school attendance (BBC 2015).

Figure 4: Percentage of children aged 12-23 months who have received all basic vaccinations BGC, measles, DPT, and polio (BBC 2015)

Figure 5: Politics: Controlling parties by state (BBC 2015)


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About the Author(s)

Christopher Keith Johnson works for a Washington, DC based international NGO focused on labor rights. He is currently based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He spent five years as a field representative in Abuja, Nigeria covering West Africa. Before that assignment he was posted for five years in southern Africa with a home base in Johannesburg. He earned his Ph.D. from Temple University and holds graduate degrees in African Studies and International Development from the University at Albany, SUNY and the University of Birmingham (UK) respectively. Twitter: @keithjohns1975