In the decade-long war between the Nigerian government and the jihadist group Boko Haram, few places have suffered more than Baga, a fishing town on the shores of lake Chad in the remote northeast of the country.
Repeatedly fought over, much of Baga was torched by the Nigerian army in 2013, when the garrison went on a rampage after a clash with Boko Haram. It was set alight again two years later as the jihadists left the town after driving out the military.
During its six-week occupation in 2015, Boko Haram killed more than 2,000 people – mostly young men, hunted down and executed as punishment for the resistance the town’s vigilante had put up even as the army fled. Young women were rounded up and taken away to bush camps and forced to marry fighters on the ideological grounds that all women of marriageable age must have a husband.
So, at the end of December 2018, when the army melted away once more and the jihadists rode in on motorbikes and captured military vehicles, Baga residents feared the worst. But the expected retribution did not materialise. The young men in turbans and tan uniforms were, instead, courteous and disciplined.
“We were nervous because last time [Boko Haram] destroyed Baga,” said Aliyu (this article is using only first names to protect people’s identities), a farmer from the town. “But they were telling us ‘don’t be afraid, don’t run. We came for the military, we won’t touch you’.”
Two ‘Boko Harams’
The men that drove into Baga belonged to the Islamic State of West Africa Province, a breakaway faction of Boko Haram based in the northern fringes of Borno State and the islands in Lake Chad. They have not only proved a militarily potent threat, capturing a string of bases and a significant amount of equipment since mid-last year, but just as importantly they represent a political challenge to the Nigerian state.
Whereas orthodox Boko Haram*, led by Abubaker Shekau, is an exclusivist movement that regards everyone living outside its zone of control a legitimate target – a simple binary calculation of with us or against us – ISWAP sees the political value in not slaughtering potential future citizens of the more inclusive state they are trying to build, based on sharia law, in the Lake Chad region.
The split in the movement in 2016 centered on Shekau’s methods – his treatment of villagers, and the indiscriminate bombings and shootings that took the largest toll on civilians rather than the security forces. ISWAP’s propaganda promotes the idea that Muslim civilians are safe with them.
In Baga they allowed those that wanted to leave to do so – the only penalty was a small “loading tax” paid to the vehicle drivers from which they took a cut. That would have been almost unimaginable under Shekau, with throat-slitting execution the common punishment for those caught trying to escape his territory.
“[ISWAP] were just watching everybody leave,” said Adam, a tailor who spent 45 days in Baga before he too left. “You just paid your tax and went. It sounds so strange to us, but they weren’t harming people. They have totally changed, you can’t say it’s them.”
Young women were not harassed, men were not made to cut their trouser legs above the ankle as a sign of piety or grow their beards. “They stayed with us peacefully. They just told us to go to our farms as normal and do our business,” said Adam. “But they told us: ‘Don’t enter any house but your own. Don’t break any door, don’t touch any goods that are not your own’.”
‘Crazy to stay in Nigeria’
Aliyu and Adam opted to leave Baga for Maiduguri, the regional capital 90 kilometres south. Both said they expected the military would retake Baga and feared that anybody found in the town would be assumed to be a jihadist sympathiser – and that could mean detention in Maiduguri’s notorious Giwa barracks, or worse.
But Adam said he gets regular phone calls from people he knows who chose to head to the islands controlled by ISWAP rather than Maiduguri. “There are so many there. They invite us to come, they say we’re crazy to stay in Nigeria,” he said. “They say when you pay [your taxes to ISWAP] you can stay safely in their daulah [Islamic state] and do your business.”
The Nigerian government may not recognise it, but ISWAP is very much aware it is competing to convince men like Adam and Aliyu that their daulah is a credible alternative to the Nigerian state.
“We have introduced a new regime of services to the local populace,” an ISWAP commander boasted in a WhatsApp interview. “It would seem that the military, even at the height of their control over these territories, did not present themselves as a value proposition to the villagers, [meting out only] injustice.”
ISWAP levies taxes on fishermen and farmers and in return digs wells, provides security, rudimentary healthcare, price caps on basic food items and trader-friendly policies to encourage the flow of goods. Until mid-last year, life was hard on the islands, but ISWAP’s success in clearing military bases along a corridor to the Niger border has boosted business.
Abdullahi, a trader who shuttles between the islands and Maiduguri, is upbeat about life in ISWAP’s daulah. But he notes there can be friction between the local community and ISWAP commanders when sentencing under sharia is perceived as too harsh, and he thinks the jihadists “do not fully trust” those that have not chosen to fight.
At the beginning of the year ISWAP was going through political changes. They arrived in Baga, proclaiming they were “Mamman Nur people” – a reference to their charismatic veteran commander, a key player in the split with Shekau. But as everybody in Baga knew, ISWAP leaders had killed Nur several months earlier. He was accused of backchannel ceasefire talks with the government and hints he had pocketed money from the ransom paid for the release of 100 school girls captured in Dapchi in March last year.
It was a shameless hijacking of Nur’s still popular brand by ISWAP, and seemed to suggest some nervousness following his death. In the ensuing instability, the previously IS-approved leader Abu Musab al-Barnawi was replaced in March by a new governor, Abu Abdallah al-Barnawi (no relation).
Nevertheless Aliyu, unable to support his family in Maiduguri, said he was planning to head to the islands. “Here I’m jobless,” he said. “If they [ISWAP] are peaceful, let us go back and stay with them peacefully.”
Adam was less sure. Although he recited the usual litany of grievances of living in Nigeria – governmental neglect, corruption, the daily indignities suffered by the poor – he said he did not wholeheartedly trust ISWAP. “I think the government side is safer,” he concluded.
Lack of fairness and justice
That these men can still be in any way ambivalent over which side offers the greatest protection and support – after 10 years of a war that has killed over 35,000 people and displaced more than two million – is a terrible indictment of the Nigerian government and its counter-insurgency campaign.
Abuja portrays ISWAP as an externally derived problem, part of a “cluster of terrorist groups” based in the Sahel, supported by so-called Islamic State, “sneaking in to commit terrorist activities”, according to government spokesman, Garba Shehu.
That does not match the profile of the ISWAP commander I interviewed. He was born in the northern city of Kano, joined Boko Haram in 2010, and has always operated inside Nigeria. “Religion is the only reason we are doing this,” he explained. A committed jihadist, he rejected any idea of compromise with the Nigerian government and instead fully expected to die for his cause.
Before the war began, Boko Haram was a popular grassroots Salafist group founded by a young cleric, Mohammed Yusuf, who equated the injustice and venality of Nigerian society to the values of liberal democracy. It caught the radical zeitgeist of the time. ISWAP is the ideological heir of that revolutionary movement.
Out of the eight people in total from Baga that I interviewed in Maiduguri, none supported jihadist violence. They all wanted this war to be over, had suffered too much in the name of religion, and enthusiastically hated Shekau. But when asked if they would support ISWAP if it was a political party that renounced violence but retained support for sharia law, there were near unanimous nods of agreement.
It is the inability of successive Nigerian governments to care for its citizens fairly and justly that was regarded as the foremost problem. But rather than rejecting Nigeria as an entity and system, Abdullahi said: “to reform Nigeria is better”.
(* “Boko Haram” refers to Jamā'at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da'wah wa'l-Jihād – The [Sunni Muslim] Group for Preaching and Jihad)
(TOP PHOTO: A boy who was abducted by Boko Haram in the Lake Chad region.)