Whether it is organising neighbourhood vigilante groups, sending vital updates or helping those who have been forced to flee their homes, local communities in Nigeria play a crucial role in the fight against Boko Haram.
And the role they play can have a marked impact on the progress of Boko Haram in establishing new power bases, according to Yunusa Zakari Ya’u, head of Nigeria’s Centre for Information Technology and Development (CITAD), a civil society group that promotes good governance.
Ya’u said the role local communities play is often missed in media coverage, and a new book published by the centre seeks to set the record straight, exploring communities’ role in an 8-year Islamist insurgency that has rocked northeast Nigeria.
Boko Haram, whose name loosely means ‘Western education is sinful’, has killed more than 20,000 people and uprooted some 2.7 million since 2009 in its bid to carve out an Islamic state.
The jihadist group has used religion as a justification for the deployment of women and children as suicide bombers, the torching of churches and mosques, and indiscriminate killings.
In response, religious tolerance is part of communities’ armoury as they try to unite against the militants, said Ya’u.
The book tells the tale of two towns with similar demographics whose reaction to the militants could not have been more different.
Mubi and Gombi sit in Nigeria’s northeastern Adamawa state, one of the poorest parts of the country. Alongside soaring unemployment rates, the area has been blighted by poor harvests and increasing levels of desertification.
The state is also very diverse: among a population of almost 4 million, there are approximately 58 different ethnic groups.
Yet Mubi and Gombi had very different responses to attacks.
While Mubi crumbled under pressure and briefly became the largest town controlled by Boko Haram, Gombi withstood bombings before vigilantes and security forces drove out the militants.
“There (in Gombi), despite the same religious diversities (as in Mubi) – Christians and Muslims, various ethnicities and so forth – they were able to come together to present one of the most effective responses to Boko Haram,” Ya’u told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
However, in Mubi, religious polarisation, economic inequalities and youth unemployment made the radicalisation of young people relatively easy, said Musa Shalangwa, political economist and lecturer at the Adamawa State Polytechnic.
“Several months before Mubi was attacked and taken over by insurgents in October 2014, strangers, who turned out to be insurgents, were seen in the town openly preaching their extremist views and calling on all Muslims to join their jihad,” Shalangwa wrote in the book.
Meanwhile, in Gombi, youths – both Christians and Muslims – joined vigilante groups, with wealthier residents contributing funds to protect public places, in particular places of worship.
Both Muslim and Christian faith representatives held regular meetings to promote peace between religious groups, while also holding security meetings with community leaders.
“The role of local leadership is critical in terms of mobilising members of diverse backgrounds … to come together and present a united front against the insurgents,” said Ya’u.
Poverty and inequality also fuelled the violence, he said.
“Clearly, a high degree of inequality is needed to turn the disaffected communities into violence. This was the case in Mubi, which has its vast commercial wealth concentrated in the hands of a few,” Ya’u wrote.
In order to build community resilience, trust in security forces and the authorities is important, said Ya’u.
At the start of the insurgency, when Boko Haram was attacking police and security forces, some communities were happy, even supporting them, he said.
“This was because they saw the police as an enemy. We think the best way to build trust would be by developing community policing (where)the police and community need to work together.”
Thomson Reuters Foundation