Understanding Boko Haram

One of the first questions that naturally come to mind when talking about religious extremist groups is: “Does Religion make Difference”? Based on the work of Hasenclever and Rittberger, a number of philosophical approaches may be of use. According to primordialism, religious traditions are the most important independent variable to explain violent interactions. Instrumentalism says that conflicts may be aggravated by divergent religious creeds, but are rarely caused by them. It recognizes that the different parts of one’s identity, such as religion and ethnicity may be used to aid with mobilizing the population. The constructivist school of thought claims that identities are ever-changing, and acts of violence require legitimation. Religion, in their point of view, can provide or deny this legitimation. You can read more about these approaches here.

„Militant Islamism is a religious movement and a political ideology that encompasses a social element of protest, engagement in a counterattack on secularism and an identity for the have-nots of the Muslim world”Muhammed Kabir Isa

Behind the religion

According to scientists such as Muhammed Kabir Isa the existence of groups like Boko Haram cannot be explained solely by religious reasons. The other key concept to understand Boko Haram and its differences from (and similarities with) other militant Islamist groups is the number of divisions in the Nigerian society. This is a country in a state of deep religious, geopolitical, economic and social divisions. Thus, the rising popularity of militant Islamist movements can be attributed to a combination of different factors.

Figure 1 - Inequalities in Nigeria

Figure 1 – Inequalities in Nigeria

There is a significant Christian majority in the South, and a Muslim one in the North. The Northern States have all accepted Sharia Law, which is the Islamic law that deals with all aspects of day-to-day life. It is based on the Qur’an, and has been debated, interpreted and precedents have been gathered for centuries. Apart from the religious aspect, Nigeria is divided in the socio-economic aspect as well. The socio-economic crisis in Nigeria is severe: there is large-scale corruption and poverty all over the country, the inequalities between different social classes are very high, many feel that the justice system has failed, and the population of the North is marginalized. The map above shows the huge inequalities between Nigerian States. According to the UN Nigeria ranks among the most unequal states in the world.

The historical reasons behind these huge inequalities lie in the colonial era of Nigerian history. “In the pre-colonial Nigeria two forms of societies existed.” Some were hierarchical with a ruling class and subjects while some were more equal. During colonialism the pre-existing ruling classes of the hierarchical local societies had been used by the British as links between the colonial government and their subjects. This way they became richer and more separated from the rest of society, eventually being trained at Western universities.

These differences have remained in the post-colonial era as well. The elite is seen by the members of the lower socio-economic classes as “Westernised”, “Western-educated” and are nicknamed the “White-washed” elite. This is one of the reasons that the legitimacy of the Federal Republic of Nigeria is not accepted in the Northern territories. Both the state and the military are weak. Since 1999 the military is deliberately kept weak as political leaders feared a military coup. This is one of reasons of the lack of a successful military solution against Boko Haram.

Historical background of militant Islamist movements in Nigeria

Along religious and socio-economic factors I would like to take history into consideration as well. These movements have deep roots in the social and economic marginalization of a large section of Nigeria’s northern population and they also have a history far longer than many would suspect: their story began centuries ago. These groups, which are seen as modern terrorist groups (even the word „terrorist” that is used to describe them was only invented in the last century), are the descendants of a long line of local jihadist or freedom fighter groups.

The 19th-century jihad of Uthman dan Fodio, in a Northern state, Sokoto was an early militant group that, in accordance with their Muslim ideals, enforced the Sharia law.

In the period of colonialism, while the ruling classes embraced Western culture, the Muslim communities of the northern states took up arms to regain their independence. The greatest challenge to the state and to the colonial authority came from the rise of the radical Mahdist militant Islamist movement that fought against the British authority. They fought for their (interpretation of) religion as well as the freedom of their people, therefore cannot be dismissed only as religious extremists.

After the era of colonialism and the independence of Nigeria, neo-Islamist groups formed, such as the Muhajirun, that can be considered the direct ancestors of Boko Haram. The Boko Haram uprising was not the first forceful attempt to impose a religious agenda in Nigeria. Violence based on religion is indeed neither new nor unique to Muslims.

Boko Haram's Logo

Boko Haram’s Logo

What exactly is Boko Haram?

The original name of this militant Islamist group is People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad. The shorter form Boko Haram means Western Education is forbidden. Boko in the local language means fake. The group was founded in 2002 in a northern city called Maiduguri. Their aim is to overthrow the „Western” or secular state in Nigeria, and, after that, to build an Islamic State.

The most important events in their history were:

2002 Founded in Maiduguri
2009 Hundreds killed when Boko Haram militants stormed Maiduguri police stations
2009 Boko Haram leader
Mohammed Yusuf captured by army, later found dead
Sep 2010 Freed hundreds of prisoners from a Bauchi jail
2010-2011 Bombed several states, Police HQ, UN HQ – suicide bombers, dozens killed
2012-2013 Church bombing, college massacre, killed 1800+ people
April 2014 Kidnapped several hundred schoolgirls (
#bringbackourgirls)
Jan 2015
Baga Massacre – killed 2000+ people

Before 2009, the movement had been seen as radical, but not ultra-violent. The killing of its leader provoked Boko Haram members. After this event, they reorganized themselves with a more violent agenda, and started attacking state buildings, Christian villages and communities, and other peaceful civilians. In recent years, Boko Haram’s main tactics were using bombs, and attacking Christians and civilians, often schoolchildren. They have started to use teenagers as suicide bombers. In the last 6 years they have taken over more and more states. At the present time they have control over 12 northern states where they enforce the Sharia Law.

Boko Haram Attacks 2009

 

Why is it important to understand these movements?

All these facts are necessary to understand Boko Haram’s role, both to the Western world and to the locals. For the locals, it seems to be a case of the lesser of two evils: both the officially recognized state, and Boko Haram are constant sources of fear and danger, and, though based on their region of origin and religion, one may be less of a danger than the other. According to one source, the state „tends to overreact and actually kills even more civilians than Boko Haram does.” From a Western point of view, Boko Haram cannot be considered a modern phenomenon, and their brutal methods can be better understood as the last chapter of a centuries-old war against the influence of the West, first as colonialists, then as trade partners and the model of the society, in which no party is innocent.

Fruzsina Márta Tóth
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