What is Boko Haram?
When Boko Haram comes on the news, you may want to turn away. The report will probably warn you about disturbing images to come. Boko Haram is an Islamic terrorist organization in Northern Nigeria that has killed hundreds in the past decade. They have used children as suicide bombers. The media largely ignores the steady stream of horrors, but the group received widespread attention in 2014 for the kidnapping of 276 girls from their school dormitory. The Nigerian police and army seem incapable of halting the atrocities. The international community seems not to care.
What’s behind the violence of Boko Haram? The first reason they would give would be religious. Boko Haram means Western education is sinful, or forbidden. Their goal is to form a new state under Islamic law, free from any other influence. That explains why they attack non-Islamic schools.
The painful irony is that everyone apart from Boko Haram believes education is what’s needed in northern Nigeria. The south of the country is largely Christian and is much better educated and wealthier than the Muslim north. Unemployment is high in the north. Child vaccination rates are low. Female literacy, which is the best route to higher living standards, is very low.
Killing and kidnapping schoolgirls is thus especially cruel. Why does Boko Haram do it? A warped Islamic ideology is part of it, but probably more important is the fact that they can get away with it. The regions where they operate are far from Nigeria’s big cities and oil wells. Frightened locals worry that the government doesn’t care about the badlands up north. Boko Haram bears some resemblance to the mafia and other groups that profit from poor law enforcement. They coerce some of their fighters, but they attract poor, jobless others with promises of adventure and camaraderie.
Most people associate Muslim radicalism with the middle East, but it has a long history in West Africa. Islam made it to modern-day Nigeria in the 700s, less than 100 years after the death of the prophet Muhammed. Muslims from West Africa traded successfully across the Sahara for centuries.
In the 1700s, some Muslims in the region fought to expand their kingdom, which was known as the Sokhoto Caliphate. They used the term jihad, or holy war, to provide religious justification for their aggression just as Christian monarchs in Europe had done, albeit with different language. More positively, one of the reasons the Sokhoto Caliphate wanted to expand was to protect themselves from slave traders.
The kingdom weakened in the 1800s, and then the British took them over and claimed the land for their empire. Wanting to run their new territory on the cheap, Britain kept the Muslim leaders in charge, giving them money to maintain peace. The bad news: under the terms of the deal Western education was forbidden—boko haram isn’t entirely new. In time, northern Nigeria had half the country’s population but only 2.5% of its schoolchildren.
There was some good news. When the Europeans conquered then divided up the Muslim kingdoms of West Africa, it gave a boost to Islamic pacifism. Friends and family now lived across new borders in different countries, and Muslim leaders therefore preached a religion of peace.
Tragically, Boko Haram has taken a different road. Any long-term solution must surely include jobs and the education Boko Haram wants to destroy. The oil-rich Nigerian government needs to fight corruption more effectively and send more help north. Climate change may work in their favour: scientists predict more rain for a region that currently has little. There’s no reason why northern Nigeria can’t become prosperous again.