Nigeria’s militant Islamist group Boko Haram – which has conducted various terror attacks and bombed the UN headquarters in the capital, Abuja last August – is fighting to overthrow the government and create an Islamic state. The group’s official Arabic name is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, which means “People committed to the propagation of the prophet’s teachings and jihad”. But residents in Maiduguri, where the group had its headquarters, dubbed it Boko Haram, which in Hausa means “Western education is forbidden”.
When the Sokoto caliphate, which ruled parts of northern Nigeria and Niger, fell under British control in 1903, the local population resisted colonization, especially the imposition of Western education. Many Muslim families still refuse to send their children to government-run “Western schools”, and the ruling elite do not perceive education as a priority. In 2002, Mohammed Yusuf, a charismatic Muslim cleric, formed Boko Haram in Maiduguri. He set up a religious complex, which included a mosque and an Islamic school. Many poor Muslim families from across Nigeria, as well as neighbouring countries, enrolled their children at the school. However, Boko Haram had also a political goal: to create an Islamic state. The school became a recruiting ground for jihadis to fight the state.
Boko Haram’s violent attacks against police stations and other government buildings in Maiduguri, led to a shoot-outs in 2009. Hundreds of Boko Haram supporters were killed and thousands of residents fled Maiduguri. Nigeria’s army seized the group’s headquarters, captured and killed Mr Yusuf. His body was shown on state television and the security forces declared Boko Haram finished. But fighters have regrouped and started a new spate of attacks in 2010.
There some who do not believe in the clashes of civilization. Matthew Hassan Kukah, the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto, claims that Nigerians are more interested in seeing a government tackling injustice and social degradation. “The violence and tensions that are tearing north-eastern Nigeria are the result of the abuses committed by government and security forces during the crackdown two years ago, when there were hundreds of casualties and thousands displaced. The population has simple demands, related to its very survival. First of all, they want to be able to return to their homes. The government should address the situation with a pragmatic approach, helping people to start living again”, the bishop says.
President Goodluck Jonathan has called for dialogue. Yet, it is difficult to talk to a group without a face. Since Yusuf’s death, no one has claimed the leadership of Boko Haram. “Religion is a cover, the node are the social issues – continues the bishop. Corruption, injustice and disappointment at the fact that 12 years of democracy have not improved the living conditions have become an explosive mixture with the summary executions by the military and special forces. If life began to improve, as is happening in the Niger Delta, people would throw away their weapons. Again, faith has nothing to do with this violence. The governor and the entire population are Muslims. Boko Haram uses the religious card because religion is the only sign of belonging understandable to everyone. President Jonathan needs to opt for the promotion of peace. He needs to come and visit northern Nigeria, meet the people, and adopt policies targeting development. Nigerians have no problem with the faith followed by their President, want they want is to see that the government fights corruption and confront injustice.