Boko Haram

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Toni Johnson, Senior Editor/Senior Staff Writer
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Update: December 27, 2011


Boko Haram, an Islamist religious sect, has targeted Nigeria’s police, rival clerics, politicians, and public institutions with increasing violence since 2009. Some experts say the group should primarily be seen as leading an armed revolt against the government’s entrenched corruption, abusive security forces, strife between the disaffected Muslim north and Christian south, and widening regional economic disparity in an already impoverished country. They argue that Abuja should do more to address the issues facing the disaffected Muslim north. But Boko Haram’s suspected bombing of a UN building in Abuja in August 2011 and its ties to regional terror groups may signal a new trajectory and spark a stronger international response that makes it harder to address the north’s alienation.

Birth of Boko Haram

Mohammad Yusuf, a radical Islamist cleric, created Boko Haram in 2002 in Maiduguri, the capital of the northeastern state of Borno. The group aims to establish a fully Islamic state in Nigeria, including the implementation of criminal sharia courts across the country. Paul Lubeck, a University of California professor studying Muslim societies in Africa, says Yusuf was a trained salafist (CSMonitor) (a school of thought often associated with jihad), and was strongly influenced by Ibn Taymiyyah, a fourteenth century legal scholar who preached Islamic fundamentalism and is considered a “major theorist” for radical groups in the Middle East.

Boko Haram colloquially translates into “Western education is sin,” which experts say is a name assigned by the state. The sect calls itself Jama’atul Alhul Sunnah Lidda’wati wal jihad, or people committed to the propagation of the prophet’s teachings and jihad.” Some analysts say the movement is an outgrowth of the Maitatsine riots of the 1980s (AfricaToday) and the religious/ethnic tensions that followed in the late 1990s. Many Nigerians believe Yusuf rejected all things Western, but Lubeck argues that Yusuf, who embraced technology, believed Western education should be “mediated through Islamic scholarship,” such as rejecting the theory of evolution and Western-style banking.

Before 2009, the group did not aim to violently overthrow the government. Yusuf criticized northern Muslims for participating in what he saw as an illegitimate, non-Islamic state and preached a doctrine of withdrawal. But violence between Christians and Muslims (al-Jazeera) and harsh government treatment, including pervasive police brutality, encouraged the group’s radicalization. Human Rights Watch researcher Eric Guttschuss told news service IRIN that Yusuf gained supporters “by speaking out against police and political corruption.” Boko Haram followers, also called Yusuffiya, consist largely of hundreds of impoverished northern Islamic students and clerics as well as university students and professionals, many of whom are unemployed. Some followers may also be members of Nigeria’s elite.

In July 2009, Boko Haram members refused to follow a motor-bike helmet law, leading to heavy-handed police tactics that set off an armed uprising in the northern state of Bauchi and spread into the states of Borno, Yobe, and Kano. The incident was suppressed by the army and left more than eight hundred dead. It also led to the televised execution of Yusuf, as well as the deaths of his father in-law and other sect members, which human rights advocates consider to be extra-judicial killings. In the aftermath of the 2009 unrest, “an Islamist insurrection under a splintered leadership” emerged, says Lubeck. Boko Haram began to carry out a number of suicide bombings and assassinations from Maiduguri to Abuja, and staged an ambitious prison-break in Bauchi, freeing more than seven hundred inmates in 2010.

In November 2011, the group staged its most deadly attacks so far (The Nation), in Maiduguri as well as Yobe’s Damaturu and Potiskum, targeting churches, mosques, banks, and police stations. At least 150 people were reported killed. November’s violence garnered more international attention for the group, with condemnations from the head of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the Pope, the UN Security Council, and the UN secretary general. Bombings on Christmas Day in 2011 targeting churches and killing dozens raised fears about the possibility of another spate of religious violence (Reuters) between Muslims and Christians.

Rising Against the State

CFR Senior Fellow John Campbell notes that “the context of Boko Haram is easier to talk about than Boko Haram itself.” Injustice and poverty, as well as the belief that the West is a corrupting influence in governance, are root causes of both the desire to implement sharia and Boko Haram’s pursuit of an Islamic state, say experts. “The emergence of Boko Haram signifies the maturation of long festering extremist impulses that run deep in the social reality of northern Nigeria,” writes Nigerian analyst Chris Ngwodo. “But the group itself is an effect and not a cause; it is a symptom of decades of failed government and elite delinquency finally ripening into social chaos.”

The reintroduction of sharia criminal courts was originally proposed by the governor of the state of Zamfara in 1999, but the proposal quickly became a grassroots movement that led to its adoption in twelve states. Experts say there was widespread “disillusionment” with the way sharia was implemented, and that Boko Haram has tapped into this dissatisfaction, promoting the idea that an Islamic state would eliminate the inconsistencies. “You punish somebody for stealing a goat or less–but a governor steals billions of naira, and gets off scott-free,” says Jean Herskovits, an expert on Nigerian politics.

Injustice and poverty, as well as the belief that the West is a corrupting influence in governance, are root causes of both the desire to implement sharia and Boko Haram’s pursuit of an Islamic state, say experts.

In an August 2011 report, Human Rights Watch notes “corruption is so pervasive in Nigeria that it has turned public service for many into a kind of criminal enterprise. Graft has fueled political violence, denied millions of Nigerians access to even the most basic health and education services, and reinforced police abuses and other widespread patterns of human rights violations.”

An Amnesty International report (PDF) points out that the Nigerian police force is responsible for hundreds of extra-judicial killings and disappearances each year across the country that largely “go uninvestigated and unpunished.” Human rights advocates note that the public executions of Boko Haram followers by security forces, including the ones documented by this video (al-Jazeera), have yet to produce a conviction. However, the government began in July 2011 to try five police officers connected to Yusuf’s killing and in August 2011 began the court martial of a military commander (DailyTrust) responsible for troops that killed forty-two sect members during the July 2009 uprising.

The North-South Divide

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, with more than 160 million people and nearly 350 ethnic groups speaking 250 languages. The country is about 50 percent Muslim, 40 percent Christian, and 10 percent indigenous sects. The country has long grappled with how to govern a diverse nation in which religion is one of the most important features of identity. Some experts argue that the ongoing struggle between Christians and Muslims over political power is a significant factor in the country’s ongoing unrest. This sectarian violence, particularly in the central part of the country where the north and south collide, has killed more than 14,000 people since 1999, according to Human Rights Watch.

Others note that Boko Haram has killed more Muslims than Christians. “In a country with a history of polarization between the majority-Muslim north and the majority-Christian south, Boko Haram’s message is a polarizing one at the national level and within the Muslim community,” write Alex Thurston in Foreign Policy. Experts also note that though the northern unrest has been portrayed in a context of extreme religiosity, religious extremism is evident throughout Nigeria, including among Christians.

Despite a per capita income of more than $2,700 and annual GDP growth of 7 percent, Nigeria has one of the world’s poorest populations. An estimated 70 percent of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day. Economic disparities between the north and the rest of the country are particularly stark. In the north, 72 percent of people live in poverty compared to 27 percent in the south and 35 percent in the Niger Delta.

“An analysis of public investments in infrastructure and human capital in the northeast would explain why the region is not only home to flawed elections and economic hopelessness but the Boko Haram insurgency as well,” writes former Nigerian federal minister Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai. “Indeed, most of the apparent ethnic and religious crises in the North, and the youth violence and criminality in the south, can be linked to increasing economic inequality.”

Another crucial factor in economic inequality is oil. In the book Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink, Campbell writes that the “formal politics” of northern Nigeria is “overwhelmingly dominated by Muslim elites, who have, like their counterparts across the country, benefited from oil wealth at the expense of regional development.” He said in an interview with that the central purpose of the Nigerian state is to divide up the country’s oil wealth among elites, making Nigeria’s politics a “zero sum game.” In the oil-producing delta, for example, groups such as MEND (BBC) (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta)–which has attacked oil infrastructure–are largely an outgrowth of the feeling that the south should get more revenue than it already does.

Although these elites still have access to oil wealth, northern Nigerians fear their political influence in the country is waning. “The Nigerian voices heard most loudly around the world, and in Nigeria itself, are Christian and secular, reinforcing the sense among Nigeria’s Muslims that they are invisible,” G. Pascal Zachary writes in the Atlantic.

The dispute over 2011 election results, which led to over eight hundred dead, also has played a role in Boko Haram’s escalating violence. Experts say many northern Nigerians view the presidency of Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian, as illegitimate, arguing that he ignored an informal power-rotation agreement that should have kept a Muslim as president this round. (Muslim President Umar Musa Yar’dua died in 2010, two years into his four-year term.) Voting irregularities during the election as well as efforts to change presidential term limits further alienated the north from Jonathan. Some Jonathan supporters argue Boko Harm’s attacks are an attempt, possibly funded by northern elites, to make the country ungovernable (TheNation).

Terror Ties and Policy Prescriptions

Experts say the prison-break, use of propaganda, and the bombing of police headquarters in June 2011 indicated an increasing level of sophistication and organization, which could point to outside help. In August 2011, U.S. officials claimed the group has ties to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which operates in northwest Africa, and Somalia’s al-Shabaab, another militant Islamist group.

Security officials in Nigeria and internationally are concerned that the group has splintered into one that is focused on local grievances and another that is seeking contacts with outside terror groups (WSJ). “What is most worrying at present is, at least in my view, a clearly stated intent by Boko Haram and by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to coordinate and synchronize (AP) their efforts,” said General Carter Ham, head of U.S. military operations in Africa, noting that such a relationship would be “the most dangerous thing to happen” to Africans and to U.S. interests in the region. A 2011 State Department report observes the Nigerian National Police Force has limited capacity to conduct anti-terror operations.

Other experts, such as Lubeck and CFR’s Campbell, question the extent of the sect’s regional terror ties and say it is unclear which attacks are actually the work of Boko Haram. There is concern that some of the acts may be the work of criminals looking to capitalize on the mayhem (some of the targets supposedly attacked by Boko Haram have been banks, for instance) or perpetrated by other groups hostile to the state. They also argue the group has a legitimate grievance against the country’s security forces and that international intervention could distract from policy actions needed to address the underlying issues.

Before the UN bombing in August 2011, the Nigerian government started to look at solutions similar to its quelling of unrest in the Niger Delta, including negotiation and amnesty. MEND leaders were “bought off” by the government and accepted a ceasefire in 2010. But experts say such a solution is unlikely for a group like Boko Haram. “The grievances Boko Haram expresses are more diverse, less material, and are explicitly articulated as religious politics,” writes Thurston in his blog.

Analyst Chris Ngwodo argues some kind of federal intervention may be needed, especially in education and healthcare, and greater pressure may need to be exerted on northern elites to develop the region. CFR’s Campbell argues that President Jonathan needs gestures, such as naming prominent northern Muslims to his cabinet, to address northern disaffection.

He and other experts also are particularly concerned about the improving economic opportunity in the region, including greater foreign investment, improving infrastructure, and expanding access to Western-style education. “The problem in Nigeria is the government must create the conditions and the incentives, both political and economic, for the people with wealth to invest locally to generate employment,” Lubeck argues.

Britain and Israel have already offered anti-terror assistance, and the U.S. military recently discussed sharing intelligence and potentially training Nigerian security forces (Leadership). Human rights and diplomatic officials note that Nigeria’s heavy-handed military approach (NYT) is compounding their security problem. Campbell warns against too much U.S. involvement on the anti-terror front. “If the United States becomes associated with Abuja’s oppression, then we and the international community become fair game,” he says, noting that the UN bombing indicates that it is possible this has already happened.


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