Nigeria’s struggle against Boko Haram

The recent surge in attacks from the extremist Islamic sect Boko Haram is plunging Nigeria back to one of the old nightmare’s of this troubled giant: the sectarian violence.

The threat of religious fundamentalism is not new in Nigeria, but what is now surprising is the scale and intensity of the attacks that have no precedent in the country’s history.

As part of our study on Africa’s illnesses and issues, this third and last analysis will concentrate on the threat represented by religious uprising and their international links, able to destabilise not only a country but also the whole sub-Saharan Africa.

Religious fundamentalism in Nigeria is undermining the stability of the federal and state institutions, and we would be wrong assuming that only a religious factor is behind this trend. The main reason of concern is the political manipulation of religion and tribal tensions, which could lead to escalated violence.

All religious groups, even in the past, are fighting against the federal power on one side and the state governments on the other, meaning that their are also hostile to traditional religious rulers. For example, in the north Boko Haram is against the traditional Muslim élites of Sokoto, that they judge as corrupt and collaborating with Christian infidels.

For Boko Haram, and other Islamic groups, the secular state is an enemy to be destroyed, an offence to Muslim cult that must be replace by a truly Islamic society based on Sharia.

Fundamentalism has always found an easy recruitment in Nigeria, especially in the Islamic schools, among poor students excluded from education and wealth, where stronger is the appetite for a major involvement in the social and political life.

Generally speaking, especially in the past, these groups used to be guided by a spiritual leader, a sort of prophet, whose financial and spiritual links were outside Nigeria. The history of these last ten years has given these groups a huge support on an ideological basis. These include the introduction of the Sharia Law in all Nigeria’s northern states; Al Qaida diffusion in neighbouring countries; revival of Mahdism; condemnation of secular states such Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Libya, seen as traitors of Muslim values, whilst giving praise especially to Saudi Arabia or Iran. All the above are reasons behind the strengthening of Islamic movements.

The main concern behind Boko Haram is the possible link with external terrorist groups. Although there is no real and evident proof of this link, some elements are strengthening these perceptions: fire capacity, organisation, attacks style, financing, and presence of foreigners on its ranks.

Since the start of the American war on terror, and the recent Arab spring, paradoxically we have seen the disappearance of nearly all major secular states in North Africa and Middle East. Islamic movements are benefiting rather than be affected by these developments and is not surprising that foreign groups were active both in Libya and Egypt as well now in Syria. Is not propaganda to say that on the side of US, EU and UN, fighting for “democratic change” in Syria, we have also al Qaida linked organisations. The main problem is that once the secular stare is destroyed, the field is clear for the emergence of extremist sects and groups.

Based on the above, analysing Boko Haram could give us the possibility to comprehend better the risks that Nigeria is currently under, that could lead the country in a destructive ethnic and religious war.

Boko Haram: origins and actions

People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad (Arabic: جماعة اهل السنة للدعوة والجهاد, Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad), better known by its Hausa name Boko Haram, is a jihadist terrorist organization based in the northeast of Nigeria. It is an Islamist movement which strongly opposes man-made laws. In the town of Maiduguri, where the group was formed, the residents dubbed it Boko Haram. The term “Boko Haram” comes from the Hausa word Boko meaning “western education” and the Arabic word Haram figuratively meaning “sin” (literally, “forbidden”). The name, loosely translated from Hausa, means “western education is forbidden“. The group earned this name due to its strong opposition to anything Western, which it sees as corrupting Muslims.

The group was founded by Mohammed Yusuf in 2002 in the city of Maiduguri, with the aim of establishing a Shari’a government in Borno State under former Governor Ali Modu Sheriff. Yusuf established a religious complex that included a mosque and a school where many poor families from across Nigeria, and from neighbouring countries, enrolled their children. This group found a fertile terrain in the city of Maidiguri, theatre of one of the most famous fundamentalists, Mohammed Marwa, also known as Maitatsine, who was at the height of his notoriety during the 1970s and 1980s. He was sent into exile by the British authorities; he refused to believe Mohammed was the Prophet and instigated riots in the country which resulted in the deaths of thousands of people. Some analysts view Boko Haram as an extension of the Maitatsine riots.

The ideology of the group states that not only interaction with the Western World is forbidden, but it is also against the Muslim establishment and the government of Nigeria. The concept of a spherical Earth is contrary to Islamic teaching and should be rejected, along with Darwinian evolution and the concept of rain originating from water evaporated by the sun. Before his death, Yusuf reiterated the group’s objective of changing the current education system and rejecting democracy. For this reason, the centre had ulterior political goals and soon it was working as a recruiting ground for future jihadist to fight the state. The group included members who came from neighbouring Chad and Niger and speak only Arabic. In 2004 the complex was relocated to Yusuf’s home state of Yobe in the village Kanamma near the Niger border. The group ideology, however, contrasted with the picture of its founder and former leader Muhammad Yusuf that was himself a highly educated man who lived a lavish life and drove a Mercedes Benz.

In this first period of the group’s life (2002-2009), Yusuf successfully attracted followers from unemployed youth by speaking out against police and political corruption. Abdulkarim Mohammed, a researcher on Boko Haram, added that violent uprisings in Nigeria are ultimately due to “the fallout of frustration with corruption and the attendant social malaise of poverty and unemployment.” The members of the group do not interact with the local Muslim population and have carried out assassinations in the past of anyone who criticises it, including Muslim clerics.

Although Boko Haram holds a strong position against the institutions, the group conducted its operations more or less peacefully during the first seven years of its existence. That changed in 2009 when the Nigerian government launched an investigation into the group’s activities following reports that its members were arming themselves. Prior to that, the government reportedly repeatedly ignored warnings about the increasingly militant character of the organisation, including that of a military officer.

When the government came into action, several members of the group were arrested in Bauchi. In June 2009 the radical sect waged a short-lived armed uprising in a bid to establish an Islamic state in the north. During the fighting with the security forces Boko Haram fighters reportedly used fuel-laden motorcycles and bows with poison arrows to attack a police station. The uprising was brutally crushed by the military in July 2009, leaving over 800 dead, mostly sect members. The group’s founder and then leader Mohammed Yusuf was killed while in police custody including Yusuf’s father-in-law, Alhaji Baba Fugu.

The second phase of Boko Haram (2009-Present) has seen the group going underground for a period, reportedly with a new leadership and reemerge stronger and able to conduct attacks with an intensity never seen before.

Since January 2010, surviving sect members have reportedly been behind bomb and shoot-and-run attacks which have killed dozens of people not just in Maiduguri: an Abuja police HQ was bombed on 16 June. Since then, the violence has only escalated in terms of both frequency and intensity. The group that emerged is not easy to follow and understand, as its structure is secretive, as well there are growing concerns of its links with external terrorist organisations.

A spokesperson for Boko Haram told reporters in June 2011 that members had received training in Somalia. In January 2012, Abubakar Shekau, a former deputy to Yusuf, appeared in a video posted on YouTube. According to Reuters, Shekau took control of the group after Yusuf’s death in 2009. Authorities had previously believed that Shekau died during the violence in 2009.

Other reports have suggested Boko Haram already has links to international terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) which operates in nearby regions.
While a Western security official in Nigeria told the Wall Street Journal these links were unconfirmed, he noted concern that they could develop if the situation is left unchecked and the group is able to grow.

By early 2012, the group was responsible for over 900 deaths.


  • 2002: Founded
  • 2009: Hundreds killed when      Maiduguri police stations stormed
  • 2009: Boko Haram leader Mohammed      Yusuf captured by army, handed to police, later found dead
  • Sep 2010: Freed hundreds of      prisoners from Maiduguri jail
  • Dec 2010: Bombed Jos, killing 80;      blamed for New Year’s Eve attack on Abuja barracks
  • 2010-2011: Dozens killed in      Maiduguri shootings
  • May 2011: Bombed several states      after president’s inauguration
  • June 2011: Police HQ bombed in      Abuja
  • Aug 2011: UN HQ bombed in Abuja
  • Nov 2011: Coordinated bomb and      gun attacks in Yobe and Borno states

Understanding Boko Haram Threat

Boko Haram seems to attract support from poverty and unemployment, driven by poor governance and corruption, accusing the police, political parties, and traditional Muslim rulers as corrupt. It was with this agenda that Boko Haram was able to recruit vast numbers of unemployed youth. Violent uprisings in Nigeria, whether by Boko Haram or other groups, are invariably the result of social injustice and corruption that are the main Nigeria’s issues.
Boko Haram is basically the last, in a long series, of groups grown out from frustration with the political establishment and the social injustice that afflict mainly the northern population. The younger generation see how the nation’s resources are exploited by a small élite of politician, businessman and senior officers which breeds animosity and frustration, and such anger is ultimately translated into violent clashes.

Boko Haram is obviously widely condemned inside and outside Nigeria; Dr Mu’azu Babangida Aliyu, the Niger State governor, has criticised the group saying “Islam is known to be a religion of peace and does not condone violence and crime in any form and Boko Haram doesn’t represent Islam”. The Sultan of Sokoto Sa’adu Abubakar, the spiritual leader of Nigerian Muslims, has called the sect “anti-Islamic” and, as reported by the website, “an embarrassment to Islam.” The Coalition of Muslim Clerics in Nigeria (CMCN) have called on the Boko Haram to disarm and embrace peace. The Islamic Circle of North America, the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada, The Muslim Council of Britain, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Council on American Islamic Relations have all condemned the group.

Assessing the threat posed by Boko Haram to Nigeria’s security must take into account several aspects: international links, internal factors and geopolitical situation. What distinguish Boko Haram from previous fundamentalist groups in Nigeria is that whilst on one side it recall traditional aspects of Islamic movements, on the other is showing new trends that are suggesting the movement is distancing itself from that tradition.

International links

Boko Haram is considered to be a major potential terrorist threat affecting Nigeria and other countries, and US officials believe it is potentially allied with Al Qaeda. U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) Commander General Carter F. Ham stated in September 2011 that three African terrorist groups, Shabab of Somalia, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb across the Sahel region, and Boko Haram, “have very explicitly and publicly voiced an intent to target Westerners, and the U.S. specifically” and he was concerned that the three organizations aim to collaborate and synchronize their efforts.

General Ham reiterated his concern after the Christmas Day 2011 bombings of churches in Nigeria: “I remain greatly concerned about their stated intent to connect with Al Qaeda senior leadership, most likely through Al Qaeda in the lands of the Islamic Maghreb.”

The US House of Representatives Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence urged the Obama Administration and U.S. intelligence community in November 2011 to focus on Boko Haram as a potential threat to United States territory.

Nigeria’s National Security Adviser, General Owoye Andrew Azazi, has been working with African, European, Middle Eastern and the U.S. government to build cooperation against Boko Haram. He met in 2010 with then-CIA Director Leon Panetta, and in 2011 with AFRICOM Commander General Ham, and other U.S. officials, and was in the United States when the congressional panel was preparing its report on Boko Haram. He participated in a CIA conference at about the same time. After the Christmas 2011 bombings carried out by Boko Haram, President Barack Obama’s office issued a statement that confirmed that the U.S. and Nigeria were cooperating at a senior level against the terrorist group.

Following the above statements is clear that Boko Haram is perceived as a serious threat to regional stability. Although its links with Al Shahab and AQIM are still to be verified, there are many reasons that lead to believe that Boko Haram is not a solely Nigerian based organisation. Boko Haram was born, as many other Nigerian movements, from national roots linked to internal issues, and although financing and recruitment could have been located outside Nigeria, the group’s first period of life was nothing different compared to previous Islamic sects. Everything changed after the repression by security forces and Yusuf death. The new groups that is now on the scene is showing something different from the past: is able to conduct terror attacks that in intensity and style are far from merely clashes or uprising with security forces. It can target on different locations as well pressuring security forces and police with high profile attacks. Boko Haram is starting to benefit from the changed geopolitical structure in Africa. After the fall of the regimes of Mubarak and Gaddafi, Islamic movements have practically been freed of two strong repressor of any terroristic organisation or Islamic movement trying to pursue a more strict vision of Islam. Especially the recent civil war in Libya is starting to show the consequences. As per the Tuareg rebels and Ansar Dine in Mali, a flow of weapons and militants is now spreading in all sub Saharan Africa, bringing instability and showing the inadequacy of the anti terror policies. Boko Haram is certainly benefiting from this availability of weaponry and is demonstrated by its firepower.

As for Mali, in Nigeria is not the government, the federal institutions or the state that could stop Boko Haram, but the military that in such situations are always ready to intervene as the only plausible and real defence against the extremists and the ineptitude of the civilian governments.

The Internal factor: is Boko Haram slipping out of control?

As we have seen Boko Haram is something different from previous organisations and its threat for Nigeria is bigger than those in the past. This group is a perfect link between the tradition of Nigerian movements and a more connected external struggle.

Boko Haram, as other Nigerian Islamic groups, attracts mainly from poor and emarginated sectors of northern society, disillusioned with corruption and crimes committed by the state authority and federal power. In this rejection of power, they include also the traditional Muslim élites, seen as discredited and collaborating with the regime. On this aspect, its link with traditional Nigerian fundamentalism is preserved. However, something new is emerging concerning one common aspect of Nigeria’s tribal and religious movements: the internal relation with federal and state authorities as well security forces.

Soon after the latest Boko Haram attacks, and even in the first phase of its life, was clear that the organisation is benefitting directly and indirectly a support from politicians in northern Nigeria. This is an old story in Nigeria, where political parties and politicians always try to utilise these groups and the tribal tensions to induce the state and the federal power to negotiate better agreement or a transfer of power. Michael Utasha of think-tank Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) told IRIN News he had heard similar accusations: “Unconfirmed reports have it that there are disgruntled members of the political class in Nigeria who are bent on destabilizing the government of President Goodluck and giving the impression that he is a weak and indecisive leader.”

As during Obasanjo and Yar’Adua presidencies, sometimes these groups are instigated on purpose to undermine federal authorities and increase state powers. Whilst politicians are using this as a vehicle to promote their political agenda and to destroy adversaries, these groups see this as an opportunity to increase their grip on the society. The problem that arises from this relation is that politicians are often incapable to control these insurgencies and therefore they usually require police or security forces intervention.

Is on the last point that Boko Haram is starting to distinguish itself from the tradition. Many Nigerian openly accused military and security forces to act indiscriminately and commit several crimes, not only against Boko Haram followers but also against innocent civilians.
Murja Muhammad, a resident of the Kalari neighbourhood, who fled her home on 10 July, told IRIN News, “Soldiers began repeatedly shooting in the air after the bomb attack and the shootout that followed. They then… started breaking into homes, singling out male occupants and shooting them and driving women out of the houses which they set ablaze.”
A group of 18 local members of the respected Borno Elders Forum on 12 July called for the withdrawal of troops from the city, saying the soldiers had worsened the security situation.
Even during the 2009 uprising, clearly emerged that Yusuf was executed by security forces, clearly exceeding their orders.

This accusation of the security forces hard line is not new in Nigerian politics and society, and is one of those old inheritances from the military power that for over 30 years has dominated Nigeria’s political system. During the military power, and even after the transition to democracy, security forces often stay inactive or downplay the danger of these religious/ethnic groups, utilising them as a threat to political parties and federal/state authorities to maintain army privileges or to obtain more from the cake of federal reserves.
The main danger of this situation is that this manipulation of tribal/religious antagonism could slip from the hands and lead to a serious uprising. Proof of this unofficial system has been in the past Maitatsine movement, or the uprising of Miss Monod in 2002: at first the security forces, army and police undermine the danger of these movements and let them spread in the streets, then they intervene when the authorities are nearly to collapse with heavy-handed repression. Result, every time they destroy the movements with a bloodshed, a repression and violations of human rights, with and abuses and execution of militants.

Boko Haram, until the uprising of 2009, was following these lines: the group was left growing unopposed for 7 years, although several request for police intervention were already filed from Christian organisations and several state authorities. Once the uprising began, threatening to exceed the usual tribal or religious clashes, the army intervened. The rest is history: more than 800 militants dead, Yusuf executed and several innocent civilians caught in the police violence.

The army has always presented itself as the only power able to guarantee stability in Nigeria, to put an end to fanatics. Armed forces appear sometimes as acting independently from federal power and they finish following sometimes orders from selected officers circles or élites of military/businessman/politicians.

However, this system is now starting to shift to something new with Boko Haram and this explain the main concern that this groups represent. Especially after 2009, when the group went underground, its leadership is now unclear and its power in conducting attacks is far greater than any other group in the past. Boko Haram is not only targeting civilians and Christian organisations, but also security forces, police stations, federal and state governments HQ, United Nations offices. No one in the past has ever attacked the military establishment is such force as Boko Haram is currently doing, suggesting that the group has somehow severed any link with them. The control over its activities, and therefore manipulation as in the past, is slipping out of control from politicians and even the army.

The army’s long-standing strategy towards these movements for its benefit, seems to have reached an end or the predicted point of no return that everyone was warning about. The extremists are showing greater autonomy and army repression will not solve the problem as the group is moving out the influence of traditional power players in Nigeria.

The risk behind all this is that if the federal power will be unable to regain control of the situation, the army will consider itself as the only real guarantor of order and security, especially now that Boko Haram can target them. This may lead to an authoritarian phase or, as recently seen in Mali, a military coup. On the other, Boko Haram activities could split the country, where due to the incapacity of federal/state institutions and the army to crush the group, many southerners and Christians could resort themselves in forming paramilitary groups or sects to protect themselves and even try to break the federation.


Nigeria, as Mali, South Sudan and all the sub-Saharan African states are facing a difficult situation. Whilst Islamic fundamentalism is raising, tribal antagonism is exploding, economic exploitation of resources is attracting foreign powers, political authorities are more concerned in trying to gain the more of this situation than trying to resolve the issues. As seen already, they even try to manipulate these dangerous groups. The results are military coups, auto proclamation of independence in tribal areas, rising of Islamic extremism. Sub- Saharan Africa is nearly ready to explode, is waiting only the last fire to start a domino effect that from the West Coast to the Horn of Africa will turn the whole area in a big war theatre were there would be at least the following players: tribes, religious sects, military and governmental or political organisation. All the above fighting for power whilst the population will be dragged into violence, genocide, executions, and a huge tide of refugees.


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