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Boko Haram and its impact
by Dr. Anna Bekele
Key issues

 The Boko Haram insurgency is both a national and international problem. It has become
increasingly violent and is copying the tactics of other Islamist insurgency groups.
 Its main rhetoric and operations have been against the corrupt government of Nigeria, but
it has also attacked soft targets. Over the years, it has been deliberately targeting
churches and Christian communities.
 The solution to the Boko Haram problem should be sought in understanding the ethnic,
socio-political, and ideological components of this phenomenon. It is ideology in
particular that has been providing a blueprint for the goals, tactics and discourse of Boko

Boko Haram, also known as the Group of the People of Sunnah for Preaching and Jihad (Jama'at
Ahl us-Sunnah li'd-Da'wah wa'l-Jihad), is an Islamist movement that originated in northern
Nigeria. Boko Haram has been receiving increasing media attention due to their methods, i.e.
bombings, kidnappings and murder. The group gained prominence after some brutal clashes with
the Nigerian government in 2009, which led to the assassination of its leader Muhammad Yusuf.
The organization rebounded in 2010, and it has become even more violent. In 2014, Boko Haram
acquired a truly global coverage when they kidnapped about 270 Chibok schoolgirls. They
subsequently enslaved them and forced them into marriage. The majority of the victims were
Christians, and these were also made to convert to Islam.

The name of the group reflects its vehement stance against adopting Western ways in Nigeria,
including Western civil service and democracy endeavors, and particularly Western education
(known as “Boko”, a rough translation from the Hausa language, also a corrupted word for

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“book”). Boko Haram’s central message is Islamization and prohibition (haram in Arabic) of
“deviant” Western ways. It also acts quite drastically on its grievances against the Nigerian
government. While the oil-rich southern states have been more developed, the northern states of
Nigeria remain mired in poverty. Boko Haram emerged as a virulent opposition force and its
motivation has been often quoted as victimization and deprivation. However, its religious
motivation cannot be underplayed, especially as its rhetoric and actions are often explicitly
religious. For instance, Boko Haram’s main targets have been not only Western agencies (e.g.
UN building) and government and civilian institutions (military barracks, police stations,
election polls), but they have also been deliberately targeting Christian communities and
churches in the area. The conflict has not been only about political competition between the
predominantly Muslim north and the mostly Christian south, but also about religious differences.
Boko Haram has also been targeting moderate Muslims (for instance mosques were attacked in
the Nigerian city of Maiduguri in 2011and 2012), reportedly in an attempt to unleash sectarian
and ethnic violence in the region. The conflict has also become intensely communal and
convoluted due to forced recruitment and forced marriages and abduction, resulting in relatives
on both sides of the conflict and some ambivalence towards Boko Haram.

Boko Haram’s founder, Muhammad Yusuf, was originally inspired by the teaching of Ibn
Taymiyaa, a medieval Islamic scholar who called for a return to pure or original Islam. Both
Muhammad Yusuf and his successor Abubakar Shekau have also been influenced by the
ideology and methodology of Al-Qaeda. The Taliban has been another popular reference, and
Boko Haram was even branded the “Nigerian Taliban”. Boko Haram has a natural ideological
affinity with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Al-Shabaab. Importantly, these
organizations have been increasingly sharing their capabilities, experiences and knowledge. This
collaboration has helped Boko Haram to grow quickly and spread its influence beyond Nigeria to
Chad, Niger and Cameroon. Some Islamic scholars would rank Boko Haram’s actions as
“unislamic” and even produce fatwas or legal ruling against them (e.g. Dr. Muhammad Abdul
Islam Ibrahim’s fatwa in 2012). However, it is difficult to stifle this ideology by merely
denouncing it as “unislamic”. With its current publicity and growing influence, Boko Haram, as
well as its motivation and actions, require strict scrutiny and careful examination.

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Aspects of radicalization

What recent advances of Boko Haram have revealed more than anything is that structural factors
do not provide a sufficient explanation for its existence and persistence. Economic deprivations,
ethnic and cultural tensions, and political isolation all played a considerable role in its
development. However, they do not explain the success of this organization, its growth, and its
increasingly violent methods. Despite a crackdown in July 2009 and its almost defunct state up
until 2010, the organization was able to survive and bounce back. Its methods have become more
violent, progressing from simple attacks with machetes on civilians to suicide car bombings and
improvised explosive device (IED) attacks. The organization avails itself of any opportunity to
increase its military capabilities, acquiring weapons from the destabilized regions of Mali and
Libya, and often securing funding for this purpose through bank robbing and other criminal
activities. In his assessment of the situation, Mike McGovern, along with other observers, agrees
Given the group’s movement as well as its usage of rocket-propelled grenades
(RPGs), heavy weaponry, and bomb-making materials, it is evident that Boko
Haram has increased access to regional criminal and illicit trafficking networks,
and is growing increasingly aligned with global jihad.

These latter developments are telling as they indicate the intertwining of activities and interests
between Boko Haram and other criminal and jihadist groups in the region, notably the Al-Qaeda
in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Economic context

Economic deprivation has been the most prevalent explanation for the emergence and rapid
development of Boko Haram. As recently as April 2014, a report by Al Jazeera journalist Jeremy
Weate reinforced this explanation:

Mike McGovern, Understanding Conflict Drivers and Resilience Factors in the Sahel: Desk Study. Navanti Group,
2013, p. 36.

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But northeastern Nigeria had been bandit country long before the emergence of
Boko Haram. And while it may coincide with the growth over the past two
decades of Salafist armed groups elsewhere in the region and beyond, the real
context for Boko Haram’s emergence is the long political and economic decline
of Nigeria’s northeast and enduring Kanuri opposition to northern power

This approach is very popular, and it suggests that the economic deprivation and government
ineptness lead to growing dissatisfaction and the emergence of radical groups. However, the
northern region has been known for religious upheavals, and it was not divided so sharply prior
to the oil boom. Hausa and Fulani people in the north are mostly herdsmen, while the Igbo and
Yoruba in the south have gained a solid reputation as traders and entrepreneurs. Thus,
traditionally each of these tribes had a certain amount of wealth, whether through trade or as
cattle-owners. What is important is that historical differences in economy and lifestyle resulted in
different levels of urbanization and development, density of civil society institutions, and
primacy of education. The northern states have historically had lower levels of literacy,
especially among women. Not only is the literacy rate in some northern areas appalling, but there
is also reluctance to educate children beyond basic Islamic training.

Sarah Chayes, a senior associate in the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for
International Peace, has been highlighting the connection between corruption and the rise of
extremist insurgency in a number of her publications. ForChayes, it is “the government abuses
that have driven young Nigerians into the extremists’ arms.”
The corollary of these arguments is
that the elimination of poverty and corruption will help in dealing with the extremist groups.
While political exclusion may indeed play a role, even more so than economic exclusion, in
boosting mobilization and recruitment for extremist groups, it does not provide a comprehensive

Jeremy Weate, “Analysis: While the Group is Linked with Salafist Groups in North Africa, it’s a Product of
Northern Nigeria’s Collapse”, Al Jazeera, April 23, 2014,
haram-s-rootsinnigerialongpredatethealqaedaera.html (viewed June 9, 2014).

Sarah Chayes, “Nigeria’s Boko Haram isn’t Just about Western Education”, Washington Post, May 16, 2014,
d9de-11e3-bda1-9b46b2066796_story.html (viewed June 9, 2014).

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Map 1 States in Nigeria that adopted Shariah Law

In fact, grievances and political repression usually fuel the rhetoric of Islamist
organizations, rather than describe their existence. Islamist organizations and individuals (both
Muslim and converts) can become radicalized in the context of political repression, but also in
the context of political freedom (e.g. UK-radicalized Nigerians). The recruits can come both
from economically deprived, but also well-educated and middle-class groups. Furthermore,
attaining political influence or financial resources does not guarantee that the organization will
scale down its rhetoric or actions.

Historical and geographical context

There are some other important factors that
can help to understand the complex picture.
The historical and geographical context has
defined Boko Haram’s rhetoric and actions
in many ways. Historically, the most
important tribal group in the north is the
Fulani tribe. They have a claim to
dominance and power, as one of the first
tribes to convert to Islam in West Africa, to
spread their influence and to take control
over the region during the Fulani war
(1803-1810), and to establish the Messina
Empire and Sokoto Caliphate, among others. At the same time, the Fulani tribe lags considerably
behind when it comes to education and development as they are mainly pastoral nomads.
Sokoto Caliphate (1804-1903) and the Bornu Empire (1380-1893) remain two main historical
references for northern and northeastern Nigerian Muslims. These territories were colonized later

Boko Haram has been allegedly getting some support from the marginalized politicians from the northern parts of
Nigeria, e.g. from the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP).

Kevin Macdonald, “Indigenous Peoples and Development Goals: A Global Snapshot”, in Gillette H. Hall and
Harry Anthony Patrinos (eds.), Indigenous Peoples, Poverty, and Development. New York: Cambridge University
Press, 2012, pp. 27-28.

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by the British Empire and became the Northern Nigerian Protectorate. Boko Haram centres its
rhetoric against the legacy of the British Empire (1850-1960) and its successors. Despite the fact
that from 1999 to 2000, twelve northern states of Nigeria reinstituted the Sharia law in the region
(see Map 1), Boko Haram is keen to assume total control, and to introduce proper Shariah in its
strictest form.

Northeastern Nigeria has a history of revolts, uprisings and regional unrest: from Muhammad al-
Amin al-Kanami, who overthrew the centuries-old Sayfawa (Sefuwa) Dynasty in 1846 and
waged war (jihad) against the Sokoto Caliphate,
to more recent ethno-religious uprisings led by
Mohammed Marwa, known as “Maitatsine” in 1979.
Boko Haram has not been operating in a
vacuum. It originated and developed within a certain historical, ethnic, and religious context. Its
main constituency has been the Kanuri people, descendants of the Kanem-Bornu Empire. Boko
Haram has its predecessors, especially with the growth of Salafism in the 1970’s and with the
emergence of followers of Maitatsine in the 1980’s. In the words of Stephen Ulph,

Boko Haram, essentially, is an organic product of an unresolved cultural struggle
that is intensifying and which, in the light of the more conducive environment for
Islamism provided by the aftermath of the ‘Arab Spring’, looks set to accelerate.

Boko Haram also has splinter groups, most notably its rival group Al-Ansari or “Vanguard for
the Protection of Muslims in Black Lands”, headed by Abu Usmatu al-Ansar. Over all, politics
and religion have always been closely interwoven in the region, and religion has been a major
tool for achieving political purposes.

Elizabeth Isichei, A History of African Societies to 1870. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997, pp.302-

James Ohwofasa Akpeninor, Merger Politics of Nigeria and Surge of Sectarian Violence. Bloomington, IN:
AuthorHouse, 2013, p. 242.

Stephen Ulph, Boko Haram 2.2.B: Ideological Contextualization,
HARAM-Investigating-the-Ideological-Background-to-the-Rise-of-an-Islamist-Militant-Organisation (viewed June
12, 2014), p. 72

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Map 2 Major attacks on Christians in Nigeria (2009-2014)
[The data for mapping is taken from the Real Time Analysis of Political
Violence across Africa and World Watch Monitor]
Secondly, geography plays an important
role. It not only defines the resource-rich
south and deprived north, but it also
positions Boko Haram next to the
criminal and radical networks in the Sahel
region, which happen to mirror old trade
routes and ancient kingdoms and
civilizations. Geography also delineates
Boko Haram’s influence zones. The
stronghold of Boko Haram has always
been Maiduguri in Borno state,
northeastern Nigeria. Its main activity and
bulk of its operations are heavily
concentrated in the northern states of
Borno, Yobe and Kano states. Among the
most targeted cities are Maiduguri, Kano, Damaturu, Potiskum, Kaduna, Gombe, Bauchi and
Christians have been mostly attacked either in Maiduguri or the area known as the “Middle
Belt”, where both Muslim and Christian communities have been living side by side (see Map 2).
The attacks on Christians have become almost a norm now. In the words of Patrick Sookhdeo,

Christian villages have been targeted with their dwellings destroyed and their
water sources polluted, church buildings have been bombed by a combination of
grenade attacks, suicide bombings or fire and Christian businesses have also been
intentionally targeted. The attacks have resulted in the displacement of thousands
of Christians from the northern states. Those displaced are moving to safety in
the south of Nigeria.

See Boko Haram-attributed Attacks in Nigeria since July 2009, a map produced by Navanti group in Omar S.
Mahmood, “Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria: No Easy Fix,” HSPI Issue Brief 18, (viewed June
9, 2014).

Patrick Sookhdeo, “Contemporary Challenges in Nigeria”, November 2012, p. 11.

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Christians have been targeted deliberately and consistently. However, there are reports and
official statements that most of Boko Haram victims are actually Muslims.
Factual evidence
does not support this claim. For instance, the Jubilee Campaign data for 2012 indicates that 1147
(57%) out of 2008 killed were Christians, this is compared to 59 (3%) who were Muslims.

Indeed, Christians are routinely murdered, displaced, tortured, threatened and forcefully
converted. These atrocities are often dismissed as civil or ethno-religious conflict, though they
have a very strong religious element. The conflict is much more grim for Christians than anyone
else. In its operations, Boko Haram has been following a specific ideology of treating Christians
as unbelievers and infidels. According to Ulph,

What is central to their motivation is the entirely consistent, richly documented
doctrinal literature underpinning the Salafist-Jihadist ideology which leaves little
room for deviation from an unequivocal position as regards the infidel.

According to this radical interpretation, anyone who opposes Islamization (e.g. government
officials, some moderate and traditional Muslims, and Christians) is an infidel and a potential

Since 2011 Boko Haram also started attacking international targets and broadened its geographic
reach to Abuja (e.g. an attack on the U.N. headquarters in Abuja in August 2011; a bus station
bombing in April 2014). So far there have been no attacks in major Nigerian cities such as Lagos
and Ibadun, or in the neighboring countries of Niger, Chad, or, until recently, in Cameroon.

For instance, see Sarah Sewall’s testimony under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights
House Foreign Affairs Committee: “We want to highlight, however, that Boko Haram is a problem that affects
Nigerians of every religion. Indeed, the majority of Boko Haram’s estimated 4,000 total victims to date have been
Muslim.” Sarah Sewall, “Boko Haram: The Growing Threat to Schoolgirls, Nigeria, and Beyond” (Testimony on
May 21, 2014), (viewed June 12, 2014).

See the spreadsheet for 2012 “Nigeria_Updated by 6.10.2014(2)”, The Facts On Nigeria Violence: Incidents,
Reports, Statistics & Links (viewed June 12, 2014).

Ulph, Boko Haram, p.44.

Scott Stewart, “Is Boko Haram More Dangerous Than Ever?”, Stratfor, December 13, 2013, (viewed June 9, 2014). However, this dynamic may
change, as there was the first suspected attack by Boko Haram in a village in Cameroon in June 2014. Moki Edwin
Kindzeka, “Suspected Boko Haram Insurgents Attack Cameroon Village,” Voice of America, June 10, 2014,

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does not mean, however, that the group is not active in these places. They operate as sleeper cells
in these places or use countries like Mali and Cameroon for training and as safe havens.
Furthermore, Boko Haram connections and networks are known to be expanding in Somalia,
Algeria, Mali, and Afghanistan.

Thirdly, one of the major challenges for Nigeria is to remain a united nation. The region is
defined not only by its history, heritage or ethnicity, but also by outsiders and circumstances. Just
as in the rest of Africa, the colonial administration drew the boundaries randomly, leaving ethnic
minorities on both sides of the border. This can and has been used for political purposes. There
also has been an increasing divide growing over the ethnic and tribaldifferences. Tribal identity
has always come first, and the tendency is only to reassert it, i.e. identify oneself first by a tribe,
whether it is Hausa, Fulani and Kanuri in the north, or Yoruba, Igbo and Edo in the south, or any
other minor tribe in Nigeria. Some fear that ethnic divisions and religious tensions may only
exacerbate as Nigeria is also facing a demographic crisis. Nigeria is the most populated African
country, yet it is squeezed within its territory and borders as one nation. The “Middle Belt” in
Nigeria has already faced migration tensions as the Muslim population moves south. The
population explosion will bring a strain on resources and will only lead to more poverty,
unemployment and even a potential refugee crisis. All this significantly complicates the fight
against Boko Haram; it also offers avenues for further destabilization to the extremists in the

Ideological context

The ideological component has been consistently present in the rhetoric and actions of Boko
Haram. It has been a unifying factor in the otherwise decentralized organization. An assessment
of the role of ideology has become controversial. This controversy is not so much about ideology
as such, as the ideology can be deduced from the statements of the leaders, and it has some loose
parallels to the Taliban ideology. The debate is whether Islam plays an important role or not, in (viewed June
10, 2014).

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“There are slaves in Islam, you
should know this, Prophet
Muhammed took slaves himself
during Badr war. He killed many
and because of this, I will also kill
Obama, if I catch him. I will kill
Jonathan, if I catch him. Just like
you want to catch me and kill
Abubaker Shekau
May 2014
other words, whether Boko Haram and its actions are
Islamic or not. There seems to be a growing
uneasiness and desire to disassociate oneself from
Boko Haram among a number of Islamic scholars and
leaders. Among others, Iyad bin Amin Madani,
Secretary-General of the Organisation of Islamic
Corporation (OIC), during his solidarity visit to
Nigeria labeled Boko Haram as “unislamic”: “What
they do is criminal act. It has absolutely nothing to do
with Islam, Islamic teachings, history, culture or
civilization of Islam.”
By shifting Boko Haram’s
motivation from religion to simply extremism and
terrorism, Iyad bin Amin Madani only strengthened
the argument that has been increasingly circulated

This evaluation, however, contradicts Boko Haram claims, and it goes against the statements of
its leaders Muhammad Yusuf and Abubakar Shekau. The latter in particular has been pushing a
binary and simplistic view with frequent references to the Qur’an and life of the prophet of
Islam. Though Boko Haram pursues explicitly political goals, it is keen to couch its political
agenda in religious terms. However, they have never undermined the importance of Islam and
their desire to bring Sharia laws in their full form to the region. Abubakar Shekau is also very
clear about the international agenda, as he specifically mentions American President Obama and
the United Nations, as well as solidarity with Al Qaeda in his statements.

Furthermore, growing speculations over Boko Haram’s links with AQIM and Al-Shabaab,
makes these other organizations also “unislamic”, terrorist, and “nothing to do with Islam” type
entities. However, disassociating from violence and describing the organization as “unislamic”
does not stop radically inclined groups from validating their discourses and actions by the very

“OIC: Boko Haram Has Nothing to Do with Islam”, Al-Manar, June 3, 2014, (viewed June 9, 2014).

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“To the people of the world,
everybody should know his
status, it is either you are with us
Mujahedeen or you are with the
Abubaker Shekau
May 2014

sources of Islam. It also does not prevent them from
pursuing their goals. Their ultimate goal,
preponderance of Islam, may be actually agreeable for
some outside the radically inclined groups. The actual
disagreement then seems to be over (1) ideology and
endorsed interpretation of Islam, as well as desire to
impose their ideology and interpretation as a
normative one; (2) methods and how far one may go
in order to achieve one’s goal. This difference,
however, does not make Boko Haram “unislamic”. It
also does not curtail the appeal of the organization among some Muslims and converts to Islam.
In fact, quite the opposite as Boko Haram shows no sign of abating.

Conclusion and recommendations

Boko Haram positions itself as a viable socio-political alternative to the corrupt authorities in the
northern part of Nigeria. The center of its activities remains in Nigeria and especially in Borno
State and in Kano, where Boko Haram continues to challenge the state and federal governments.
So far the government has failed to contain the conflict due to poor governance, high levels of
corruption, poorly equipped army and security forces; and the infiltration of military and
government by Boko Haram sympathizers (e.g. generals guilty of aiding Boko Haram). The
ethno-religious differences and low levels of trust have also contributed to the growth of Boko
Haram and destabilization in the region.

The organization has been further expanding its operations by following up on its historical and
geographical connections in the Sahel Belt and aligning with the ideologically similar Islamist
organizations of AQIM and Al-Shabaab. The brutality and audacity of Boko Haram’s attacks
and the growing toll of its victims make the organization a major security concern. However,
success stories of effective opposition to the insurgency have been few and far between. The

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government’s brutal clamp down on Boko Haram and its leader Muhammad Yusuf in 2009
produced only more havoc for the region in the long-term. Indeed, security and military actions
alone do not suffice. Boko Haram has support among its local constituency in the northern part
of Nigeria. It has also been finding ideological and socio-political appeal among certain
communities and demographic groups. Young people in particular have become the primary
demographic target, and they are the ones who should be given special attention.

The Boko Haram insurgency should be approached holistically. Corruption and misrule have
significantly contributed to the deprivation, inequality and divide in Nigeria. One should address
these legitimate grievances and diminish the alienation between different communities.
However, poverty and corruption have not influenced the tactics of Boko Haram, but have fueled
its anti-government rhetoric. The deprivation and inequality provide a context, but do not
entirely define the Islamist group. In fact, in some areas both Christians and Muslims live in
relative deprivation, yet it is the Muslim community that becomes radicalized. It is an ideology
that may give some true insights into the way Boko Haram operates, motivates, recruits and
propagates its ideology. The message of Boko Haram should be analyzed not only on the content
level, but also on the connotation and intention levels. In turn, this may also give clues to
countering Boko Haram’s message and to providing an alternative narrative. Here it is important
to understand Islamism, its original sources, and later interpretations.

It is also crucial to follow the operational and ideological connections between Boko Haram and
other radical and criminal groups in the region. Reportedly these links transformed the
organization and made it even more violent and assertive. Boko Haram may further evolve in its
tactics and approaches just as the Taliban and Al-Shabaab have been evolving, i.e. turning more
violent and daring, becoming more technologically savvy, tailoring its message for the wider
audience (including the Islamic diaspora and converts to Islam), and occasionally even turning to
charity in order to win the new constituency. Developing alliances between Boko Haram, the
AQIM, and Al-Shabaab facilitates the sharing of experience, tactics, human resources, and
material resources, including state-of-the-art weapons. The Sahel Belt has been turning into a
major weapons route, with arms and supplies flowing from Algeria to Mali and Nigeria. The

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Sahel Belt has also become a main geopolitical hotspot, or rather “hotbelt” of instability and

So far the prospects are quite bleak as Boko Haram continues to undermine the government,
destabilize the region, and seek to take control over it. Boko Haram is virtually pushing the
country to the brink of civil war. The security threat posed by Boko Haram may escalate in the
run-up to the Presidential and National Assembly elections in February 2015, and the possible
re-election of Goodluck Jonathan. The violent crackdown and brutal force approach did not work
with Boko Haram in the past and would likely destabilize the region even further. In fact, the
asymmetric warfare of the Boko Haram insurgency cannot be fought in the traditional way. Boko
Haram is not a clear-cut entity, but a decentralized and dispersed organization with a clandestine
cell system throughout the region.

The Nigerian government still lacks a coherent and innovative counter-insurgency strategy,
which would tackle not only Boko Haram’s organization, networks and actions but also its
beliefs. This may involve, among other things, developing local security forces and intelligence
capabilities; equipping the army; using motorbikes (Boko Haram’s favourite type of
transportation that suits street and flatland use) and reconnaissance drones (e.g. not only using
the American drones but also Nigerian owned drones, acquired from Israel but grounded due to
poor maintenance); curtailing funding and preventing criminal activity; disrupting Boko Haram’s
logistical structure and supply routes; appealing for information among the local population,
cooperating and sharing intelligence with neighboring states and other governments; launching a
“propaganda war” against Boko Haram; addressing pressing social and economic issues; and
stressing education and cultural values. The government should also promote an alternative way
of asserting one’s Muslim identity and contributing to society. This can be achieved, among
other ways, through co-opting with traditional and Sufi Muslim communities. Social cohesion
and protection of Christian minorities in the northern parts of Nigeria and the “Middle Belt”
should also become a priority. So far they have been the ones bearing the brunt of terrorist
attacks and potentially facing genocide in some areas.

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