This article originally appeared on www.sma.ie in September 2011.
For several months there has been an upsurge in inter-ethnic conflict in Plateau State, Nigeria. We have reported on several clashes, appeals for calm from Christian and Muslim leaders etc. The Vatican news organisation, FIDES, has published several reports on the situation. Read latest here.
Fr Eddie O’Connor SMA worked for nearly 40 years in the neighbouring Kaduna State. He describes the Boko Haram sect who have been linked to some of the violence
What is BOKO HARAM?
Boko Haram is an extremist Islamic group that, up to recently, operated mainly in north-eastern Nigeria in the states of Borno, Adamawa, Yobe, Taraba, Bauchi and Gombe (north-western part of Nigeria).
Loosely translated it means “Western education is forbidden” and militantly affirms the values of the Islamic way of life over Western culture. 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” in Arabic. It has carried out a wave of bombings, armed robbery and killings and is fighting to overthrow the government with its secular constitution and create an Islamic state.
Boko Haram was founded in 2002 in Borno State by Mohammed Yusuf who opened an Islamic school and a mosque. Its emphasis on the strict implementation of sharia’a law and its abhorrence of Western culture led some people to call it the “Nigerian Taliban”. Its headquarters at Kammama in Yobe State in 2004 was given the name “Afghanistan”.
In some ways Boko Haram reminds one of Maitatsine, the violent Islamic sect that was responsible for so much killing and destruction in northern Nigeria in the late 1970s and early 1980s resulting in the deaths of more than 4000 people in Kano. The death of its leader, Muhammadu Marwa in December 1980 was thought to have ended the reign of terror of this sect. However, at least thirty other religious disturbances have taken place since then with Boko Haram being the latest and, possibly the most dangerous, of the extremist Muslim groups to emerge in the North. Just as was the case with the Maitatsine ideology the Boko Haram adherents violently oppose not only Christians but Muslims who do not accept their way of life in its fundamentalist totality.
Although Boko Haram clashed with the security forces in the north-east at different times over the years their growing militancy under the leadership of Yusuf came to a head in 2009 when their attacks on government institutions in the north brought about strong intervention by the police and the army. About 800 people died in these disturbances including Muhammed Yusuf who was captured by the security forces and killed while in custody.
The government believed at the time that his death would bring an end to the activities of the sect but, as time would tell, this was a grave misreading of the situation. Rather than retreat into the shadows of society Boko Haram members became much more involved in lawless activities. One of their daring operations in 2010 was breaking into Bauchi Prison and releasing more than 700 prisoners of whom over 100 were their followers. Raids on police stations continued and they gained a fearsome reputation as motor-cycle riding gunmen who attacked police check-points and prominent individuals whom they targeted as their enemies.
Boko Haram followers went from the use of guns to experimentation with homemade bombs and their attacks increased on government offices, churches and drinking places. St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Maiduguri was badly damaged in one of these bomb explosions as were a number of other churches in 2010 and 2011. Several of the would-be bombers died when one of their bombs exploded prematurely.
The Mission House in Kontagora, Niger State, was among several buildings damaged, some destroyed, in a previous outbreak of inter-religious violence formented by fundamentalist groups.
Encouraged by their apparent success in their campaign of violence Boko Haram planned and executed an audacious attack with a car bomb on the National Headquarters of the Nigerian Police in Abuja in June 2011. This was the first instance of a suicide bomber in Nigeria. But they continued their constant attacks on smaller targets which led to the loss of life and destruction of property especially in Maiduguri. The insecurity forced many, especially those from the South, to leave the city for safer places to conduct their business and to live in peace.
Banks and police stations throughout the north-east are targets of the group – police stations for arms and banks for money and innocent bystanders are often the victims in these attacks. 12 people were killed recently in two such attacks in Gombe in Adamawa State.
The latest and most high profile bombing carried out by Boko Haram was on the United Nations offices in Abuja on 26th August which resulted in the deaths of at least 23 people with over 70 injured and massive damage to the building.
Our picture shows the author of this article, Fr O’Connor.
Recently, General Carter Ham, who is in charge of US military operations in Africa spoke of possible links between Boko Haram and al-Quaeda in the Maghreb and with al-Shabab in Somalia. The boldness of these attacks on the Police Headquarters and the U.N. offices gives credence to this view since they indicate a new direction in their operation and planning. The use of suicide bombers is another pointer to these groups. Yet another link in the chain is the recent statement by a spokesman for Boko Haram who said that a large number of their members had now returned from training in terrorist camps in Somalia.
These developments show us that a new and more dangerous road has been taken by Boko Haram which could have devastating effects on the country at large. One would hope that, in efforts to halt its spread, government agencies would act wisely and cautiously and not provide martyrs for its followers as happened with the killing of Muhammadu Yusuf.