Contesting Ethnic, Religious and Regional Identities: The Case of Nigeria's Boko Haram

By Solomon, Hussein | Strategic Review for Southern Africa, November 2012 | Go to article overview
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Contesting Ethnic, Religious and Regional Identities: The Case of Nigeria's Boko Haram

Solomon, Hussein, Strategic Review for Southern Africa


As the toll of fatalities and destruction escalates in Northern Nigeria, following the attack on Christian Churches on Christmas Day 2011, various analysts have used the counter-terrorism lens to explain this phenomenon. Such a view, however, is simplistic and tends to ignore other critical factors, namely the historical context in which Muslim and Christian identities have been shaped and are being re-shaped in the country. That view also appears to gloss over the fact that regional, ethnic and religious identities often reinforce each other. In addition, it ignores the socio-economic context in Nigeria following the return to civilian rule, which has been further exacerbated by economic imbalances between Northern and Southern Nigeria. At the same time, it also does not adequately take into consideration the contestation between political elites over the state and its resources, and the insider/outsider dichotomies of what Nigerian citizenship means in the 21st century. This paper explores the rise of Boko Haram in a historical context by utilising insights from political sociology.

There is absolutely higgledy-piggeldy--economic collapse, political commotion, wars, social dislocation, tsunamis, etc. etc. --in the world and all nations of the world decide to meet God in Heaven to ask for when their great tribulations would come to an end. Every single country that comes before God does so in sublime supplication and with torrents of tears, pleading for knowledge of when its problems would end. The Almighty obliged each country, telling it when all would be well. Some got 10 years, others were promised 25 years, others about 50 years. When Nigeria staggers before the Almighty to ask God for when her problems would be over, God burst into tears ... (Adebanwi and Obadere, 2010: 384).


Africa's Leviathan--Nigeria--is in the throes of escalating violence. Between July 2009, when the current campaign of violence against the Nigerian state was initiated, and January 2012, more than 935 people were killed and thousands wounded in 164 attacks, by Boko Haram, a shadowy Islamist sect (Human Rights Watch, 2012).

In spite of the imposition of curfews, and the establishment of a Special Military Task Force consisting of the army, navy, air force, and the department of state security and the police, the carnage has continued. Despite the curfew imposed in Adamawa state, violence has continued to escalate. Similarly, in spite of a state of emergency being declared in Borno, Niger, Plateau and Yobe states, new terrorist attacks have continued.

It is bewildering that the violence being perpetrated by Boko Haram continues to intensify in scale and magnitude in spite of the establishment of checkpoints, the closure of borders and the enactment of an Anti-Terrorism Bill. Nigeria's 30 000 army, police and state security forces that have been deployed to contain the security situation thus far have been unable to cope with the terrorist bombings and shootings, which continue unabated.

General Andrew Azizi, the National Security Advisor to President Jonathan, fully recognised this failure in lamenting that Nigeria's current security infrastructure was ill-equipped to deal with the terrorist threat posed by Boko Haram (Obayiuwana, 2011: 79). Indeed, one could well argue, that the military approach, in the context of counter terrorism is too narrowly focused and therefore inadequate to respond to the complexity of the challenge posed by Boko Haram.

Boko Haram, the Islamist sect responsible for these attacks, was ostensibly established by Muslim cleric Mohammed Yusuf in Maiduguri in north-eastern Nigeria in 2002 (Obayiuwana, 2011: 79). The name "Boko Haram" is derived from the Hausa word for book--"boko" and the Arabic word for forbidden--"haram". Literally, Boko Haram means the "book is forbidden"; figuratively, it means Western education is sinful and therefore forbidden (Abimbola, 2010a: 100).

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Contesting Ethnic, Religious and Regional Identities: The Case of Nigeria's Boko Haram


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