What developments might have triggered the emergence of violent Islamist group Boko Haram during the last decade in Nigeria? According to Umar Mamodu[1] — a scholar and key Boko Haram historian — its inception in 2002 resulted from a clash between the moderate Islamic teachings of the prominent Sheikh Jafaar Adam at the Mahammadu Ndimi Mosque in Maiduguri-Borno State in the Northeastern part of Nigeria, and the more militant interpretation of the Qur’an by his disciple, Mohammed Yusuf.[2]

According to Mamodu[3], Yusuf believed in the creation of a new order in which the wretched should inherit the earth, and for his extremist views, was expelled in 2002 from the Ndimi Mosque Committee.[4] Later that year Yusuf built a mosque in the northeast Nigeria to serve as a magnet for primary and secondary school pupils who, in response to his teachings, would abandon Westernized schools in the belief that Western education [Boko] is a sin [Haram]; hence the name Boko Haram.[5]

The group’s official name, according to its manifesto, is Jamaiatu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awata Wal-Jihad,[6] which translates as «Association of Sunnis for the Propagation of Islam and Jihad.»[7] Abul Qaqa, the official spokesman of the group, stated categorically, in an interview reported by Reporters Without Borders, that Boko Haram’s objective is the «application of Sharia law throughout Nigeria … [t]hrough kidnappings, bombings and suicide attacks aimed at the United Nations, churches and symbols of the federal government such as police stations.»[8]

Ideologically, Boko Haram opposes not only Western education but also Western culture and science — a position Mohammed Yusuf revealed in an interview conducted by the BBC, when he stated that the belief that the earth is spherical in shape is a sharp contradiction to Islamic thought and therefore should be rejected along with Darwinism and the theory that rain comes from water evaporated by the sun.[9] Ironically, Nigerian academic Hussain Zakaria told BBC News that Yusuf «is graduate educated and very proficient in English».[10]

Violence linked to Boko Haram’s activities is reported to have resulted in an estimated 10,000 deaths between 2001 and 2013.[11] Since 2012 alone, according to an Amnesty International report that details Boko Haram’s activities in Nigeria, «at least 70 teachers and over 100 schoolchildren and students have been killed or wounded. At least 50 schools have either been burned or seriously damaged and more than 60 others have been forced to close. Thousands of children have been forced out of schools across communities in Yobe, Kaduna, Adamawa and Borno states.»[12]
Abubakar Shekau, leader of the Nigerian Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram, appears in a video communiqué claiming responsibility for an October 24, 2013 attack that killed 35 people.


Boko Haram is considered a threat to not only Nigeria but also the entire world. In 2012, then-Commander of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), General Carter Ham, voiced concerns about the intent of terrorist groups such as Somalia’s Al-Shabaab, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb [AQIM] and Boko Haram to collaborate and synchronize their efforts. After the 2011 Christmas Day bombings of churches in Nigeria, General Ham said that he remained greatly concerned about Boko Haram’s stated intent to connect with Al-Qaeda’s senior leadership.[13]
Socio-political state of Northern Nigeria: Maitatsine

Nigeria was created in 1914 from an amalgamation of the north and south region by British colonial authorities. Northern Nigeria consists mainly of the Hausa and Fulani ethnic groups, who are predominantly Muslim, while Southern Nigeria consists of the Yoruba and Igbo ethnic groups, who are Christians and animist worshippers.

The history of Northern Nigeria has been profoundly influenced by religion and politics. Since the Borno Sultanate and the Sokoto Caliphate — which ruled parts of what is now Northern Nigeria, the Republic of Niger and southern Cameroon — fell under British control in 1903, there has been strong resistance to Western education among the Muslims of the area.[14]

In the Northern part of Nigeria, religion has long been used as a uniting tool. The Fulani Jihads of 1804-1808, through conquest and conversion, superimposed Islam on the Hausa identity, creating a central political and religious authority on the fragmented Hausa states of present day Northwestern Nigeria, and fusing them into one political and linguistic unit.[15] As historian John Phillips stated, to be Hausa gradually came to mean that one was a Muslim, even though not all Muslims in the region were Hausa and not all Hausa were Muslims.[16]

The unity seen among Northerners strongly contrasts to the Southern region of Nigeria, which is made up of various scattered ethnic groups, languages, political organizations and religions.

British control and the subsequent colonization of the region, however, evidently did not sit well with the indigenous people of Northern Nigeria.[17] Opposition to Western influence followed, largely due to the circumstance that the Hausa elite — the traders, scribes and clerks used by the British as agents to colonize the region — led lives that were physically, attitudinally and materially removed from their hosts’.[18] An account of the indirect rule adopted by British colonial authorities states: «Like the white colonialist, these black imperialists would not live amongst and mix with the people. They stayed on their own. They had their own quarters just as the Whiteman had his own Government Reservation Area…»[19] Although this account refers to the Igede area of central Nigeria, in his examination of the account, Moses Ochonu, Associate Professor of African History at Vanderbilt University, observed that, «in many ways, the Hausa auxiliaries too were victims of a colonial administrative policy shaped by the racist notion of the more civilized natives helping to civilize the less civilized ones.»[20]

Added to the Western influence in government and administration, was the suspicion of the spread of Christianity in a Northern Nigeria dominated by Islam. As Farouk Chothia commented in a BBC report, «[O]wing to activities of early Christian missionaries who used Western education as a tool for evangelism, it is viewed with suspicion by the local Northern population.»[21]

The Western influence of British colonialists caused a division among the people of Northern Nigeria, who were once united by Islam. This division saw, on one side, the so-called «civilized» — by Western standards — elite who were used by the British as agents of colonization; and on the other side, the commoners, who vehemently resisted Western influence in the region. Written accounts show that not only did the system of governance cause animosity among the people living in Northern Nigeria; the system was also seen as a cheap and an ineffective colonization project.[22]

In the years leading to Nigeria’s independence in 1960, there was a popular movement among Northern Nigerians known as the Talakawas[23] — headed by Aminu Kano, a socialist politician who led an Islamic uprising against British colonialists in the 1940s. Talakawas had as its driving force a distaste for Western influence, and planned to use politics and religion to create a «Northern Nigerian Society of Social Justice, Economic Prosperity and Fairness». A study on the government of Northern Nigeria from 1350-1950 shows that many Talakawas (commoners) in Kano State supported that message to demonstrate disapproval with what they perceived as an unrepresentative government composed of a selected few.[24]

Dissatisfaction with Western influence also led to an emergence of Islamist fundamentalists among people of the Northeastern region of Nigeria. Prominent among them was Mohammed Marwa, a radical preacher also known as Maitatsine [«the one who curses»], notorious for his violent activities during the 1970s and 1980s.[25] Marwa denounced Western influence and technology, and also mainstream Muslim teachers. The riots and armed clashes he instigated, which pitted his followers against police and the army, resulted in the deaths of thousands of people in the country.[26] A BBC report quotes a witness who saw hundreds of people summarily executed, as the Nigerian authorities tried to crush a week-long uprising in December 1980, speaking of the horrific nature Maitatsine’s attacks:

«They were extrajudicial killings everywhere. …. There were hundreds of them, innocent people.»[27] The report went on to say, «Heretical seems to be the only word to describe him [Maitatsine]… he had millennial ideas of the end of time. … There was a certain fanaticism [by Maitatsine’s rebels] which overwhelmed the attempt to deal with them… I saw a lot of dead bodies everywhere. Everywhere was filled with dead bodies. Road blocks were mounted… everybody was living in absolutely fear. People were living with their hearts in their mouth».[28] In the aftermath of the uprising, it was reported that, «It took the police three days to get the bodies off the street. An estimated 4,000 people were killed in the week-long uprising.»[29]

Analyst Tony Johnson views Boko Haram as a spawn of the Maitatsine riots.[30]

This disenfranchisement of commoners in the Northern part of Nigeria seems to have been used as an opportunity by the commoners to carry out uprisings for social justice, an Islamic mode of governing and economic prosperity against the «establishment.»

The reason Mohammed Yusuf founded Boko Haram, according to accounts of Umar Mamodu – an Arabic scholar and Boko Haram historian, appears to be that he saw an opportunity to exploit public outrage at government corruption by linking it to Western influence in governance.[31] Yusuf, according to Mamodu’s account, wanted to gather young impressionable minds that had never gotten a fair deal from government; he was fascinated with the idea of destroying the social, political and religious order to create a new order in which the wretched would inherit the earth.[32] This notion has prompted Chris Kwaja, a Nigerian researcher on religion, to assert that «religious dimensions of the conflict have been misconstrued as the primary driver of violence when, in fact, disenfranchisement and inequality are the root causes.»[33] Another Nigerian researcher wrote, «A psycho-analysis of the adherents of the sect shows that their major belief is in the full implementation of Sharia law in their respective states. With Sharia fully implemented, there will be social justice, economic prosperity, equality and fairness… Western education is not really there problem…Maladministration is the remote cause.»[34]

A look at the membership of Boko Haram will also reveal the role that bad governance and disenfranchisement of commoners in Northern Nigerian states have played in the group’s emergence. According to figures extrapolated from a 2001 article by Tony Johnson for the Council of Foreign Relations, the sect’s hundreds of followers, mostly Northerners, known also as Yusuffiya, consisted largely of impoverished Islamic students and clerics, as well as university students and professionals, many of whom were unemployed.[35] Human Rights Watch researcher Eric Guttschuss told IRIN News that Yusuf successfully attracted followers «by speaking out against police and political corruption» on behalf of the country’s «vast numbers of unemployed youth [who] he was able to tap into for recruits».[36] He also went on to suggest that the emergence of Boko Haram is largely due to corruption and poor governance.[37]
Nigeria: North-South Divide

Since the amalgamation of Southern and Northern Nigeria in 1914, it has been argued that Nigeria has favored the elites of the North at the expense of inhabitants of the Southern region. At Nigeria’s 100-year anniversary, constitutional lawyer Fred Agbaje suggested that the amalgamation by the British was a self-serving alliance. The amalgamation, he wrote, «put the political administration of Nigeria in the hands of some people instead of an equitable distribution of power.»[38]

After Nigeria’s Independence in 1960, the North-South division led to discrimination against Southerners. Between 1963 and 1998, Nigeria saw a near-unbroken chain of rulers from the North.[39] During this period, there were 16 Police Commissioners in charge of Lagos State (a Southern State). Out of this number, eight were Northerners. In the Northern state of Kaduna, with the same number of Commissioners, only one, Joseph Adeola was a Southerner; the remaining 15 were all Northerners.[40] This disproportionate distribution of positions of power not only existed in the police, but also in most Northern-led military juntas — in which governors of Southern States were mostly Northerners.[41]

In the banking sector, Southerners were not spared the discrimination of a Nigeria dominated by Northerners. The display of uneven treatment reached its peak during General Sani Abacha’s regime, which was dominated by Northerners. The central government passed the Failed Banks decree, ostensibly to clean up corruption in the banking sector of Nigeria and «sanitize» it, however, this was actually used to persecute Southerners[42] by deliberately targeting and arresting former bankers who were General Sani Abacha’s political and personal enemies[43] and who were members of Southern states, all the while shielding the Northerners. An example of the preferential treatment of Northerners is the case of a high-profile Northerner who had a company that was in debt for 300 million naira to one of the distressed banks.[44] He was not charged before any tribunal — in contrast to many Southern bank directors and company owners who were kept in detention indefinitely.[45]

The disbursement of proceeds from Nigeria’s Petroleum Trust Fund [PTF] also seems to discriminate against Southerners. Although the oil-producing states are situated in the Southern region of the country, these states have benefited the least from the oil wealth.[46] Before Olusegun Obasanjo became the first President of Nigeria’s third republic in 1999, the PTF generated more than 70% of its revenue in the South, while disbursing less than 40% of the money in the South.

To compound the unfair treatment of Southerners, there was a worrisome transfer of federal public institutions to Abuja, a state dominated by Northern Hausa-speaking people, after the Federal Capital Territory of Nigeria was moved there from Lagos, a state in the Southern region: In particular, there was the economically and logistically impractical decision to have the Nigerian Ports Authority [NPA] and Nigerian Maritime Authority [NMA] relocate to Abuja, when the major ports are in Lagos and other coastal states in the South.[47]
Terrorism against the Nigerian State

After the election of Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, a Christian Southerner, as the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in 2010, there was an increase in violent activities by the Boko Haram sect, who began to wage war on the new government led by President Jonathan, who has often been criticized for indulging in ethnic factionalism and favoring the Ijaw ethnic group situated in Southern Nigeria.[48]

Before the bombing of the United Nations building in Nigeria’s capital of Abuja on August 16th 2011, the most daring activity of Boko Haram had been the group’s June 7, 2011 bombing of Abuja’s police headquarters. That attack appeared to be specifically targeted the Inspector General of Police, Hafiz Ringim.[49]

On July 10, 2011, a Christian Fellowship Church in Suleja, Niger State, in the «Middle Belt» part of Nigeria, was bombed. The next day the University of Maiduguri, in the Northern part of Nigeria, closed on the order of the University Authority, citing security concerns.[50]

Boko Haram has made it known by way of public announcements,[51] backed by terrorist actions, that its strategy is to undermine Nigerian governmental authority. Boko Haram’s video clips — which can be viewed on YouTube — featuring the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, stress disdain for the Southern-dominated government.[52] Apart from video footage, the Shekau, has underlined his anti-government position in official statements.[53]

Apart from countless attacks on civilians, other attacks have been carried out that show direct opposition to the Nigerian government. In September 7, 2010 attack, members of Boko Haram set free over 700 inmates from a prison in Bauchi State.[54] In Borno State, Boko Haram’s violence has killed approximately 800 people, including relatives of high-ranking state officials.[55]

In 2013, Boko Haram took control of the local governments of Marte, Mobbar, Gubio, Guzamala, Abadam, Kukawa, Kala-Balge and Gamboru Ngala, in Borno State, chasing out government officials, taken over government buildings and imposing Sharia law.[56]

Though the insurgency carried out by Boko Haram has not been limited to any geographical area to denote a North-South dispute, an examination of the aforementioned attacks shows a systematic assault on symbolic entities of the Nigerian State.
Boko Haram – A Genuinely Islamic Group?

Since the beginning of Boko Haram’s insurgency in Nigeria, there is no doubt that religious tension has been on the rise. It may however be overstated to conclude that the Islam-Christianity dispute solely led to the group’s emergence.

Looking back at Boko Haram’s history, which is marred by Muslim vs. Muslim conflict, it can be seen that the intra-religious dispute adherents of Islam played a key role in Boko Haram’s creation. Not only are most of the group’s activities specifically located in the Muslim-populated Northern region of Nigeria, evidence also shows that the majority of Nigeria’s Muslim population do not support the activities of Boko Haram, and it has been reported that the members of Boko Haram do not interact with the local Muslim populations.[57] Also, several prominent Muslim figures such as the governor of Niger State,[58] the Sultan of Sokoto[59] and the Coalition of Muslim Clerics in Nigeria [CMCN][60] have publicly denounced the group.

Nigerians have been caught up in an imbroglio in distinguishing the politically-driven Islamist movement from a faith-driven Islam. This has caused a religious tension between Christians and Muslims since the onset of the insurgency led by Boko Haram.

Boko Haram falls primarily under the category of a political group consisting fundamentally of Islamists who, by using religious obscurantism, hide under the cloak of the faith-based Islam.

Evidence shows that the origin of Boko Haram is linked to the poverty and lack of development in Northern states of Nigeria in the era of colonialism. Boko Haram, which perceives the West as a corrupting influence on the governance of Northern States, emerged as an armed revolt against a widening regional economic disparity.

Although the election of Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan — a Southern Christian — provoked many Northerners and coincided with an increase in Boko Haram’s violent activities, there is no evidence indicating conclusively that Boko Haram emerged solely in response to North-South tensions in Nigeria. Also, a lack of violence activities by the group in the South further disproves the notion that Boko Haram’s emerged primarily due to the North-South divide.

Lastly, in the differentiation of Islam and Islamism, faith-based Islam does not play the paramount role in inspiring Boko Haram’s activities. Instead, politically driven Islamism was adopted as a doctrine to wage war on all, including Muslims who adopt Westernization. The religious face used by Boko Haram is a deceptive cloak to deceive Nigerians that share Islamic sentiments. But there is no evidence that Muslims generally endorse or condone activities of Boko Haram. The specific attacks on Islamic States in the North, such as the mosque bombing in Borno State, indicate further that this violent group is primarily an ideologically driven political organization trying to weaken the influence of moderate Islam in Northern Nigeria, which they deem as Westernized.

[1] Umar Mamodu, «Boko Haram – The Beginning» Lagos [2011]. Umar Mamodu is an Arabic Scholar in the Northern part of Nigeria, Kano (Northern State of Nigeria). He has debated on matters relating to Islam in Nigeria and is well versed in the History of Boko Haram. He has also been a source for Nigerian newspapers. In 2009, he had a conversation on Boko Haram with Niyi Owolade, a former Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice of Osun State (southwest Nigeria) and Atirene Wilson, a lawyer from South Nigeria.
[2] Ibid
[3] Ibid
[4] Ibid
[5] Ibid
[6] Reporters without Borders, «Innermost thoughts of the Islamist Group Boko Haram,» Reporters without Borders Paris [2012]
[7] Samuel A. Ekanem, Jacob A. Dada and Bassey J. Ejue, «BOKO HARAM AND AMNESTY: A PHILO-LEGAL APPRAISAL», International Journal of Humanities and Social Science Vol. 2 No. 4 New York [Feb 2012]
[8] Reporters without Borders, «Innermost thoughts of the Islamist Group Boko Haram,» Reporters without Borders Paris [2012]
[9] Joe Boyle, «Nigeria’s Taliban Enigma», BBC News, London 31 July 2009
[10] Ibid
[11] John Allen, «The Catholic Church: What Everyone Needs To Know», Oxford University Press London {2013] P 166-167
[12] Amnesty International, «Keep away from Schools or we»ll kill you: Education under attack in Nigeria»,
[13] Mark Doyle, «Africa’s Islamist Militants Co-ordinate Efforts» BBC News, London June 26 2012
[14] Ibid
[15] Moses Ochonu, «Colonialism within Colonialism: The Hausa-Caliphate Imaginary and the British Colonial Administration of the Nigerian Middle Belt», African Studies Quarterly» Gainsville [2008]
[16] J. Philips, «Spurious Arabic: Hausa and Colonial northern Nigeria», African Studies Center, Madison 2000
[17] Ira Marvin Lapidus, «Islam in West Africa», Cambridge University Press Cambridge [2002] P 405
[18] Moses Ochonu, «Colonialism within Colonialism: The Hausa-Caliphate Imaginary and the British Colonial Administration of the Nigerian Middle Belt», African Studies Quarterly» Gainsville [2008]
[19] A.P. Anyebe, «Man of Courage and Character: The Ogbuluko War in Colonial Idomaland» Fourth Dimension Publishers, Enugu 2002
[20] Moses Ochonu, «Colonialism within Colonialism: The Hausa-Caliphate Imaginary and the British Colonial Administration of the Nigerian Middle Belt», African Studies Quarterly» Gainsville [2008]
[21] Farouk Chothia, «Who are Nigeria’s Boko Haram Islamists?», BBC News, London 11 January 2012
[22] Moses Ochonu, «Colonialism within Colonialism: The Hausa-Caliphate Imaginary and the British Colonial Administration of the Nigerian Middle Belt», African Studies Quarterly» Gainsville [2008]
[23] M.G Smith «Government in Kano, 1350-1950», Westview Press Boulder [1997]. The term Talakawa is used to denote a commoner from the Northern part of Nigeria.
[24] Ibid
[25] Tony Johnson, «Backgrounder: Boko Haram», Council on Foreign Relations, New York 31, August 2011
[26] Ibid
[27] BBC Witness «Maitatsine».
[28] Ibid
[29] Ibid
[30] Tony Johnson, «Backgrounder: Boko Haram», Council on Foreign Relations, New York 31, August 2011
[31] Umar Mamodu, «Boko Haram-The Beginning» Lagos [2011].
[32] Ibid
[33] Chris Kwaja, «Nigeria’s Pernicious Drivers of Ethno-Religious Conflict», Africa Security Brief (Africa Center for Strategic Studies) Washington, DC [2011]
[34] Temidayo, A. «Boko Haram: The Way Out», the Nation Lagos [2011] p. 13.
[35] Tony Johnson, «Backgrounder: Boko Haram», Council on Foreign Relations, New York 31, August 2011
[36] IRIN News, «Analysis: Understanding Nigeria’s Boko Haram radicals», IRIN News, Nairobi, 18 July 2011
[37] Ibid
[38] «Prominent Nigerians react over Amalgamation of 1914», The Daily Sun Lagos, 1st January, 2014.
[39] «Abraham Adesanya «Afeniferi: Yoruba Nation Endangered,» Abeokuta [1998]. Text of the maiden conference delivered in Lagos by the National Leader of the Afenifere Socio-Cultural Organization, Senator Abraham Adesanya.
[40] Ibid
[41] Ibid
[42] Ibid
[43] Banji Ayiloge, «Abacha defends non-existing integrity» Soc.culture.nigeria Lagos [1997]
[44] Afenifere, «Yoruba Nation Endangered» Abeokuta [1998]. Text of the maiden conference delivered in Lagos by the National Leader of the Afenifere Socio-Cultural Organization, Senator Abraham Adesanya.
[45] Ibid
[46] O. Douglas and others, «Oil and Militancy in the Niger Delta: Terrorist Threat or Another Columbia?» — a paper presented during a peace rally, Institute of International Studies, University of California, Berkeley, USA. [2004]
[47] «Abraham Adesanya Afeniferi: Struggle for democracy,» Abeokuta [1998]. Text of the maiden conference delivered in Lagos by the National Leader of the Afenifere Socio-Cultural Organization, Senator Abraham Adesanya.
[48] Eric Osagie, «Obasanjo’s letter bomb», Daily Sun, Lagos, December 16 2013, p 61
[49] The Nation, Lagos, June 18 2011, pp 1-2
[50] Daily Sun Newspaper Editorials, Lagos, June 28 2011, p 4
[51] YouTube, 30 December 2013
[52] Ibid
[53] Aislinn Laing, «Boko Haram Leader taunts US over Bounty»,
[54] Samuel A. Ekanem, Jacob A. Dada and Bassey J. Ejue, «BOKO HARAM AND AMNESTY: A PHILO-LEGAL APPRAISAL» International Journal of Humanities and Social Science Vol. 2 No. 4, New York [Feb 2012]
[55] The Nation Newspaper Editorial, Lagos, July 3, 2011, p 13
[56] Integrated Regional Information Networks, «Nigerians on the run as military combat Boko Haram», Irin News Nairobi [May 2013]
[57] «Dozens killed in Nigeria clashes» BBC News, London, July 26 2009
[58] Jimmoh Abbas, «Boko Haram not representing Islam- Governor Aliyu», Sunday Trust, Abuja, June 13 2011.
[59] Bayo Oladeji and George Agba, «Smoke out Boko Haram Sponsors, Jonathan Orders Security Chiefs», All Africa, December 30 2011
[60] «Gallup Poll, Nigerian Muslims Overwhelming Oppose Boko Haram», Islam Today, February 20 2012

Boko Haram: How a Militant Islamist Group Emerged in Nigeria

by Femi Owolade
March 27, 2014 at 5:00 am


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