Tom McLachlan on why the odious spectre of Boko Haram is a problem for us all

Almost half the country is under Sharia law

It is impossible to analyse Islamic extremism today without noting that it is predominantly made up of ‘local’ movements with global aspirations. Intent on bringing down their ‘hypocrite’ and ‘apostate’ national governments, their intention to install a theocracy along fundamentalist lines is often seen as a means by which to secure territory, and in turn provide a secure base for further faith-based expansion. This has been manifest in the likes of Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia, al-Shabaab in Somalia, the Taliban in Afghanistan and, most devastatingly in recent months, Boko Haram in Nigeria. The carnage seen in the past month has seen the deaths of over 200 Nigerians, the majority of them in the northern city of Kano on the 20th of January.

Nigeria bears all the conditions needed to explain sectarian conflict between its two main religious groups. Islam generally prevails in the north, where sharia has been introduced across 12 of the country’s states.  Christianity dominates the south. In other words, the country is already geographically predisposed to facilitate sectarian movements, with a clearly defined constituency for each faith. Muslims constitute 50.5% of the population, and Christians 48.2%: an almost perfect split. That Boko Haram is a sectarian organization is not in question (their name loosely translates to ‘Western education is a sin’). It has overtly launched its attacks with the ultimate goal of extirpating the minority Christian population in the north of the country, and has demanded their departure through threats – and the actualisation – of violence. On Christmas Day 2011, they attacked churches and other centres of Christian social and cultural life, murdering over 41 people. This has been a common trend since the group’s rise to prominence in 2009.

Kano has been a historical centre for sectarian rivalry, with the first riots of the current sharia conflict occurring in May 1953. The aforementioned provinces of northern Nigeria were ‘awarded’ sharia systems in 1999 and 2000, which often promoted discontent among the province’s non-Muslim populations. These conditions received international notoriety when a woman, Amina Lawal, was sentenced to death by stoning in 2002 for alleged adultery. In the face of little incriminating evidence, routine calls in the West for a reversal of the decision even hit the Oprah Winfrey Show. Human rights campaigners championed Lawal’s cause indefatigably before the sentence was overturned the following year. While this example is a moral indictment of the northern Nigerian system itself, it also clearly demonstrates what Boko Haram is not. Boko Haram is not merely content with the status quo existence of sharia courts (a contemptible two-tiered system in itself, which carries with it unfortunate and detestable sentences) – they are an even more extremist inflection of this sinister theocratic impulse.

The dangers of a connection to al-Qaeda and other jihadi movements should not be ruled out (after all Boko Haram has adopted a tactic of such groups: suicide bombing). Abu Qaqa, one of Boko Haram’s spokesmen, has revealed that the group has received funding and logistical support from al-Qaeda and had met in Saudi Arabia with the infamous terrorist organization in August 2011. This is a dangerous spectacle in light of a growing al-Qaeda footprint across Africa: from the ‘Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb’ (which operates across Algeria, Mauritania and several other countries, and has been responsible for the kidnapping and murder of numerous French and international hostages), to the al-Shabaab movement in Somalia, which also has noted jihadi links. A resurgence of this brand in a country as religiously polarised as Nigeria would be a self-evident disaster and should clearly be avoided by any means necessary.

Like other major frontlines in the “War on Terror” (most notably Iraq) Nigeria is also one of the world’s most oil-rich nations, making it a crucial ‘protectorate’ of the global economy. Boko Haram has repeatedly pronounced its desire to overthrow the Nigerian government – taking the conflict beyond the 12 sharia provinces of the north, something that should obviously be averted in light of the country’s exceptional pool of resources. Nonetheless, their actions have succeeded in alienating even the most likely support base for them: the sizeable Islamic population. Their inherently anti-modern, anti-progress stance has been partly to blame for this. Their leaders have routinely expressed scorn for scientific discovery and technological enlightenment, even on one occasion questioning the roundness of our planet. It comes as little shock that anyone who opposes their ideals is butchered when taking into account such weak capacity for logic and reason. Nigeria’s national motto is ‘Unity and Faith, Peace and Progress’. Boko Haram is an affront to each of these things, and should clearly be opposed by all who care about them.


Tom Mclachlan

Image Credit- Bohr