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Volunteers in a civilian militia, known as the ‘vigilantes,’ who fight Boko Haram with home-made muskets and bows and arrows.Geoffrey York/The Globe and Mail

Abubakar Sani was a carpenter. A quiet and simple man, the son of a middle-class teacher, he seemed like an ordinary citizen in the northern Nigerian town of Gombi.

But nine years ago, when he was 21, his family noticed he was changing. He was going to the mosque more often, and he had befriended a man from a northeastern city where Islamist extremism was growing. Then one day he disappeared, without explanation, taking nothing with him. For years his family searched for him, asking the police to help, making appeals on the radio, but finding no trace.

Last November, his younger brother Abbas found him. Gombi had erupted in gunfire, and his family had fled to the bush. Abbas ventured home to collect some of their belongings – and ran face-to-face into Abubakar. His brother wore a military-style camouflage uniform and carried two guns. He was thin, he had a beard, and his hair was long, dirty and matted. He had joined Boko Haram.

Nigeria, like the Sani family, has been torn apart by the Boko Haram rebellion. The brutal extremist group has turned Nigerians against each other: brother against brother, family against family, soldiers against rebels, in an escalating cycle of murder, kidnapping, destruction and retribution that has killed at least 13,000 people and forced a million to flee their homes.

Nigeria's army, weakened by corruption and neglect, has proved unable to cope with Boko Haram's attacks, often fleeing at the first sign of the militia's motorcycles and Kalashnikovs. Only with outside reinforcements – troops from Chad, helicopters and pilots from Russia, military trainers from South Africa – has the Nigerian army finally managed to roll back some of Boko Haram's gains this year.

The once-obscure Nigerian insurgency has metastasized into a regional and even global crisis, with the Islamist rebels launching attacks across borders into Cameroon, Niger and Chad, while the United States and other Western governments search desperately for ways to defeat Boko Haram without fuelling the brutality of the Nigerian army. With a crucial national election looming on March 28, the insurgents are increasingly using female suicide bombers to disrupt the run-up to the vote. In the northern town of Potiskum this week, five people were killed by explosives that were strapped to a girl who may have been as young as 10.

Instead of dealing with the rebellion's root causes – poverty, corruption, repressive security forces and a government that neglects the north – Nigeria's ruling politicians have largely preferred to ignore the conflict, allowing the police and army a free hand to use assassination and torture in failed attempts to crush the rebels. The history of the Boko Haram rebellion has been a cautionary tale of how not to respond to a domestic insurgency.

The roots of rebellion

For many of its victims, Boko Haram seems like an inexplicable evil, a gang of fanatical killers whose motives cannot be understood. Globally, the group is most famous for kidnapping more than 200 school girls from a school in the primarily Christian town of Chibok in northeastern Nigeria last year, sparking worldwide protests. But a closer look at its history reveals that its roots stretch back for decades.

There is a long tradition of purist Islamic sects in northern Nigeria. In the 1960s and 1970s, fundamentalist preachers and prophets roamed across the north, calling for resistance to the secular and corrupt governments that ruled the country. Clashes with the police sometimes erupted, sparking riots and uprisings among the followers of these sects.

By around 2002, the biggest such Islamist sect was led by a charismatic young preacher named Mohammed Yusuf, based in the impoverished northern city of Maiduguri and influenced by radical ideologies imported from the Middle East. He gave his followers an Arabic name Jama'atu Ahlus-Sunna Lidda'Awati Wal Jihad (People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad). This is still the group's official name, but locals call them Boko Haram – a cruder term, which can be loosely translated as "Western education is forbidden."

Analysts have estimated that 80 to 90 per cent of Boko Haram's members are Kanuri people – the main ethnic group in its founder's home city. The Kanuris, with a long history of marginalization and rebellion during Nigeria's colonial era, are spread across Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger.

This has helped Boko Haram to slip across borders to evade attack. But rather than using tribal appeals, it has sought to build a pan-ethnic Islamist movement. The militia has fragmented into local cells and splinter groups, without a central command structure but united by a similar Islamist ideology.

Since its beginnings, Boko Haram has sought support from the masses of unemployed and uneducated young men who felt alienated in a country dominated by a more prosperous south. Nigeria's vast oil wealth is concentrated in the south, and despite some revenue-sharing, most foreign investment and infrastructure goes there. Oil revenue is distributed to the elites, never reaching the ordinary northerners. Public services, including education, are much weaker in the north. Millions of children are forced to become beggars when they are sent to Koranic schools far from their families.

As well, literacy and health care are far stronger in the south. More than 70 per cent of northerners live in poverty today – double the rate in the south. Unemployment in some northern regions is about 80 per cent. Violence and instability in the north has exacerbated all these problems.

Boko Haram's proposed solution, sharia law, is portrayed as a way of destroying official corruption and offering justice to the north. In its early days, under Mr. Yusuf, the group also provided welfare and jobs to unemployed young people in the region, creating something close to an alternate government.

The earliest Boko Haram uprisings were sparked by relatively minor issues – including a new law requiring motorcycle passengers to wear helmets. This led to a battle between police and Boko Haram in 2009 in which several people died. But the security forces overreacted. They surrounded Mr. Yusuf's compound, arrested him and executed him in cold blood in police custody. This triggered more clashes. An estimated 800 people were slaughtered over the next 36 hours, mostly by the police. Houses and even mosques were burned as the police targeted anyone suspected of Boko Haram connections.

The group briefly went underground after this defeat, but by 2011 it had launched a violent offensive, with its leaders increasingly radicalized. Since then, the death toll in northern Nigeria has soared as Boko Haram has acquired more sophisticated weapons from Libya and from looted Nigerian arsenals. It has forged ideological links with Middle Eastern extremist groups, including the self-styled Islamic State movement, and it has imported foreign tactics, such as suicide bombings. Its new leader, Abubakar Shekau, has become notorious for his ranting appearances on propaganda videos, in which he praises Middle Eastern jihadi groups and denies the legitimacy of the Nigerian state. But the group's main grievances remain local: the economic marginalization of the north, the desire for a purer form of government, and the spiral of revenge as the atrocities grew worse.

A military run amok

As Boko Haram grew stronger, Nigerian authorities escalated the crisis by targeting northerners indiscriminately. It was a textbook example of how to take a small rebellion and turn it into a more dangerous insurgency. Thousands of people have been detained without trial, and hundreds have been killed by the police and military, merely because of suspected Boko Haram connections, according to human-rights groups. Last year, Amnesty International released a gruesome video of Nigerian soldiers slitting the throats of detainees, one by one, and dumping them into mass graves.

Exploiting this heavy-handed response, Boko Haram has attracted members by portraying itself as the defender of the north and of Muslims. By most estimates, it has somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 fighters in its various cells and factions. Many are conscripts, forced to join the militia at the point of a gun; others are criminals and looters who are mainly interested in what they can steal during Boko Haram's raids. But at the core of the rebellion are the true believers: young men like Abubakar Sani who joined Boko Haram voluntarily.

Force, money, persuasion

One reason for Boko Haram's rapid expansion is its relentless and fervent efforts to recruit new followers. In every raid, it rounds up the young men of the town and seeks to enlist them – sometimes by force, sometimes by financial inducement, but often just by ideological persuasion. Last November, when Abubakar Sani met his younger brother at their home, Abbas tried to flee – but Abubakar grabbed his arm and made his pitch to him. "We are not here to kill you," he told his frightened brother. "Don't run, we won't do anything bad. We are here to make sure justice is done."

Some of the believers are motivated by revenge, after their relatives suffered atrocities at the hands of Nigerian security forces. Others are driven by religion, seeking to impose Islamic sharia law on the country, and seeing Boko Haram as a purer and more moral cause than the corruption-ridden Nigerian state.

However cruel and neglectful the government's actions have sometimes been, the brand of justice offered by Boko Haram is a strange and brutal type, often involving executions and forced conversions to Islam. But it's a justice that loyalists like Abubakar Sani believe in.

"I think he was trying to persuade us to join them," Abbas told me later in an interview on the outskirts of the nearby city of Yola. "They were gathering most of the youth of the town together."

Then Abubakar showed a brief glimpse of unexpected humanity. He asked his brother about their mother; he seemed to be searching for her. "I think he missed her," Abbas told me.

Abbas explained that their mother had moved away to another northern city to seek refuge from the fighting. Abubakar shook his head. "Even there isn't safe," he warned his brother.

Breaking free of his brother's grip, Abbas fled back to the bush. He was shocked and saddened by Abubakar's appearance in a Boko Haram uniform. "I couldn't imagine my brother joining this group," he says. "Now I don't want to see him again. I think he's been killing people and doing other bad things."

Abbas estimates that he saw about 30 bodies after Boko Haram captured his town. "I'm so angry that so many people were killed, even my friends and relatives. I don't think Boko Haram is Islamic, because Islam doesn't teach this."

When the two brothers were young, they were close friends. They both worked as carpenters. They were just a few years apart in age. But today Abbas can only hate his brother. "I'm ready to join hands with anyone to bring an end to this," he says. "If I met him, and if I had a gun, I would shoot him."

Military failures

Until about two decades ago, Nigeria's military was one of the most respected in Africa. It played a key role as a peacekeeping force in stabilizing Liberia and Sierra Leone during their civil wars in the 1990s. But since then, the army has been crippled by underinvestment and corruption. Fearing the potential for a coup, successive governments have limited its size. Even today, its $6-billion (U.S.) budget is inadequate for Africa's most populous country. And while the army has 120,000 soldiers, they are spread thinly in an unstable country, with only about 15,000 combat troops in the northeast – barely more than the forces of Boko Haram itself.

The military, like most other government institutions in Nigeria, is highly corrupt. Senior officers routinely divert or misap- propriate a large percentage of the funds that are crucial for salaries, weapons, maintenance and rations. Soldiers often desert or mutiny because they don't receive the salaries and daily food allowances that they are promised. Many of their weapons are old and in disrepair. Their vehicles are often ordinary Hilux Toyotas (pickup trucks without armour), and they often lack fuel. Salaries have been cut or delayed for months. The result has been a demoralized and unenthusiastic army, reluctant to fight. Some soldiers even slip across the border to Niger and Cameroon to avoid combat.

Over the past year, nearly 500 Nigerian soldiers have been sacked or subjected to court-martial for desertion or disobeying orders in the battle against Boko Haram. The soldiers say they mutinied because their weapons were inadequate or non-existent, and that they would have been slaughtered by the enemy.

In equally disturbing cases, Nigerian military officers have been accused of sabotaging their own campaigns by selling ammunition and secret information to Boko Haram. One such allegation led to a revolt by soldiers, who turned their guns against their superiors. At least 15 senior officers, including five generals, were put on trial last year for leaking their battle plans and strategies to Boko Haram.

Shortages in the maintenance budget, meanwhile, have meant that the Nigerian army has often been deprived of key equipment. After spending millions of dollars on Israeli-supplied surveillance drones in 2006, for example, Nigeria didn't bother to maintain them properly. As a result, they were unavailable during the hunt for the kidnapped school girls of Chibok. Because of the severe shortage of properly motivated and equipped troops to fight Boko Haram, the Nigerian military has resorted to crude measures: unlawful killings, house-to-house sweeps, and the arbitrary beating or detention of young men without evidence.

More recently, it has tried to compensate for the shortage by using air power – another crude solution.

In its latest campaign this month, the Nigerian army has preferred to fight Boko Haram with warplanes, exploiting its supremacy in the skies to attack the rebels with bombs and missiles. But this has led to deadly blunders. On Feb. 17, an airplane dropped three bombs on mourners who had gathered for a funeral in a town on the border of Nigeria and Niger, killing 37 people.

Official spokesmen denied that the bombs were dropped by the Nigerian Air Force, but few people believed them, since Boko Haram does not possess an air force and no other warplanes were operating in the area.

In Yola, capital of Adamawa state, one of the three main northeastern states where Boko Haram holds territory, a Nigerian Air Force pilot told me that it was "painful" for him to be bombing citizens of his own country. The U.S.-trained pilot, who would not give his name, talked openly about the limitations of deploying air power against the Islamist militia. An insurgency cannot be defeated by warplanes alone, he says.

The decline of the Nigerian military has become a key issue in the March 28 election campaign, with President Goodluck Jonathan locked in a tight race with his main challenger, Muhammadu Buhari.

Mr. Buhari, a retired major general who ruled as Nigeria's president for 20 months after a military coup in 1983, harshly criticizes Mr. Jonathan for allowing the army and police to deteriorate. "The system has collapsed under his leadership," Mr. Buhari said in an interview. "It was the incompetence of the police initially and the soldiers later that led to the situation as it now is. Boko Haram was taken for granted and allowed to grow.

"It's a slide into anarchy. The soldiers don't have ammunition, so they abandon their posts and run away."

At his modest rented campaign home in Abuja, the national capital, Mr. Buhari's aides talk scathingly about the illicit wealth of senior officers in the Nigerian army. One aide reads a text message that he has just received on his cellphone from a Buhari supporter in the army. "We are 100-per-cent behind you," the message reads. "There's so much corruption in the military."

An influential member of Nigeria's ruling party, Aviation Minister Osita Chidoka argues that Boko Haram cannot be defeated until the government modernizes its own security apparatus – its army, police, prisons and courts – and drags them into the 21st century. "It's not a weakness of Goodluck Jonathan; it's a weakness of the entire administration," he told me. "It's an existential problem, and it calls for soul-searching. In the fight against Boko Haram, we are flying blind."

Indeed, the Nigerian security forces are so weak that they often rely on citizen volunteers: the famed "vigilantes" of northeastern Nigeria, who use homemade muskets and poison-tipped arrows to fight Boko Haram. When the northeastern town of Mubi was recaptured from Boko Haram in November, the battle was led by about 100 vigilantes and local hunters. "We are at the front, and the army is behind us," recalls Ahmed Nasiru, a former police officer who leads a self-described vigilante organization in Yola.

The vigilantes carry small amulets on their belts or around their necks, convinced that these will protect them from bullets. They see the Nigerian government as corrupt, and neglectful of the north. "If it was willing and ready, it wouldn't take more than two weeks to get rid of Boko Haram," says Abdullahi Ajiya, a vigilante commander who fought in the two-day battle to recapture Mubi in November.

Like many other northerners, he alleges that the Nigerian military has repeatedly ignored strong warnings that Boko Haram was preparing to attack a town or city. "We would inform the government about a planned attack, and it wouldn't take any action, and then Boko Haram would attack," he told me in an interview in a shabby municipal office where his homemade weapons are stored.

Aliyu Usman, who lived in the northeastern town of Michika, had heard so many warnings of a Boko Haram attack that he packed his entire family into a car and sent them away. He would have left, too, but there wasn't room for him in the car. A day later, on Sept. 7, the rebels swept into Michika and captured the town. Despite all the warnings, the Nigerian forces weren't ready for the attack.

"All the soldiers and police ran away," Mr. Usman told me. "As soon as they heard the guns, they all fled. They don't have any courage, and the soldiers were maltreated by their officers. The government didn't want to fight Boko Haram."

Willful neglect

For years, the fight against Boko Haram was severely hampered by another problem: the indifference of the central government and President Jonathan, a Christian from southern Nigeria.

His advisers have repeatedly told him that the Boko Haram rebellion was manufactured and exaggerated by his political opponents in the north for their own advantage. His wife, Patience Jonathan, last year reportedly accused Nigerian human-rights activists of "fabricating" the Chibok schoolgirl abductions to give the government a bad name.

If the President suspected the rebellion was largely a political creation, it would help to explain why he failed to take it seriously until this year. With his presidency in electoral jeopardy, Mr. Jonathan has finally abandoned his indifference. At election rallies, he vows to recapture territory from the rebels, and he touts the latest battle victories. Earlier this month, just days before the scheduled election, the military insisted on a six-week delay to give it time to launch a major offensive against Boko Haram – although many analysts believe the delay was designed more for political reasons, to allow Mr. Jonathan's better-financed campaign to outlast his main opponent, Mr. Buhari.

The United States and other Western governments have been reluctant to sell weapons to the Nigerian army because of its human-rights abuses, so instead the army has recently bought weapons, helicopters and other equipment on the international black market to bolster its campaign against the insurgents. With the new weapons, and with substantial help from battle-hardened Chadian troops, the military has finally begun to recapture northern towns and cities from Boko Haram this month, and it seems likely that Mr. Jonathan will declare victory over the rebels before next month's election.

But foreign diplomats and military analysts are unimpressed. Boko Haram never intended to hold those northern towns and cities permanently, they say. Instead, the rebels saw them as "larders" to supply food and money for their operations. They raid the towns, capture military equipment and provisions from fleeing soldiers, loot money from banks, and retreat after a few weeks when the army counterattacks.

"By doing this, Boko Haram is more fluid and difficult to defeat on the battlefield," says John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria who is now an Africa analyst at the U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations. "The group seems uninterested in state-building or administration."

The latest offensive against Boko Haram may destroy some of the heavier weapons and vehicles that the rebels captured from the army, but the rebels can melt into the civilian population and turn into "part-time terrorists," according to one foreign-security expert in Abuja, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They are not going to go away," he told me. "You have to solve the deeper problems."

A neglected population

Until the Nigerian government offers a serious alternative to the rebellion – until it offers economic hope, a more honest government, and a genuine hearts-and-minds campaign in the northeast – the army's counterinsurgency efforts are unlikely to succeed. To win support on the ground, it needs to conduct a more professional campaign with fewer atrocities and civilian casualties, fewer arbitrary house-to-house sweeps and destruction of property, and no more impunity from prosecution. It needs to invest in economic development in the north, including agriculture, roads, electricity and education. It needs to reform Nigeria's power-sharing and resource-sharing deals to give a fairer deal to the poorest northern states, and it needs to tackle the rampant corruption, fraud and embezzlement among powerful officials in the military and elsewhere.

While soldiers from Chad and Nigeria have recaptured territory from the rebels this month, Boko Haram will continue to thrive in its rural strongholds in the northeast as long as Nigeria remains a broken state. Nigeria is evidence of a lesson that is reinforced by similar cases in Somalia, Mali, Syria and Iraq: Rebel movements prosper when failing states ignore the needs of large numbers of citizens.

With the election only weeks away and its political survival at stake, the government is vowing to crush the rebels and liberate Chibok's kidnapped schoolgirls. But after years of neglect, it may be too late to rebuild peace in northern Nigeria. The cycle of hatred and revenge seems unstoppable now.

Mary Paul, the mother of six children in a village near Michika, was widowed in 2011 when Boko Haram killed her husband. She migrated to Abuja to work as a market vendor to raise money to educate her children, who stayed in the village. Then, in September, the rebels captured Michika, and Ms. Paul decided to risk the perilous journey home to rescue her family.

She trekked the final seven kilometres across rivers and mountains, finally finding her children and her elderly father in hiding places in caves. But as she brought her family to safety, she heard the story of a local man who was suspected of helping Boko Haram. The villagers captured him and attacked him with a knife. "They cut him into pieces," Ms. Paul told me. "They wanted him to suffer, like our people suffer."

This is what happens with insurgencies. Neglected by corrupt and indifferent governments, they rip apart families and villages and nations. Armies can recapture territory, but they cannot rebuild a broken country.

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