An Expert Gives You The Key To Understanding Boko Haram’s Assault On Northern Nigeria


Amidst all the publicity on the Chibok girls (#BringBackOurGirls), there has been quite a bit of misconception about Boko Haram, its foundation, and goals. In order to accurately direct our conversation and actions, it is important that we understand why and how Boko Haram came to be. Now you may be wondering why this piece is any different from other written pieces on the group, so here are a few of my qualifications:

  • I’m a Nigerian woman who grew up in Nigeria.
  • I lived through the Ife-Modakeke crisis so I can walk in the shoes of the citizens of northern 
  • I have a policy degree that I am proud of that focuses on Human Security Studies and have 
been studying non-state armed groups’ use of political violence for over eight years with the 
past four focusing on Boko Haram specifically.
  • I have written for academic, government, as well as private institutions on the subject.

1. All Of Nigeria Isn’t Under Crisis

Firstly, the crisis is not in Africa, West Africa, or Nigeria at large but is taking place specifically in the Northeastern region of Nigeria. I make this clarification because the current rhetoric simply reiterates African’s single story of violence. Sure, Borno is a state in Nigeria, a country in West Africa, but the entire continent and sub region is not under siege from Boko Haram.

2. Boko Haram Was Originally Founded As A Movement Protesting Corruption

Secondly, the translation “Western Education is a Sin” incorrect. Although there is no accurate Hausa-English translation of the Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad, it can be loosely understood as “western education, which the group sees as the catalyst behind corruption, western values and culture contradicts Islamic ways”. The term “Boko Haram” was assigned to the group by other sects in the region because of its rather aggressive albeit peaceful protests against western practices. Boko Haram founders opposed western cultural values, social positions, and access in favor of strict Islamic practices. Boko Haram functions as part of the Jihadi-Salafist movement (this is which employs a strict and fundamentalist interpretation of the Quran to their daily lives and governance. Though it’s transformed in the past decade, at its inception, Boko Haram was founded out of frustration with the corruption amongst political and religious leaders in Northern Nigeria.

3. Boko Haram Used To Be Relatively Peaceful

Barring a few clashes with the police during protests, Boko Haram remained relatively quiet until the early 2000s when Sharia was implemented in the 12 northern states. The group began targeting police stations and government buildings in response to what they termed “political Sharia”. The leaders believed that if Sharia was implemented according to their interpretation of the Quran, then corrupt politicians and religious leaders would no longer be in power.

4. One Man Is Responsible For The Group’s Transformation

Even between 2005 and 2009, the group remained relatively quiet until a clash between the police and members of the group led to the death of Mohammed Yusuf the founder and leader of Boko Haram. Reports indicate that police arrested members of the group who refused to wear motorcycle helmets (a recently enacted law) during a funeral procession. After Yusuf’s death, Abubakar Shekau took over as leader, carried out the UN bombing in 2011, and transformed the Boko Haram into the group we know today.

5. The Leader Of Boko Haram Shares Ideologies With Al-Qa’ida Groups

The UN bombing marks a departure from the group’s origins and is a testament to Shekau’s ideologies and relationships with other violent non-state armed groups. Shekau was a student of Yusuf, and had significantly more radical ideologies than his mentor. He is known to have contacts with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula which operates in Yemen and Saudi Arabia and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb which operates in North and West Africa. Most likely, Boko Haram’s use of violence is a direct result of funding, training, and a solidification of these relationships.

6. The Group Is Actually Made Up Of Several Groups, Some More Violent Than Others

Boko Haram is no longer the unit it was in its formation. There are likely several factions within the 
group, some more violent than others, and one of Shekau’s increasingly difficult goals is to appeal to each faction’s desires. There’s a high likelihood that this is a major driver behind the kidnapping of the girls and the repeated bombings in the last month.

7. #BringBackOurGirls Is The Least Of Nigeria’s Problems Today

Finally, Boko Haram is waging a war against all citizens of Nigeria, not just girls. The “Saveourgirls” movement is too narrowly focused to eradicate Boko Haram and the ideas that drive it. While it is of utmost importance that the missing girls are found, the issue is so much larger than that. Boko Haram waged a war on Christians, Muslims, Igbos, Yorubas, and Hausas before it kidnapped these girls. The larger conversation must include fighting for the lives of citizens of northern Nigeria at large.

image – AK Rockefeller