Boko Haram: An angry Nigerian youth revolt in the language of jihad

What started as an elite university student talking shop in the late 1990s has evolved today into a disparate group of radicals, bank robbers and disaffected.

Abubakar Shekau speaks to the camera in a video released by the insurgent group May 12.

Boko Haram is one of Africa’s most brutal insurgent groups. Its bloody rampages even earn negative ratings from some wings of Al Qaeda and from radical militants in Nigeria's own Delta region.

Boko Haram's main professed target is a Nigerian government that it says has repressed and impoverished the Muslim majority in the country’s northeast.

It is an overwhelmingly local and parochial movement, that has some ties to parts of Al Qaeda. Of course, the group’s brazen kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls in April catapulted it into global notoriety.

But Boko Haram's terror is not new: Over the past year, the shadowy force of 500 to 2,000 young Muslim fighters has conducted an escalating number of murder sprees on boys’ schools, along roadways, in mosques where fellow Muslims were praying, in churches, and at bus and police stations.

In 2014 alone, some 1,500 people, mostly civilians, have been slain. Villages in the northeast have been decimated or burned. Nigerian forces, poorly equipped and manned, have done little to help. Amnesty International this month documented that police knew in advance of the plan to kidnap the girls from Chibok, where they had gathered for exams, but took no action. (Human rights groups have told the Monitor that in some cases this fall, Boko Haram sent leaflets into villages to warn residents they were coming. When the residents informed Nigerian security, nothing was done or the police would flee.) 

Improbably, Boko Haram evolved from an elite student group in the late 1990s that had romantic notions about restoring a 19th-century, pre-colonial Islamic caliphate, becoming what is today a sprawling, violent youth movement that draws from a northern lumpen proletariat of those disaffected, poor, or criminal whose main tie is being born inside Muslim families. The group finances itself by theft and bank robberies, and has increasingly become a thorn in the flesh of Nigeria.

“This is a youth revolt driven by enormous demographic changes in a place where Muslim women average 7.5 children each,” says Paul Lubeck, at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “It is youth anger expressing itself in the language of jihad.”

Boko Haram’s stated desire is to create a sharia state in the Muslim-majority north, governed by Islamic law. Behind that aim is a deeply held view that the north is badly managed by government elites in the majority Christian south who enjoy large oil profits and a more comfortable life. 

Yet contrary to much recent press and media, the group is not mainly fixated on attacking Christians. That is secondary to its anti-government program. While Boko Haram turned truly bloody five years ago, in 2009, it began attacking Christian targets only in 2011. 

“Some people say Boko Haram is primarily concerned with destroying Christianity,” notes Jacob Olupona, a Nigerian Anglican at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. “They do bomb churches, but also mosques. Many of the kidnapped girls are Muslims.”

Mr. Olupona says the rich many-layered identity of peoples and local towns in Nigeria is now flattening out along very divisive and shallow “Christian” and “Muslim” lines, and that religious identity is being used to manipulate feelings and grab power.

President Goodluck Jonathan, an evangelical Pentacostal, said this month that Boko Haram would be defeated by the “grace of God,” which Mr. Olupona says will be interpreted in Nigeria as part of Mr. Jonathan's 2015 reelection campaign.

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country at 170 million, roughly divided between Christian and Muslim populations. (The two faiths have long intermingled; men named Mohammed, for example, might easily be Christian.) Boko Haram’s antecedents came in the 1990s, when Nigeria agreed to institute sharia courts.

But by 2002, rallying around its leader, Mohammed Yusuf, Boko Haram said the government-approved sharia zone was insufficiently Islamic. Mr. Yusuf, a religious teacher, was slow to advocate violence. Yet in a 2009 showdown, Yusuf and three family members were killed in the government’s first full attempt to wipe out the sect. The government claimed success, and it actually did move Boko Haram out of the towns and into the bush and countryside. 

“Nigerian forces killed Yusuf and for the next three weeks roamed around killing anyone and everyone who even looked like they might be Boko Haram,” says Mr. Lubeck. “They killed 900 people. Rights group documented all this. After that, things changed.”

Boko Haram vowed revenge under its new leader, Abubakar Shekau. In May 2011 it bombed targets around Jonathan's inauguration. In August 2011, in what is often called evidence of the group’s international aims, it bombed a United Nations compound in the capital of Abuja. It also started using better tactics and weapons, and talking more jihad, and experts think it may have been aided by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb at this time.

Yet the group has shown little international jihadi profiles. It's videos never showcase foreign fighters. Shekau did once vow to kill former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, though the threat came some six months after Ms. Thatcher had passed on. 

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