Nigeria's Boko Haram Horror Show: How to Move Forward

If the government is going to win its battle with violent extremism, it will need to be bold. 

Now encapsulated in the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, the global outrage surrounding Boko Haram, northern Nigeria’s most feared terrorist group, comes five years into a deadly insurgency that has taken the lives of 5,000 Nigerians and displaced more than a half million more. The catalyst for the recent outcry was the kidnapping of more than 200 girls from a school in Chibok last month. In a video released last week, Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram’s fanatical leader, offered to free the schoolgirls in exchange for the release of prisoners held by the Nigerian government—a bargain that Nigeria is, understandably, not likely to take.

Far from assuring an anxious public at home and abroad, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s response to the crisis has been tepid and inconsistent at best. The Nigerian government seeks to cast Boko Haram as a temporary threat precipitated by a wave of global terrorism following 9/11. But the roots of violent extremism in northern Nigeria far predate Al Qaeda.

The problems that gave rise to Boko Haram are not new. They are structural and recurrent. Nigeria has, over the past several decades, witnessed several bouts of violent extremism, a symptom of years of economic deprivation, corruption, and government neglect.

Where does this story begin? Most historical analysis starts with Nigeria’s colonial period, when the British divided Nigeria into roughly three geocultural zones: a Muslim north for the Hausa, Fulani, and Kanuri peoples; a Christian and Muslim southwest inhabited mostly by Yoruba; and a predominantly Christian southeast most often associated with the Igbo. During this period, northern Nigeria enjoyed both economic prosperity and considerable political and cultural autonomy. Britain’s colonial practice of “indirect rule” left existing social structures in place and largely preserved the freedom to practice Islam.

That changed with Nigerian independence in 1960. Having lost its colonial sponsors, the north’s Fulani aristocracy ceded control over local affairs to a new and unpredictable federal government that connected the three geocultural spheres. Though three of Nigeria’s first four heads of state hailed from the north, a tumultuous decade of war and political instability gradually chipped away at their influence relative to the Yoruba and Igbo.

The discovery of oil in 1956 in Nigeria’s Igbo-majority southeast had an even greater effect. A booming oil sector precipitated the need for a centralized federal bureaucracy. Government corruption exploded as a result. As politicians jockeyed to capture the newfound wealth, they became increasingly unaccountable to their citizens. The agricultural sector—previously the lifeblood of the economy in the Muslim north—deteriorated, and a painful period of IMF structural adjustment in the 1980s only widened the gulf between the “haves” and the “have nots.”

Out of growing discontent in the north appeared a number of Islamic extremist organizations. In 1978, a reformist preacher named Abubakar Gumi inspired the creation of the “Izala” movement, which offered refuge in a rejectionist view of Islam. A radical Shiite campaign emerged after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. The most violent were the Yan Tatsine, whose rousing leader, Mohammed Marwa, inspired thousands to rise up against the existing political and religious order. The same grievances—economic deprivation, corruption, and an ineffectual federal state—carried over to 2002, when Mohammed Yusuf founded what would become Boko Haram. After Yusuf’s death in 2009, Boko Haram emerged violent and enraged, vowing to “make the country ungovernable, kill and eliminate irresponsible political leaders of all leanings, hunt and gun down those who oppose the rule of Sharia in Nigeria, and ensure that the infidel does not go unpunished.”

Of course, corruption, discontent and government neglect alone cannot explain why the vast majority of Nigeria’s 90 million Muslims reject the use of violence. Boko Haram itself bears responsibility for advancing a revisionist narrative that falsely portrays Islam as incompatible with democracy, Western culture, and modern science. These ruthless insurgents deserve the brunt of the blame for their campaign of terror in pursuit of a fundamentalist Islamic state.