English, Human Rights, Uncategorized Boko Haram – terror in the name of Islam
Boko Haram’s attack in Nigeria. Photo: Diario Critico de Venezuela

Boko Haram – terror in the name of Islam

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Violence as a consequence of social exclusion and identities manipulation

Boko Haram got the media’s attention in July 2009, in a sequence of attacks that started in a police station in Bauchi and ended in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State. This was the first of many attacks carried out by Boko Haram, now a synonym of terror in Nigeria. The third and last article of the series, will look at the group’s early years, will discuss the origins of its funds and the government’s options to end the group’s actions.

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The origins of Boko Haram: deconstructing myths

Nigeria vs France: the value of a human life 

In Hausa language, Boko Haram has different meanings, all rejecting western values, especially education. Boko can mean book, western or foreign, while Haram refers to sin, forbidden or ungodly. Boko Haram is, therefore, an opposition to western values and everything that does not involve a strict view of Islam. It is important to note, however, that most Muslims do not accept this extremism, and the group (as well as the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and others) is part of a section that defends ideas, which have little to do with the teachings of the Quran.

In this sense, the goal of Boko Haram is to ‘substitute the Nigerian modern admnistration by a traditional Islamic state. The group believes that the way the Nigerian authorities governs the country goes against the principles of Islam, making necessary to substitute this model by a stricter one.

Atentado do Boko Haram. Foto: Diariocritico de Venezuela / Creative Commons / Flickr

Atentado do Boko Haram. Foto: Diariocritico de Venezuela / Creative Commons / Flickr

The exact date of Boko Haram’s emergence is still debated, however, it is known that similar groups existed in Borno State http://www.bornostate.gov.ng since 1995. One of these groups, named Shabaab (whis related to the word youth), was led by the Mallam Lawal[1]until 1999. Around 2000, the Mallam Mohammed Yusuf became the leader of this group, which then came to be known as Boko Haram. Between 1999 and 2001, twelve states in Nigeria adopted the Sharia Law, however, its implementation was not as strict as Yusuf wished and he started a process of getting closer to international movements such as the Al-Qaeda in order to propagate his ideas in Nigeria.

It is important to explain Yusuf’s role in Boko Haram’s expansion, relating it to what we saw in the second article of the series. Yusuf was a teacher and very popular at the Indimi Mosque, in Maiduguri. According to an investigation conducted by the Nigerian government, most of Yusuf followers were poor and illiterate young men. These were also young people who dropped out of school because they did not believe the education system could bring them financial returns in the future.

The second article of the series analysed the manipulation of ethnic and religious identities, concluding that the fight for financial resources and political power manipulated them, throwing ethnic and religious groups against one another. Yusuf’s speech about how the modern state was undermining Islam, was well received exactly among those whom the system had marginalised. And among those who believed that the modern state was violating Islam were, not coincidentally, the Nigerians who had been economic and politically excluded.

It was in this context that Yusuf widened Boko Haram’s influence to other states in the North, such as Yobe and Bauchi. In 2004, the group’s main leaders became close to a terrorist group known today as Al-Qaeda in Islamic Magreb (AQIM). The AQIM taught Boko Haram’s members fighting techniques used by Al-Qaeda and trained them in building and using Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). IEDs are low-cost homemade bombs and other explosive devices, which have high destruction power.

In 2005, the Nigerian government conducted the Operation Sawdust, which resulted in the arrest of many suspects of religious fundamentalism in the North, including Yusuf. Despite having its main leader arrested, the group did not cease its activities (until that moment, small encounters with local police forces) and Yusuf was released from prison in 2007, after a new President took office.

In 2009, Boko Haram launched its first large attacks, the ones that started in Bauchi making their way to Maiduguri. These attacks generated a violent response from the Nigerians authorities and led to the capture of hundreds of people, including Yusuf. This time, however, the former leader was immediately killed, in a controversial episode –with the government denying conducting a summary execution despite strong evidences against them. Despite this response to the 2009’s attacks, Boko Haram seems to have only gotten more powerful and each year the group’s attacks get more violent and repulsive.

In April 2014, the group kidnapped 200 schoolgirls from Chiboko secondary school, 130 km west of Maiduguri. Despite the widespread commotion, little was done to bring them back safely. In November, Boko Haram’s leaders announced the girls had been converted to Islam and sold to jihadists for marriage. January 2015, the group attacked the town of Baga, killing over two thousand people -the deadliest attack to date. In the days that followed, other attacks took place, defying the government and causing panic amongst the population.

Boko Haram’s current leader, Abubakar Shekau, is considered the main responsible for the increasing brutality and religious extremism.   Shekau has also improved the military arsenal of the group, who now has weapons such as AK47 rifles, Toyota Hilux vehicles, oil bombs and other IEDs. The sophistication of techniques and armaments brings about the question of who is paying for this bill.

Despite the absence of concrete proof, the main suspect of financing the group is still the Al-Qaeda. Other activities, such as kidnaps and illicit activities in the black market are also pointed as sources of income. Nevertheless, relations built during Yusuf’s leadership, the group’s current tactics and its modern military arsenal indicate that there is indeed a large participation of Al-Qaeda in Boko Haram’s funds.

Goodluck Jonathan, quando era governador de Bayelsa. Foto: International Institute of Agriculture / Creative Commons / Flickr

Goodluck Jonathan, quando era governador de Bayelsa. Foto: International Institute of Agriculture / Creative Commons / Flickr

After analysing the context that allowed the emergence of the group as well as the favourable conditions for its expansion, it is possible to understand the difficulty of the Nigerian government to deal with the problem. In addition to the modern military arsenal, the cultural and economic scenario also facilitates the recruitment of new members, guaranteeing constant renovation of group members. In this sense, the government should act in two different fronts simultaneously.

It is necessary to implement short-term measures with the help of other countries, especially Chad, Niger and Cameroon. The Nigerian authorities do not have the power to handle Boko Haram, making it imperative the financial support of developed countries and militarily aid of its neighbours. Besides these urgent measures, it is also necessary to find ways to reduce and end the recruitment of new members, since it has been proven that arresting and executing existing groups members is not enough to win this war.

Northern Nigeria is a region with low social indicators, where 70 per cent of the population live under the 1-dollar a day threshold. The last national census of 2010 indicates that the region has also the highest illiteracy rates of the country, and the state of Yobe has the worst figures the country -only 61.9 per cent population are literate. If we link these numbers to the discussion about how the group has more influence over illiterate young people, we can conclude that the winds are favouring Boko Haram’s expansion.

In this sense, it is important to guarantee, through social inclusion policies, that the new generation do not succumb to Boko Haram’s propaganda. The group was formed due to extremist religious views of certain members, however, the radical propaganda only had room to grow due to a scenario where Muslims in the North were systematically marginalised. While Nigeria observed rapid economic growth due to its oil reserves, inequalities surfaced, making it easier to manipulate resentment feelings.

The Nigerian case requires, in this sense, efforts that link security policies with social development and economic integration in order to avoid the group’s expansion. Nigeria will have presidential election in the end of March. Election day, originally set to be on February 14th, was postponed with the allegation that there were security threats to voters during the polls. However, this delay benefited President Goodluck Jonathan (who is seeking re-election) since it gave him more time to develop a better strategy to contain the group’s advances. Whoever wins the elections needs to understand that not even all military power in the world will be enough to contain Boko Haram, if the action plan does not include effective measures to stop the group from recruiting new members.


[1] Mallam, http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/english/mallam em Hausa, refere-se a um título honorário dado, em geral, a acadêmicos.

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