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Boko Haram - a Militant Salafi-Jihadist Group in Northern Nigeria

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Professor Bourg and Krause


8 May 2018

Boko Haram

        Boko Haram is a militant salafi-jihadist group in Northern Nigeria. Nigeria is a nation divided with the majority of the population in the North made up of Muslims of the Hausa and Fulani ethnic groups. In the south, the population is predominantly made up of Christians belonging to the Igbo and Yoruba ethnic groups. Nigeria is Africa's biggest economy, providing eight percent of the world’s oil. According to the National Bureau of Statistics an estimated 61.9 percent nationally, out of which over 70 percent are in northern Nigeria, live in absolute poverty[1]. The terrorist organization goes by Boko Haram which translates to "Western education is forbidden”. They originally were named, and are still referred to as Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad as well, which means "People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad”.  As these names show, the group’s goal is to create a caliphate under Sharia in Nigeria, free from corruption and inequality, which the group believes stems from Western influence. Boko Haram resembles other Islamist terrorist organizations such as ISIS because of their shared goal to establish a caliphate, their decentralized structure, and rejection of Western culture. These similarities facilitate connections between the groups like when Boko Haram pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2015.[2] Boko Haram has also drawn inspiration from Al-Qaeda and have had connections to them, although the extent of both these connections are disputed among scholars today. While sharing aspects with other Islamist terrorist groups, Boko Haram’s interpretation of Takfir, their use of kidnapping, and the ethnic, religious, and economic cleavages of Nigeria that have influences a unique history of Islamic fundamentalism and jihad, have facilitated their rise to one of the most deadly terrorist organizations in the world, while failing to gain international support or accomplishing their goal of a caliphate in Nigeria. The context in which Boko Haram originated and exists in today is necessary to study in order to make distinctions between other terrorist organizations.

        Boko Haram emerged in 2002, but the tradition of Islamic fundamentalism and jihadism in Nigeria long predates its creation. Islam in Nigeria can be traced back to the ninth century in the Borno Empire. While there was conflicts between ethnic groups and neighboring kingdoms, Islamic fundamentalism was generally thought of as relatively non-political, focusing on withdrawal from society to study the Quran and leading a pure, religious life[3]. There was a turning point in 1804 with the Fulani War in Nigeria and Cameroon. A prominent Islamic scholar, Usman dan Fodio, was exiled from Gobir, a prominent Hausa kingdom, when his influence grew and he gained followers, causing the King to place an increasing amount of restriction’s on his speeches. After being exiled, he constructed an army of Fulani soldiers to lead in jihad against the Hausa kingdom. The war resulted in the creation of the Sokoto Caliphate led by Usman dan Fodio, the caliph, whose goal was to purify and reform Muslim society[4]. In its height it ruled over around 10 million people. During colonization, the British overtook the caliphate in 1903, implementing direct rule[5], but its legacy of jihad has remained today. Religious leaders across northern Nigeria often refer to the Sokoto heritage and claim Fulani ethnic origins.[6]

        British colonization deepened the divide between the majority muslim north and more diverse south creating a legacy of conflict. During the 19th century, Christianity rose in southern Nigeria due to Western missionaries and a rise in freed slave population as a result of the outlaw of the slave trade. In the beginning of the 20th century, Great Britain slowly allowed more Nigerian representation into the governor’s advisory council through multiple legislative councils and constitutions. On October 1st, 1960, Nigeria was granted independence and held parliamentary elections. There were 312 single-member constituencies, out of which 174 were from the Northern Region, 62 from the Western Region, 73 from Eastern Region and three from Lagos, the then Federal Territory.[7] This allowed the muslim North the most power over the rest of the country.

        Tensions and violent outbreaks between North and South increased after independence. In 1978, conflict arose when muslim officials tried to integrate Shariah Law into the new constitution. In spite of their efforts, the constitution included the proviso that “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of religion, including freedom to change his religion or belief”[8]. In the dismay of conservative Muslims and increased religious polarization, a preacher from Cameroon and self-proclaimed prophet, Muhammadu Marwa, gained popularity for his controversial rhetoric condemning the Nigerian state and all forms of Westernization, drawing inspiration from Usman dan Fodio’s legacy of conservatively reforming muslims. He began to take on the established Sunni scholars, condemning anyone who used any other scriptural source than the Quran, including the Sunna and the Hadiths and eventually denounced the prophet Muhammed completley. He also damned those who used watches, cars, televisions, cigarettes and many other products that reflected Western life, earning himself the nickname “Maitatsine,” or “The One Who Damns.” [9]By the late 1970’s, Marwa had become a well-known public figure by challenging all manner of authority. He developed a self-ruling enclave of several thousand men in the city of Kano to which alleged “traitors” to the movement were brought and executed after a brief appearance before the movement’s own “court”. Marwa’s followers, called the Yan Tatsine, were largely poor and underprivileged young men of the Muslim population which had not benefited from the oil boom of the 1970’s in Southern Nigeria and whose distress was increasing with the high rate of inflation.[10] Marwa promised paid low-level labour jobs for his Koranic students. His attacks on affluence and western materialism as well as an income attracted these impoverished men. In 1980, after numerous clashes between the Maitatsines and police, a riot ensued for eleven days in which Maitatsines terrorized Kano, burning down mosques, police stations and schools. The police were overwhelmed and the military stopped the uprising with force, resulting in over 4,000 deaths, including Marwa’s.[11] Maitatsine’s movement lived on as his followers dispersed around the country and continued to spread their interpretation of Islam. Many of them were imprisoned, creating a heavy burden on the “already overstretched penitentiary system”. [12] This caused a presidential pardon in 1982, although prison records show most of the Yan Tastine died of starvation, thirst, or disease while imprisoned.[13] The dispersed Maitasine’s led new outbreaks of violence in multiple northern cities resulting in over 10,000 deaths before the military was able to suppress them in 1985.



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