Boko Haram: Rocking the Nigerian boat
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Founded in 2002 in northern Nigeria, the Islamist group Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for a number of sophisticated attacks. FRANCE 24 takes a closer look at those who are threatening to fracture Nigeria’s precarious sectarian fault lines.
Christmas time in and around the central Nigerian city of Jos, which lies on the frontline between Nigeria’s mainly Muslim north and the Christian and animist south, is a period of heightened security fears – for a reason.
On Christmas Eve last year, a series of bomb blasts around Jos killed 32 people and wounded more than 70 others. This year, bomb attacks ripped through three churches in central Nigeria on Christmas Day, killing at least 40 people.
A familiar yet obscure Islamist group widely known as Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for the 2011 Christmas Day attacks, raising fears that the long-simmering divisions in Africa’s most populous nation could ignite a sectarian civil war.
Looking to a caliphate – in the past and the future
Founded in the north-eastern Nigerian city of Maiduguri around 2002, Boko Haram aims to overthrow the government and establish an Islamic state in the west African country.
The group is known by several different names, including al-Sunnah wal Jamma – or Followers of the Prophet’s Teachings. The official name of the group however is Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad, which in Arabic means "people committed to the propagation of the prophet's teachings and Jihad".
But since its early years, residents of Maiduguri dubbed it Boko Haram, which in the local Hausa language literally means, “Western education is forbidden”.
“In that one expression, you have the summed-up position of this group,” explained FRANCE 24’s Douglas Herbert. “They basically reject everything Western, everything Western-led.”
The rejection of Western values - primarily Western education – is a sentiment that has a historic resonance in northern Nigeria since the colonial era, when the Sokoto caliphate - one of the most powerful empires in sub-Saharan Africa that included parts of what is now northern Nigeria, Niger and southern Cameroon - fell to European colonisation in the 19th century.
‘Afghanistan’ near the Niger border
The group emerged from a religious complex - which included a mosque and an Islamic school - founded in 2002 in Maiduguri by Mohammed Yusuf, a charismatic local who gathered a number of followers.
While Yusuf’s reputation as a religious leader grew in the area, some analysts say he had a rudimentary grasp of Koranic studies.
Two years after the religious complex was founded, a group of members set up a camp in the village of Kanamma near the border with Niger, which was quickly dubbed “Afghanistan” by residents of the area.
Comprised largely of graduates from Islamic schools, the group drew inspiration from the Afghan Taliban, leading to the moniker, “the Nigerian Taliban”. While there are different opinions about Yusuf’s level of his Islamic learning, there’s little doubt that the fiery leader’s speeches were popular across northern Nigeria, with audiotaped sermons available in local markets.
The group shot into prominence in July 2009, when members attacked police stations and engaged in shoot-outs with the police. The Nigerian military responded with a crackdown, and in the ensuing violence an estimated 700 people were killed.
The Nigerian military succeeded in storming the group’s Maiduguri complex and capturing Yusuf. Hours after his capture, Yusuf died while in police detention. Nigerian police said the Boko Haram leader had been killed while trying to escape.
US intelligence warns of global jihadist links
In the months following Yusuf’s death, the group kept a low profile. But in early July 2010, Yusuf’s former deputy Abubakar Shekau appeared in a video and claimed leadership of the group.
In the early years of its existence, there was intense speculation over Boko Haram’s links with regional and global Islamist groups with many experts noting that there was no proof of operational links between the Nigerian group and other Islamist organisations such as al-Qaeda.
But over the past few years, US intelligence assessments found that Boko Haram had trained with Qaeda-linked militants in camps in the deserts of Mali, and warned that the group was getting more sophisticated.
Those warnings gained legitimacy in August 2011, when Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing of the UN headquarters in the Nigerian capital of Abuja that killed at least 23 people and signaled an expansion of the group’s focus.
Comparing the 2010 and 2011 Christmas attacks, GRN correspondent in Abuja Felix Onuah said the 2011 attacks were more devastating and coordinated. “Even before the attacks, there were publications in papers that they were going to bomb churches on Christmas Day. It was a well-planned operation,” he said.
In an interview with the New York Times, Gen. Carter F. Ham, head of the US military’s Africa Command, noted that Boko Haram had publicly proclaimed that it planed to tether itself more closely to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and to al Shabaab, the Somalia-based militant group.
According to Philippe Hugon, research director of the Paris-based Institut de Relations Internationales et Strategiques (IRIS), the links between Boko Haram and AQIM were initially very tenuous. “But in the past two years, they appear to have increased their links, particularly in terms of logistics. AQIM wants to expand into new areas such as northern Nigeria,” said Hugon in an interview with FRANCE 24 on Monday.
Addressing poverty and illiteracy
A vast, oil-rich country with a population of nearly 160 million, Nigeria is a strategically important African nation, which could prove to be a tinderbox if Islamist militancy spreads from neighboring Niger and Chad, which are traditionally AQIM’s areas of operation.
Many West Africa experts however believe Boko Haram should not be viewed solely as a security problem. Rather, they note, the Nigerian authorities – as well as the international community – need to address the underlying social and economic issues that have allowed the group to flourish.
“The Boko Haram is playing to the fact that the north is chronically poverty-ridden, much more so than the south. Incomes are about half what they are in the south and literacy rates are far lower in the north,” explained FRANCE 24’s Herbert. “This is a group that is dangerous, rising in prominence and the worst part is that it’s tapping into that sense of alienation and disenfranchisement which is basically being multiplied by the poverty in the north.”