“Brothers pulverised 21 armoured tanks. People were killed in their multitudes, bodies scattered all over…Had Allah allowed us to eat them we would have eaten them but we are not cannibals. This is a victory from Allah. They try to brainwash the people that we are fighting an ethnic war – No, we are fighting a religious war, we are fighting [Nigerian President Goodluck] Jonathan, we are fighting Christians.”
On December 20th, tank battalion barracks in the city of Bama were brutally attacked by a group formally known as “Jama‘atu Ahl as-Sunnah li-Da‘awati wal-Jihad”, or Group of the Sunni People for the Calling and Jihad. Colloquially, it is referred to as “Boko Haram”, which, loosely translated from the local Hausa language, means ”Western education is sinful” – ‘boko’ is an altered form of the English ‘book’, while ‘haram’ means ‘forbidden’. Its leader, Abubakar Shekaru, released a video to Agence France-Presse a few days later, claiming responsibility for the act and promising more to come. It is not the first time he has released such a statement; in 2013, shortly after the United States declared him a global terrorist, he was recorded taunting Western leaders, including Barack Obama, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Francois Hollande.
Since its inception, Boko Haram has been responsible for approximately 3,500 deaths in Nigeria[i], and was placed on the United States’ list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations in November 2013. It has targeted schools, churches, military institutions, and, in 2011, set off a suicide car bomb at the United Nations Headquarters building in Abuja, killing 18 and drawing international attention.
However, it did not begin as a particularly violent faction; though currently referred to as the ‘Nigerian Taliban’[ii], Boko Haram’s origins can be traced to the mid-1990’s as a Muslim Youth Organization called Shabaab[iii], which founded mosques and schools and created social welfare programs for the impoverished in northeastern Nigeria. Shabaab attracted followers not necessarily through Islamic extremism, but through opposition of the corrupt government and police and a promise of prosperity and escape from poverty.
Nigeria’s political history since its independence in 1960 has been marred by perpetual coups driven by ethno-religious cleavages. The country is host to over 250 different ethnic groups, the largest of which are the Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba, and Igbo tribes. The Hausa-Fulani people, located in northeast Nigeria, are predominantly Muslim, while the latter two are primarily Christian. Religious conflict has caused countless casualties in Nigeria for decades; the rise of a militant Muslim organization is thus merely a more coherent and striking manifestation of entrenched national division. This division is exacerbated by government opacity and failed attempts at fair elections in 1999, 2003, and 2007; even the 2011 presidential election, which inaugurated Goodluck Jonathan, was “the best run, but most violent”, claiming the lives of 800 civilians, the majority of which were Muslim.
Boko Haram began its campaign of violence around 2009, attempting a coup of the Nigerian government, headed at the time by Umaru Yar’Adua. Government forces managed to quell the uprising, but as the group continued to perpetuate violence the Nigerian government decided to create a specialized team to tackle Boko Haram operatives, called the Joint Task Force (JTF). As the number of attacks and casualties by Boko Haram members mounted, the JTF began to indiscriminately target Muslims; an attack by the terrorist group would prompt mass arrests of and aggression towards civilians in the northeast. Citizens live in fear of both Boko Haram and the government-sponsored JTF, as well as roving groups of young men – “jobless, unemployable…hungry…[and] angry” – who set upon innocent Muslims in an attempt at vigilante justice. Attacks in civilian centers by Boko Haram members only increase the JTF’s desperation, prompting crueler crackdowns and more fervent, haphazard attempts to track Boko Haram members, who are often indiscernible within a northern Nigerian community. This alienates northern Nigerians from the government, providing Boko Haram with a slew of potential recruits eager and willing to undermine the existing political structure.
Recently, the Civilian-JTF has begun searching for Boko Haram members with renewed vigor, recently proclaiming that it killed 210 operatives in the Sambisa forest, the insurgents’ camp in the northeastern Borno state.[iv] President Goodluck Jonathan cleared out his top military brass in early 2014 in an attempt to reinforce the fight against Boko Haram, and – after two incredibly bloody attacks by Boko Haram, the first on college students in the town of Gujba, and the second at a church in the northeast – appealed to the global community to aid Nigeria in its fight against terrorism. Multiple attempts have been made by Jonathan to pursue more diplomatic means of conflict resolution, such as providing amnesty to members of Boko Haram willing to defect and repent. This has not been particularly successful, both due to reluctance on the part of Boko Haram initiates to come forward and that of the government to grant impunity to the perpetrators of terrible crimes. Boko Haram’s reign of terror is unlikely to end soon, taking into accoun its manifold military resources, considerable grassroots support, and grounding in Nigeria’s most resilient conflict, that between Muslims in the north and Christians in the south.
Though the violence perpetrated by both Boko Haram and the JTF can be mitigated, attacks from both ends will continue until the territorial dispute at the heart of the conflict is resolved. Both Muslims and Christians lay claim to the middle belt of Nigeria, and multiple skirmishes occur in and around the city of Jos, which is located on contested land. Goodluck Jonathan’s current bid for re-election in 2015 only exacerbates the existing power struggle, as many Muslims believe that it is high time for a leader of their own faith to take control. A way forward must involve a ceding power to Muslim leaders and initiating negotiations concerning possible avenues for reconciliation and, if necessary, the provision of legal autonomy to the Muslim northeast. Nigeria’s longstanding religious cleavages both created and contribute to the longevity of Boko Haram, and until the source of conflict is addressed, the terrorist group will continue to undermine the legitimacy of the Nigerian government and imperil the functioning of the state.