How Nigeria created Boko Haram

By Tolu Ogunlesi

How the failings of the Nigerian state, over the years, have conspired to create the conditions for the transformation of Boko Haram into the irredeemably violent organization it is today; one that now appears to lie well beyond the capacity of the country to confront and defeat.

Police and military abuses

The turning point in the drawn-out evolution of Boko Haram was the 2009 killing, by Nigerian police, of Boko Haram founder Yusuf Mohammed, hours after soldiers arrested and handed him over. His capture followed five days of clashes between sect members and the military, ordered in by the President when it became clear that the police could not contain it.

The group’s first violent uprising occurred long before then, in December 2003. Like the game-changing 2009 incident, it had retaliatory undertones. About 200 armed youth who styled themselves Al Sunna Wal Jamma (“Followers of the Prophet”) attacked police stations in two border towns in Yobe State, near Nigeria’s border with Yobe.

The attack on the police stations is now believed to have been planned as revenge for what the group – an early and short-lived splinter group of Boko Haram – perceived as mistreatment of its members by the police. For the next six years there were no other attacks on the scale of the 2003 uprisings, until the events of July 2009, in which the sect launched a series of brazen, coordinated attacks on police stations and government buildings in four states, in retaliation for an encounter weeks earlier with a team of security officers under the control of the Governor.

That incident, in which sect members were reportedly challenged by law enforcement agents for defying a state law and riding motorcycles without helmets, resulted in gunshot injuries to several sect members. After that incident, Yusuf reportedly wrote and circulated a letter to President Yar’Adua (hinted at in another letter attributed to Boko Haram two years later, shortly before another major attack).

The deaths of Yusuf, his father-in-law (who provided the land on which his mosque in Maiduguri was built), and alleged financier Buji Foi in controversial circumstances at the hands of the police, and after the violence had already subsided, marked the beginning of a new phase of the campaign waged by Boko Haram.

At that time local media reported that Muslim men were shaving their beards to avoid being rounded up for summary execution by the military. Also around the time of the clampdown, articles emerged in the media alleging that Boko Haram had received far more repressive treatment from the Nigerian media than the militants in the Niger delta, wondering if some Animals weren’t more equal than others. That sense of injustice appears to have been amplified among members of the sect, and spurred its re-emergence in a more virulent form, in 2011.

In an audio message released to the media in April 2013, following reports that the government was planning to extend amnesty to repentant militants, sect leader Abu Shekau is reported as saying: “We are the one to grant them pardon. Have you forgotten their atrocities against us?”

Human rights groups have continued to document accounts of abuses perpetrated by the Nigerian military, which end up alienating local communities and further radicalizing Boko Haram sympathizers.


The first hint of politics can be found in the rush by Northern State Governors to implement Sharia (Islamic law), as soon as democracy returned to Nigeria in 1999, after sixteen years of military dictatorships. President Olusegun Obasanjo downplayed the concerns voiced by Christians regarding the rollout of Sharia laws in a secular country. “What we have now is what I call political Sharia. I am not afraid of it because I believe it will fizzle out,” he said in September 2000, after eight states had adopted the law.

He was right about the political impetus for the adoption; but there was an unforeseen and troubling implication: the political edge to the adoption of Sharia – manifesting in half-hearted commitment from most of the Governors after the initial thrill – ended up causing disillusionment which proselytizers like Yusuf capitalized on to burnish their credentials.

Politics also crops up as a possible explanation for the extrajudicial murder of Boko Haram leader Yusuf Mohammed – sect members appear to believe the police were pressured into murdering him by powerful politicians who did not want the truth regarding their connections to Boko Haram to come out. Mohammed, his championing of the poor and downtrodden in the face of elite corruption and decadence aside, presumably had the support of wealthy and influential citizens across Northern Nigeria where he operated.

The activities of Boko Haram certainly required funding. At the height of his influence in the mid-to-late 2000s Yusuf ran a mosque complex, a farm and micro-finance scheme – what one observer referred to as “a state within a state.”

Yusuf’s charismatic preaching and his philanthropy soon ensured that he was in control of a large and deeply devoted youth population, drawn to his attacks on secular Western education and on a decadent political system whose legacy was corruption and poverty. Multitudes left their families or quit education to follow him. And these were not always poor youth, it has been reported that many of his followers were from wealthy families.

With this youth army it is easy to see the attraction it held for politicians on a desperate quest to gain or retain political office. It is a pattern across Nigeria that politicians cultivate, for the purposes of winning elections, armies of youth whose job it is to intimidate opponents, and create the kind of chaos that makes rigging easy on election days.

Also alleged to be a member and major financier of Boko Haram was an influential politician called Buji Foi, who at one time served a Commissioner for Religious Affairs in Borno State – a powerful position that oversaw the implementation of Sharia Law in the State.

Since 2009 politicians across the political divide in Borno State have regularly exchanged accusations of Boko Haram sympathy and support. More recently, following the declaration of a state of emergency by the President in May 2013, the politicking has assumed a national dimension.

The ruling Peoples Democratic Party and the President’s advisers have long struggled to portray the opposition All Progressives Congress as a Muslim Brotherhood look-alike bent on “Islamising” Nigeria, while the APC suspects that the reluctance of the Federal Government to clamp down decisively on the insurgency is connected to its plan to keep the region – an APC stronghold – unstable and undermine chances of elections holding there in 2015. Amid the frenzy of accusations and counter-accusations, the protection of hapless citizens, like the students in Chibok, is not a priority.

Foreign arms and funding

One noticeable trend in Nigeria from the early 2000s was the proliferation of arms in the country, smuggled in across Nigeria’s porous four-thousand-mile-stretch of borders with Benin, Niger, Chad and Cameroon.

In response, Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2005 set up a Presidential Action Committee on Control of Violent Crimes and Illegal Weapons, which reportedly raised fears that extremist sects were gaining ground in the country. There is no evidence any actions were taken at that time, to address the very credible threats.

It is now also known that funds have flowed into Northern Nigeria from abroad, to support an array of disruptive Muslim sects, since the turn of the century. Writing in 2011, Mai Yamani, author of Cradle of Islam noted that “despite the decade of the West’s war on terror, and Saudi Arabia’s longer-term alliance with the US, the Kingdom’s Wahhabi religious establishment has continued to bankroll Islamic extremist ideologies around the world.”

In 2002, a Nigerian associate of Osama Bin Laden reportedly received 300m naira (US$3m at that time) from him to donate to several Islamist sects across Northern Nigeria, including Boko Haram. Osama had himself broadcast a message around that time in which he cited Nigeria as one of six countries “ready for liberation.”

Investigations by Nigerian authorities after the December 2003 uprising led to the arrest of a Sudanese national alleged to be funding the sect (at that time an incarnation of it known as ‘Nigerian Taliban’) with monies received from wealthy Saudi backers. And then in December 2006 Yusuf was arrested on charges of trafficking in foreign currency. It apparently wasn’t the only time he spent time in custody. But every time he did he soon after emerged a free man. It has been reported that his powerful local backers always managed to secure his freedom.

Corruption and state apathy

If the authorities got any warnings about the July 2009 uprising – and there are suggestions they did – nothing pre-emptive was done, until the sect struck. Five years after the events of July 2009 not much seems to have changed; regarding the abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls in Chibok Amnesty International says: “Nigerian security forces knew about Boko Haram’s impending raid, but failed to take the immediate action needed to stop it.”

A culture of corruption deprives fighting personnel of weapons, equipment and welfare, resulting in a demoralized force. Rumours abound of Nigerian soldiers stealing and selling arms to criminals.

There have also been suggestions that Nigeria’s military bosses are interested in preserving the stalemate with Boko Haram to justify the continued allocation of billions of dollars to security in the Federal budget.

In February the Governor of Nigeria’s Borno State told journalists that “Boko Haram are better armed and are better motivated than our own troops.” The recent mutiny by soldiers on the frontlines against Boko Haram provides strong evidence of the levels of frustration within the military.

(c) Tolu Ogunlesi


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