Throughout modern history, internal strife has burdened Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria. The past fifty years, for example, have witnessed numerous coups as well as regional, religious and secessionist violence, whilst acts of piracy in the Niger Delta seem to have characterised much of the current period of democracy. Over the course of the past two years, however, a new form of discord has emerged in which religious extremists threaten to bring about greater insecurity than those that preceded them. In this regard, the recent attacks by the Islamic sect Boko Haram, which have killed more than 400 people in 2011 alone,(2) have shocked the world and jolted local and international authorities into action. The threat of Al-Qaeda rooting itself in Africa now remains a reality.
This discussion paper will place the current insecurity in Nigeria in context by reviewing the roots and rise of the terrorist group Boko Haram. In doing so, it will evaluate how this West African powerhouse arrived at the point where the state today faces bushfires on all sides. In this regard, it will highlight state ineffectiveness and oppression as the fundamental culprits. Thereafter, an assessment of future implications for the nation and the region will be provided in light of the new form of violence that has found its home in Africa.
The rise of Boko Haram
Although most had not heard of Boko Haram before its bomb attack on the headquarters of the United Nations (UN) in Abuja in August 2011, the Islamic religious sect has operated in Nigeria for almost a decade since its establishment in 2002. Founded under the leadership of Mohammad Yusuf in Borno state, Boko Haram officially calls itself Jama’atul Alhul Sunnah Lidda’wati wal jihad, or ‘people committed to the propagation of the prophet’s teachings and jihad.’ The Nigerian state allocated the name ‘Boko Haram’ to the group itself, which roughly translates into ‘western education is sin.’(3)
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the group’s original purpose was to promote the religion of Islam and implement Sharia law in the country’s northern states. In doing so, Yusuf criticised northern Muslims for participating in what he believed to be an illegitimate state and encouraged his followers to protest and withdraw from Christian politics governing the country from the south. Tension between northern and southern states in Nigeria, however, is not unique but forms a large part of the country’s history. In fact, the very advent of democracy in 1999 saw southern Christians gain power over the northern Muslim elite, which contributed to much resentment. Boko Haram therefore perceived Christians residing in the south as the largest corrupting influence in Government. After decades of ineffective and volatile regimes, Yusuf sought to create a ‘better’ Nigeria through strict adherence to Islam. Followers of Boko Haram at the time consisted largely of impoverished northern Muslims, as well as university students and even professionals who were unemployed because of poor Government policies, often tied to Christian leaders.(4)
The very frustrations that many Nigerians harboured in their newfound democracy, including corruption and poor economic opportunity, thus contributed to the formation of this Islamic sect. Although Boko Haram was by no means a truly peaceful organisation upon its establishment nearly a decade ago, subsequent severe Government oppression of the group transformed it into the radical body known today.
The radicalisation of the Islamic Sect
By 2009 the police and Boko Haram were at loggerheads. The Council on Foreign Relations further notes that a dispute between the two bodies regarding a motorbike-helmet law quickly turned violent and sparked off an armed uprising in the northern state of Bauchi during July of that year.(5) The states of Borno, Kano and Yobe quickly followed suit, which spurred on an even harsher response by the nation’s army. At the end of the incident, more than 800 people had died whilst many members of the Islamic group faced execution. Most importantly, Government publicly executed the sect’s leader, Mohammed Yusuf on live television.(6)
The year 2009 thus represented a watershed moment in Boko Haram’s history. Immediately following the public execution of its leader, the group launched an Islamic insurrection and began to carry out a series of bombings and assassinations across the Nigerian state. Over the course of the past two years, these attacks have increased in skill as well as intensity. The latest attacks in November 2011, for example, saw the sect target churches, mosques, banks and police stations, leaving at least 150 people dead. Moreover, Boko Haram no longer discriminates amongst its victims as it now targets Christians and Muslims alike.(7)
It is this radicalisation and, admittedly, sophistication of the sect that has caused many to speculate that Boko Haram has established ties with external forces such as Al-Qaeda in the Middle East and even al-Shabaab in Somalia.(8) Where the group previously devoted its activities to amending local grievances, it now works in collaboration with outside terrorist groups. This transformation has severe consequences for the region.
Implications for sub Saharan Africa
If one were to review conflict across the continent, it becomes apparent that economic, ethnic or political isolation has traditionally galvanised wars and not necessarily religious extremism. In this regard, Africa is familiar with secessionist movements such as in Angola and Sudan, genocide such as in Burundi and Rwanda, as well as political movements such as in Zimbabwe. With this lack of significant experience with Islamic fundamentalism, the continent will find it hard to resolve such conflicts as the use of a coalition Government or the granting of amnesty will offer no relief.
Global trends suggest, however, that the only viable response is force and Nigeria is following suit. Africa’s most populous nation is currently witnessing the largest internal deployment of its army since its civil war over fifty years ago.(9) Moreover, global superpowers have jumped on board to pledge their allegiance, with France, Israel, the United Kingdom and the United States already offering military support and additional training.(10) Whether such tactics work remains to be seen, although Nigerian history indicates that the use of Government force galvanises greater retaliation by the masses more often than not.
Nigeria’s immediate future therefore remains particularly uncertain as the state not only faces bushfires on all sides, but this time faces a very different force, which threatens to change conventional approaches to maintaining stability.
Upon travelling to Nigeria one has often heard Nigerians themselves stating that the very physical location of their country in Africa serves as a trigger point for the continent to be used for good or bad. The importance of Africa’s most populous nation for the wellbeing of the region is indisputable, which in turn sounds loud alarm bells regarding the country’s current state of affairs. Islamic extremism embodied in Boko Haram therefore marks a significant turning point in traditions of conflict, not only for Nigeria, but also for sub-Saharan Africa as a whole.
(1) Keri Leicher is an Intern for Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Africa Watch Unit.
(2) ‘Nigeria: Boko Haram attacks indefensible,’ Human Rights Watch, 8 November 2011, http://www.hrw.org.
(4) Council on Foreign Relations website, http://www.cfr.org.
(7) Aminu Abubakar, ‘US warns of possible Nigeria attacks,’ Mail and Guardian, 7 November 2011, www.mg.co.za.
(8) Karen Leigh, ‘Nigeria’s Boko Haram: Al-Qaeda’s new friend in Africa?,’ Time, 31 August 2011, www.time.com.
(9) The International Institute for Strategic Studies website, www.iiss.org.
(10) ‘Boko Haram: US trains Nigerian soldiers on counter terrorism,’ This Day Live, 9 November 2011, www.thisdaylive.com and ‘France to help Nigeria with Boko Haram militants,’ Defence Web, 23 November 2011, www.defenceweb.co.za.