English, Human Rights The origins of Boko Haram – deconstructing myths
Festival de Olojo em Lfe. Foto: Juju Films / Creative Commons / Flickr

The origins of Boko Haram – deconstructing myths

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Why the crisis in Nigeria is not ‘another African conflict’

Wars in Africa are usually considered ordinary and frequently fall into the category of ‘ethnic conflicts’. Few take their time to understand the true roots of each conflict, missing out the opportunity to find peaceful solutions. As it is difficult to give an answer without knowing the question, it is also hard to reach a solution without knowing the problem. Continuing the analysis that compared the international attention to the attacks in Paris and Baga, this article will look at Nigeria’s history, aiming to identify elements that contributed to Boko Haram’s rising.

Usually considered a highly divided state, Nigeria has a complex social scenario, where different groups fight for political and economic power. It is important to note that these divisions go beyond ethnic and religious divergences, from before and during the colonial times. The history of Nigeria destroys myths about the role of ethnic diversity in decolonisation processes in Africa, usually considered the reasons of wars in the continent.

It is often said that the origins of conflicts in Africa are found in the territorial division made by European countries during colonisation. In many countries, indeed, these divisions brought together enemy tribes, leading to tensions and armed conflicts. Oppressed by the colonial elites during decades, groups who were excluded during the colonial time, saw in the independence processes their first chance to obtain power. Nevertheless, despite independence processes being the catalysers of many internal conflicts, it is generalist to blame exclusively the diversity of ethnic groups.

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In Tanzania, for instance, where there are over 120 tribes, there was no internal conflict. The country’s first President, Julius Nyerere, developed an ambitious unification plan, which despite having generated problems in the education and health systems, was successful in developing a feeling of national identity among all sectors of the population. On the other hand, Rwanda, which had significantly less tribes than Tanzania, witnessed one of the world’s most horrific genocides. In Rwanda, as in Nigeria, instead of bringing groups together, the post-independence period manipulated ethnic and religious identities, creating tensions and hostilities amongst them.

Adoração a Julius Nyerere. Foto: nukta77 / Creative Commons / Flickr

Worship to Julius Nyerere. Photo: nukta77 / Creative Commons / Flickr

At this point, two myths about Africa are destroyed. The first regards the cause and effect relationship between large ethnic diversity and the probability of conflicts. The second refers to the wrong idea that hostilities between these groups arose due solely to ethnic and religious divergences. The kind of relation with the former metropolis, as well as the natural resources of each country, have also contributed to the conflagration and proportion of conflicts after independence processes. However, none of these elements alone can be pointed as the responsible for the wars in Africa. Their combination of ethnic and religious identities, the economic and political atmosphere, as well as the relations with the metropolis, was the true determinant of violent or peaceful independent nations.

After demystifying the previous pre-conceptions, we can begin to analyse how Nigeria’s history influenced the rise of Boko Haram. A former British colony, the country became independent in 1960 through a peaceful process. A few years later, internal divisions (previous and post colonisation) led to a coup d’etat and a subsequent establishment of an authoritarian regime. In the following decades, the country observed great political instability due to successive regime overthrows, the sectarian movement who formed the Republic of Biafra in 1967, and the absence of lasting democratic elected presidents until 1999.

The previously mentioned internal divisions help to explain the decades of conflicts and instability. Nigeria has three main ethnic groups, that together represent more than 50% of the population: Hausa-Fulani in the North, Yoruba in the South-West, and Igbo in the South-East. These are considered ethnic majorities and they are further divided into 347 smaller tribes. In terms of religion, 50% of the population is Muslim, 40% Christian, and 10% from other religions, usually from indigenous tribes.

Considering identity as feeling of belonging to a group (whether religious, ethnic, political, economic or cultural), it is possible to argue that in Nigeria‘s identity formation is very complex. A good example is the Northern region, where many groups identify themselves more as Muslims than as member of a given tribe. It can be said that religion, in this sense, has a more powerful influence in people’s behaviour and sentiment of solidarity.

This complexity of identities has not been the sole reason for Nigeria being a divided and violent State. The interconnectivity of identities can only explain hostilities in the country when combined with territorial claims, fight for control of natural resources, political participation, access to business and trade opportunities, and structural development of certain regions of the country.

T-55A Nigeriano. Foto: K. Aksoy / Creative Commons / Flickr

T-55A Nigeriano. Foto: K. Aksoy / Creative Commons / Flickr

Using the Northern Nigeria as an example again, it is possible to see that the majority of people who identify themselves as Muslims was also neglected politically and economically for decades. Another example is the civil war, also known as the Biafra War, which took place from 1967 to 1970. In this occasion, people mainly from the Igbo groups declared independence due to frustrations related to little economic opportunities, lack of participation in the new formed regime and in the national army, as well as ethnic and religious divergences.

And this is how Boko Haram comes into the picture. During decades, some Muslims from different ethnic tribes in Northern Nigeria were systematically marginalised socially, politically and economically from the rest of the country. Boko Haram was born out of this feeling of abandonment, but it also manipulated it in order to impose its radical goals of turning Nigeria into an Islamic republic. This ‘islamisation’, according to their plan would include the establishment of the Sharia Law as a way of compensating Muslims for the decades of exclusion.


Although Boko Haram raised the flag of union amongst Muslims and their inclusion in the Nigerian society, it is known that the intention of imposing the Sharia Law has less to do with religious solidarity and more to do with a search for power. Not that if Boko Haram’s actions were based on religious solidarity they would have been justified. However, extremist acts carried out in the name of Islam are not supported by the majority of Muslims in the country, who are also against the establishment of the Sharia Law and the radical political plans of the terrorist group.

In the next, and last, article of the Boko Haram’s series, Politike will analyse the groups uprising in 2009 and subsequent terrorist acts as well as the government’s attempts of contention. We will examine who funds Boko Haram, how their tactics are similar to those of Al-Qaeda, and which are the possible solutions to the crisis.

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