Getting a Handle on Boko Haram
Image: Stephane Yas / Getty Images

In March, Nigerians elected two-time runner-up Muhammadu Buhari as the country’s next president. A Muslim from northern Nigeria, Buhari was nevertheless endorsed by many Christians, who hope he will be more effective than his predecessor at defeating Boko Haram, the brutal Islamist organization.

Since the beginning of 2014, Boko Haram has killed more than 7,300 civilians, according to Open Doors, which ranked Nigeria No. 10 on its 2015 World Watch list. Although the group repeatedly targets Christians in church massacres, bombings, and school shootings, its fighters have also murdered scores of Muslims.

Unlike its new ally ISIS, Boko Haram has made little effort to promote its message through the media. To learn about the enigmatic group, CT editorial resident Morgan Lee spoke with Virginia Comolli, the author of Boko Haram: Nigeria's Islamist Insurgency and a fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

Why are the origins of Boko Haram so unclear?

During my research, I was struck by the amount of confusion and contrasting views among high-level politicians and members of the military. There are people who believe it is a group purely motivated by violent religious extremism. Other people say it is a political movement. Other people think it’s an opportunistic criminal entity.

However, if we look at the history of northern Nigeria in the post-colonial period, you’ll see the emergence of a number of groups framing their discourse in religious-revival terms, with people advocating a return to true Islam as a way of addressing societal evils. But although these critics were speaking in religious terms, they were all critical of the corrupt government. They also represented those from the north who were socioeconomically and politically marginalized.

These groups have been responsible for large-scale riots in northern Nigeria, with lots of people being killed and ruined. But every time groups like this emerged, the government’s response was very heavy-handed, without ever addressing those socioeconomic grievances. There has not been enough appreciation for why violent groups have come into being.

What does Boko Haram see as its goals?

Boko Haram wants to Islamize Nigeria and ensure that all of Nigeria is under strict Islamic law. Nigeria is a federation of 36 states. The 12 Northern states already have Shari’ah law; nine of them have it completely, while in the other three it only applies to certain aspects of public and private life. But even then this is not enough for Boko Haram. In fact, they’ve also been targeting Muslim leaders who are accused of having gone astray, of being too pragmatic, of being too close to the government.

Now, increasingly, they want to Islamize parts neighboring states. We’ve seen increasing activities in Niger, Chad, and Cameroon.

Why has it been hard to research this group?

During the very early days of Boko Haram, the original leader, Mohammed Yusuf, was pretty friendly to the media. There were big journalists who were able to interview him early in the 2000s.

When, in 2010, Abubakar Shekau became the leader, the group took a completely different and more radical and violent trajectory. Shekau is very secretive. He has not been seen live in public for years now. Most Boko Haram militants don’t have direct contact with him and have never seen him. He trusts his new lieutenants to pass orders and collect and distribute money.

There’s also an issue with the Nigerian media. The quality of information coming out from Nigeria is varied. Some newspapers don’t do any fact checking and publish conspiracy theories. At times, they simply reproduce military or government press releases verbatim. Additionally, several years ago, when the government launched its main offensive against Boko Haram, it was very hard to get information about the campaign because no journalists were allowed to visit those sites. If they were allowed, they were closely monitored and weren’t allowed to ask questions to civilians.

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Boko Haram: Nigeria's Islamist Insurgency
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Getting a Handle on Boko Haram