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The origins of Boko Haram and the factors that facilitated its rise from obscurity.

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Nigerian Army assisting displaced civilians. Credit: VOA News

Radicalisation is a poisonous aspect of the contemporary world which has taken a hold in many different parts of the globe. One such place is Nigeria and through the emergence of Boko Haram in the northern areas of the country, the deadly origins and effects of radicalisation in Nigeria can be understood. Firstly, the history of the emirates in northern Nigeria is paramount in laying the foundations for the subsequent radical movements that came about in the end of the 20th Century and the beginning of the 21st Century. Secondly, the far-reaching effects of the two main waves of globalisation played a substantial role in cultivating an environment where a radical and distorted version of Islam could flourish. Next, the role of Shariah law in the northern states is indicative of the complexities of the conflict as it is not as simple a case as Islam vs Christianity since even states with Shariah law applied were targeted by radical Muslims. Moreover, the complex web of ethnicities and religions which form the country point to the effectiveness of radical Islam in creating intra-ethnic strife. Nigeria is not alone in having a complex mosaic of ethnicities and religions as can be seen through the partition of Sudan into Sudan and South Sudan. A comparison between Sudan and Nigeria highlights the unique aspects of Nigeria which show the limited reach of Boko Haram’s capabilities. Furthermore, the negative effect of the infamous resource curse on Nigeria which has plagued many developing countries has an extremely strong effect on the level of support that Boko Haram manages to garner from the north as a weaker central state would strengthen anti-state actors. Finally, the failure of political Islam is also a large factor in the emergence and rapid rise of terrorist groups around the world such as Boko Haram.

The northern part of Nigeria, inhabited primarily by Sunni Muslims, is unique in the manner by which it was administered by the British during colonial rule. The region was historically administered by emirs who ruled over their own emirates and Lord Lugard, who was the appointed British governor of northern Nigeria, left most of the power in the emirs’ hands when he conquered Sokoto in 1903. Lugard was impressed by the efficiency of the Emir’s administrative rule thereby allowing them to rule their own emirates through the concept of indirect rule (Hogden 1967). Furthermore, through this indirect rule policy, the British colonisers prevented the movement of missionaries into the northern emirates thereby creating an environment that was not conducive to inter-religious mingling. Due to this, the north and south of Nigeria seemed to have an even bigger fissure between them in terms of ideologies and way of life. This is a key moment in the historical context of Nigeria as it provided the backdrop for some of the radical insurgencies that have plagued the state in the past thirty odd years because since the northern states had long had some sort of autonomy from the central government,, it would have made them more susceptible to anti-state elements such as Maitatsine and Boko Haram.

A significant figure in the history of Islamic fundamentalism in Nigeria was the radical preacher Mohamad Marwa, more commonly known as Maitatsine which is a Hausa word for “the ones who damns” referring to his heavy and hate-filled speeches directed at the government from 1970 to 1980 (Adesoji 2011). He was a religious teacher in Cameroon before he moved to Nigeria where he proceeded to spout extreme interpretations of Islam that were too far outside the pale of Islam to be accepted by mainstream Muslim scholars. As a result, Maitastine’s followers felt alienated from some Muslim scholars for two reasons. Firstly, the Muslim clerics and scholars of the north did not share in Maitastine’s belief that he was a prophet as this directly contradicted the core tenants of Islam. Secondly, his followers believed the scholars should be doing more to help the plight of the poor Muslims and thus Maitatsine’s teachings and the subsequent violence that arose because of them are sometimes seen as the origins of Boko Haram’s philosophy. While Maitatsine’s beliefs were extremely removed from the fundamental teachings of Islam since he went so far as to reduce the standing of the Prophet Muhammad, he did manage to attract a fairly robust following who fought against government forces. This indicates that he and his followers were not even well versed in the fundamentals of the very religion they were trying to protect. As a result, the Maitatsine movement died alongside Maitatsine himself unlike the current Boko Haram movement which has survived the death of its founder.

Boko Haram’s history can be dated to the teachings of radical Sunni Muslim cleric Muhamad Yusuf who initially founded the movement in 2002 as a far less violent group than what it is perceived to be today. Boko Haram, Hausa for “western education is forbidden” is actually a nickname for the group which is officially called Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’Awati Wal-Jihad (People Committed to the Prophet’s Teachings for Propagation and Jihad) (Adesoji 2010). From its name, it is clear that Yusuf was far more orthodox in the fundamentals of Islam than Maitatsine since Yusuf correctly recognized the finality of prophet hood in Islam which ended with the Prophet Muhammad. As a result, the movement has been able to attract a far larger following than Maitatsine in its northern heartlands of Borno, Sokoto, Yobe and Kano among others. In its initial days, the group, while radical, did not partake in the level of violence that is seen today. The surge in violence came about after the death of Yusuf, killed by security forces in 2009, when his successor Abu Bakr Shekau took to the helm (Okpaga et al, 2012). Under his leadership, Boko Haram has morphed into a far more violent movement while continuing to preach their vehemently anti-Western agenda.

An integral part in understanding the current security and political landscape in Nigeria is to assess the effect that the two major waves of globalization had on the West African nation as well as the role they had on sowing the seeds for groups such as Boko Haram to emerge. The 1st wave of globalization occurred from the end of the 1800s to the beginning of the 20th century. This reflects a period where internationalisation became far more prevalent with capital and goods moving much more freely globally due to an increasing number of nations removing trade barriers as well as the developments in technology at the time. This wave is broadly looked at as a period in human history where direct contact from a civilisation from one end of the planet to another at the opposite end was not seen as ludicrous. The main global divide during this period was between the North and South as opposed to the current divide between the West and East. The North referred mainly to the colonising and developed powers such as the United States and Europe whereas the South referred to the less developed regions such as those in Africa which usually included areas under colonial rule (Baldwin et al, 1999).  This wave of globalization was paramount in reducing the effect of distance in keeping cultures completely foreign to one another. This is also known as “the death of distance”. The French colonizing parts of Africa resulted in African countries such as Algeria and Morocco having heavy French influences in their cultural and linguistic spheres. Moreover the rule of the British Raj over the Indian Subcontinent is another stark reminder of the heavy effects that the 1st wave of globalization had on the world.

The 2nd wave of globalization began in the post-World War 2 period where many of the world’s economies were reeling from the effects of the war. Although a core feature of this period were the feats of independence achieved by many nations, including Nigeria, it did not necessarily result in a more equal and free world. Even though many of these nations were now independent nations, they were still far behind the rest of the world in terms of development and their plight was not helped by the structural adjustment programmes that became a hallmark of the period. The programmes included the global powers at the time giving loans to developing countries which they could not possibly pay off thus resulting in further loans being taken and a vicious cycle forming where the developing countries were forever playing catch up (Gibbon et al, 1996). The opening up of the world’s markets and the ease of global communications are also major aspects of this wave however one big difference between the 1st and 2nd waves of globalisation is that during the former, the entire world was mostly poor and agrarian whereas during the 2nd, there was a distinct divide between the rich and poor countries (Baldwin et al, 1999). Possibly, due to the combination of this increasingly apparent global divide as well as the death of distance due to the innovations in technology and the increase in trade, disenfranchised inhabitants of the third world have turned to groups such as Boko Haram. Although the death of distance may result in different cultures intermingling and thus being more understanding of one another, it could also have the opposite effect. Supporters of Boko Haram may be affected by the ease with which they can access information from the West since comparing their own living conditions with the relative luxury of the West would generate heavy feelings of bitterness. Furthermore this is fuelled by the fact that many African countries partly consider their current economic strife to be a result of the unrelenting policies of structural adjustment thus resulting in a very anti-Western environment being cultivated. Since a clear schism was formed between ‘us’ and ‘them’ from the perspective of Nigerians, it was much easier for radical preachers of Islamic fundamentalism to prey on an already volatile population in some areas of the north who were every ready to reject Western influences. This can be compared to the experiences of Syed Qutb, a famous Egyptian radical Islamic theorist who was a major proponent of rejecting Western values and culture in the Arab world after he lived in the United States for two years (Lenshi et al 2014). Similarly, members of Boko Haram vehemently oppose all Western ideals even though the current global environment has closed the communication gap between countries therefore indicating that the convergence of cultures may not necessarily prove their compatibility.

The demographics of Nigeria are built as such that the state is split horizontally across the middle of the country with the North being predominately Muslim while the South is dominated by Christians. A recent Pew study has shown that the country is split equally between Muslims and Christians thus laying the foundation for future conflict as there is not clear majority religious group in the country (Green 2011). This in itself creates a natural divide within the country, making the establishment more susceptible to anti-state elements such as Boko Haram as the national unity would be adversely affected by the natural split based on religion. Since Boko Haram has mainly been active in a few states of the north, it is important to note the commonalities of these states to uncover a trend whereby these regions are more susceptible to be influenced by a group such as Boko Haram. Some states that are have been regularly affected by Boko Haram-led violence are Borno, Yobe, Kano and Sokoto. The first glaring similarity amongst these states are that they are all situated in the Muslim majority north of the country. This would naturally make them easier targets for violence since many of the Boko Haram supporters come from or reside in that region. Secondly, as is the case with the majority of the Northern States, these four states have instituted Shariah in full in their legal framework including in their criminal code (Harnischfeger 2004). This may seem counter-productive to the argument since the states with Shariah Law already instituted would be seen through a more sympathetic lens from the viewpoint of Boko Haram. However it seems the opposite reaction has taken place as the Shariah states have cultivated a section of the Muslim population that have been radicalised to the point that even living in a Shariah run state is not enough for them. Thirdly and arguably most importantly, many of the disenfranchised Muslims in the north lay the blame on their Muslim leaders for not doing enough to alleviate their plight. This is an important point to note in the Boko Haram insurgency as they do not solely target non-Muslims, they target all those who do not conform to their rigid interpretation of Islam (Walker 2012). This final point is fuelled by the relative economic disparity between the North and South as the residents of the North would be more likely to lash out and take up arms against the government if they felt they were being sidelined. Therefore, as a result of these three integral aspects of the four states of Borno, Yobe, Kano and Sokoto, the nefarious ideologies of Boko Haram have been able to find a solid foothold in a sizeable number of households of the north.

The concept of ethnicity is one that is ever-present in most African countries and its role in Nigeria’s complex internal strife cannot be ignored. The fact that asides from religion, ethnicity also plays a substantial role in the way Nigerian society behaves is paramount in understanding the conflict between members of the same religion or sect. Firstly, the fact that there are around 230 to 240 most common ethnic groups in Nigeria instantly showcases the immense level of cultural diversity that is present in the country. However the main overarching ethnic groups in the country are the Yoruba in the southwest who account for 21% of the population, the Igbo in the southeast who account for 29 percent of the population and the Hausa in the North who account for 29 percent of the population (Nnoli 1995). Although ethnic divisions on their own are enough to cause severe problems for a nation, the addition of religious identities within those ethnic groups further exacerbates the divisions. The Hausa are mostly Muslim, the Igbo are mostly Christian and the Yoruba are composed equally of Muslims and Christians, once again showing a divided population. The ethnic groups in Nigeria are complicated because some people may fall under two groups as some may speak the language of one but be ethnically tied to another. For example most of the inhabitants of the North can speak the Hausa language therefore when they move to other areas of the nation they can pose as Hausas even though they may not actually be ethnically Hausa. This is at times indicative of the flimsy nature of ethnicity as it can be easily constructed and de-constructed depending on the situation. As a result, religion has taken the place of ethnicity where it is weak. Where previously people from the same ethnic groups would be a very tightknit group, the reach of radical Islam has loosened the bonds within the ethnic groups thus allowing people to turn against their ethnic brethren with more ease. At times even moderate Muslims in the north have often been targets of their more extreme brethren for not following their version of Islam thus showing that radical Islam makes no distinction between ethnicities or even religion unless it is their own dogmatic view.

One recent development in the African political world that can be comparable to the strife in Nigeria is the splitting up of Sudan into two countries, South Sudan and Sudan. The Sudanese conflict can be traced back around sixty odd years as a civil war between the predominately northern Arab Sudanese population and the non-Arab speaking inhabitants of Southern Sudan (Christopher 2011). The current leader of Sudan, Omar Al Bashir, has been internationally condemned by most nations due to his heavy-handedness in the civil war which resulted in the deaths of countless innocents. Like Nigeria, South Sudan and Sudan are split predominately on religious lines as the North is predominately Muslim while the South is majority Christian. However the main distinguishing factors between the two nations is that first, Nigeria has not yet split up thus pointing towards an aspect of their society that keeps it intact and secondly the economic and political stature of both countries is vastly different with Nigeria being a strong regional power whereas Sudan was ostracized as a single country under the rule of Omar Al Bashir. One overarching reason as to why Sudan split but Nigeria still remained intact is the fact that in Sudan the masses on both sides of the conflict supported their respective sides whereas the radical Islamists of Nigeria are limited only the enclaves in the North of the country without the support of the majority of the population. If the majority of the northern residents were to support an anti-state group such as Boko Haram, then the likelihood of the north seceding would be far higher since the will of the people would also be taken it account, disintegrating the conflict into a full-blown civil war akin to Sudan. However at present, the followers of Boko Haram are not interested in gaining the support of the masses per say but rather aim to silence or kill anyone that opposes their rigid worldview. As a result, Boko Haram has been largely isolated from the rest of the Nigerian population in terms of mass support thus helping ensure the writ of the state in the many areas not under extremist control. The second reason as to why Nigeria has so far been able to stay intact is it relative strong regional influence as compared to pre-partitioned Sudan. Most recently, the Nigerian economy overtook South Africa to become Africa’s largest economy which is imperative in understanding the stronger national unity seen in Nigeria as opposed to Sudan. When the population of a region are faced with economic and social hardships then national cohesion and allegiance to the state are put under the scanner and this could be clearly seen through the economic disparity in the north and south of Sudan prior to its partition.

Building on the point of Nigeria being a strong African power with a robust economy, the fact that Nigeria suffers from the dreaded resource curse is also very important in helping to explain the rise of some of Nigeria’s religious fundamentalists. The resource curse can be summarized as a country having an abundance of a particular resource which ultimately results in that country having slower economic growth than a nation without an abundance of a particular resource. The low economic growth can be attributed to various factors such as the unwillingness of the government to sustain growth in other economic sectors of the growth and the lack of infrastructural development invested by the country due to the complacent idea that the resource can solely provide for the nation and thirdly the unwillingness of other world powers to ignore the country due to its much vied for commodity. In Nigeria’s case, the resource curse is very much a real threat due to the abundance of oil present in the country (Sala-i-Martin 2003). Nigeria started commercially producing oil in 1956 and since 1970 it has been one of the main fuels for the economy. From 1960 to 1976, Nigeria went from exporting predominately agricultural goods to mainly supplying oil (Khan 1994). Like many of the oil-rich Gulf states, Nigeria also aimed to use its revenues from selling oil to further develop the nation. However this was not achieved as the level of development from the time Nigeria started selling oil commercially to the present date has been fairly negative. From 1970 to the middle of the 1990s the level of extreme poverty in Nigeria shot up from 30% to a whopping 70% (Aigbokhan 2000) thereby clearly showcasing the effects of the resource curse with regards to Nigeria’s oil. All this is extremely important in the context of Boko Haram and the amount of support they manage to achieve since the economic disparity that is prevalent between some areas of the North and the South can be attributed to a lack of infrastructure and development invested by the government due to the resource curse. Due to the constant flow of income due to the sale of oil, the government is less pushed to invest in domestic infrastructural projects that would help generate revenue from within the country and alleviate some of the issues of the lower class. Consequently, the resource curse is indirectly responsible for the swelling of Boko Haram’s ranks through the bitterness formed by residents of some areas of the North who don’t receive any benefits from the oil-rich government.

An aspect of the modern world which has also played a substantial role in the rise and effectiveness of Boko Haram as a terrorist group to be taken seriously is the failure of political Islam around the Muslim world during the latter stages of the 20th Century and the rise of global Islamic terrorism. For example the failure of the Islamist movements such as Hassan al Banna’s Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Abul A’la Maududi’s Jamaat-e-Islami in South Asia is indicative of an experiment that has not worked from the perspective of Islamists. Both these Islamist movements aimed to come to power through using the political systems already in place in those countries therefore attempting a bottom-up approach to effect change rather than the top-down approach which is usually connected to uprisings, government takeovers or revolutions. However, the Muslim Brotherhood, asides from their short-lived victory in the 2011 Arab Spring, have not managed to gain any substantial power in the Egyptian political system. Similarly, the Jamaat-e-Islami in present day Pakistan receives a mere pittance of the total percentage of votes in Pakistani general elections (Mukherjee 2010). As a result, the experiment of Islamism through the democratic system is considered to be a failure since very few Islamist parties have been able to take power through an electoral process (Roy 1994). Hence, the scourge of global terrorism was born as a result of the failure of Islamists to gain a foothold in countries through the democratic process. Asides from being able to attract instant and important attention worldwide through undertaking terrorist activities, groups such as Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan have inspired a fair amount of offshoots to be formed around the Muslim World. Similarly, the rise of ISIS or Daesh as they are sometimes referred to is the most dangerous manifestation of radical Islam. Its impact and influence on organizations such as Boko Haram may lead the latter to adopt even more barbaric and violent methods. In Africa alone there have been several major terrorist organisations who have come to the forefront of world affairs in the past two decades. Among these are the Mali based Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Somalia based Al Shabaab and the newly formed Ansaru, a splinter group of Boko Haram in Nigeria (Filiu 2010). It is clear that the failure of political Islam has given terrorism its chance to shine since it offers an alternative to the slow and often ineffectual bottom-down approach that Islamists were attempting in the 80s and 90s. Kamran Bokhari provides remarkable insight is to classify how Islamists have attempted to gain political power. He mentions political Islamist actors are divided into three categories:” participators, who see Islam and democracy as compatible; conditionalists, who accept and participate in democratic channels but see a conflict between human sovereignty ruling where they believe divine sovereignty should; and rejectors, who see democracy as wholly un-Islamic.” (Bokhari 2013) Boko Haram falls within the last category, highlighting the task cut out for the Nigerian authorities in attempting to reign in the group since they reject the entire Nigerian system. This global brand of Islamic terrorism that has exploded in recent times has also boosted the audacity and motivation levels of Boko Haram to carry out more and more violent attacks. Boko Haram managed to garner the attention of the entire world by kidnapping 276 schoolgirls from their secondary school in Chibok, Borno. The fact that one act of terrorism was seemingly more effective in getting the world to take notice of Boko Haram than the years of non-violent preaching is paramount in understanding the huge effect the brand of global terrorism has had on Boko Haram to engage in even more violent activities.

Nigeria is a country replete with culture, history, diversity and a myriad of ethnicities. All this would point to a vibrant society full of inter-connectedness. However the emergence of Boko Haram has severely disrupted the development of Africa’s largest economy due to factors such as security fears scaring away investment and deepening divisions between the country’s two main religious groups, Muslims and Christians. The origins of the group can be traced back to 2002 but it is pertinent to look at the effect that the Maitatsine movement had on the susceptible inhabitants of the North. This movement, being a precursor to Boko Haram, allowed the radical elements of the country to gain an initial foothold within some sections of the population thus preparing the region for the subsequent arrival of Boko Haram a few decades later. However even before Maitatsine, the decisions made by Lord Lugard in 1903 in allowing the emirs to rule their own regions also had long-lasting effects by creating a social gulf between the north and the central government which laid the foundations for some anti-state elements to grow in the north. The two waves of globalization also help to explain one of the core tenants of Boko Haram’s ideology of being extremely anti-Western, even more so than other radical terrorist groups around the world such as Al Qaeda and the Taliban who while thrive on anti-western sentiments, are not as strict in their prohibitions of Western products. The waves of globalization resulted in the convergence of world civilisations and ended up causing the death of distance. This coupled with the fact that northern Nigeria is less under the authority of the federal government than the south resulted in a violent reaction in the form of Boko Haram. However, the divide in Nigeria is not solely between the north and the south as can be seen by the fact that Boko Haram routinely targets states which are already under Shariah law thereby showing that Muslim on Muslim violence is also common as the extremists do not feel connected to the Muslim elites of the north. The relationship between religion and ethnicity in Nigeria is also important in highlighting the brittle structure of some ethnic groups as the ethnic bonds can be easily overpowered by religious ones. The comparison with South Sudan also helps in understanding the trajectory internal conflict can take in an African country split between Muslims and Christians. The main point taken from this comparison is that unless a movement has the support of the masses, it is very difficult to exact political change within a country highlighting that the chances for Boko Haram to completely take over the Nigerian state is still very low. The effect of Nigeria’s resource curse cannot be ignored as it plays a role in the lack of infrastructural development in parts of the country which in turn fuel anti-state and radical ideologies. Finally, the failure of political Islam around the world and the emergence of a large number of radical Islamic terrorist groups such as ISIS has inspired groups such as Boko Haram to be more audacious in their nefarious activities. With Africa quick becoming a magnet for a variety of radical groups, the capabilities of Boko Haram may be upgraded due to a larger support base for their ideology. Being Africa’s biggest economy, Nigeria has a lot at stake when it comes to fighting anti-state elements and the emergence of Boko Haram as an immediate threat to the country’s security and stability is one recent development that the world, let alone Nigeria, cannot ignore.

Works Cited

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Adesoji, Abimbola O. “Between Maitatsine and Boko Haram: Islamic fundamentalism and the  response of the Nigerian State.” Africa Today 57.4 (2011): 98-119.

Okpaga, Adagba, Ugwu Sam Chijioke, and Okechukwu Innocent Eme. “Activities of Boko Haram and insecurity question in Nigeria.” Arabian journal of business and management review 1.9 (2012): 77-98.

Baldwin, Richard E., and Philippe Martin. Two waves of globalisation: superficial similarities, fundamental differences. No. w6904. National Bureau of Economic Research, 1999.

Gibbon, Peter, Philip Raikes, and Lars Udsholt, eds. Limits of adjustment in Africa: the effects of economic liberalization, 1986-94. Centre for Development Research, 1996.

Lenshie, Nsemba Edward, and Inalegwu Stephany Akipu. “Clash of Religious Civilisations in Nigeria: Understanding Dynamics of Religious Violence.”Research on Humanities and Social Sciences 4.17 (2014): 47-60.

Green, M. Christian. “Religion, Family Law, and Recognition of Identity in Nigeria.” Emory Int’l L. Rev. 25 (2011): 945.

Walker, Andrew. What Is Boko Haram?. US Institute of Peace, 2012.

Christopher, Anthony J. “Secession and South Sudan: an African precedent for the future?.” South African Geographical Journal 93.2 (2011): 125-132.

Sala-i-Martin, Xavier, and Arvind Subramanian. Addressing the natural resource curse:

An illustration from Nigeria. No. w9804. National Bureau of Economic Research, 2003.

Khan, Sarah Ahmad. “Nigeria: The political economy of oil.” (1994).

Aigbokhan, Ben E. Poverty, Growth, and Inequality in Nigeria: A case study. Vol. 102.

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Roy, Olivier. The failure of political Islam. Harvard University Press, 1994.

Mukherjee, Kunal. “Islamic revivalism and politics in contemporary Pakistan.”Journal of Developing Societies 26.3 (2010): 329-353.

Filiu, Jean-Pierre. Could Al-Qaeda Turn African in the Sahel?. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2010.

Bokhari, Kamran, and Farid Senzai. Political Islam in the Age of Democratization. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

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  • Published: 2 months ago on February 3, 2018
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