Megan Turnbull, a PhD candidate at Brown University, spoke to students about Nigeria and Boko Haram on Wednesday, April 1 in Emerson Auditorium. Her fieldwork has taken her to the southern and middle belt regions of Nigeria, where she has studied orderly militant activity on various occasions.
Turnbull explained the origins and evolution of Boko Haram, which was named a “terrorist group” by the United States in 2010. What was perhaps most surprising was her emphasis on more temperate beginnings, in which politicians actually supported the group financially between 2003 and 2008. She focused on the events that turned this quasi-private military contractor group into a full-fledged, uncontrollable, outwardly violent entity—namely the arrest and execution of Boko Haram leader Mohammed Yusuf by the Nigerian army. The capital punishment was enforced without any prosecution. Although Turnbull believes the group’s mounting disapproval of the government would have led to more violent outbursts eventually, Yusuf's death expedited this result.
The international community recently became flooded with the news that Boko Haram had pledged allegiance to ISIS, another terrorist group. Turnbull emphasized that this relationship is not cause for fear, because the geographic distance between Nigeria and the Middle East will make collaboration difficult. Additionally, the lecture pointed out that a great deal of Boko Haram’s anger is directed at the Nigerian government.
The frustration with the federal government stems from its inability to provide services, as well as a corrupt and ineffective army. The militia, which frequently violates human rights, is fearful in the face of Boko Haram. In some cases, Chadian armies have reclaimed territory from Boko Haram, but the Nigerian army has not actually gone to those places to take them back. Turnbull explained how the fear of the terrorist group has in some cases completely stopped the Nigerian army from confronting them, even responding with violence towards Nigerian army leaders rather than the enemy.
Essentially, what Boko Haram wants is Sharia law in the northern region of Nigeria, formal prosecution of police members responsible for the execution of Yusuf, and more action in terms of services for the public on behalf of the government. This is a similar motivator for ISIS, which arguably provides more services than the Syrian government does in some places, such as the ISIS capital of Al Raqqah. Perhaps if there is one thing to learn from these groups, it is that in this day and age of arms technology and trafficking, if people feel their government is not providing for them, they will likely—and sometimes violently—take matters into their own hands. “Local contexts and dynamics give rise to these groups,” Turnbull stated.