Boko Haram and the Threat to the Secular Nigerian State

Although the most important West African country (and even arguably one of the most important countries in Africa as a whole), Nigeria has suffered from ethnic and sectarian violence on a consistent basis almost since its independence in 1960. This violence is coupled with a history of economic mismanagement and political corruption that has led to a profound distrust on the part of the people towards its government. But on a deeper level the sectarian violence is due to the religious transformation that has occurred in the country, especially during the 1970s and 1980s, which has placed a growing and aggressive pentecostal Christianity into conflict with an Islam that is also aggressive and sees Nigeria as rightfully a Muslim nation. These trends culminated in the early 2000s with the establishment of shari`a law in 12 northern, mostly Muslim, Nigerian states. For Muslims this establishment was a goal that had long been hoped for, but for the Christian minorities in these states (and for Christians throughout the so-called Middle Belt, the central area of the country, the region where pentecostal evangelism has most obviously made its religious transformation during the past 20 years) shari`a raised many questions about the viability of Nigeria as a whole. Do non-Muslims have equal rights in shari`a states when the shari`a mandates a subsidiary role for such people? And how is one to deal with Muslims who are subject to shar`i punishments for infractions that are not against the law of Nigeria as a whole? Do such people have the right to opt out of shari`a jurisdiction?

But northern Muslims have also been dissatisfied with the performance of the shari`a states. Expecting a higher moral code to replace Nigeria’s endemic lawlessness and corruption, there is today no obvious difference between the northern states and the southern Christian ones. This fact has led to a widespread disillusionment with shari`a, and its implementation, and creates the opening which Boko Haram has utilized during the past years.

Boko Haram has its roots in the northeastern states of Nigeria (Borno and Yobe), in which the Christian presence is comparatively minimal, and which are the heirs to a deep Islamic history going back almost 1000 years. The original charismatic leader of Boko Haram, Muhammad Yusuf, apparently preached a local form of “enjoining the good and forbidding the evil” (a doctrine well-rooted in classical Islam), involving attacks on establishments perceived as non-Muslim, such as those selling alcohol, but also upon western education (hence its popular name, meaning “western education is forbidden”). Although attacks by the first form of Boko Haram are documented in 2004, it was the uprising of 2009 which gained world-wide attention. During the course of this uprising, about which a great many basic facts are unclear, and obfuscated by the Nigerian armed forces, Muhammad Yusuf and a large number of the sect members were captured. Yusuf himself after an interrogation was murdered by the police according to a video widely available on the internet.

Boko Haram issued several statements in the wake of Yusuf’s murder, but his successor Abu Bakr Shekau appears to lack Yusuf’s charismatic authority and broad learning, and it seems clear that the group has fragmented during the past years. Its violent resurgence can be traced to a prison-break in the fall of 2010, but its operations during the period late 2010-2011 have been both spectacular and ominous, and threaten to drive Nigeria into a sectarian civil war.

Several themes appear from Boko Haram’s published statements:zz

  1. A strong desire for vengeance upon the Nigerian security forces, both the army and the police, which Boko Haram has consistently blamed for the murder of Yusuf (rightly so) and which the group appears to see as the primary obstruction in place of the institution of a shari`a state in the north (or throughout all of Nigeria, according to some of their statements).
  2. A focus upon Christians, especially those from the Igbo tribe (located mostly in the southeast, but as minorities throughout northern Nigeria in the larger cities as well), and a desire to drive Christians in general out of northern Nigeria. In fact, Boko Haram has not demonstrated the force necessary to actually drive Christians out of the larger population centers of Kano, Zaria and Kaduna, let alone Sokoto, but it has effectively driven many Christians out of the northeast (Borno and Yobe states) and has provoked sectarian violence in Bauchi and in Plateau state (with its volatile capital of Jos being a focus), where the Christian population is much stronger.
  3. A willingness to associate Boko Haram with the goals and methodologies of global radical Islam, especially the Shabab (in Somalia) and possibly al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (based in Mali, Niger, southern Algeria and Mauretania). This willingness has been reflected in the adoption of suicide attacks against Boko Haram’s enemies among the police and the United Nations in Abuja during the summer of 2011, a tactic unknown among African radical Muslims outside of Somalia and North Africa, and further the adoption of the martyrdom video to publicize the goals of the group.

It is clear that Boko Haram has morphed during a comparatively small period of time from a local radical Muslim group to one that is more Nigeria-focused as a whole, and one that has goals that cannot be reconciled with the existence of the secular Nigerian state. Its leaders through their statements and tactics have revealed an exaltation and even a messianic fervor that can probably only be punctured through a defeat of the group.

David Cook is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University. His most recent books are Understanding Jihad and Contemporary Muslim Apocalyptic Literature.

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