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Nigeria's Boko Haram

In recent weeks, a militant Islamic movement in northern Nigeria known popularly as Boko Haram has started to be noticed by the British press; it has even been the subject of a leader in The Guardian. It may therefore be of use here to outline some of the movement’s characteristics as it is often made to seem a newer phenomenon than it actually is.

The name.

Its formal name is the Jama’at ahl al-sunna Ii’l-daw’a wa’l-jihad, whereas its Hausa nickname, Boko Haram, reflects the group’s opposition to the westernised lifestyle of Nigeria’s governing elite. Though ‘boko’ derives from the English ‘book’ it has come to denote much more than ‘western education’ (as almost all the media repeatedly suggest); it can also colloquially mean ‘sham’, false’, ‘pseudo’ especially when referring to the pretensions of the western-educated elite to being civilised. To young radical Muslims, these pretensions are indeed ‘haram’; but, unlike an earlier radical group, they are happy to use all kinds of modern technology, and its erstwhile leader and founder Ustaz Muhammad Yusuf had, it is said, some university education. ‘Western education’, then, is not the core problem.


Originally (i.e. before 2009) the group preached against the failure of the modern lifestyles of Nigerian Muslims to be Islamic and, more importantly, against the failure of the newly implemented Shari’a to be properly enacted in those 12 states within Nigeria’s Federal Republic which had restored, ca. 2000, the full shari’a complete with hudud punishments in place of the previous penal code of 1960. Although under the constitution every citizen can hold and express whatever faith they like, some of Boko Haram’s preaching proved seriously offensive to other Muslims. Furthermore, Muhammad Yusuf publicly argued against the truth of some scientific concepts. Opposition to him and his followers led to clashes, especially with the police whom his followers tended to despise. Nonetheless, his campaign to promote a properly Islamic state won him tacit support (moral or financial) among some of the political elite as well as some sections of the public. He was even introduced once, it is said, to the American ambassador Mrs Robin Sanders.

The show-down

In 2009 clashes with the authorities led to the army being sent in with heavy weapons to take back forcibly the quarter of Maiduguri (a large town that is the capital of Borno state) where Boko Haram was based. Boko Haram, in resisting the army and the police, was all but wiped out, with some 700 killed. Muhammad Yusuf was taken alive by the army, who then handed him over to the police, whereupon he was shot. Other supporters, apparent or genuine, were also killed by the police who were not embarrassed to be photographed doing so. The second-in-command of Boko Haram, Abubakar Muhammad Shekau, was thought to have been killed then too, but it seems he was only wounded in the thigh. After a year he re-surfaced in 2010, this time as the leader. In January this year for the very first time he was seen and heard in a video posted on Youtube, explaining and justifying Boko Haram’s campaign of violence.

The current campaign

Basically the primary goal of Boko Haram is now revenge against the police and the army. Its broader stated aim, however, is to have shari’a in force throughout Nigeria, and to make Nigeria a truly Islamic state; Christians (who constitute about 50% of Nigeria’s 140 million population) are urged to convert. It is, however, Boko Haram’s use of AK47s, bombs thrown or cars packed with explosives, and other devastating devices that has formed the main agenda, with a lot of people (perhaps as many as a thousand in all) being killed or maimed. The targets have included not just police stations and banks, but also churches, beer parlours and, most notably, the UN headquarters in Abuja. Certainly some of Boko Haram’s operatives have died in these attacks, and it seems probable that the planning for delivering the car bombs involved the driver’s possible death. Nigeria is not noted for suicides; so suicide-bombers, if indeed that is what they were, are a new phenomenon, but so far the use of explosive belts and the like to target specific high-level critics of Boko Haram have not been reported – instead, drive-by shootings on motorbikes or one- or two-man hit-squads have killed many critics at or inside their houses. The police, the army and the State Security Service have yet to control or pre-empt the violence; a state of emergency has been declared in four states and ‘joint task forces’ have been sent in. 20% of Nigeria’s huge budget is now committed to security.


At root, no one knows who exactly are the men that run Boko Haram or where they might be. No one knows the scale or the structure of the network that is Boko Haram, except that it is assumed to be run like a franchise, with different ‘cells’ or factions carrying out operations in different towns. Many of the attacks attributed to Boko Haram by the media (or by street-talk) are neither claimed by Boko Haram’s elusive ‘spokesman’ nor confirmed as such by the police: criminal gangs, inter-communal feuds, even provocateurs have been identified as possibly responsible for specific attacks. The rationale for Boko Haram’s invisibility is obvious: their earlier experience in 2009 and the fate of other militant groups before them has shown clearly the risks of being out in the open. But this ‘invisibility’ makes serious talks with Government hard to initiate.


Radical groups such as Boko Haram are not new to northern Nigeria. The Muslim jama’a has seen dissent against Muslim administrations turn to violence many times over the last 200 years. Traditionally, however, such dissidents set up pious communities deep in the countryside where the governments’ agents do not harass them. What has been new since ca. 1979 has been the move of radical groups into run-down quarters of major cities. Given the massive migration of the young into the mega-cities, the urbanisation of radical Islamic dissent is thus following a normal trend – but it also means that the government of the day and its agents cannot now easily overlook the challenges to their authority made openly and stridently by radical preachers in the streets and marketplaces. In 1804-1808, one such radical but rural movement, under a very charismatic Shaikh, drew enough support that it won its jihad, and set up a reformist Islamic caliphate that was the largest pre-colonial polity in all of Africa. The caliphate still exists in modified form but it has long since lost its radical character; it even collaborated with the Christian/British colonial state. Hence, in one sense, Boko Haram and other similarly Salafi, ahl al-sunna groups are heirs of that same populist, militant radicalism. Most such groups, some of which today still exist in the countryside, are however old and quietist; they lack the urgency that Boko Haram has. But such quietism remains an option; the Government has learnt to keep an eye on them but stay away.


Two outcomes are clearly possible: one is that the security services, once they are better organised and armed, at some point do manage to eliminate Boko Haram once and for all. The other is that the Government opens negotiations with Boko Haram at least to end its campaign of violence, but that may require the Government to compensate the families that lost members in the 2009 and subsequent attacks – and that could be hard, even humiliating, to do politically: it might be seen, especially by Christians, to be rewarding extremism and murder too far. Alongside all this is a growing rhetoric against Islam and ‘backwardness’. A further, longer-term solution could be a determined attempt by Government to make good the effects of widespread poverty across the whole northern region by ensuring it has better schools, better clinics, better prospects for jobs – but also such basic urban amenities as some electricity and water. With 40% youth unemployment, Nigeria has become a breeding-ground for both despair and anger against the elites who are seen to be persistently purloining all the nation’s huge income from oil. If the Government is to forestall a much worse outcome than anything Boko Haram can threaten, then it needs a truly radical re-think of how best to manage, with evident equity and fairness, Nigeria as a whole. That would be much the best result to come out from this awful Boko Haram crisis. It might also enable radically minded Muslims to live out the sort of ultra-pious life they wish for, unmolested and unmolesting. At present even having a beard puts one at risk.

Murray Last is Professor emeritus in the Anthropology Dept., University College London, with 50 years of working in or on northern Nigeria. He received his PhD in 1964 at University College Ibadan. The thesis was published as The Sokoto Caliphate and is now available in Hausa as Daular Sakkwato. He was Professor of History at Bayero University, Kano 1978-1980 and visits Nigeria every year.