The stars washed the night sky and militants from the Islamist fundamentalist group Boko Haram broke into their boarding school. Yet to be tainted by the cynicism of adulthood, survivors say that they innocently believed that the men in camouflage were soldiers coming to save them from a militant attack.
The world stood united, aghast by the mass abduction and what was previously an intermittently reported terrorist group was elevated, for a social media minute, to a global enemy. The poignant implications of the horrific abduction were the currency that traded the story to the top of news headlines. The story forced people think: what if that was my child? Now almost a year later some of the kidnapped girls have escaped but the majority remain enslaved to the will of their captors.
But who exactly is Boko Haram? And how have they managed to hold peace (and hundreds of girls) captive for so long?
To anyone who doubts the power of words, consider the impetus of Nigeria’s deadly Boko Haram terrorist group: “Anyone who is not governed by what Allah has revealed is among the transgressors.” With this phrase, soldiers of the militant group are emboldened to terrifying action, spreading destruction across Africa’s most populous country with bombs, brutal assassinations and kidnappings. However, Boko Haram did not always operate this way. In fact, even as recently as 2009 – Boko Haram – the name that the world now knows and fears – was not even widely known and used in U.S. embassy cables released by WikiLeaks. Founded in the Muslim-dominated north of Nigeria in 2002, the history of the group dates back to the Maitatsine uprising of the 1980s.
Beginning as a radical, yet notably non-violent fundamentalist group influenced by Wahhabi beliefs, the group’s name loosely translated means “western education is forbidden”. Led by the now deceased Mohammed Yusuf, Boko Haram wanted to turn Nigeria into an authentic Islamic state by imposing Sharia law throughout the country with the inclusion of the Christian south.
However, a seemingly innocuous 2009 law change – stating that all motorcyclists are legally obliged to wear helmets – disrupted the fragile calm that had characterised the country during the early 2000s and sparked Boko Haram’s violent transformation. What began as a sombre motorbike convoy to bury a member took a dark turn when disrupted by officers due to the convoy’s absence of helmets. The members interpreted this disruption as a provocation and the confrontation escalated with the officers opening fire and injuring 17 people. The WikiLeaks cable noted that officer’s disruption of a funeral convoy was “curious” and suggested that the disruption was intended as a provocation stemming from the tension between the opposing ideologies. Concluding on a prophetic note, the WikiLeaks cable stated:
“Whatever the origin of this incident, it illustrates the prevailing tensions in the North, which can become violent at short notice.”
Following the “curious” helmet incident Boko Haram militants attacked a police station and in the days that followed more than 700 people died across the north of the country. Mohammed Yusuf was captured and killed in police custody and the remaining members went underground. In a violent example of unintended consequences, what was supposed to mark the destruction of Boko Haram – Yusuf’s death – in fact marked the birth of Boko Haram as we know and fear it today with current leader Abubakar Shekau at the helm.
Despite the significance of the helmet incident, it is perhaps misguided and overly simple to conclude that this sole incident set off a neat chain of events leading to Boko Haram’s present violence. The helmet incident should rather be interpreted as manifestation of the growing tension in the region around that period.
In other words, the initial absurdity of the helmet issue is testament to the fact that almost anything would have sparked the conflict.
In an analysis on The Atlantic website, the helmet incident is understood as a pretext: “The larger insight here is that there is no “patient zero” in an armed insurgency. The factors behind Boko Haram’s rise are diverse, complex, and interconnected, and the protean group has multiple origin stories.”
The complexity of the factors motivating the origin and rise of Boko Haram is part of the group’s armour.
Nigeria’s former chief of defence staff, General Martin Luther Agwai said: “You can never solve any of these problems with military solutions. It is a political issue; it is a social issue; it is an economic issue, and until these issues are addressed, the military can never give you a solution.”
While poverty and marginalisation don’t necessarily create radicalised people, they do give groups like Boko Haram a distorted sense of legitimacy while providing a well of new recruits who feel that they have nothing to lose.
This is perhaps the primary reason why Nigeria and by extension, Africa, is being bullied by Boko Haram. The Nigeria government, the African Union and even the US have merely implemented military solutions in the region. While this has won limited gains against the terrorist group, with the assistance of Chad and Cameroon ensuring that some territory has been recaptured, Boko Haram continues to advance and has recently pledged allegiance to ISIS. The growth and expansion of Boko Haram is largely accepted as a broader social, political and economic issue, and yet the Nigerian government and its allies have all but refused to act upon the Hydra-like power of the group. It is easier to simply meet fire with fire and operate on the basis that the military if strong enough, can defeat Boko Haram. The government’s oversimplified logic is merely self-serving – and perhaps with good reason – if the government acknowledge the often legitimate grievances that have led to the popularity and growth of Boko Haram, they too acknowledge their failure and their responsibility, something which few governments around the world ever manage to do.