Center for Strategic Communication

[ by Charles Cameron — some angles on Boko Haram ].

Boko Haram is irreducibly complex, quoth Tehu Cole:


To get a little understanding of that “irreducible complexity”, I turned to a Daily Trust May 4th interview with Kashim Shettima, Governor of Borno State, What Boko Haram Fighters Told Me About Sect

Shettima holds “there are two major factors that drive the Boko Haram sect, which are spiritual belief and economic desires.” It’s the first that concerns me here, and he has some pithy observations to make:

Bishop Matthew Kukah told me in an interview that Government does not understand the Boko Haram sect, that is why it has been difficult to tackle it. As governor, what are the mindsets, demands, motivation that have kept the sect alive?

In life, the most inspiring force is a strong spiritual belief regardless of the rightness or wrongness of the action. As Blaise Pascal rightly captured it and I quote “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” When you have spiritual belief in something, one might go to any extent to attain that goal. Though, to me, there can never be a belief that should lead a man into slicing the throats of fellow innocent humans for the simple reason that those humans share different ideology or faiths. [ … ]

Those with spiritual beliefs are led into believing that when they kill, they obtain rewards from Allah and the rewards translate into houses in paradise. When they are killed, they automatically die as martyrs and go to paradise straight away. In other words, death is the beginning of their pleasure. [ … ]

One dangerous thing about their ideology is their belief that when they attack a gathering or a community, any righteous person in the sight of God, who dies as a result of their attack, will go to paradise, which means they would have assisted the person to go to paradise in good time by their actions, and any infidel killed by their attack will go to hell, which to them is what he or she deserves and no regret for his death. This is the spiritual aspect that drives the sect, to the best of my understanding.

Useful quote to remember:

Blaise Pascal rightly captured it and I quote “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

Powerful phrasing:

In other words, death is the beginning of their pleasure.


The economic situation and its impact, family by family, is the other main driver Shettima sees:

Last year, when the President ordered the release of some detained suspects, some teenagers were brought to us at the Government House and when we asked them why they were arrested, some of them said to everyone’s hearing that they were being paid as little as N5,000 to set our schools ablaze. Some of them were paid less to spy on soldiers and make calls to insurgents to report their vulnerability so insurgents could ambush them. The teenagers obviously were either feeding their parents or taking care of themselves. This means, if there was spread of wealth through job opportunities, the teenagers would have no business depending on themselves. Their parents would have taken care of them.

Those children who become independent as teenagers in their search for economic fortunes are the same people exposed to all manner of religious preaching and manipulations. They develop independence over their parents to live with their views, while the parents can hardly influence them since they feed their parents. The element of lack is man’s worst nightmare. From Islamic point of view, our noble Prophet, Muhammad Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam, has enjoined Msulims to pray against poverty; it is a dangerous disease. [ … ]

If you will take a sample of the backgrounds of majority of the sect members, you are likely to discover that most are children from backgrounds that have been deprived of economic opportunities. [ … ]

As I have always said, beneath the mayhem of Boko Haram, underneath the nihilism of Boko Haram lies the underlying cause, which is social exclusivity and extreme poverty. Once we engage the youths, once we create jobs, this nihilism, this madness will evaporate.


Describing the situation in terms of just two drivers doesn’t exactly model the “irreducibly complex” — but it does features two factors, one supposedly “underlying” the other, when people have a tendency to want to sweep one or the other off the table, either because religion isn’t something they takes seriously, or because they have a particular religion they dislike, and want to paint it in the darkest hues possible.

So having both religious and political (in this case, economic) drivers succinctly stated together is a plus — and the real complexity comes into view, it seems to me, when one tries to visualize or otherwise explain the ways in which these two types of drivers are interwoven — how they interact, the feedback loops, the braidings… And please note, I’d probably include some other cultural anthro and depth psychological stuff (rites of passage; archretypal symbols & rituals, eg) along with religion, and many varieties of external circumstances (familial and tribal affiliations, resources, education, territory, militias and warlords, to name a few) to the political.


I’m also a comparativist, so I was interested to read Juan Cole‘s blog-post Boko Haram and the Lord’s Resistance Army: Hunted Children & the Problem of Fundamentalism in Africa, in which he suggests:

Boko Haram is the Nigerian Muslim counterpart of the Ugandan Christian LRA

— which ties us back in with Teju Cole’s tweet at the top of this post.

So that’s an added dimension to the complexity — we can and should investigate the two groups separately, for their uniquenesses, always with an eye for the interweaving of broadinly “political” and “religious” drivers, and then search out the specific convergervces and divergences between them as they manifest across their two respective religious and territorial situations — and perhaps even gain some sense of how they balance and where they don’t, in terms of rhetoric, scriptural basis, economic situation, men and materiel, cruelty, territory and reach, levels of success…

And all that is no small task…


Okay, it’s an “irreducibly complex” set of issues — but we can still attempt to understand and model it — we just need our inputs to be wide as well as deep, and our minds to be open as well as shrewd.