Boko Haram literally means “books are forbidden.” As the name of a militant Nigerian Islamic fundamentalist group, it has taken on the meaning: “Western education is sacrilegious.” The group’s name seems incongruous to its activities in the last few years. Junior Yetunde Durotoye, who is from Nigeria, notes that Boko Haram has “damaged Islamic and Christian groups,” which is to say that its actual goals remain murky at best. This poses problems for a Nigerian government scrambling to figure out the best way to deal with the insurgency.
Muhammad Yusuf, a religious imam, started Boko Haram in the northeastern city of Maiduguri, Borno state. Under Yusuf’s leadership, Boko Haram, while rejecting Darwinian evolution, claiming that the world was flat, denouncing Western education and limiting the role of women in public life, also provided free food, education, moral discipline, health care and other basic necessities to the community.
Boko Haram’s philanthropic activities aroused the ire of the government, which has long been criticized for favoring the largely Christian, oil-rich south while turning a blind eye to the Muslim-dominated north. To illustrate the disparity, income per head in the north is 50 percent lower than in the south; school attendance is 75 percent lower in the north, while only 5 percent of women can read and write.
In 2002, the Nigerian government, sensing its authority challenged, clamped down on Boko Haram. This only served to elevate Yusuf’s iconic status as the champion of the impoverished and maligned. In 2009 the police captured Yusuf and allegedly executed him by firing squad. Boko Haram’s members fled thereafter to the neighboring countries of Algeria, Mali and Niger.
In 2010, however, Boko Haram returned under a new name: Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings). Breaking from its pacifist beginnings, the group began using violent tactics to convey their multi-pronged message: to propagate the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, to purge Nigeria of Western influences including Christianity and to exact revenge on a government that had thinned its ranks and continues to neglect development in the north.
Since the start of 2012, Boko Haram’s activities have led to 1,000 deaths, an increase of 50 percent from 2011. In January 2012, Boko Haram fighters overran a police barracks in the city of Kano, killing 200 people. The group has also bombed churches in the city of Jos, carried out a suicide bomb attack at the United Nations headquarters in Abuja, the capital, and targeted the vice president and a senator.
The violence has resulted in a 30 percent drop in the GDP of the north. Still, Boko Haram’s popularity and influence continue to skyrocket. Attacks outside Borno state have increased from 22 percent to 64 percent, arousing fear that the group is inching closer toward Lagos, the economic capital of the country in the southwest. On Sundays, some roads in Lagos that lead into churches are sometimes closed off for security reasons.
When senior Tarere Eyimina last went home to Lagos, she recalls warning her father to avoid driving along the bridge that connects the mainland to Lagos Island. “Please don’t go on that bridge,” she told her father, because “they are threatening to bomb the bridge.” That said, sophomore Olaloye Oyedotun, also from Nigeria, says that Boko Haram is still wary of extending too far south.
“If they carry out in Lagos, which is the economic capital Nigeria, the capital of all industry, the rest of the country will declare war with them,” Oyedotun said.
The government is already waging war on Boko Haram. Major General Sarkin-Yaki Bellow supports the Joint Task Force, a special unit specifically designed to deal with destabilizing elements. The JTF consists of troops from the armed forces, police and state security. All Africa reports that on Sunday, Oct. 7, the JTF killed 30 Boko Haram fighters including the commander for the state of Yobe who goes by the alias “Bakaka.”
Though seemingly effective, military force is a dead-end tactic. The military’s brutality, after all, was the very catalyst that transformed Boko Haram into a vengeful harbinger of death. And it is not as if Nigeria’s armed forces have legitimate grounds to wage a moral war. According to Open Society Foundation, the Nigerian police kill 2,500 people a year — more than Boko Haram — in large part due to poor training, trigger-happiness and a low regard for human life.
Newly appointed national security adviser Sambo Dasuki thinks that engaging Boko Haram in talks, not shootouts, will more likely secure a peaceful solution. Like any group, Boko Haram consists of hardliners and moderates. By negotiating, he hopes to “peel the more flexible of Boko Haram’s peel away from the ultras and negotiate a better deal, especially on the economic front, for northerners.” President Goodluck Jonathan agrees; from his viewpoint, cracking down too hard on Boko Haram will only further alienate the north.
Unfortunately, most of Boko Haram’s demands are non-negotiable — i.e. the banishment of Western education.
“If they were a group that could be paid off, it would be easier … but this is not a question about material things anymore,” Oyedotun said.
“This is a question about ideology now.”
Senior Sulihat Mudasiru, a self-identified Muslim Nigerian asserts that Boko Haram’s stubbornness does not represent Islam.
“Islam does not practice killing people,” she said. “To make peace you kill people? … That’s not what the Koran preaches.”
Time is running out. The longer it takes for the government to squelch Boko Haram — militarily or through negotiation — the closer Nigeria comes to a potential split between north and south. The Biafran War from 1967-1970 emerged from ethnic tensions and caused over one million deaths.
Nigeria has a population of 160 million people evenly divided between Muslims and Christians — a civil war along religious lines will undoubtedly have far bloodier consequences.