Who are Nigeria’s Boko Haram?

Leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau

Nigeria’s Islamist group, Boko Haram has in recent years been at the centre of media attention. It has claimed responsibility for numerous domestic “terrorist” attacks which have resulted in hundreds of deaths including that of civilians. Reporting from Nairobi, Mohammed Kahiye tells us more about who the group actually are, what they stand for and their objectives.

“Boko Haram” is a Hausa (a tribe from the north of Nigeria) word meaning “western education is forbidden”. The group formed in 2001 and they started by warning people against anything associated with the western world. This included polio immunisation exercises, describing it as an act of westerners to “contain the growth of the Muslim population”. They stated that polio was a “family planning” agenda targeted at the Muslims of Nigeria through the sterilisation of young girls.

To begin with, they got an overwhelming support from local clerics and the residents of the northern city of Kano who perceived them to be the vanguards of Islam in Nigeria. In their early years, the organisation remained totally non-violent and it was a case of an ideological battle and a “war of words” with the Nigerian government.


At present, Boko Haram is listed as a terrorist organisation by most western governments including the US and the UK. A brutal crackdown was launched by the Nigerian authorities to detain their leaders and members in order to quell its growing influence among the young Muslim population. It was the crackdown in 2009 which led to Boko Haram turning to violence, justified under the pretext of “self defence”. Once Boko Haram took up arms against the government, it gained momentous support by recruiting more Muslim youth and others from major religious dominions in Nigeria.

The Boko Haram uprising that followed is one of the most violent and complex conflicts in the African continent besides that of the Al Shabab militia in Somalia and the M23 rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The violent clashes between the federal government of Nigeria and Boko Haram began in July 2009 when the group launched a series of attacks on police stations in the state of Bauchi. The battle between Boko Haram fighters and the Nigerian Police Force spread to Kano, Yobe, Borno and eventually across the whole of north eastern Nigeria, which resulted in the deaths of thousands including civilians.

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A government inquiry later found that while long-standing tensions existed between Boko Haram and the Nigerian authorities, the immediate cause of the violence of July 2009 stemmed from an incident where some members of the group were stopped by police in the city of Maiduguri (Boko Haram stronghold) whilst on route to a cemetery to bury one of their associates. The officers were part of a special operation aimed at stamping out violence and rampant crime in the state of Borno, and they demanded that the men comply with a traffic law requiring motorcycle passengers to wear helmets. When the Boko Haram members refused, the consequent confrontation resulted in their deaths at the hands of the police.

Ideology and objectives

Boko Haram is currently being led by Abubakar Shekau, a wanted man by the Nigerian and American government. The group wants to impose Shariah law in north Nigeria, and other Muslim majority areas in the country. They currently pose the biggest threat to stability in Africa’s top oil exporting nation as well as other regional states such as Mali.

The insurgency which has killed thousands since its armed confrontation with Nigerian forces seems to have intensified. In comparison to the uprising of 2009, the group’s activities had decreased but have recently increased by their persistent guerilla warfare against government forces.

Boko Haram have stated that their main targets are security forces and politicians, but recent attacks have displayed that they have also targeted Muslim clerics, schools that teach western education as opposed to Shariah compliant Islamic studies and markets. They have lost a lot of support and credibility from Muslims who initially held them in high esteem because of their “struggle in the cause of Islam” because of targeting schools and businesses.

Islam is a religion of peace and warfare in a particular context and situation. Whilst Boko Haram’s decision to turn to violence in “self defence” when attacked by the Nigerian authorities was widely accepted by Muslims, the killings of school students, clerics and destroying places of worship belonging to religions like churches suggested that the organisation’s understanding of Shariah is more separatist than accommodating.

Boko Haram’s new change in tactics in what they describe as “resistance attacks” are suspicious. It would be of no surprise to me if the group demands the Muslim majority north to be a separate autonomous state to the rest of Nigeria. They are indirectly fighting the Nigerian authorities based on religious lines so its long term objective will be justified in the eyes of normal Muslims as a conflict between “Islam and Christianity” and the need to be separate from the Christian south.

In recent weeks, the military has encouraged the formation of vigilante groups to help authorities locate and arrest members of Boko Haram, which will no doubt be used by the group to fulfill their objectives if the Nigerian government is not careful in its handling of the situation.



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