From church bombings on Christmas day, beheadings, attacks on school children and most recently the kidnapping of nearly 300 school girls, Boko Haram has sunk its claws into Nigeria’s interior, leaving the people inundated in fear. The kidnapping of the school children has put the radical Islamic group in the center of western media attention, but this is a problem that has been in Nigeria since 2002.
The original name is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad which translates to “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad”, but in time the name would be shortened to Boko Haram roughly translated to “westernization is sinful”. Boko simply meaning fake was applied to the idea of westernization, more specifically western education. This was an idea born out of old rhetoric from the colonial era. Caliphates of Sokoto and Bornu were powerful forces brought under control of the British empire where they were subject to conform to the rules of western, Christian education that frequently contradicted their own beliefs. As a result there has always been a subtle tension. In 2002 Mohammad Yusuf would take the reigns of a previously established Muslim youth organization in the city of Maiduguri, Boko Haram’s headquarts. Yusuf’s first order of business was to establish a religious complex including a mosque and a school that would attract children from many poor families in northern Nigeria as well as neighboring countries. The ultimate goal of Boko Haram has been to create a Shari’a state, and it would come as no surprise that this compound would be used as a recruiting center.
Over the span of about 7 years since its inception, attacks by Boko Haram were infrequent. But in 2009 after receiving tips that the group had begun to arm itself, Nigerian government forces confronted the group leading to armed fighting that resulted in the arrest of Yusuf who had died while in police custody and whose body was displayed on national television. Authorities say he was shot trying to escape, but human rights groups claim that it was an execution. His death in the hands of the police caused riots in northeast Nigeria that left approximately 700 people dead.
— Muhammad Yusuf (left) and Abubakar Shekau (right)
After the death of Yusuf, Boko Haram’s activity had died down for about 2 years before they resurged with new leadership in Abubakar Shekau who has taken Boko Haram’s radicalization to new levels, making the group synonymous violent terrorism. Although there have been attacks on Shekau by Nigerian forces, one of which resulting in a claim that he had been killed, he has seemed to avoid death, and make his presence known once more. What has made the Boko Haram such a thorn in Nigeria’s side? How was it able to come back after 2009? And why do the government forces have such a hard time capturing Shekau?
In addition to being cultural distant from the rest of Nigeria, the north also claims some of the poorest areas in Nigeria. As cultural detachment meets with a lack of government investment social goods, a lack of government legitimacy is created, and this can ultimately lead to unrest. The government was also criticized after the death of Mohammed Yusuf in 2009 due to the amount of money put towards the police instead of much needed public works. The concept of Boko Haram and terrorism isn’t as black and white in northern Nigeria. Someone on the outside may look at a gang and immediately see thieves and murders while the gang member himself may a family, support system, or a makeshift means to authority. The lure for young men to join Boko Haram is enticing as it offers financial reward in areas of severe poverty. Members aren’t only recruited from Nigeria, they have come from neighboring countries as well such as Cameroon, Chad and Niger. Members are also paid about 500,000 naira the equivalent to about 3,000 dollars, and according to a report by the Osun Defender a Nigerian newspaper, the members are paid more if their attacks do greater damage. Boko Haram is financed through ransoming foreigners, kidnappings, bank robbery, “protection” money, funds from other terrorist organizations, and civic groups. In addition to using mediums such as the radio and internet to propagate its message, it has also recruited members through prison breaks. When alluring members, Boko Haram unearths old tensions between Christians and Muslims and presents the idea of Muslim population under attack by an illegitimate and oppressive Christian government. They have held this belief even when Nigeria had a Muslim president from the north, Umaru Yar’Adua, and with the Nigerian police’s reputation for corruption and violence, Boko Haram’s target audience sees truth in these accusations.
Nigeria is a country roughly the size of the midwest, and in a continent whose borders have been arbitrarily drawn, border enforcement is taken lightly. This has its pros and cons. In many African countries, herdsmen and nomads will need to travel between nations for trade or because arbitrary colonial borders were drawn over their territory. The weak enforcement of borders reflect their importance to the interests of many Africans. These borders also facilitate groups like Boko Haram to come and go as they please. Victims of kidnappings, like the Nigerian school girls, frequently find themselves taken between countries. This therefore requires cooperation between governments. While Nigeria has made gains in its ability to combat Boko Haram, there are still the governments of Niger, Chad, and Cameroon to account for.
Despite Nigeria’s economic growth and status as a regional power in Africa, attacks by Boko Haram have increased in recent years. The severity has lead the government to declare a state of emergency in the northeastern states of Bornu, Yobe, and Adamawa. The increase in attacks give testament to the tenacity and elusiveness of Abubakar Shekau who unlike his predecessor, does not speak directly with members and only operates through a few selected individuals. He is known for his ruthlessness, his loner personality, and has even been deemed a master of disguise who will work under the alias of Darul Tawheed. This is why he has been able to avoid death even when the Nigerian police claimed to have killed him in 2012.
Like gang warfare in the United States, attacks happen in close proximity or in the same area that the organization resides. Terrorist attacks by a radical Muslim group and executed on other Muslims. Not all Muslims are considered allies because Boko Haram operates as a type of mafia shrouded under the veil of religion. Also like the United States, the governments slow progress in this problem has prompted people to blame its corruption and apathy towards the poor, and culturally different people in the north. In fact, while many in the north disagree with the amount of violence used, the idea of Shari’a has received local support as it was seen as an answer to an inept government. Boko Haram is like a radicalized gang whose greatest weapon is the people’s doubt of government competency and benign intent, especially as information leaked that the government knew of the girls location yet little has been done. Like any gang in the world, they have risen to power through a vacuum created by a lack of authority. Authority in this sense does not mean stern capital punishment and police presence because that is ample in Nigeria. Strong authority simply means to make the state a type of parental figure whose best interests are that of its children i.e the people.
Nigeria remains a multi faceted country that promises growth yet is still riddled with dangers for visitors and locals alike. Africa has given birth to many strong entrepreneurs who have risen by creating works that their respective governments have been too ill equipped to do. This commitment to community extends beyond business in Africa. Approximately 500 traditional hunters in Nigeria have volunteered their help to rescue the Nigerian girls, and in the villages of Menari, Tsangayari, and Garawa, the same region where the Nigerian girls were taken. Boko Haram was also met with aggression that killed more than 200 Boko Haram fighters according to resident of the region Algoni Ahunna in a CNN report. Nigeria is country who faces challenges yet finds creative ways to overcome them. Boko Haram is one more challenge that persists yet has failed to cease Nigerian progress.