Academic journal article Hemispheres

The Beginnings of the Boko Haram Rebellion from a Micro-Level Perspective

Academic journal article Hemispheres

The Beginnings of the Boko Haram Rebellion from a Micro-Level Perspective

Article excerpt


The insurgency in north-eastern parts of Nigeria has lasted for over six years, during which it has caused more than 11,000 deaths' and displaced more than a million Nigerians.2 The gravity of the unrest of the Boko Haram movement has grown to such an extent that in the beginning of 2015 Nigeria was pushed by the African Union, to engage neighbouring countries into the regional military initiative to fight the rebellion. The scale of the unrest in north-eastern states of the country leads us to question the roots of the Boko Haram insurgency. Analyses of the motives of their activity would broaden the perspective of understanding and interpretation of religious reformism in northern Nigeria, a trend initiated by Usman dan Fodio's 19th century Jihad, and popular in this area especially during the era of independence.

Comprehensive analyses of the causes of a violent conflict involves the use of various perspectives in order to describe the conflict as a coherent system composed of different actors, motivations and external influences. Justino, Brück and Verwimp constructed a micro-level theory of the causes of violent conflicts, as opposed to a macro-level perspective.3 While macro-level narratives explain the large-scale causes of the conflict, like national and international political processes, national security issues, regional rivalries etc., a micro-level perspective is based on analyses of people's attitudes, choices and behaviours, their interactions with local institutions, as well as the private interests of prominent participants of the conflict. The micro-level perspective involves the particularly individual motivations of the leaders of insurgent groups, which determine the nature of the movements.

Although extensive research has been carried out on the problem of the current northern Nigerian insurgency, most of the scholarly studies concentrate on the macro-level analyses, describing security issues and examining the recent events in this part of the country. There are only a few studies concerning the selected issues of a micro-level approach, especially Boko Haram's initial conflict with the local police.4 Moreover, no single study exists which adequately and exhaustively covers the micro-level factors that played an important role in the process of shaping the perilous ideology represented by Boko Haram. This paper is an attempt to investigate the micro-level factors that determined the emergence of the Boko Haram movement. What should be stressed explicitly, is that it is not the aim of the paper to excuse any person involved in the Boko Haram rebellion, especially the movement's leaders or their destructive ideas. The main objective is to present the motivations that led the group of young radically-oriented people to found the organization that brought such unrest to north-eastern Nigeria.

I have based my research on the analysis of selected primary sources, which are the speeches delivered by the two main leaders of the Boko Haram movement: Muhammad Yusuf and Abubakar Shekau, available in the form of audio and audio-video recordings in the Hausa language. I have also used several reports provided by Hausa Islamic organizations, individual analysts and press agencies. Moreover, in the article I quote secondary sources in English, some of them by Nigerian authors.

Rebellion in theory

The present analysis of the causes of Boko Haram insurgency will be based on the general debate on the factors and circumstances that bring about rebellions and collective violence. Charles Tilly in his work From Mobilisation to Revolution describes rebellion using the term "revolutionary situation".5 The concept of a revolutionary situation is based on Tilly's complex definition of revolution - the notion that is understood as resultant of two distinct but concurrent phenomena, i.e. revolutionary situations and revolutionary outcomes.

Tilly defines a revolutionary situation as "the presence of more than one bloc effectively exercising control over a significant part of the state apparatus", based on Leon Trotsky's words from 1965:

The historical preparation of a revolution brings about, in the pre-revolutionary period, a situation in which the class which is called to realize the new social system, although not yet master of the country, has actually concentrated in its hands a significant share of the state power, while the official apparatus of the government is still in the hands of the old lords. …

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