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Mohammed Yusuf

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Boko Haram

30 December 2012

Boko Haram

By Gwynne Dyer

It is not known if the word “dysfunctional” was invented specifically to describe the Nigerian state – several other candidates also come to mind – but the word certainly fills the bill. The political institutions of Africa’s biggest country are incapable of dealing with even the smallest challenge. Indeed, they often make matters worse. Consider, for example, the way that the Nigerian government has dealt with the Islamist terrorists of Boko Haram.

Or rather, how it has failed to deal with them. Boko Haram (the phrase means “Western education is sinful”) began as a loony but not very dangerous group in the northern state of Bornu who rejected everything that they perceived as “Western” science. In a BBC interview in 2009 its founder, Mohammed Yusuf, claimed that the concept of a spherical Earth is against Islamic teaching. He also denied that rain came from water evaporated by the sun.

Bornu is a very poor state, however, and his preaching gave him enough of a following among the poor and ignorant to make him a political threat to the established order. So hundreds of his followers were killed in a massive military and police attack on the movement in 2009, and Mohammed Yusuf himself was murdered while in police custody. That was what triggered Boko Haram’s terrorist campaign.

Its attacks grew rapidly: by early 2012 Boko Haram had killed 700 people in dozens of attacks against military, police, government and media organisations and against the Christian minorities living in northern Nigeria. So last March Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, promised that the security forces would end the insurgency by June. But the death toll just kept climbing.

In September, a senior official told The Guardian newspaper that “There is no sense that the government has a real grip. The situation is not remotely under control.” Last week alone saw six people dead in an attack on a church on Christmas Day, seven killed in Maiduguri, the capital of Bornu state, on 27 December, and the abduction and murder of fifteen Christians, mostly by slitting their throats, in a town near Maiduguri on the 28th.

President Jonathan’s response was to visit a Christian church on Sunday and congratulate the security forces on preventing many more attacks during Christmas week: “Although we still recorded some incidents, the extent of attacks which (Boko Haram) planned was not allowed to be executed.” If this is what success looks like, Nigeria is in very deep trouble.

Part of the reason is the “security forces”, which are corrupt, incompetent, and brutal. In the murderous rampages that are their common response to Boko Haram’s attacks, they have probably killed more innocent people than the terrorists themselves, and have certainly stolen more property. Right across the country’s mainly Muslim north, they are Boko Haram’s best recruiting sergeants.

But it is the government that raises, trains and pays these security forces, and even in a continent where many countries have problems with the professionalism of the army and police, Nigeria’s are in a class by themselves. That is ultimately because its politicians are also in a class by themselves. There are some honest and serious men and women among them, but as a group they are spectacularly cynical and self-serving.

One reason is Nigeria’s oil: 100 million Nigerians, two-thirds of the population, live on less than a dollar a day, but there is a lot of oil money around to steal, and politics is the best way to steal it. Another is the country’s tribal, regional and religious divisions, which are extreme even by African standards. In the mainly Muslim north, 70 percent of the population lives below the poverty line; in the mostly Christian south, only half do.

Now add a ruthless Islamist terrorist group to the mix, and stir. Boko Haram’s support does not just come from a tiny minority of religious fanatics and from grieving and angry people turned against the government by the brutality of the security forces. It also comes from a huge pool of unemployed and demoralised young men who have no hope of ever doing anything meaningful with their lives.

Democracy has not transformed politics dramatically for the better anywhere in Nigeria, but the deficit is worst in the north, where the traditional rulers protected their power by making alliances with politicians who appealed to the population’s Islamic sentiments. That’s why all the northern states introduced sharia law around the turn of the century: to stave off popular demands for more far-reaching reforms.

But that solution is now failing, for the cynical politicians who became Islamist merely for tactical reasons are being outflanked by genuine fanatics who reject not only science and religious freedom but democracy itself.

Nigeria only has an Islamist terrorist problem at the moment, mostly centred in the north and with sporadic attacks in the Christian-majority parts of the country. But it may be heading down the road recently taken by Mali, in which Islamist extremists actually seize control of the north of the country and divide it in two. And frankly, lots of people in the south wouldn’t mind a bit: just seal the new border, and forget about the north.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“One…lives”)


Nigeria and Boko Haram

28 August 2011

Nigeria and Boko Haram

by Gwynne Dyer

On Sunday Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, visited the scene of last week’s bombing at the United Nations office in Abuja, the capital, and said the sort of things that presidents must say on such occasions. Since the UN was involved, he said that it had been not just an attack on Nigeria, but on the whole international community. But then he said that the group behind the blast, Boko Haram, was a “local problem” that would be dealt with.

So which is it? An attack on the whole international community, or just a local problem? The answer is important, especially for Nigeria itself. “Attacks on the international community” are basically meaningless. What is the international community going to do? Surrender? But attacks on Nigeria’s unity, though just a “local problem”, are a very serious threat to Africa’s biggest country.

The miracle is that the 150 million Nigerians still live in the same country at all. Nigeria fought a bloody civil war to stop the secession of the south-east region, the main source of the country’s oil riches, only seven years after getting its independence in 1960.

That war was triggered by a military coup by military officers from the Muslim north of the country which inaugurated a period of three decades during Nigeria’s rulers were mostly Muslim generals from the north. The north is much poorer than the Christian south, but the generals ended up very rich.

Democracy returned to Nigeria only in the past decade, and the unwritten deal was that the presidency would alternate between Muslim leaders from the north and Christian politicians from the south. It made sense for a country split almost exactly between Christians and Muslims, but the deal depended on the traditional feudal rulers of the north retaining their influence over the Muslim community. However, that has been eroding for decades.

The sheikhs’ main strategy for stopping the rot was to emphasise their religious role, and religion in general: around 2000, twelve Muslim-majority states of Nigeria adopted Sharia law, even though some contain large Christian minorities. The strategy did not halt the decline of the sheikhs’ power, but it certainly created an environment in which Islamist extremists could prosper.

Boko Haram was founded in Maiduguri in 2002 by Mohammed Yusuf, a radical local cleric. He preached that Muslims should shun all aspects of “Western” society, including secular education and democracy, and live in strict conformity with the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.

The sect that he created advocated jihad against Nigeria’s rulers, and by 2009 Boko Haram had grown so popular that the Maiduguri state government sent the police to attack Mohammed Yusuf’s mosque and compound. His followers fought back, and hundreds were killed in street battles. Mohammed Yusuf himself was captured by the Nigerian army, and subsequently murdered by the police.

That did not put an end to Boko Haram (the name roughly translates as “Western education is forbidden”). New leaders emerged, and its local support soared. The terrorist attacks began shortly afterwards, at first in Maiduguri and neighbouring states, but by last December they reached the national capital.

Since then the violence has escalated rapidly, with a bomb at national police headquarters in Abuja in May and now on the UN headquarters in the same city. The last attack killed 23 people and injured more than 80; it’s getting serious. And what makes it so much more dangerous than similar attacks by Islamist extremists in countries like Pakistan and Iraq is the fact that half of Nigeria’s population is Christian.

Boko Haram kills Muslims who speak out against it, too. In Maiduguri, it’s now almost impossible to find any official who will discuss the problem on the record. But if its attacks sow enough mistrust between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria – which is probably its intention, and certainly the result of its actions – then the miracle of Nigerian unity may finally falter and fail.

It’s the north that would lose the most if Nigeria fell apart, for the oil is all in the south. But everybody would pay a lot, for the division of the country would imply massive movements of the minorities: Christians fleeing the north, and Muslims fleeing the south. It would be a catastrophe comparable to the division of India and Pakistan in 1947.

The situation in Nigeria has not reached that point yet. It may never do so. But Boko Haram has more support across the north than is publicly admitted, and there are politicians on both sides of the religious divide who are willing to exploit the fear and the hatred that its actions create. Such people exist in every country: they only need the right set of circumstances to come out into the light.

Nigeria’s problem is “local” in the sense that Boko Haram is a homegrown movement, not a branch office of al-Qaeda. But that actually makes it much harder for the Nigerian government to isolate and suppress it. It is a very big problem, and Goodluck Jonathan’s government shows no sign of knowing what to do about it.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 13. (“Boko…fail”; and “The situation…light”)