Will changes in Boko Haram leadership revive local support?


Local support for the so-called West Africa Province of the Islamic State (more commonly referred to as Boko Haram) has always been a nebulous subject.

Often measured in terms of recruitment, local support for the organisation has been erratic over time and shaped by various factors. Nonetheless, recent developments in the group’s leadership structure have made it necessary to consider how such changes might affect these patterns of support.

Recently, the Islamic State appointed Abu Musab al-Barnawi as the new leader of the movement. At the same time, there have also been reports of long-time head and current rival Abubakar Shekau’s purported demise. Al-Barnawi’s agenda, which includes ending attacks on Muslim civilians and instead redirecting efforts against state institutions, may be rooted in ideological considerations – but it could also be aimed at reviving local backing, which has waned in recent years.

Boko Haram founder Muhammad Yusuf was a popular preacher in the late 2000s, drawing large crowds at his mosque in the Railway District of Maiduguri in north-eastern Nigeria. Yusuf reportedly attracted a diverse set of followers from various socio-economic backgrounds. His sermons criticising the Nigerian state and Western influence struck a chord in a region where many were fed up with ongoing government corruption, mismanagement and neglect.

Boko Haram founder Muhammad Yusuf was a popular preacher in the late 2000s

Yusuf effectively framed his religious outlook as a solution for Nigeria’s ills, offering an attractive alternative path. Studies from the Nigeria Stability and Reconciliation Fund and Mercy Corps, in which former Boko Haram members were interviewed, mention how those who joined the movement prior to 2009 were often motivated by religion, ideology, and this overarching desire for change.

The heavy-handed crackdown by Nigerian security forces on Boko Haram in July 2009, which resulted in Yusuf’s extrajudicial murder, likely inflamed these tensions and emboldened group support – further reducing the popularity of the Nigerian state.

Despite this wave of support, the movement’s subsequent leader, Abubakar Shekau, was unable to replicate Yusuf’s charisma or appeal. His speeches were often rambling and disjointed – creating the image of an impulsive individual rather than a respected leader. More importantly, however, Shekau’s strategy likely began to alienate other potential supporters steadily over time. Turning Boko Haram into a full-fledged terrorist organisation, Shekau initially drew criticism for attacks such as the January 2012 assault on the city of Kano, which resulted in high civilian casualties, many of whom were Muslim.

The biggest shift in terms of local support, however, likely occurred once Shekau’s movement began heavily targeting civilian villages in northeast Nigeria in the latter half of 2013, terrorising the local population.

Under Shekau, Boko Haram began to offer less to local populations and rather take more

This development was precipitated by the emergence of anti-Boko Haram vigilante organisations collectively known as the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), which in turn forced Boko Haram members to flee from urban centres to rural areas. The movement responded by accusing local civilians of supporting the vigilantes, and often murdered young men in towns that hosted the CJTF.

This period also saw a rise in forced recruitment, as Boko Haram’s dominant presence in the countryside provided access to rural populations. This also addressed a likely shortage of fresh recruits, as the radical nature of Boko Haram violence against local civilians disillusioned many who may previously have been sympathetic to its battle against an unpopular state and abusive security apparatus.

The continued expansion of the CJTF pointed to lessening local support, with many communities throwing their lot in with the vigilantes, despite the potential costs. The need for Boko Haram militants to loot from nearby villages in order to supply rural camps likely compounded these dynamics, reducing overall popularity.

In this sense, under Shekau’s leadership, Boko Haram likely began to offer less to local populations and rather take more, relying on a more coercive model of support. The period of territorial control starting in mid-2014 exacerbated the situation. Boko Haram’s predatory rule contrasted with little actual governance, demonstrating Shekau’s failed vision for the region. The consequences of this project have been a dire humanitarian crisis, displacing over 1.4 million people, many of whom are also now facing the risk of famine.

That is not to say, however, that the appeal of Boko Haram completely dissipated under Shekau. Some still saw value in supporting the group for a number of reasons, including as a vehicle for economic or social mobility, or even as an option of last resort.

Al-Barnawi’s appointment may also be aimed at reviving popular backing

Offering financial or material incentives to attract recruits has been a common practice, while others have been enticed by benefits such as obtaining a bride – a potentially difficult prospect for destitute young men in the region. The Mercy Corps report also describes how Boko Haram offered young entrepreneurs business loans, while other research from Amnesty International mentions a credit system that the militants had operated in certain towns. More recently, ethnic groups in the Lake Chad area, like the Buduma, have reportedly leveraged a relationship with Boko Haram to increase their stature vis-à-vis rivals in the region; again seeing Boko Haram as an opportunity.

The opportunities presented for some by Boko Haram shed light on the complex nature of local support in the region. However, the focus on incentivising or coercing recruitment for many is a far cry from the levels of popularity during the days of Muhammad Yusuf, when followers willingly paid dues to ensure their membership.

The appointment of al-Barnawi, who is reportedly a son of Muhammad Yusuf, may therefore also be aimed at reviving popular backing through a leadership change. Al-Barnawi’s strict promise to avoid targeting ‘innocent people who are attributed to Islam,’ specifically by ending indiscriminate attacks on markets and mosques, may appeal to some still not convinced by the government’s sincerity, but scarred by the recent history of suffering during Shekau’s tenure.

Leadership has likely played an important role in the degree of local support engendered throughout Boko Haram’s history. Muhammad Yusuf appealed to a portion of the local populace, while Shekau largely oversaw a period of gradual decline, after initial sympathies waned. Al-Barnawi has his work cut out for him, as the legacy of indiscriminate violence has likely reduced popular backing to one of the lowest levels in the group’s short history.

Nonetheless, support throughout the region has not ceased completely; nor are all civilians caught between Boko Haram and regional governments likely completely convinced of the latter’s appeal. If al-Barnawi succeeds in ending violence targeting Muslims and redefining relations with local populations in a less predatory manner, the outcome may be a revival of support and recruitment flowing towards Boko Haram’s ranks. This could lead to a worrying resurgence of a movement that has otherwise been largely on the retreat.

Omar S Mahmood, Researcher, Peace and Security Research Programme, ISS Pretoria

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