Who Is Boko Haram and What Do They Want?

Nigeria Representative of Opus Dei Project Sheds Light on Jihadist Group

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

By Edward Pentin 

ROME, FEB. 9, 2012 (Zenit.org).- A suicide bombing at an army headquarters in the northern Nigerian city of Kaduna on Tuesday was just the latest in a spate of attacks carried out by Boko Haram, a jihadist group that is an increasing menace to the country.

The attack followed other recent atrocities, including one on Christmas Day when the highly decentralized, militant Islamist group detonated a car bomb next to a church near the nation’s capital of Abuja, killing more than 40 people. Benedict XVI expressed his deep sorrow, calling it an “absurd gesture” and urging all parties to cooperate so that “security and peace can be found again.” 

In 2011 alone, estimates put the numbers killed by the group at 510, with most of the targets being personnel working in the police or army. Although the Islamist sect has been around since 2002, it wasn’t until it attacked a U.N. building in Abuja last August that it gained international notoriety.

But who is this group, and what are their objectives? To help outsiders answer these questions, Opus Dei’s Harambee development project for Africa invited its Nigerian representative to share his insights during a talk at the Pontifical University of Santa Croce in Rome on Tuesday.

Eugene Agboifo Ohu, a journalist who had just returned from the country, began by explaining the murky history of Boko Haram — Hausa for “Western education is forbidden” (the real name of the group is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, Arabic for “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad”). 

Founded in 2002 by a Muslim ideologue called Mohammed Yusuf, its aim is to enshrine Islamic law and customs all over Nigeria. It claims the current secular government and laws are diabolic and that it has an obligation, given by Islam, to convert everyone else to what it says.

From its beginnings, the group was engaged in a string of violent attacks against the police and army, leading to several confrontations. “Each attack by the police led to reprisal attacks by Boko Haram and vice-versa,” Ohu explained, meaning that not only has Islamist ideology fueled the group’s violence, but so too has a desire for self-defense and revenge. 

Some of the roots of this go back to 2005, when the Nigerian government clamped down violently on the group. “I’ve seen videos and photos; it was gruesome what they did against Boko Haram,” Ohu said. “There were many extra judicial killings by the Nigerian police, scenes of people herded up and shot — it was chilling.” So if Boko Haram says their desire is vengeance, Ohu believes, “they have a point.”

That vengeance intensified in 2009 when the group’s founder was also killed, most probably by the police. “He was arrested in good health and there were no visible injuries on him,” Ohu said. “But less than 24 hours later, Mohammed Yusuf died in police custody.” Five police officers are now standing trial for his murder.

But since the attack on the U.N. building — their first attack against non-police or army installations — and then the Christmas Day atrocity, Nigerians have become increasingly apprehensive about Boko Haram’s shifting motives. It’s not clear who its leader is, nor what its precise objectives are. 

It gets murkier still: Ohu said it’s still not completely certain that Boko Haram was responsible for the church attack, while others maintain certain members of the group are mercenaries from neighboring countries, although al-Qaeda is not thought to be involved. “Nigeria is a very complex country and nothing is what it seems at face value,” Ohu said. But he was pretty clear this is not a religious conflict as the media sometimes makes out, but rather one fought along ethnic, political and regional lines and fueled by a desire to control the country’s oil (Nigeria is the sixth largest oil producer in the world). 

Oil, Ohu said, “has everything to do” with these attacks. Before 1975, the north (where Boko Haram operates) was very rich through agriculture, which helped fund the rest of the country, but oil brought instant wealth and investment in agriculture fell away. The country’s oil fields, all in the south, belong to the central government, so whoever is in government has control over the nation’s oil and its distribution. 

This has naturally led to power struggles and wealth disparities between the now impoverished north and the relatively prosperous south, further fanning the flames of conflict. Part of the problem, Ohu said, also goes back to the legacy of colonialists who paid little attention to the nation’s diversity, leading to a “battle” of internal integration and a civil war fought along predominantly ethnic and political lines in the 1960s (Ohu was keen to point out these conflicts were also “never religious,” even though the north is mostly Muslim and the south Christian). 

The Catholic bishops of Nigeria are well aware of the complex narrative to the violence, and Ohu praised their informed and considered response to the attacks. After the Christmas Day bombing, he said many Catholics were calling their relatives and friends in the north to return home to the south. “But if this were to happen, it would indicate this was serious and a point of no return had been reached,” Ohu said, “so they [the bishops] encouraged people not to do that, to stay where they were.” 

Ohu continued: “Fortunately, the Catholic Church in the north is large; there are many Catholics there so the Catholic bishops have been very supportive. They have tried to avoid making condemnations because it’s very easy to issue labels and say this bomb blast was because of that.” For this reason, Ohu added, many of the bishops who have wanted to comment negatively have wisely kept quiet, while those who have spoken have tried to “foster something positive.” 

Ohu also stressed that before the church attack in Abuja, the majority of victims were Muslims. And he quoted a bishop who believes that 90% of Nigerian Muslims don’t in any case support Boko Haram, nor do the majority of Nigerians want a Muslim state. Other analysts have also commented on the fact that contrary to most other Islamist groups, Boko Haram has only rarely attacked Christians and that the vast majority of its targets have been either officials, or in line with a purificationist agenda toward Muslims. 

Archbishop John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan, archbishop of Abuja, has called for a political solution, possibly even dialogue with the terrorist group. “We need to involve all political parties in a national dialogue to get out of this crisis,” he told Fides news agency Jan. 27. Ohu also believes country-wide talks are needed (an idea he has long promoted) in a bid to solidify the unity of the nation that risks division between north and south.

As reports emerge — corroborated by Nigeria’s president Goodluck Jonathan — that sponsors of Boko Haram’s violence have “infiltrated all arms of government,” the urgency for such a dialogue appears greater than ever. 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry


Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation