GOVERNMENTS and newspapers around the world attributed the horrific Christmas Day bombings of churches in Nigeria to “Boko Haram” — a shadowy group that is routinely described as an extremist Islamist organization based in the northeast corner of Nigeria. Indeed, since the May inauguration of President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the Niger Delta in the country’s south, Boko Haram has been blamed for virtually every outbreak of violence in Nigeria.
But the news media and American policy makers are chasing an elusive and ill-defined threat; there is no proof that a well-organized, ideologically coherent terrorist group called Boko Haram even exists today. Evidence suggests instead that, while the original core of the group remains active, criminal gangs have adopted the name Boko Haram to claim responsibility for attacks when it suits them.
The United States must not be drawn into a Nigerian “war on terror” — rhetorical or real — that would make us appear biased toward a Christian president. Getting involved in an escalating sectarian conflict that threatens the country’s unity could turn Nigerian Muslims against America without addressing any of the underlying problems that are fueling instability and sectarian strife in Nigeria.
Since August, when Gen. Carter F. Ham, the commander of the United States Africa Command, warned that Boko Haram had links to Al Qaeda affiliates, the perceived threat has grown. Shortly after General Ham’s warning, the United Nations’ headquarters in Abuja was bombed, and simplistic explanations blaming Boko Haram for Nigeria’s mounting security crisis became routine. Someone who claims to be a spokesman for Boko Haram — with a name no one recognizes and whom no one has been able to identify or meet with — has issued threats and statements claiming responsibility for attacks. Remarkably, the Nigerian government and the international news media have simply accepted what he says.
In late November, a subcommittee of the House Committee on Homeland Security issued a report with the provocative title: “Boko Haram: Emerging Threat to the U.S. Homeland.” The report makes no such case, but nevertheless proposes that the organization be added to America’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. The State Department’s Africa bureau disagrees, but pressure from Congress and several government agencies is mounting.
Boko Haram began in 2002 as a peaceful Islamic splinter group. Then politicians began exploiting it for electoral purposes. But it was not until 2009 that Boko Haram turned to violence, especially after its leader, a young Muslim cleric named Mohammed Yusuf, was killed while in police custody. Video footage of Mr. Yusuf’s interrogation soon went viral, but no one was tried and punished for the crime. Seeking revenge, Boko Haram targeted the police, the military and local politicians — all of them Muslims.
It was clear in 2009, as it is now, that the root cause of violence and anger in both the north and south of Nigeria is endemic poverty and hopelessness. Influential Nigerians from Maiduguri, where Boko Haram is centered, pleaded with Mr. Jonathan’s government in June and July not to respond to Boko Haram with force alone. Likewise, the American ambassador, Terence P. McCulley, has emphasized, both privately and publicly, that the government must address socio-economic deprivation, which is most severe in the north. No one seems to be listening.
Instead, approximately 25 percent of Nigeria’s budget for 2012 is allocaated for security, even though the military and police routinely respond to attacks with indiscriminate force and killing. Indeed, according to many Nigerians I’ve talked to from the northeast, the army is more feared than Boko Haram.
Meanwhile, Boko Haram has evolved into a franchise that includes criminal groups claiming its identity. Revealingly, Nigeria’s State Security Services issued a statement on Nov. 30, identifying members of four “criminal syndicates” that send threatening text messages in the name of Boko Haram. Southern Nigerians — not northern Muslims — ran three of these four syndicates, including the one that led the American Embassy and other foreign missions to issue warnings that emptied Abuja’s high-end hotels. And last week, the security services arrested a Christian southerner wearing northern Muslim garb as he set fire to a church in the Niger Delta. In Nigeria, religious terrorism is not always what it seems.
None of this excuses Boko Haram’s killing of innocents. But it does raise questions about a rush to judgment that obscures Nigeria’s complex reality.
Many Nigerians already believe that the United States unconditionally supports Mr. Jonathan’s government, despite its failings. They believe this because Washington praised the April elections that international observers found credible, but that many Nigerians, especially in the north, did not. Likewise, Washington’s financial support for Nigeria’s security forces, despite their documented human rights abuses, further inflames Muslim Nigerians in the north.
Mr. Jonathan’s recent actions have not helped matters. He told Nigerians last week, “The issue of bombing is one of the burdens we must live with.” On New Year’s Eve, he declared a state of emergency in parts of four northern states, leading to increased military activity there. And on New Year’s Day, he removed a subsidy on petroleum products, more than doubling the price of fuel. In a country where 90 percent of the population lives on $2 or less a day, anger is rising nationwide as the costs of transport and food increase dramatically.
Since Nigeria’s return to civilian rule in 1999, many politicians have used ethnic and regional differences and, most disastrously, religion for their own purposes. Northern Muslims — indeed, all Nigerians — are desperate for a government that responds to their most basic needs: personal security and hope for improvement in their lives. They are outraged over government policies and expenditures that undermine both.
The United States should not allow itself to be drawn into this quicksand by focusing on Boko Haram alone. Washington is already seen by many northern Muslims — including a large number of longtime admirers of America — as biased toward a Christian president from the south. The United States must work to avoid a self-fulfilling prophecy that makes us into their enemy. Placing Boko Haram on the foreign terrorist list would cement such views and make more Nigerians fear and distrust America.
Jean Herskovits, a professor of history at the State University of New York, Purchase, has written on Nigerian politics since 1970.
*This piece was originally published by New York Times