Since the beginning of the month, dozens have been killed by followers of the “Boko Haram” sect in Nigeria. This post is an attempt to explain what “Boko Haram” is in the light of my own experience in Nigeria in 2010.
The movement is limited to the North-East of Nigeria. It is especially virulent in the states of Bauchi, Yobe and Borno and in their stronghold, Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State. As this is where I have done my fieldwork in July 2010, many witnesses tried to tell me stories about the sect.
The sect was created in 2002 but full-fledged attacks against the Nigerian State did not start before 2007. In 2009, the Nigerian police cracked down on the group and killed at least 700 of its members. Since then, violence has been endemic in the North-Eastern states of Nigeria.
“Boko-Haram” roughly means that Western Education is a sin. In an interview to the BBC in July 2009, the founder of the sect, Mohammed Yusuf explained how he rejected everything coming from the Western World (from Darwinism to the fact that the Earth was round). Despite the fact that Borno already applies the Sharia law, the followers of the sect want to institute a purely Islamic State, their Islamic State. After all, they adopted a new name in 2010: Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, meaning “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad”.
One of the first comments I have heard in Maiduguri was that “the followers of Boko Haram are not from here”. Where are they from then? They are supposed to be poor and young unemployed men from the North-East of Nigeria. Is there really such a clear-cut regional or even ethnic divide between the inhabitants of Borno and the “foreign” Boko Haram followers? One thing is certain: their radical religion seems really foreign in a place such as Borno where Islam was introduced nearly a thousand years ago. It is true that I have only met people condemning the sect but how can we explain its very existence?
Poverty and unemployment are some of the classical reasons advanced to explain the very existence of the sect. In addition, migrant workers in quest of a job would resort to violence to improve their personal situation. This was already the case in Kano with a previous fundamentalist sect in the 1970s and 1980s called the Maitatsine. The “Boko Haram” followers are not the first one to choose this violent path in Northern Nigeria.
The Al-Qaeda effect would also be another phenomenon to take into account. In other words, some fundamentalist groups understood that they could use violence to reach their aims or at least obtain certain notoriety abroad. This is exactly what Boko Haram achieved by styling themselves as “Talibans”. This is the very definition of “terrorism”.
Finally, the politicisation of religion would be of course a common explanation for the rise of fundamentalism in Northern Nigeria. I have personally seen posters supporting Ayatollah Khomeini in the middle of the University of Maiduguri. The re-negotiation of the relationship between State and Religion is obviously part of the discourse of Boko Haram.
Will the violence of the Nigerian army, the total amnesty of the governor of Borno or a long-term solution to unemployement and poverty solve the issues of “Boko Haram”? Take your pick.