Boko Haram for Beginners

Boko Haram attack aftermath. Nigeria, October 2014.

Many people may know the name Boko Haram, but few understand where the group came from. The group originates in Borno state, Nigeria, where its insurgency began in 2009. The Muslim North is home to the poorest of Nigerians, where illiteracy is at its highest, while most of the wealth is concentrated in the Christian South. It’s also where support for the All Progressives Congress and General Muhammadu Buhari – now the conservative populist president – is most strong.

It’s not the first time that the Nigerian state has faced an insurrection. The major case was the Yan Tatsine movement, which was crushed by security forces in the early 1980s. Founded by Muhammad Marwa, a preacher known as Maitatsine, who was known for his curse-laden rants against modern society. He called for a turn to a strange form of Islam. His targets included the Nigerian state and British colonial rule. In fact, the British deported Maitatsine for his preaching.

Maitatsine would return after independence and set about cultivating his base among the poor in Kano state. In Maitatsine’s preaching, Islam had been tainted by Western forces and particularly the modern nation-state. He also targeted the Emirs of Kano and the political class. Not only did Maitatsine reject the sunnah and the hadith as “pagan”, he even rejected the prophethood of Muhammad and claimed such status for himself.

Out of the poor and repressed, Maitatsine built a movement capable of challenging the state. In 1980, the police struck at the Yan Tatsine and raided their headquarters to prevent them from preaching. But the police were outnumbered and Maitatsine’s followers took to the streets and rioted. The security forces were quick to retaliate. It would be eleven days before the rebellion was put down. Over 4,000 people died, including Maitatsine himself.

By comparison, Boko Haram took up arms following the police killing of Mohammed Yusuf in 2009. The police crackdown on the group engendered a violent reaction, which escalated into an armed conflict. By this point, Yusuf had spent several years building up his own following, like Maitatsine did, among the poorest of the poor. He railed against the Western standards of education and attacked the state for its corruption. Again, it was so successful the flow of blood has yet to end six years later.

Notably, the group’s slogan “Boko Haram”, which is often said to mean ‘Western education is forbidden’, can also be translated as ‘Western fraud is forbidden’ – implies a fight against the influence of Western institutions and culture. But this presupposes an authentic culture. These Islamists are proponents of a violent interpretation of Salafi doctrines. This puts them at odds with most African Muslims, who are the prime targets of the terror campaign.

Another Boko Haram attack. Nigeria, February 2015.
Another Boko Haram attack. Nigeria, February 2015.

Islamic State’s West African Province, as it now calls itself, functions as an alternative set of structures to mainstream society, as well as meaning beyond the state as it exists. It’s economic and social. Boko Haram is really an umbrella organisation, under which various factions operate independently. This isn’t unusual for Islamists. It’s the scale that makes Boko Haram unique. The insurgents are sometimes responsible for bigger massacres than Islamic State.

At another level, Boko Haram is not just about political Islam. The Boko Haram insurgency goes to the heart of Nigeria’s nationhood. It poses troubling questions about the unity of the state and hints at its absence. If the secession of Biafra was one response to the failure of the centralised state model, Boko Haram represents another retreat from the nation. And it’s no coincidence that there is a revival of interest in Biafra right now. So the crisis in northeastern Nigeria cuts deep into the nation’s history.

Following independence in 1960, Nigeria has been ruled mainly by the military. The first civilian government was overthrown in 1966, which was the first of many coups. It wouldn’t be until 1999 that the country would return to stable civilian governance, after the brutal general, Sani Abacha, died in the company of more than one prostitute. The People’s Democratic Party (PDP) dominated Nigerian political life for 16 years. Corruption and poverty prevailed under the PDP, but the party’s failure to defeat Boko Haram would cost it dearly.

Power is still concentrated in the hands of a few Nigerians with little accountability for the state apparatus. Out of the death toll of the insurgency, it is estimated that the security forces are responsible for half of the deaths. Mass torture and extrajudicial killings are rife. This is the apparatus of the elites in action. No wonder some Nigerians believe the group was invented by the PDP government as a pretext to depopulate the Muslim North.

Any regional effort to defeat Boko Haram has to take into account these factors. It’s not just a question of how to put down the insurgents. It’s a matter of what kind of institutions the country needs, and what kind of economy would foster greater unity. If the conditions of scarcity, illiteracy and poverty remain in the North, then it’s likely the demise of Boko Haram would just give way to new groups in the future.


Photographs courtesy of Global Panorama and TGP. Published under a Creative Commons license.