Boko Haram's hometown: Living with the ugly Nigerian cult is not fun

In Maiduguri, extreme poverty, corruption, and ruthless local soldiers helped shape extremist insurgency.

Vigilantes guard a checkpoint on a street in Maiduguri, Nigeria, in a backlash against Boko Haram.

On a dusty street in this small hometown city of Boko Haram, a young man named Bashir Ali stands at a checkpoint behind a high wall of sandbags. He sometimes stops cars but mostly waves them by.

Local insurgents here are hard to detect: They don’t wear uniforms and usually blend in. But if one starts shooting, Mr. Ali says, at least he has a place to duck behind. 

“We’ve seen quite a lot of fighting,” he says as Army trucks circle the neighborhood. “We have suffered enough in the hands of Boko Haram.”

Boko Haram began here in Borno State as a quiet if radical sect about 12 years ago. But the extreme poverty and governmental neglect that left the population feeling marginalized made the area congenial to extreme ideas, helping to transform Boko Haram into a full-blown insurgency.

Lately, those ideas have turned much of northeastern Nigeria into a war zone.

Tension and poverty

After Boko Haram attacked military bases here in Maiduguri last December, the city was placed under a 24-hour curfew. The next day, young vigilantes like Ali patrolled the roads when the curfew lifted, carrying sticks, knives, and bows and arrows. Tensions still run high.

The city of Maiduguri feels backward and stale. Unlike Lagos in Nigeria’s southwest, a cosmopolitan megacity fueled by oil money and urban progress, Maiduguri lacks a decent power grid and basic amenities, something that fuels residents’ gripes and feelings of being second-class citizens. 

“Even in the best of times, we were the poorest region in Nigeria,” says Borno State Gov. Kashim Shettima, speaking of the effect of Boko Haram’s insurgency. “Now we are poorer.”

Most young men can’t find work

Indeed, most young men in this region cannot find jobs, and can be lured into insurgency for small sums. Before Ali joined the civilian vigilante group that polices the street, for example, he had no work. Now, at least, he is able to stand behind sandbags for a small salary, albeit less than $100 a month.

“The social environment ... has been conducive to the rise of groups such as Boko Haram due to a mix of poverty, feudal traditions, corruption, and widespread support for conservative views,” says Thomas Hansen, a senior analyst for Control Risks in London.

The destabilizing influence of unemployment here is compounded by the lack of basic amenities. In Nigeria, the word “light” is synonymous with electrical power, and most northeasterners have neither. It is prohibitively expensive to run a small business on a generator, so businesses shut their doors at night.

The darkness then creates a cover for insurgents to operate, according to Kabir Mato, the director of the Institute for Anti-Corruption Studies at Nigeria’s University of Abuja.

Fear and feelings of neglect are also commonplace in northeastern Nigeria, he says. Residents are afraid of security forces, known for treading right on the line of extrajudicial behavior. The military is often accused by rights groups of shooting before arresting and holding people in jail for indefinite amounts of time under inhumane conditions.

“The victims of the military carnage are usually the innocent,” Mr. Mato says.

Boko Haram videos an attack

In March, Boko Haram’s fighters attacked a military prison and later released a video of what they said was the attack. Detainees released by the militants streamed out of the prison, most of them apparently taking the option they’d been given to head home. The video ended with a shot of what appeared to be a military helicopter.

In the days that followed, whispers turned into wails that hundreds of detainees had been killed not by Boko Haram but by the military as they fled. Some detainees had been held since 2009, and most were said to have had no connection to the terror group. None had faced charges in court.

‘Boko Haram’ evokes fear

An Amnesty International report that included an account of the incident said that many inmates were starving and showed signs of abuse, and said the security forces’ actions were consistent with war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Boko Haram’s name, roughly translated, denotes one of the group’s extreme ideas: that modern education is harmful to Muslims. The phrase “ilimin boko” was used to describe British colonial schooling at the turn of the 20th century. “Haram” means forbidden or sinful.

Fewer than half the children in northern Nigeria were going to school before the insurgency. Since then, hundreds of schoolchildren have been killed and hundreds more abducted.

The name, and the fear it now evokes, means that local parents are simply too afraid to bring their children to the few schools left open.

But while Boko Haram’s brand of extremism is repugnant to most northern Nigerians, many here say they understand why an uneducated young person might be driven to join the group.

Distrust of civilian authorities is building here. Northern residents are wary of the central government, led by southerner President Goodluck Jonathan.

‘They will not spare anybody’

The perception that funds allotted to secure the northeast are slipping into the pockets of the political elite has made things worse, perhaps legitimizing Boko Haram’s war in the eyes of some vulnerable young men. The Jonathan administration has said a whopping $5 billion is spent on the war against terror, but many assume a large portion of the funds never make it to the war.

Boko Haram’s ideology appears far more extreme than the religious differences that fall along political and tribal lines, causing sectarian violence. If anything, its rejection of Western education is an anomaly in Maiduguri, which was once a center for international trade in West Africa.

In an alleyway in Maiduguri, J.T. Gunda, a lawyer, says the group appears to have no goals, other than pure destruction, and must recruit with money and promises.

“In this situation you have to be very, very careful,” he says as soldiers and a stray dog wander by. “They will not spare anybody. They will not.”

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