No, this title does not refer to the US government although it does kill more people than any other group on Earth. This title refers to the deadliest, non-state terrorist group. While ISIL has been dominating Western headlines due their attacks on first world nations, another terrorist group based in northeastern Nigeria and also active in Chad, Niger and northern Cameroon that has pledged allegiance to ISIL has been reeking havoc on Western Africa for years with almost no press coverage in the West, showing the axiomatic, mainstream media conglomerates’ prioritization of the first world over the developing world. After Boko Haram pledged allegiance to ISIL, they have offered support, and the group is now the West African branch of ISIL. The group also has ties with Al’shabb in Somalia and AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) in Mali. Boko Haram, also known as Wilāyat Gharb Ifrīqīyyah, (الولاية الإسلامية غرب أفريقيا,) which means the Islamic State West Africa Province and Jamā’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l-Jihād (جماعة أهل السنة للدعوة والجهاد, meaning “Group of the People of Sunnah for Preaching and Jihad” has killed 20,000 people and displaced 2.3 million people since 2009. The group’s official name is “Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad,” which means “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad.” The group is led by Abubakar Shekau, a Nigerian born man who identifies as Salafi, an ultra radical, fundamentalist, conservative branch of Sunni Islam. Before getting into Boko Hiram, the differences between Sunni and Shi’a Islam, as well as the history of Nigeria should be explained as they are not well-known in first-world nations.
Sunni and Shia are the two main denominations of Islam that are often in conflict with each other made catastrophically worse by the militaries of empires that often add fuel to the fire intentionally to add to the bloodshed. Like most denominations within the same religion, Sunni and Shia Islam are very similar. Both denominations of the Islam religion hold that Muhammad was the final prophet sent by God but the fundamental difference is they disagree about who was his proper successor. When the Prophet Muhammad died in 632, Hazrat Abu Bakr, an adviser, friend, and father-in-law of Muhammad who led prayers by his deathbed was chosen to be the first Caliph of the Rashidun Calphiate, which he led from 656 to 661, taking over Muhammad’s political and administrative activities. Those who believe Abu Bakr was Muhammad’s proper predecessor are called Sunnis from the Arabic ahl as-sunnah wa l-jamāʻah (أهل السنة والجماعة), meaning “People of the tradition of Muhammad and the consensus of the Ummah.” A small minority of Muslims, however, was displeased with the decision and preferred Ali ibn Abi Talib, son-in-law and cousin of Muhammed, take over as Caliph. They called themselves Shia-t-Ali, the Party of Ali, shortened to Shias. Sunnis are currently the much larger denomination of Islam. 87-90% of all Islamic adherents were Sunnis in 2009.i Shias, meanwhile, make up just 10-13% of all Islamic adherents. Sunni Islam is the largest religious denomination in the world, consisting of about 1.44 billion people, even larger than Roman Catholicism, which has 1.2 billion adherents.
Sunni Islam has dominated North Africa over the 20th century mainly due to the Islamic regimes that have been established there, as well as proselytization by missionary and extremist groups. Salafi, a division of Sunni Islam, takes Sunni Islams fundamentalist and conservative tendencies to absolute, violent extremes. Iran has the largest Shia population in the world, despite being surrounded by countries with a majority of Sunnis, explaining to some extent the conflict between Iran and other surrounding countries in the region. There were 66 million Sunnis in Iran in 2009, representing 90% of Iran’s population. While most Islamic people are peaceful, radical religious authorities, violent governments that use religion to manipulate others, the literal interpretation of Ancient texts seen as Holy, foreign invasion and bombing of innocent Islamic people, and extreme poverty (according to World Bank data, 60% of Nigeria’s population lives on less than $1 a day) coupled with the desperation of some deeply religious people has created a powder keg that has turned some innocent, non-violent, religious people into violent extremists and increased recruitment to radical, religious groups.
Islam is far from new in Nigeria. Before the British colonized the country, the Islamic Bornu empire ruled from 1380 to 1893, which was a continuation of the Kanem Empire by the Sayfawa Dynasty. The Islamic government ruled over Chad, Niger, and Cameroon and forced many to convert to Islam but not without resistance from some in the country. In 1903 the Caliphate was defeated by the British and came under British rule. Christian missionaries flooded the country when this occurred, resulting in large numbers of converts. Christians became a majority in South Nigeria while Islam continued to dominate the North, resulting in much conflict between the two. Wealth and political power also became concentrated in the South as they were favored by the British Empire and others, which is still another cause of unrest.
In October 1960, the Federation of Nigeria gained partial independence from Britain and total independence in 1963. Governor General, Nnamdi Azikiwe, became the country’s first President and People’s parties, councils, and tribes sprung up and gained political power. Due to conflict between the West, South, and North of Nigeria and the three major ethnic groups of Nigeria (Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba, and Igbo) over political power, money, and religion, there was much unrest in the following years, which culminated in a coup in 1966 executed by rebel factions of Nigeria’s army. The Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa, was killed along with the premier of Northern Nigeria and many other governments officials. This coup resulted in a military dictatorship and a civil war from 1967 to 1970. The war was mainly fought to counter the secession of Biafra, an Igbo dominant state, from Nigeria that aspired independence due to Igbo persecution and intertwined ethnic, religious, and class conflict. The Federal Military government surrounded Biafra and cut off food aid, resulting in a massive famine. A total of 3.1 million Ibgos were killed during the Civil war.ii This genocide wouldn’t have been possible without the supply of arms from the government of Britain, which was still angry about the Igbo role in gaining Nigerian independence from Britain.
Although elections were held, Nigeria was ruled by a series of military dictatorships for the next several decades until 1999 when civilian rule and democracy was restored. However, violence between ethnic groups, tribes, and political factions continued. Sharia law was introduced in Kaduna by its governor in 2000 and Christians took to the streets to protest who clashed with Muslim youth, resulting in thousands of deaths. The same year Sharia law was introduced in 11 other Nigerian states: Zamfara, Kano, Sokoto, Katsina, Bauchi, Borno, Jigawa, Kebbi, Yobe, Niger, and Gombe.iii Sharia law is still in effect in these states and blasphemy can be punished with execution. Conversion from Islam to another religion is also treated as a capital offense. In 2007 Goodluck Johnathon and Umaru Yar’Aduawas were elected in a race deemed by most Nigerians to be incredibly rigged and marred by corruption. In 2011 Umaru Yar’Aduawas fell ill and Johnathon became acting President and the official President when Yar’Aduawas died. General Muhammadu Buhari took over peacefully in May of 2015.
The Provenance of Boko Haram
Boko Haram was founded in 2002 by Mohammed Yusuf in Maiduguri. Yusuf gained support by condemning the corruption of the Nigerian government and appealing to the public outrage about the venality of the state. When he was captured and killed by the Nigerian military in 2009 during the Boko Haram Uprising, Abubakar Shekau, his second-in-command took over. In 2010 under Shekau, Boko Haram released 105 members of the group out of a prison in Bauchi along with 600 other prisoners. In May 2011, Boko Haram bombed an army barracks in Bauchi and other sites in Zaria and Abuja. In August 2011, they bombed the UN headquarters in Abuja, killing 11 UN staff members and 12 others. A state of emergency was declared in the northeast of Nigeria in 2012 following several suicide bombings, following which Boko Haram warned all Southern Nigerians in the north to go back to the south. Several days later Boko Haram began attacking Christians in the north and others. They also targeted police stations and police as in previous years, gaining some support from the public due to the corruption of the Nigerian police and government. That same year the group split into two factions: the far more violent faction continued to be led by Shekau while Abu Usmatul al-Ansari led the more conservative but less violent Salafist faction.
Of the Nigerian government the US State Department said in its “Country Report on Human Rights Practices,” “…serious human rights problems included extrajudicial killings by security forces, including summary executions; security force torture, rape, and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of prisoners, detainees, and criminal suspects; harsh and life-threatening prison and detention center conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; prolonged pretrial detention; denial of fair public trial; executive influence on the judiciary; infringements on citizens’ privacy rights; restrictions on freedom of speech, press, assembly, religion, and movement…Police use of excessive force, including use of live ammunition, to disperse demonstrators resulted in numerous killings during the year. For example, although the January fuel subsidy demonstrations generally remained peaceful, security forces reportedly fired on protesters in various states across the country during those demonstrations, resulting in 10 to 15 deaths and an unknown number of wounded…Although the constitution and law prohibit such practices and provide punishment of such abuses, torture is not criminalized, and security service personnel, including police, military, and State Security Service (SSS) officers, regularly tortured, beat, and abused demonstrators, criminal suspects, detainees, and convicted prisoners. Police mistreated civilians to extort money. The law prohibits the introduction into trials of evidence and confessions obtained through torture; however, police often used torture to extract confessions.” Amnesty International reported that 950 prisoners died in custody in the first half of 2013 in detention centers. In August 2014 Amnesty International also released a video, showing the Nigerian Army and pro-government militias slitting people’s throats and dumping them in mass graves. Boko Haram has also claimed to have infiltrated the government, taking positions as judges, police, and soldiers in the military. Nigeria spends 1/3 of its entire budget ($5.8 billion) on security, despite its failures to protect Nigerians. The combination of the corruption and violence of the Nigerian government and Boko Haram, resulted in a mass exodus of 650,000 Nigerians by 2014.
Boko Haram killed 6,644 people in 2014 alone.iv As formal records of some of the deaths are nonexistent, some estimate that closer to 9000 were killed that year.v In April 2014 in Chibok, Borno State, the group kidnapped 276 schoolgirls from the Government Girls Secondary School and finally gained the attention of some Western media conglomerates, arousing sympathy from some in the West. The girls have since been forced to convert to Islam and marry members of the group. They have also been subject to repeated rape. It was reported 53 of the girls escaped as of May 2nd 2014.vi The remaining 223 are still missing. Some assume they are dead, were sold into slavery, or remain wives of members. The Nigerian military was warned four hours in advance of the attack but they sent no one to protect the school, claiming they were “overextended.” In October of 2014, the government announced that the girls would be immediately released but this was found to be a publicity stunt to gain votes for Goodluck Johnation running for reelection in 2015. In mid-2014 the group also gained control over large tracts of land in the state of Borno. In August Gwoza was overtaken by the group as well while the government continued to deny any territorial gains made by the group. In October Mubi came under Boko Haram’s control and by November more than 20 towns and villages were under its control.
In January 2015, Boko Haram continued to capture more towns. Baga, Monguno, and their military bases were all overtaken. However, Monguno was recaptured by the Nigerian military in February. Boko Haram also continued to attack and kidnap residents, including children in Cameroon and Chad. In that same month, a coalition of military forces from Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, and Niger began to wage war on Boko Haram, resulting in the recapture of Bama and Gwoza in March. In September 2015, the Director of Information at the Defense Headquarters of Nigeria declared that all Boko Haram camps had been destroyed, despite the fact that in July of the previous year the governor of Borno, Kashim Shettima, had grimly stated Boko Haram is “impossible to defeat.” The Director of Information’s statement was likely another publicity stunt to gain support for the government as the group is still very much active. To demonstrate this just 11 days after the announcement, Boko Haram bombed Maiduguri and Monguno. In October the military freed 192 children and 138 women being held captive in two camps in the Sambisa forest. However, in the following months Boko Haram made attacks on Adamawa, Yobe, Kano, Kolofata, Fotokol, Gouzoudou, Nasarawa, Mora in Cameroon, a refugee camp in Baga Sola, Chad, the island of Koulfoua on Lake Chad, and Niger’s Diffa and Bosso provinces, causing a state of emergency to be declared in Diffa and the Western Lake Chad region. In October 2015, 300 US military personnel were deployed to Cameroon for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Boko Haram has since moved its main site of operations to the Sambisa forest, making it difficult to track their activities. Before the end of the year, the group split again into al-Qaeda affiliated Ansaru while Shekau continued to lead his faction as ISIL’s West Africa branch.
The ethnic, religious, and class conflict in West Africa has demonstrated the absolute disaster that is colonization and imperialism. Clearly, the people of Nigeria prefer small communities and tribes govern themselves. Attempts to “unify” the state has only resulted in violence and the pilfering of public funds into the coffers of corrupt officials. There must be a return to civilian rule. Autonomy must be established. Only the common people of Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, and Niger should decide the direction of their communities. Common non-violent people must establish voluntary protective forces. I believe the government of Nigeria in particular should disband, so that the common people can decide for themselves the best way to fight extremism and terror in the country. Bringing real opportunity and education to fight extremism and religious intolerance in Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, and all of West Africa is also key. Creating awareness about this crisis in wealthier nations could help the situation too. For far too long the international community has turned a blind eye to Africa’s many struggles but we can help bring this to an end. Other wealthier countries can also help by offering financial support to the common people and refugees afflicted by the conflict. But only autonomy with the people in charge from the bottom up and from the periphery to the center will be able to ensure these funds get to common people and establish lasting peace, equity, and security.