The name to which everyone refers when they speak of Islamic violence in West Africa is Nigeria’s Boko Haram. Nonetheless, even Mark Simmonds, U.K. Minister for Africa, admits the reference is more for convenience than specificity. There has been a burgeoning militancy in Nigeria for many years. Initially tribal-based during what evolved into the “Biafran War,” violent dissidence in the Niger River delta area later paralleled the growth of the petroleum industry.
In recent times, however, Nigeria’s oldest division other than traditional tribalism, the religious and cultural competition of Moslems and Christians, has taken on a vicious and deadly character. Initially this sanguinary outbreak was viewed as a Sub-Saharan ramification for the increasingly fractionalized al Qaeda movement. Certainly this was a useful characterization, even if not truly accurate. Nigerian internal security leadership, with its usual British liaison, early on determined that the term “Boko Haram” was more a useful term for journalists than an organized movement. Recently “break away groups” has been added to the nomenclature covering the generally characterized radical Islamist militants who now fall under the heading of Boko Haram.
Part of the problem with creating an operational definition is that the English meaning of the Hausa language that establishes the term Boko Haram can be stated in three ways: “Western education is sinful – a sacrilege – is forbidden.” No matter which translation is preferred, the theme of condemning any European influence in Africa is consistent. This view was heralded in the early 21st century by a charismatic Nigerian Moslem religious leader named Mohammed Yusuf. Not only did he preach against all things Western, but he also resisted traditional Islam.
By 2009, Yusuf had built wide support among the poor of the region of Borno State. A major battle with the police over several days in July ended with hundreds dead and Yusuf in prison quickly to be executed with many of his captains. This was what spurred today’s concerted offensive with its apparent outside assistance.
Contact with outside radical Islamist groups had existed before the 2009 battle, but after the execution of Yusuf, the organization of remaining Boko Haram fighters grew rapidly with foreign assistance. By December 2010, and continuing into 2011, incidents grew to include targets running from a police headquarters to the UN compound as far away as Abuja’s diplomatic quarter. In all 26 people were killed and over 100 wounded. The breadth of brutality of these attacks has grown, culminating in the recent torching of a government high school dormitory. According to the Associated Press, Boko Haram and its associated factions have killed 1,600 civilians in various attacks since 2010.
There is no effort to give a strict Nigerian character to Boko Haram by its advocates. The orientation and ambition of the movement is clearly set forth in what has been well-publicized as its official Arabic name that has been translated as, “Group committed to propagating the Prophet’s teachings and jihad.” If you think this sounds reminiscent of Taliban teaching, you’re not far from wrong. But these dedicated Nigerian Islamist radicals need not have gained their motivation and training all the way from Afghanistan.
The current umbrella organization known as Boko Haram clearly has foreign backing. The wide arsenal of weapons used by various terror units suggests connections with middle men who have gained access to the materiel that has become available from Libya after Gaddafi’s fall. These sources could include al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al Shabaab in Somalia, Ansar al Sharia, and other sources, purely commercial, paid for through Islamist terror financing in the Middle East and elsewhere.
In spite of committing thousands of troops and police to counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency efforts, the Nigerian government generally has been unsuccessful in resisting the growth of support for the Boka Haram movement. In the north and northeast of Nigeria, as well as in nearby border areas, the theme of fighting “a corrupt system” driven by non-believers has a great impact.
A video surfaced on July 13th 2013 featuring Abubakar Shekau, who was supposed to have been killed in 2009 along with Mohammed Yusuf. In the video, Shekau, now held up as the new leader of Boko Haram, condemns the killing of children but not the destruction of non-Islamic schools they attend. Government efforts to hold conciliatory meetings have failed, for one reason or another. Finding reliable negotiators is one of the major problems, as the consultative council (of about 20 members) that is said to guide the organization’s decisions and actions is spread for security reasons among neighboring countries.
Nigeria’s northern majority Moslem population cannot be ignored any more than the rest of the country. By 2050 it is projected by UN demographic experts that Nigeria will have a population of 435 million. Given the current mix of religious adherents, this will mean 210 million Nigerians who subscribe to the Islamic faith. Boko Haram intends to control this immense population under Sharia law. If they succeed, they will be a major force throughout Africa – and they won’t have to wait until 2050 to make that happen.