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Nigeria's Faces Challenges In Dealing With Boko Haram


Joining us now to talk more about the government's challenges in dealing with the Boko Haram is Andrew Walker. He is a Nigeria analyst. He's writing a book about Northern Nigeria and the evolution of Boko Haram in that part of the country. We've reached him in London. Welcome to the program.

ANDREW WALKER: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: First, in your reporting, how close have you gotten to Boko Haram members and to the leadership of the group?

WALKER: In 2011, I travelled to Borneo and through my degree and was able, with a colleague, to speak on the phone to a member, someone who we reached out to and tried to organize a face to face meeting, but it never actually came off because as I was working for the BBC at the time, safety and insurance concerns made them say that we had to say where we were going to meet them and they wanted to choose the destination.

So that was the end of that. But we spoke to them on the phone and they were very forthcoming, very open about their plans. At this stage, they hadn't evolved into the internationally, kind of, recognized group that they are today. This is before the bombing of the UN building so it was still a germane period where they were coming back from exile, from when they were pushed out of Nigeria.

And they told us that they were planning to use suicide attacks and they told us a bit more about how the group kind of was brought together by Mohammed Yusuf, who was killed in 2009 by the Nigerian police.

SIEGEL: It's now more than a year since the president of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, declared a state of emergency in the northeastern portion of the country and the Islamist insurgency there, specifically violent attacks from Boko Haram seemed to have only increased during that time. Why no progress? Why at least the appearance of the opposite?

WALKER: Well, it's really to do with the capacity of the Nigerian army. They don't have the weapons or the equipment to do what they need to do. They don't have the training that they need to do what they need to do. And they come into an area without the ability to separate out people who are suspects from ordinary bystanders and, you know, they've been accused of some really quite horrendous human rights abuses on civilians.

And people in that area feel trapped between Boko Haram on one side and the Nigerian military on the other.

SIEGEL: Yes. You're one of several signatories to an open letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urging him to act on Nigeria. And it seems as though one theme of that letter is, don't think in terms of just the good guys versus the bad guys, the army versus Boko Haram. There's lots to look out for about how the army behaves in that part of the country, too.

WALKER: Yes. Successive reports from Human Rights Watch an Amnesty International have drawn out issues about really the inability that the Nigerian army has to do anything but wage large scale destruction of war against the populous.

SIEGEL: And the attitudes of the populous toward Boko Haram?

WALKER: I think that there's, you know, obviously it would be naive to say that there isn't a small amount of people who support them. They must be getting support from somewhere. But I think in the main, what they do there at the moment almost like a group more similar to the Lord's Resistance Army. They arrive, take up the resources that they want, force people into doing what they want and they leave.

And then, when the army turn up, if they do, they then punish the people who have given them food or shelter or anything like that.

SIEGEL: When you think of the core of Boko Haram, do you think of hundreds of people, thousands of people, does the group - can it claim tens of thousands of people? How big?

WALKER: Oh, this is really the $64,000 question. It's really hard to say because the BBC have been reporting that across the border in the Republic of Niger that youths there have been paid money to go and commit attacks for Boko Haram. So their numbers have been, you know, swelled by using - I suppose you could call them mercenaries and also they take on people who are forced to work for them as they travel around.

But I think that, you know, when you talk about the core, there was initially, in the first days, there was a 30 member Shura Council and each of those members represented a cell of unknown numbers of people. That apparently has been whittled down and I'm not sure how many have been replaced. So you're probably looking at a core of, you know, more like hundreds than thousands.

SIEGEL: Andrew Walker, thank you very much for talking with us today.

WALKER: Thanks very much.

SIEGEL: That's Andrew Walker, formerly of the BBC, now writing a book about Boko Haram and Nigeria. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.