The suicide bombing carried out by Boko Haram at the United Nations building in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, on August 26 marked a growing internationalization of the activities of the Muslim militant sect based in Nigeria’s northeast. Abu Kakah, a spokesman for Boko Haram, told reporters on the following day that the group had targeted the UN, which it sees as a proxy for the United States, in order to protest Washington’s alleged role in helping the Nigerian government suppress the movement. Some fear that the UN bombing is a prelude to attacks by Boko Haram abroad.
Little reliable information is available about Boko Haram’s international contacts. Analysts are debating whether the organization has operational ties to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Somalia’s al-Shabab. Repeated use of suicide bombings (the UN attack was at least the second time that Boko Haram has attempted to deploy a suicide bomber) may indicate that outsiders are giving Boko Haram the tactical sophistication to strike more ambitious targets.
Nevertheless, there is little doubt that Boko Haram’s ultimate enemy, for now, remains the Nigerian state. As Abu Kakah declared, “The target was to retaliate [sic] the arrest and victimization of innocent persons and our members by security agents in Nigeria.” Regardless of the tactics it uses, Boko Haram remains focused on Islamizing the political order inside Nigeria, especially by promoting stricter application of Sharia law. With an estimated membership of several hundred the organization does not pose an existential threat to the Nigerian state, but its activities have created chaos in the northeast, sparked fear of attacks across the country, and left Nigerian authorities scrambling to improve security in the capital and elsewhere. But recruitment remains mostly local and driven by the grievances specific to Nigeria’s northeast rather than by the appeal of international terrorism.
What are these grievances? As Nigerian journalist Tolu Ogunlesi points out, it is easy, but misleading, to read Boko Haram’s conflict with the Nigerian state through the lens of tensions between the majority-Muslim north and the majority-Christian south. Boko Haram does not frame its violence as a war against the south. In fact, many of the victims of the drive-by assassinations and guerrilla raids for which Boko Haram has become infamous have been northern Muslim politicians. The organization has killed Muslim preachers, including so-called “Wahhabis,” who denounce the sect and its use of violence. Broad divisions in Nigeria may inform Boko Haram’s anger, but this anger seems to originate in the social, economic, and ideological divisions within the northern Muslim community.
In recent decades, northern Nigeria has changed dramatically. Although oil production is located in the south, the oil boom of the 1970s introduced vast socioeconomic inequality across the entire country. Amid urbanization, the rise of both Western and Islamic education, and increasing contact with other parts of the Muslim world, religious authority has fragmented, giving rise to new Muslim movements and weakening the authority of traditional rulers and Sufi sheikhs. Military coups and failed democratic transitions in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s undermined confidence in Western political models, encouraging the spread of radical Islamist ideologies. And the implementation of Sharia law in northern states from 1999-2001, a project many northerners hoped would end corruption and discipline society, failed to increase accountability or solve ordinary people’s economic problems.
The north’s problems are at their worst in the northeast, Boko Haram’s stronghold. The northeast is the poorest of Nigeria’s six “geopolitical zones.” High birthrates combined with desertification and stagnation in the agricultural sector strain the economy. The northeast also faces cultural pressures as urbanization and the spread of the northwest’s dominant Hausa language reshape ethnic identities and create gaps between youth and their parents. Several states are governed by the opposition All Nigeria People’s Party (ANPP) in the northeast and the region wields little national political power and has never produced a head of state. Boko Haram is not the inevitable outcome of the northeast’s cultural disorientation and political marginalization, but neither is it surprising that Muslim militancy has taken greatest hold in the area where poverty is most severe and state legitimacy is at its weakest.
Boko Haram’s name, which translates roughly as “Western education is religiously forbidden,” speaks to the history of northerners’ disappointment with their own rulers. The movement rejects the Western-educated rulers—local as well as national—whose promises that democracy and technocratic competence would improve Nigeria never materialized for many northerners. It was not poverty alone, but more specifically a sense of blocked opportunity in the north, that seems to have propelled the rise of Boko Haram. This explains why Boko Haram’s message that deeper Islamization will solve Nigeria’s problems appealed not just to itinerant Quranic students and other “down and out” members of society, but also to university students and civil servants (the group’s original leader, Muhammad Yusuf, allegedly worked for a time in the Yobe State administration). If rumors in the Nigerian press are to be believed, northern politicians sought early on to harness Boko Haram’s members for use as a political militia, but the group soon spiraled beyond their control. Boko Haram’s strident preaching created conflicts with other Muslims, and these mushroomed into conflicts with the state. Boko Haram has an entrenched sense of victimhood and now sees the state as both the main persecutor of “true” Muslims and the major obstacle to “true” Islamic reform.
With the bombing of the United Nations building in Abuja—a sequel to the bombing of the national police headquarters in June—the cycle of violence between the state and Boko Haram seems set to deepen. Although the federal government and northern state officials have considered offering amnesty to Boko Haram in the past, in the wake of the bombing many politicians are saying that more force is the only answer. Reinforcing the military deployment in the northeast will increase pressure on the movement, but will not necessarily solve the problem. Boko Haram has demonstrated its willingness and capacity to bring the fight to the seat of the federal government itself.
The state is caught between a dialogue program that cannot move forward and a military approach that cannot end the violence. Those with the greatest potential to reduce conflict may be northern Muslim authorities like the Sultan of Sokoto. Although Boko Haram assassinated the brother of the Shehu of Borno, militants have not killed any major traditional ruler, and they spared the Emir of Bauchi during a prison break in September 2010. And despite Boko Haram’s threats against emirate authorities in Kano and the minimal activities it has conducted in Sokoto, it has made limited inroads in cities in the northwest with strong traditional rulers. The movement has reportedly expressed willingness to have the Sultan mediate a dialogue between it and the federal government. Northern rulers like the Sultan may not have the power they once did, but they still command a certain amount of respect among militants.
Some force will likely prove necessary to reduce unrest in the northeast. But reconciliation and dialogue within the northern Muslim community, combined with sustained attention to the political and economic problems of the northeast, could offer a more permanent way forward in the crisis.
Alex Thurston is a PhD student in the Religion Department at Northwestern University and writes on African politics and Islam at Sahel Blog.