Emerging in recent years as a serious security threat in Nigeria and increasingly reported in Western media for its attacks against state and Christian targets, the Islamic militant movement Boko Haram is a product of competition among Muslim movements in northern Nigeria, according to Roman Loimeier (University of Göttingen, Germany), writing in the latest issue of Africa Spectrum (47/2-3).
The nickname Boko Haram means “Western education is prohibited” (for Muslims). Strangely, however, Boko Haram is born from a background of reformist (Salafi) movements that wanted to eradicate doctrinal “innovations,” but also advocated an Islamization of modernity and a modern (Islamic) education. The largest reform movement in northern Nigeria, Yan Izala, was established in 1978. It fought against local customs (which were seen as un-Islamic) and was highly critical of Sufi brotherhoods.
But it also established a network of Islamic schools and supported both schooling and the political and religious mobilization of women. Yan Izala trained a new generation of preachers who proved to be quite effective and competed with Sufi preachers. Attacks against Sufi orders, however, stopped in 1987, after Christian candidates (although Christians are a minority in the north) managed to win a high number of local government seats due to the split Muslim vote. Yan Izala itself experienced a number of splits for various reasons. Boko Haram’s founder, Muhammad Yusuf (1970-2009), himself left one of those factions and launched his own organization in 2003. In contrast with his former teacher, Yusuf was critical of Western-style education (but not modern technology) and also of the Nigerian state, rejecting any cooperation with it.
The group conducted attacks against police stations. Due to widespread corruption and arbitrariness in the police force, this won initial sympathy for Boko Haram among the local population. The death in police custody of Yusuf in 2009 provoked the movement to outright violence.In 2011 and 2012 Boko Haram started to attack Christian churches. This allowed them to prevent criticism that they targeted fellow Muslims and, moreover, Christian churches (especially Pentecostal ones) are seen as a threat even by moderate Muslims. Boko Haram also started to expand its operations beyond its original areas.
Moreover, the current leader of its 20-member leading council has cultivated the Internet, especially videos posted online, for reaching wider audiences. According to Loimeier’s assessment, Boko Haram mirrors the divisions among Muslims in Nigeria. In the long run it is likely that Nigerian security forces will defeat Boko Haram, which is also criticized by other radical groups. But as long as the social and economic context does not change, and some degree of social justice is not achieved in Nigeria, other militant movements will inevitably rise.
(Africa Spectrum, German Institute of Global and Area Studies, LeibnizInstitut für Globale und Regionale Studie, Institute of African Affairs, Neuer Jungfernstieg 21,20354 Hamburg, Germany, http://hup.sub.unihamburg.de/giga/afsp/index)