Most people in the West first heard about the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram when they kidnapped 200 girls from a Nigerian school in April 2014. This quickly prompted the social media campaign #bringbackourgirls, and a lot of news coverage that lasted until the next interesting thing happened. People began to hear a little about them again in early 2015 when they pledged allegiance to ISIL’s Islamic State. To most people in the West this is the extent of their knowledge of Boko Haram. But Boko Haram and the situation in Northern Nigeria is really important to understand.
In 2014 Boko Haram kidnapped the wife of the Vice Prime Minister of Cameroon. By the beginning of 2015 Boko Haram controlled as much land as Belgium. By November 2015 the Global Terrorist Index put out a report that ranked Boko Haram as being the most deadly terrorist organization in the world, narrowly beating ISIL. So who the hell are these people, why are they so good at what they do and if they’re so important, why don’t we know about them? Ideally, by the end of this article, we’ll be able to answer these questions, you’ll have a helicopter view of what’s happening in Northern Nigeria and together we will use our combined knowledge to further our quest for world domination.
First things first, Boko Haram’s real name isn’t Boko Haram. It’s actually ‘jama’at ahl al-sunna li-l-dawa wa-l-jihad’. For completely understandable reasons the Nigerian people nicknamed it Boko Haram, meaning “Western education is forbidden” (‘Boko’ is the Hausa word for ‘fake’ or ‘sham’ which is the term they use for secular Western education and ‘Haram’ is Arabic for ‘forbidden’). This is their nickname because of the strong stance they take against any form of secular education, which they believe contradicts the teachings of Islam. The exact nuances of their belief system is something we will go into a little further down in the article. But first we need to put Boko Haram in context.
Is Boko Haram an Islamic terrorist group? Yes. Does this mean that it’s exactly like the Islamic terrorist groups from the Middle East? No, not even a bit. This is largely because even though a lot of people like to think of Islam in Africa as being a relatively new import it’s been there for a really really long time. The view that it’s a newish thing comes from the really awful idea that history in Africa didn’t start until Europe colonized it. Islam first spread to Africa in 614 and was first documented in Nigeria around the 800’s. Since then there have been huge African Empires such as Mansa Musa’s Mali Islamic Empire in the early 1300s. These huge Muslim empires are actually really important, because they form part of the legend of a ‘glorious past’ that extremist clerics can tap into in their story telling.
Another historical figure revered by Nigerian Jihadists is Uthman dan Fodio a Jihadist from the 1800’s who led an insurgency against the Muslim leaders of Nigeria at the time because he decided they were not Islamic enough. He ended up conquering most of what is now Northern Nigeria creating the Fulani Empire which would go on to become the largest slave society of modern times. This success in waging a Jihad and creating an empire under Islamic law (a caliphate) would go on to become the model that all Nigerian Jihadists would later aspire to. In the 200 years or so since Uthman many different groups of Islamic radicals in Nigeria have attempted to recreate his success. This means that an organization like Boko Haram isn’t a new concept, but is merely the newest and most successful of a string of Jihadist groups in Nigeria.
Nowadays Nigeria is pretty evenly split between Islam and Christianity, with just about 50% of the population identifying as Muslim and just around 45% of the population identifying as Christian. The north of Nigeria tends to be mostly Muslim and the Southern provinces tend to be mostly Christian. An informal arrangement has meant that in the most recent incarnation of Nigerian democracy they have alternated between Christian and Muslim Presidents. This led to an uneasy balance between Muslim and Christian communities, with some areas getting along more than others, but despite tensions their relationship being largely peaceful. This switching of Presidents will become important later, we need to remember this.
Boko Haram starts
Now that we have ourselves a tiny bit of context let’s start to talk about Boko Haram themselves. The group that would later be nicknamed Boko Haram was started in 2002 as a split off from a radical youth group at the Alhaji Muhammadu Ndimi mosque in Maiduguri. Originally, this split off, created by a man called Mohammed Yusef, was radical but not violent. Yusef wanted to create what he believed was a true Islamic society under the strictest, most literal interpretation of Islamic law. They had four loose pillars in their agenda:
- Opposition to western education
- Opposition to the modern state of Nigeria and its system of government
- The wish to create an Islamic caliphate or empire
- A believe in the use of violence to affect these changes
Between 2002 and 2009 they grew and began to develop a frankly bizarre interpretation of what it means to be Muslim. For example, their interpretation denies that the earth is a sphere and also claims not to believe in evaporation. This odd interpretation of different Islamic texts meant that the broad Nigerian and global Islamic communities dismissed Boko Haram as being a bunch of young radicals who were not versed in Islamic law. However as the movement grew larger and more extreme they grew harder to dismiss.
As the movement grew they went from being perceived as crazy but relatively harmless to a threat to security as they began to get into small but frequent clashes with authorities. At this point anyone examining their behaviour would have likened them more to an unruly motorcycle gang than a real armed force. However in 2009 they began to get a little more ambitious and radically stepped up their attacks in what was known as the 2009 Boko Haram uprising.
They orchestrated attacks across several different states in Northern Nigeria, including trying to storm a police station. The President at the time, a Muslim named Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, told the police and the army to stamp down on the uprising and to “not hold back”. Three days after it had started, the uprising was brutally crushed, 700-800 of their members were killed, and Yusef, still the leader of Boko Haram was captured and extra-judicially executed. Nigerian authorities high fived each other, a troublesome group put down before they could become a real threat.
Boko Haram take two
The killing of Mohammed Yusef meant that his second-in-command, a man named Abubakar Shekau, was now in charge. Unfortunately for Nigeria and the world, he was even more extreme than his predecessor. Shekau gathered what was left of Boko Haram to lick their wounds. It was at this time that Al-Qaeda noticed them. The Al-Qaeda branch in the Maghreb (most of North-West Africa) issued a statement of condolence and then offered to train the Boko Haram members who were left so that they could fight the Christians in Nigeria. The statement in part read “We are ready to train your people in weapons, and give you whatever support we can in men, arms and munitions to enable you to defend our people in Nigeria”.
Boko Haram speedily agreed and many split off into Niger, Cameroon and Algeria where they received training in militant camps. A year later in mid-2010 Shekau regrouped in the city of Maiduguri in North-Eastern Nigeria. This time there were no longer a small scale sect trying out being militant but a well-organized underground movement engaging in terrorism.
Since then Boko Haram began subjecting north-eastern Nigeria to a campaign of terror. Attacking Christians and Muslims alike. As long as you didn’t believe in their version of Islam then you were an infidel. In 2011 the attacks escalated to include suicide bombings in major cities around the country, organized sexual violence and the mass abduction of women. By August 2014 they finally controlled enough territory that they felt they were able to declare themselves a Caliphate. In 2014 alone, they killed between 6900 and 7000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands
It was in the middle of all this in April 2014 that the 200 school girls were abducted from a rural secondary school. The apparent lack of response by the then Christian President Goodluck Jonathan sparked a huge amount of international outrage, mostly in the form of hashtags. The outrage did however include the governments of the US, UK, China and Israel offering their assistance in the form of aerial, military and Special Forces. However, unfortunately this followed the trend of other crises in Africa where the West gets very outraged about a specific bad thing, ignores other bad things that are going on, refuses to hear about any good things that happen, and then promptly forgets about the whole package just in time for dinner.
Boko Haram reached the peak of its power in early 2015 (it was at this time that they announced that they were affiliated with ISIL) before government forces, under a new Muslim President, President Buhari, began rolling their forces back and retaking territory. By the middle of 2015 almost all the territory, with the exception of a few local government districts, had been taken back. But this in no way meant that the crisis was over or that Boko Haram was finished. They continued their terror campaign, sometimes killing 250 people a week, bombing mosques, churches, restaurants, buses and government buildings. Despite the Nigerian government declaring victory at least twice since the second half of 2015, this is where we stand. As of the time I am writing this article, the most recent attack has been the 13th of February, where 30 people were killed and a huge number of women and children captured (note, I’m writing this on the 15th of February).
So why do/did people support Boko Haram?
First of all it is important to mention, that the vast overwhelming of Muslims in Nigeria DO NOT support Boko Haram. Nigeria has the biggest population out of any country in Africa, with over 186 million people. A tiny tiny tiny percentage of these people have worked with Boko Haram whilst the majority of Muslims in the country call them ‘Aljannu’, Hausa for Devils. But with the 7th largest population in the world, a tiny tiny tiny percentage is enough to make an army. People tend to radicalize enough to support Boko Haram for a few reasons.
First of all can be explained by the fact that the North of Nigeria, as we previously explained, has historically been a bedrock for Jihadist movements. There had been similar uprisings in the 80’s, and one in the early 2000’s by a group called the Nigerian Taliban. Boko Haram is just the most recent of these groups, and due to their military training and the general spread of radical Islamic insurgencies around the world, have managed to be a lot more successful than previous groups. Northern Nigeria is a much poorer area than the south, and when people are in desperate economic situations, they are more likely to be sympathetic to more radical responses.
The spread of Al-Qaeda across the world, and the success of groups such as ISIL also had a huge part in creating the right environment for Boko Haram to grow. The recruitment which has led to so many people leaving Western countries to fight for Jihadist movements had a similar effect of leading young people in Nigeria to move further North to join Boko Haram. After the 9/11 attacks there was a huge spike in Nigerian children being named Osama recorded so this would indicate that there was already a fertile environment for these kinds of views.
Mixing into this was the perceived incompetence and corruption in the Nigerian government which led to many people seeking aid in groups that threatened to tear down the state. Finally, as mentioned previously, some areas in the North had much stronger tensions between Christian and Muslim communities. For a little while, ironically in response to the Boko Haram crisis, President Jonathan claimed that there was no time for elections and that therefore he would be staying another term. Many Muslims who believed it was “their turn” to have a President saw this as another example of wealthy Christians refusing to let go of power and therefore were more open to radical anti-Christian messages.
So where does this leave us now?
Boko Haram might have lost its territory, but it has not lost its ability to attack civilians and to recruit people to do the same. Even in the unlikely chance that Boko Haram as an organization is defeated, there are still people who believe in the bizarre but dangerous Boko Haram ideology, so it is likely that another group would rise up to take their place. The longer Boko Haram exists, the more dangerous they make the region. Insurgent groups are created in other countries, inspired by Boko Haram’s success, jihadists from all around Africa have a place to train and take back their new-found war experience to their home country, Nigeria’s economy will continue to fail due to a war and an environment unsuitable for business or investment, people will get poorer and therefore more susceptible to radicalisation, and most importantly, people will continue to die.
(editors note: probably find a happier note to end on next time)