Boko Haram is an extreme Islamist organization in Nigeria that is using terror tactics in an attempt to force the introduction of Sharia Law in at least part of the country. In their latest attacks, they bombed a bus station in the capital city of Abuja killing 75 commuters, and hours later kidnapped over 200 girls from their school in Chibok.
So far, there has been no sign of the girls and the longer they are gone, the worse the possible outcome. In other school attacks, girls and women were sent home with instructions to forego education and become good Muslim wives. In at least one case, girls were forced into servitude and marriage.
In November, the militant group abducted dozens of Christian women, most of whom were later rescued by the military deep in a forest in Maiduguri. At the time of their rescue, some were pregnant or had children, and others had been forcibly converted to Islam and married off to their kidnappers.
Their rationale for kidnapping girls and women is based in Sharia Law and revenge.
The group especially opposes the education of women. Under its version of Sharia law, women should be at home raising children and looking after their husbands, not at school learning to read and write.
It has repeatedly targeted places of learning in deadly attacks that have highlighted its fundamental philosophy against education.
The spate of kidnappings began in May 2013 when Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau announced in a video that this was part of its latest bloody campaign. The kidnappings, he said, were retaliation for Nigerian security forces nabbing the wives and children of group members.
Those kidnapped, he said, would begin a new life as a “servant.”
Their violent activities began in 2002, and approximately 10,000 deaths have been associated with the organizations up to the end of 2013. In the first 3 months of 2014, a further 1,500 have died. So far the government has been powerless to prevent this violence, and has not been free of criticism itself.
Rights groups have repeatedly accused Nigerian security forces of responding to the violence with extra-judicial killings and holding suspects in inhumane prison conditions for long periods of time without charge or trial.
The Nigerian military denies these accusations and said no military in the word has devised a perfect plan to combat terrorists.
Human Rights Watch has documented violations committed by Boko Haram, government forces and civilian militia supported by the government, but undoubtedly, Boko Haram is the worst offender.
A very cynical part of me suggests that one of the reasons the government has focused on its Anti-homosexual laws is to garner support from all religious sects and attempt to divert attention away from the Boko Haram crisis.
Wikipedia has an article on the history of the group, which some believe traces its roots to the colonial era.
Before colonisation and subsequent annexation into the British Empire, the Bornu Empire ruled the territory where Boko Haram is currently active. It was a sovereign sultanate run according to the principles of the Constitution of Medina, with a majority Kanuri Muslim population. The Bornu Sultanate emerged after the overthrow of the Kanem-Bornu Empire ruled by the Sayfawa dynasty for over 2000 years. The Bornu Sultanate of the Kanuri is distinct from the Sokoto Caliphate of the Hausa/Fulani established in 1802 by the military conquest of Usman dan Fodio.Both the Bornu Sultanate and Sokoto Caliphate came under control of the British in 1903. During this period Christian missionaries used western education as a tool for evangelism, this has lead to secular education being viewed with suspicion by many in the local population. Increased dissatisfaction gave rise to many fundamentalists among the Kanuri and other peoples of northeast Nigeria.
One of the most famous such fundamentalists was Mohammed Marwa, also known as Maitatsine, who was at the height of his notoriety during the 1970s and 1980s. He was sent into exile by the Nigerian authorities, he refused to believe Muhammad was the Prophet and instigated riots in the country which resulted in the deaths of thousands of people. Some analysts view Boko Haram as an extension of the Maitatsine riots.
The modern incarnation began 20 years ago
In 1995, the group was said to be operating under the name Shabaab, Muslim Youth Organisation with Mallam Lawal as the leader. When Lawal left to continue his education, Mohammed Yusuf took over leadership of the group. Yusuf’s leadership allegedly opened the group to political influence and popularity.
Yusuf officially founded the group in 2002 in the city of Maiduguri with the aim of establishing a Shari’a government in Borno State under then-Senator Ali Modu Sheriff. He established a religious complex that included a mosque and a school where many poor families from across Nigeria and from neighbouring countries enrolled their children.
The centre had ulterior political goals and soon it was also working as a recruiting ground for future jihadis to fight the state. The group includes members who come from neighbouring Chad and Niger and speak only Arabic. In 2004 the complex was relocated to Yusuf’s home state of Yobe in the village Kanamma near the Niger border.
Understanding the history of Boko Haram won’t help free the girls, nor will it prevent further violence. It will not help with the agony of the families and friends of the these girls and the other victims. however, we need to understand that it is not as simple as a religious war.
A panel on Voice of Russia UK recently discussed the issue, and the participants acknowledged that circumstances with the country, such as corruption, poverty, inconsistent law enforcement, religion, sectarianism, and other issues intermingle to enable and encourage the violence. While Nigeria as a whole has a robust economy, the disparity in wealth is among the worst in the world. There are no short term solutions to the problems in Nigeria, and in the meantime, even if these girls are saved, many others will will die before a resolution is found.