Death, anguish and flickers of hope: 10 years of Boko Haram

Lagos, Nigeria – Since July 2009 when Islamic scholar Mohammed Yusuf was killed in Maiduguri, capital of the northeastern Nigerian state of Borno, the region has become the most discussed piece of real estate in West Africa.

In the ensuing Boko Haram killing spree, nearly 30,000 people have died and more than two million were displaced, according to the Council on Foreign Relations’ Nigeria Security Tracker. Having snaked its way across the Lake Chad basin to Chad, Niger and Cameroon, roads in the area keep rustling with the sound of young people fleeing to start new lives away from the armed group.

Abubakar Bala, a 32-year-old shoe repairer, watched his hometown Bama transform from the commercial capital of Borno state to a war-torn zone. His wife was killed when attackers invaded the city in September 2014, and he watched neighbours run over bodies as he fled through the forest.

“It makes me so sad to remember those times,” he told Al Jazeera. “Only Allah can heal us. I still don’t know where some of my family members are.”


Hundreds of young women have been abducted by the group to become brides and suicide bombers, with two incidents particularly gaining global news traction. 

More than 100 of the 276 schoolgirls taken from a boarding school in the town of Chibok in Borno state in April 2014 are still missing. 

A prisoner swap last year helped free most of the 110 teenage girls taken from their school in Dapchi, 275km northwest of Chibok, except for Leah Sharibu who remains in the armed group’s custody after refusing to denounce Christianity.

But it is widely believed that even more boys and men have been kidnapped by Boko Haram over the 10-year stretch – forcibly recruited to fight. Consequently, women have become the breadwinners in many areas.

Between 2013 and 2014, gunmen razed two all-male schools in Buni Yadi and Mamudo, killing almost 100 people, most unarmed schoolboys.

A state of emergency was declared by then president Goodluck Jonathan in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states as Boko Haram went on a rampage, seizing communities while killing Christians and Muslims.

As part of its counter-insurgency operations, the Nigerian military shut down telecommunications in the three states. This forced the fighters to shift base to Sambisa, a forest reserve established by British colonialists in 1958 and said to be 18 times the size of Nigeria’s commercial capital, Lagos.

Decade of horror

It began with an uprising just days before Yusuf’s death. In 2002, the Islamic scholar began preaching to young men galvanised by unemployment, government negligence, and his critical doctrine. He called his group of followers Jama’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l-Jihad, Arabic for “Western education is forbidden.”

An altercation between the sect and law enforcement in Maiduguri left many of its members wounded in a five-day uprising. Yusuf, meanwhile, was publicly executed outside a police station in the city.

The execution triggered a spree of killing and destruction that continues to this day. At least 60 villagers returning from a funeral in Borno state were gunned down by the group last weekend.

“We have waited and waited and waited for Boko Haram to end,” said Fati Abubakar, a Maiduguri-based photographer who has documented northeast Nigeria’s slow but resilient journey to normalcy.

After having lost family friends and neighbours, Abubakar left her homeland twice for academic studies but returned to the same sorry state of affairs. “It has been 10 years. We are still waiting – endlessly optimistic but tragically traumatised.”


At least two armed factions have emerged, with the original still led by bloodthirsty Abubakar Shekau, Yusuf’s trusted lieutenant, whom the Nigerian military repeatedly claims to have killed.

One of Yusuf’s sons, Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi, led the other – Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) – until early this year when he was replaced.

ISWAP, which has sworn allegiance to the now-depleted Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also regularly overruns military installations and coordinates ambushes.

In November 2016, one such attack killed seven soldiers including Abu Ali, a Nigerian colonel who inspired confidence in his troops and led a number of successful military onslaughts.

Its strikes have been more surgical against military-aligned interests, unlike the other faction, which has recently moved towards killing and abducting aid workers, said Ryan Cummings, director at Africa-focused political consultancy Signal Risk.

“This came down to one of the core ideological splits within Boko Haram and which played out right at the structures of the Islamic State itself, that Shekau’s penchant for violence against Muslim civilians – which he simply excommunicated due to their failure to live in Boko Haram’s dawlah [Islamic province] – was not justifiable.

“However ISWAP itself has increasingly sought to target civilian interests in armed violence as noted by recent abductions of aid workers but has yet to reach the scale employed by Boko Haram.

“From an operational perspective, ISWAP has demonstrated a more acute capability, often executing surgical raids on military installations in Borno and Yobe states. For Boko Haram, violence has been less sophisticated and defined by armed ambushes on civilian convoys and the employment of suicide bombers against such interests.”

Long insurgency

In 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari unseated the incumbent Jonathan, promising to put an end to Boko Haram. The army has struggled despite multiple claims the armed group has been “technically defeated”.

The war against Boko Haram has been beset by many drawbacks, including cuts in military funding and extrajudicial killings by the army, which has led to the US government refusing to sell weapons to Nigeria.


A coordinated response among neighbouring countries also facing the insurgency has been less than effective in the Lake Chad region.

“This has severely diluted the efficacy of largely unilateral military efforts employed by these countries,” Cummings told Al Jazeera.

“Also, in many of these countries – perhaps including Nigeria – the Boko Haram insurgency is a secondary concern to more pressing security issues occurring elsewhere in their borders, and which has seen a greater allocation of resources and political will.”

A few rays of hope

The odds may be stacked against Nigeria, but stories of hope are emerging.

Boko Haram barely holds any territory today. The rocky town of Gwoza, which the group declared as the seat of its caliphate in 2014, has since been recaptured by troops and is gradually returning to life, as are other towns in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

Bala, the shoe repairer, has remarried and lives in Maiduguri with his wife. The couple met while staying at the Dalori camp for internally displaced people. In December 2018, their still-sparse hometown was attacked again and a military base setup outside the palace of the Shehu of Bama, its traditional ruler, was one of the targets. But soldiers repelled the assault.

The Civilian Joint Task Force has also stepped in to complement efforts by the understaffed army, using rudimentary firearms and machetes to provide security to their civilian neighbours. Markets have re-opened and after three years of playing its home games in northwest Nigeria because of the security situation, the El-Kanemi Warriors football team again plays in Maiduguri.

Two airlines now fly from Yola and Maiduguri on a weekly basis. Private schools for children born to girls forced to be “Boko Haram brides” are running in the homes of senior citizens. Banks previously bombed or shut down are slowly re-emerging.


While many survivors still grapple with the trauma of living with the horrors of the insurgency, the level of psycho-social support is rising, combined with flickers of hope that citizens say will not be extinguished.

“Borno state, like every other conflict zone in the world, is full of sadness and happiness – gut-wrenching stories one day and awe-inspiring stories the next day,” said Abubakar the photographer.

“The ability of the human spirit to simultaneously endure tragedies and celebrate triumphs will never cease to amaze me. We have endured for 10 years but are still optimistic that one day it will end.”

Still, the armed group continues to evolve and analysts say the war is far from over. An expansion of violence within the Lake Chad basin could destabilise ethno-political alliances in affected regions and trigger other peripheral security concerns, said Cummings.

“[It could be] similar to what we are witnessing in the insurgency dynamics of Mali and its expansion to neighbouring regions such as Burkina Faso and Niger,” he warned.

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