Few outside of Nigeria have ever heard of Boko Haram (hereafter BH). Nigeria, too, in the broad scheme of international relations, hardly seems a country of much consequence. But BH violence in Nigeria over the past ten years should sound an ominous warning: Nigeria today has more to do with the future of our civilization than may be immediately apparent.
An oil-rich country and Africa’s most populous, but with a mostly subsistence-level peasantry despite its oil wealth, Nigeria has been riven by religious animosity and violence since a group of jihadist extremists in the Muslim majority (c. 50-60% of the population) began to impose Shari’a law on the twelve northern provinces where most Muslims live. The Christian Nigerians, and many Muslims as well, preferred a secular democracy; but Shari’a has become the law of the land in most of these northern provinces; and what these Muslim jihadists failed to achieve via political means, they seek to achieve by violence: Hence the BH.
Boko Haram in Hausa (the Nigerian dialect spoken in most of the northern provinces) means “western education is sinful.” It is the more common name for a violent jihadist Muslim sect officially known as “Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal Jihad” [the committee for the propagation of Muhammad’s teachings for proselytizing and for Jihad]. The group seeks the imposition of Shari’a law and the extreme Islamist ideology of the supremacy of the Islam and the sinfulness of western education, on northern Nigeria, and ultimately on all of Nigeria, by force. The purpose of the violence begun in 2002 is to topple the current government and establish Islamic rule for all of Nigeria. Critics, intellectuals, and lawmakers who might stand in the way are threatened or killed. With that goal in mind, the BH rejects all aspects of western and other non-Muslim culture, eschews democratic government, rails against elections, opposes wearing western garb, and outlaws secular education.
The BH created its own schools in northern Nigeria, and these provide a fertile recruiting ground for new young violent jihadist.
The commitment of the group’s leadership to fundamentalist jihadist Muslim teaching is so strong that their former leader, Ustaz Mohammed Yusuf, explained during a BBC interview in 2009 that western-style education and science contradict the Qur’an, as do the western assertions that the world is a sphere and rain comes from condensed moisture in clouds. Because of these putative contradictions, the BH sees western education as sinful and hence forbidden to Muslims. Needless to say, there are many Muslims in Nigeria and elsewhere who disagree.
The group started in the 1960’s as a secluded fundamentalist Islamic sect, small and seemingly harmless. But less than twenty years later its adherents caused inter-religious sectarian riots in 1980 in which 4000 died. In 1984 violence erupted again with at least a thousand dead and more than 60,000 driven from their homes. Hundreds more were killed in 1985.
Initially the government denied the role of Islam in the violence. Apologists said that the ranks of the BH were drawn largely from disaffected youth, drug addicts, hooligans, and common criminals who used Islamic extremism as a front for criminal activities.
But the influence of jihadist Muslim ideology and Arab Islamic terror organizations is clear. The BH refer to themselves as the “Nigerian Taliban,” apparently inspired by the success of al-Qaeda on September 11, 2001. “Afghanistan” is the name of their base in northern Nigeria. Some suggest that it was perhaps not coincidental that Ustaz Mohammed Yusuf took control of the group in late 2001, just a few months after 9/11, and at once escalated violence and began a terror war against the Nigerian government, in imitation of the Taliban.
Moreover, it seems that at least some in Nigeria’s Department of State Security were unwilling to take seriously the threat that the BH pose. According to official reports, proper authorities were informed of BH plans to start a new cycle of violence, but nothing was done.
In the 80’s the government acquiesced to the BH intimidation and threats of more violence, and by doing so, enabled the terrorists to gain more power and control. Some Muslim leaders in the government, sympathetic to the BH, secretly protected them, funded them, and legitimized their actions. Police were warned about the growth in numbers and power of BH over the years, but ignored these warnings until 2002 when the new attacks began. With no concerted opposition, the BH was able to grow rapidly and attract many new adherents. In what was in essence a power vacuum, the BH enjoyed easy recruitment and freedom for violent attacks.
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