Explaining the Emergence of Boko Haram

Nigeria has experienced a number of tragedies in recent weeks: The terrorist group Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for a series of recent bombings in Abuja and the kidnapping of over 200 schoolgirls in Borno State (including eight more just this morning). While these events have had devastating impacts, Boko Haram’s activities in Nigeria, and those of its splinter group Ansaru, are hardly new. Under a radical Islamic agenda, these militants have perpetuated violence across northern Nigeria since roughly 2009, aiming to rid the country of any “Western influence.”  As leaders from across the region gather in Abuja this week for the World Economic Forum on Africa, Boko Haram and the direction of this conflict in Nigeria have received increased attention. 

This month, the Brookings Africa Growth Initiative is wrapping up a yearlong study on the impact of conflict on the agricultural sectors in northern Nigeria and Mali. I collaborated with Brookings on this study and put together a long-form exposition on the possible trajectories of Nigeria’s conflict. While the full report moves toward publication, Brookings asked me to publish excerpts for Africa In Focus on 1) explaining the emergence of Boko Haram, 2) discussing possible scenarios of how the conflict could evolve, and 3) offering policy recommendations for curbing the violence.  Please find below the first part of my analysis: how Boko Haram came about.

A Brief History of Boko Haram

Boko Haram members prefer to be known by their Arabic name—Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad—meaning “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad.” The group is believed to have been formed in the town of Maiduguri in northeast Nigeria, where the locals nicknamed its members “Boko Haram,” a combination of the Hausa word “boko,” which literally means “Western education” and the Arabic word “haram” which figuratively means “sin” and literally means “forbidden.” While the popular belief is that it was founded around 2001 or 2002 by Mohammed Yusuf, some have argued that the sect was actually started in 1995 as Sahaba. The group claims to be opposed not only to Western civilization (which includes Western education) but also to the secularization of the Nigerian state. There is a fair consensus that, until 2009, the group conducted its operations more or less peacefully and that its radicalization followed a government clampdown in 2009, in which some 800 of its members were killed. The group’s leader, Mohammed Yusuf, was also killed after that attack while in police custody.

Ansaru, whose Arabic name is Jamāʿatu Anṣāril Muslimīna fī Bilādis Sūdān (“Vanguards for the Protection of Muslims in Black Africa”), is a breakaway faction of Boko Haram. It first announced its existence on January 26, 2012 by distributing fliers in Kano, shortly after Boko Haram attacks in the city killed approximately 150 civilians, most of them Muslims. It is from this attack that some media reports described Ansaru’s emergence as a reaction to the loss of innocent Muslim lives.  From inception, Ansaru was believed to coordinate its operations in Nigeria with the northern Mali-based al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA). Both Boko Haram and Ansaru were declared as foreign terrorist organizations by the United States on November 13, 2013.

There are many popular explanations for the emergence and radicalization of Boko Haram.  They can be summarized under some key categories as follows:

Conspiracy Theories

Several conspiracy theories are commonly used to explain the Boko Haram and Ansaru phenomena. These include:

(a) Northern politicians sponsor Boko Haram to make the country “ungovernable” for President Goodluck Jonathan.

This theory is very popular among commentators and leading politicians from the southern part of the country. President Jonathan is a southerner from the minority Ijaw ethnic group. According to the theory, people from the north, essentially the “core north” (i.e., the Hausa/Fulani), believe it is their birthright to govern the country, and, because a Christian southerner is in charge, they decided to sponsor Boko Haram as an instrument for destabilizing the Jonathan presidency. A major weakness of this theory is that much of the mayhem carried out by the sect has been in the north and against northern Muslims. If northern politicians really want to make the country “ungovernable” for President Jonathan, why would they do so by sponsoring a group which is disproportionately killing northern Muslims and literally destroying several parts of the north?

 (b) President Jonathan sponsors Boko Haram either to mobilize support from the south and Christians or to weaken and de-populate the north ahead of the 2015 presidential election.

Another conspiracy theory is that Boko Haram is actually sponsored by the Jonathan administration to make Islam look bad or give the impression that the north is out to pull down his administration or make him fail as president of the country.  This would be a way for the president to mobilize the support of his “southern and Christian brethren” behind his administration. A variant of this theory is that Boko Haram is actually sponsored by the government to weaken, destroy or reduce the population of the north ahead of the 2015 elections.  A number of respected leaders from the north, including the governor of Adamawa state, Murtala Nyako, and governor of Sokoto state, Alhaji Aliyu Wamakko, have legitimized this theory by coming out to subscribe to it openly.

The major weakness of this theory is that nothing in the confessions of arrested Boko Haram members supports it. Again, it is befuddling why the insurgents, who are all Muslims (going by the identity of those captured), and campaigning under the cloak of Islamic revivalism, would allow themselves to be used by a non-Muslim to kill fellow Muslims. Again, nothing supports this, either on YouTube or in press releases by Shekau, the leader of the mainstream Boko Haram who is now thought to be dead, although his death is questioned due to his continued appearance in YouTube videos.

The Failed State Argument

Some people have suggested that Boko Haram is simply a symptom that the overarching Nigerian state has failed, or at best, is failing. The problem here is that there is no consensus on the meaning of “failed state,” including how to operationalize it. The difficulty of defining a “failed state” is compounded by the fact that it is sometimes used as a tool of political blackmail. Anyone can focus on where a state is perceived as not doing well—such as in the provision of security, welfare or improving citizens’ standards of living—and then conclude that the state in question has “failed” or is “failing.” The argument that Boko Haram’s terrorism is conclusive evidence that Nigeria has failed as a state appears exaggerated because “successful” countries like South Africa, the United States and Brazil also have serious security challenges. Despite Boko Haram’s activities, it is a stretch to describe the complexities of a vast country, whose economy has been growing by an average of 7 percent since 2000 such that it now has the largest economy in Africa (and 26th largest in the world) as a “failed state.”

The Human Needs and Poor Governance Theories

Human needs theorists such as John Burton
and Abraham Maslow
would argue that one of the primary causes of the protracted conflicts in Nigeria is the people’s drive to meet their unmet needs. Those who have sought to explain the Boko Haram phenomenon within this framework point out that, despite a per capita income of $2,700 (before the recent rebasing of the GDP) and an impressive annual GDP growth rate  for over a decade,  the north has one of the poorest populations in Nigeria.  Within the north itself, the northeast—the base of Boko Haram’s operations—has one of the largest concentrations of people Franz Fanon would call the “Wretched of the Earth.”
Many of these people are either unemployed or underemployed, and therefore suffer from various forms of what Ted Gurr would call “relative deprivation.”

Some analysts have also attributed the relative poverty of the north to “bad governance” by the governors of the states in the region who are accused of embezzling or misappropriating the funds that should have been channelled to the development of their states.

There are some merits in the human needs and poor governance arguments, but they cannot fully explain the audacity of Boko Haram’s actions or why a similar group has not emerged in other impoverished parts of the country. Moreover, poor governance is not exclusive to the states in the north, and there is actually no evidence that the states in other parts of the country are better governed.

The Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis

Otherwise known as frustration-aggression displacement theory,
this hypothesis argues that frustration causes aggression, and when the source of the frustration cannot be challenged, the aggression gets displaced onto an innocent target. Many recent events appear to fit into this theory. For instance, recently suspended Central Bank of Nigeria Governor Sanusi Lamido Sanusi blamed the rise of Boko Haram partly on the way the revenues from the country’s Federation Account—an account in which all the revenues that accrue to the Federation are paid into—are shared. Sanusi argued that the sharing is done in a manner that disadvantages the north.  According to him, a “revenue sharing formula that gave 13 percent derivation to the oil-producing states was introduced after the military relinquished power in 1999 among a series of measures aimed at redressing historic grievances among those living closest to the oil and quelling a conflict that was jeopardising output. […] There is clearly a direct link between the very uneven nature of distribution of resources and the rising level of violence.”

While Sanusi’s argument may be partly true, it cannot comprehensively explain why the Boko Haram type of violence is not generalized in the north or why several states in the south that also do not benefit from the 13 percent derivation have not taken to militancy.

Another popular variant of the frustration-aggression response is, that after the reintroduction of Shariah in the 12 northern states, there was a widespread disillusionment at to the way it was implemented, and members of the sect simply tapped into that frustration. As Jean Herskovits, an expert on Nigerian politics, said, “You punish somebody for stealing a goat or less but a governor steals billions of naira, and gets off scot-free.”

There is also a belief that, in Nigeria’s mode of sharing privileges, the Igbo control the commercial economy, the Yoruba the corporate economy, and the north political power. The loss of this power to the south from 1999 to 2003, when Olusegun Obasanjo, a Yoruba from the southwest who was president, and again since May 2010 following the death of former northern and Muslim President Umaru Yaradua, is therefore seen as a loss of the north’s lever in maintaining the power balance. This is believed to have created frustrations into which Boko Haram could tap, especially following the fallouts from the ruling party’s bickering over zoning and power-sharing arrangements as well as President Jonathan’s decision to contest the April 2011 elections and possible plans to contest again in 2015.

Broader Crisis in Nigeria’s Nation Building

A better and more comprehensive view of the Boko Haram and Ansaru phenomena is to see them as symptoms of the crisis in Nigeria’s nation-building processes. While the bombings, kidnappings, and other unsavory acts linked to the sects are condemnable, it is important to underscore that Boko Haram is only one of several groups in the country that purvey terror and death because there is an increasing tendency to discuss the spate of insecurity in the country as if it all began and ended with Boko Haram or as if without Boko Haram Nigeria would be a tranquil place in which to live.

The truth is that there is everywhere in the country a pervasive sense of what the German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil.”
Her argument is that the great evils in history are not executed by fanatics or sociopaths but rather by ordinary people who accept the premises of their actions and therefore participate in them on the grounds that those heinous actions were normal. This is the so-called notion of “normalizing the unthinkable” or the routinization of evil. This argument captures an important element of what is happening throughout Nigeria: Violent armed robberies across the entire country, kidnapping (especially in the southeast), turf war by militarized cults and gangs (in Bayelsa State), and senseless intra- and inter-communal “warfare” are all increasingly common.
The crisis in Nigeria’s nation building mixes with the crisis of underdevelopment to create an existentialist crisis for many Nigerians.  For many young people, a way of resolving the consequent sense of alienation is to retreat from the “Nigeria project”—the idea of fashioning a nation out of the disparate nationalities that make up the country—and instead construct meanings in primordial identities, often with the Nigerian state as the enemy.

Based on the above, any strategy for effectively neutralizing Boko Haram and Ansaru must be hinged on resolving the crisis in Nigeria’s nation-building processes. Admittedly, this will require a sense of long-term scenarios and solutions, as nation-building takes time. In the interim there are short- and medium- term strategies the Nigerian state can pursue to contain the challenges posed by the two terrorist groups. These scenarios and strategies will be the focus of the next installments in this blog series.

Note: This blog post reflects the views of the author only and does not reflect the views of the Africa Growth Initiative. Just this month, the Brookings Africa Growth Initiative is wrapping up a yearlong study on the impact conflict has had on the agricultural sectors in northern Nigeria and Mali. Adibe collaborated with Brookings on this study and specifically put together a long-form exposition on the possible trajectories of Nigeria’s conflict. While the full report moves toward publication, Brookings asked him to publish excerpts for Africa in Focus, 1) explaining the emergence of Boko Haram, 2) discussing possible scenarios on how the conflict could evolve, and 3) providing policy recommendations for curbing the violence.

[1] Burton, John (1990) Conflict Resolution and Prevention (New York: St. Martins Press).

[2] Maslow, A.H.  A Theory of Human Motivation, Psychological Review 50(4) (1943): 370-9.

[3] Fanon, Frantz (2001 edition), Wretched of the Earth (London: Penguin Classics).

[4] Gurr, Ted R (1970) Why Men Rebel  (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

[5] Dollard, Miller et al. (1939). Frustration and aggression (New Haven: Yale University Press).

[6] Arendt, Hannah (1963). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.

[7] Adibe, Jideofor (2011) ‘Beyond Boko Haram’ (Abuja, Daily Trust), September 1, 2011 (back page).