Authors: Dr Nanda Kishor and Ms Meghna Ria Muralidharan*
On 1 August 2020, Boko Haram killed 19 civilians through a grenade attack on a camp of displaced people in Nguetchewe village of northern Cameroon leaving 11 people seriously injured. Boko Haram has turned out to be one of the lethal terrorist organisation in western and central Africa. Year after year it has been listed as the fiercest terrorist organisation in the global terrorism index. As the world tries to counter the pandemic, Nigeria continues its battle against insurgent groups threatening the stability and political integrity of Africa’s most populous state. Since 2011, Boko Haram has been the largest Islamist militant groups in Africa, has attacked political and religious groups, military and the local police. The Chibok abduction of 200 girls in April 2014, drew international attention to the growing threat from the militant group and the inability of the government to counter it. Boko Haram promotes a version of Islam that considers western education as “Haram”. It forbids the Muslims from taking part in political and social activity linked with western society including voting in elections, wearing shirts and trousers or obtaining secular education. The militant group has been in Nigeria for over a decade, fighting to carve out an Islamic caliphate based in Nigeria. The violence has led to the death of approximately 30,000 people and millions have been displaced and the spillover effect is witnessed in the neighbouring countries of Chad, Cameroon and Niger.
Boko Haram and COVID-19
From 17 February 2020, when Nigeria reported its first case of coronavirus, there has been a spike in the number of confirmed cases of Covid-19, with more than 43,000 confirmed cases and over 800 deaths as of 3 August 2020. The North East region of Nigeria, Boko Haram’s stronghold has become a COVID hotspot. There have been reports about mass mysterious deaths in Yobe, one of the state worst hit by the militant attacks and Borno, Nigeria’s second-largest city. The pandemic struck first in Borno, the epicentre of Boko Haram on 18 April 2020 after a health care worker assisting in an internally displaced peoples (IDP) camps hosting approximately 60,000 Boko Haram survivors was killed by the militant group. Since then, Borno has become one of Nigeria’s worst-hit state. Further, it is believed that the virus is spreading at a higher rate in these IDP camps due to a poor health care system.
The pandemic has had a very little mitigating impact on the terrorist activities and there has been a steady rise in the attacks. In addition to the recent attacks on the military, the group has been targeting health care workers and destroying religious as well as educational institutions. Boko Haram has continued its media activities during this pandemic by releasing audio messages of its factional leader, Abubakar Shekau. These messages reflect its continuous attempt to rejuvenate the jihadist scheme across the Sahel. Keeping up with its communication strategy, Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad, abbreviated as JAS)released an hour-long audio message detailing its position on Covid-19. Shekau framed the virus as a divine punishment from Allah for indulging in sodomy and non-payment of Zakat. This aligns with Boko Haram’s motive of being against western education. He has further claimed that the non-Muslims and hypocrites were using the outbreak as a pretence to stop Muslims from practising their faith, stopping pilgrimage to Mecca and congregational prayers. The group also released audios thereby stating that how it has continued to stay in groups and were observing fast and also condemned the safety measures of lockdown and social distance as evil. The groupwent on to claim that Sambisa is a safe haven against the pandemic, a propaganda to lure the young Nigerian population.
Responses of State and International Community
Since one of the factions of Boko Haram led by Abubakar Shekau expressed allegiance to Islamic State in 2014, they have dreamt of their own Islamic state in Africa. In 2015, Boko Haram opened its first twitter account in the name of al-Urwa al-Wuthqa, or “the Incessant Handhold” and has been active in propaganda. The major issue and vulnerability of Nigeria is being unable to govern its people and provide them with welfare. Exploiting this scenario, Boko Haram uses underemployed youth as recruits. The state though argues that due to the security scenario it is unable to deliver the promises, the far north of the state suffering from food insecurity and malnutrition have been the easy target for Boko Haram. Boko Haram promised to pay them between 300,000 and 400,000 CFA (US$600 – US$800) each month to join their cause. The minimum wage, for those lucky enough to be employed, is just 36,000 CFA (US$72) per month. Those who resist joining Boko Haram are severely punished and are forced to leave the place. Boko Haram has been a single reason for the internal displacement of more than 2.4 million people in northeast Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger. International organisations are in critical condition even while providing refuge to the internally displaced people. Their security is always compromised and the international community is mute to this scenario.
Terrorist groups across the world have been exploiting the COVID-19 scenario by spreading misinformation and have not spared the population in such a grave scenario. Two important factions led by Abubakar Shekau and another by Abu Musab al-Barnawi have been constantly thriving to overthrow the secular regime in Nigeria to establish Islamic State with strict enforcement of Sharia. Knowing the spread and reach of the organisation, Nigeria has tried to negotiate with Boko Haram but unfortunately, Shekau has spoiled every attempt so far and anybody willing to do have been mercilessly killed within the organisation. Barnawi has been willing to negotiate but from the position of strength though the government has been denying of paying ransom or prisoner exchange. Several reports indicate that the schoolgirls from Dapchi of Yobe State were captured by the Barnawi faction.
Time and again the international community has failed to help counter-terrorism and contain Boko Haram. Partially this is also due to the leadership in the affected states in Africa. The Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) against Boko Haram consisting of Nigeria, Benin, Chad, Niger and Cameroon which became comparatively weaker since the withdrawal of Chad in 2017 has been one of the reasons for the failure of the effective counter-terrorism measures.
What is in Store?
The uninterrupted propaganda and activity of Boko Haram may affect the people of the region much more than before. It also has the potential to damage the relief expected to combat COVID-19. Any health intervention by Muslims, individuals, State or international agencies during the pandemic has been viewed by Boko Haram as Haram (Forbidden). Knowing the brutality unleashed by Boko Haram in the past, Boko Haram is not just a terrorist organisation killing and kidnapping people but a public health risk now.
*Ms Meghna Ria Muralidharan is a Research Scholar at Centre for African Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi