Thrust into the spotlight after the kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian girls, Boko Haram has gone from being a little known terrorist group to an internationally recognized security threat. Located in Northern Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon, they have killed more than 12,000 people and left another 8,000 maimed for life. They are fighting for a pure Islamic state, and an end to Westernization, but kill those from all sides. They have gone after Muslim clerics, they have gone after churches, and they have gone after children. But it’s important to understand just who they are if we ever hope to stop them. Here are 5 essential facts you must know about this group:
1. They Initially Had a Point
This is one of the hardest things to reconcile when we talk about groups that engage in such appalling acts of violence. While it’s easy to dismiss such people as ‘crazy,’ it is ultimately unhelpful and unproductive. Rather, it is imperative for us to recognize why they’ve been able to recruit and gain protection from local governments and army officials.
Resentment against western education has existed in much more benign forms since colonialism. Northern states were once home to a sultanate with powerful leaders. When evangelicals came in and tried to trade western education for Christianity, locals came to resent them. They do equate ‘western education’ with the stealing of land and eradication of their culture. And given what colonialists did during this time period, it’s not an unfounded complaint.
2. This Point Was Further Compounded by Government Corruption and Nigerian Class Systems
Boko Haram gains popular support by rallying against corruption and class warfare instigated by the leadership in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. Did you know Nigeria has as much oil as Dubai? Well it does, but look at the huge disparity between Dubai and Nigeria in development and services. That’s because the vast majority of oil profits go into the pockets of politicians. That’s enough to make any group furious, but it gets even worse.
As Professor Chris Kwaja points out, “Religious dimensions of the conflict have been misconstrued as the primary driver of violence when, in fact, disenfranchisement and inequality are the root causes.”
For instance, in Nigerian law, government has the power to determine whether someone belongs to a class referred to as ‘original inhabitants.’ If they don’t, they can be denied schooling, jobs, the ability to own land, and participation in politics. Now here’s where it starts to make sense: Muslims are disproportionately denied ‘original inhabitant’ status, meaning it skews the political landscape in favor of those who don’t have their interests at heart.
3. The International Press has Emboldened Boko Haram
Boko Haram has been involved in a fairly steady spate of attacks since it began the use of violence. Although much of this was curtailed to Northern Nigeria (and therefore largely ignored by the government), since the international press took notice of the missing schoolgirls, they’ve become deadlier than ever.
In May 2014 alone, Boko Haram attacks claimed the lives of more than 530 people in Nigeria. Many of these attacks were centered in Abuja, where car bombs and explosions killed and injured hundreds. Raids on small towns up north also saw the death of around 336 people. If we decide to bring in casualties from April and June as well, our death toll rises to about 880 people. That’s not including the 234 girls kidnapped from Chibok Schools.
4. There’s Evidence the Nigerian Armed Forces Are Aiding Boko Haram
Only a week ago, 15 high ranking military officers were court-martialed for supporting Boko Haram. Accusations range from giving them arms to even slipping through the ranks and fighting alongside them before returning to the army bases.
There have been rumors circulating for months about this, with random tips coming into AP news offices from politicians and those in leadership. Although Nigeria has denied that any military officers have been detained, the reports have been widely proliferated in numerous Nigerian newspapers.
Such accusations also explain why it’s been so hard to track down the missing school girls. If there is disorder in the ranks, then senior officials could be misleading searches not just for Nigerian forces, but for the American forces that came to assist in the search.
5. Experts Agree: The Only Way to Stop Boko Haram is to End Injustices
Although Boko Haram is a repulsive group, capable of mass atrocities, the main concern of Nigeria is to stop their ability to recruit. If nobody wants to join Boko Haram, it’s likely to die out, similarly to the LRA dissolution in Northern Uganda.
But how do we stop recruitment? Well let’s look at what we know: when people no longer feel disenfranchised and oppressed, they often stop looking for wayward means to express their discontent. Opposition leaders in Nigeria have called this simple class warfare, and suggested an end to injustice is the solution.
A look at de-radicalization techniques shows that there is hope. For instance, Egypt’s largest radical Islamic group, Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, renounced bloodshed in 2003, the result of a deal brokered by a Muslim attorney between the group and the Egyptian government. A second major Egyptian group, Al Jihad, renounced violence in 2007 based on a similar program.
This is not a plea to negotiate with Boko Haram, as numerous soldiers in their ranks should be arrested and brought to justice. However, if we want to halt their recruitment, we must concede that until Nigeria stops its discriminatory practices against northern groups, we can’t expect this situation to be resolved any time soon.