Instability in Africa since the end of the Cold War has taken two forms. One is violence within and between social groups, characterized by bickering over land, identity, and belonging. The other involves armed nonstate actors—such as radical Islamists—who challenge incumbents, rarely to secede from the state, but often to control or abolish it.

Nigeria has had its own fair share of groups straddling social movements and of insurgencies engaging in violent conflict. Examples include the (now defunct) Niger Delta Volunteer Force (NDVF) of Isaac Adaka Boro, who led an unsuccessful attempt to secede from the country in 1966; the Agbekoya Farmers’ revolt in southwestern Nigeria in 1968–1969 led by Tafa Adeoye; the moderate and radical factions of the more recent Odua People’s Congress (OPC) led by Dr. Fredrick Fasehun and Chief Gani Adams; and the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB).

Other, similar groups include the Bakassi Boys, Baba Alakyo, and the Ombatse cult in Nassarawa State; the Maitatsine Islamist movement led by the late Marwa Mohammed from Cameroon (which attacked Bulumkuttu, near Maiduguri, in 1982); the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND); and, most recently, Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad1Arabic for “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad.” See http://m.bbc.com/news/world-africa-13809501.—more popularly known as “Boko Haram”—which has proved to be the most violent and destabilizing.

Sharia in Nigeria

The failed Sharia project2Many believed the clamor for full implementation of Islamic law in most states of northern Nigeria was a ploy to truncate the administration of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, whose initial steps after being sworn in as president on May 29, 1999, constituted an affront to the hegemony of the northern oligarchy that masterminded his coming to power. Obasanjo himself lampooned it as “political Sharia.” It was common at that time in places like Kano to see billboards and people, especially youths, wearing badges with inscriptions like Sharia Mukeso (“We love Sharia”) and Sharia Dole Ne (“Sharia is a Must”). during Nigeria’s fourth republic (1999–2003) led to the emergence in the north of sundry Islamist sects. In Yobe state, Al-Sunna Wal Jammah3Arabic for “Adherents of the Prophet’s ways.” was led by Aminu Tashen Ilimi. Comprising educated males with some knowledge of weapons handling, the group set up camps in Kannama4Abiodun Alao, “Islamic Radicalisation and Violence in Nigeria” (country report), Conflict, Security and Development Group (CDSG), London, 2009, http://www.securityanddevelopment.org/pdf/ESRC%20Nigeria%20Overview.pdf (accessed July 20, 2013), 44. around 2001 and emphasized Islamic purity, as well as rejection of local traditions such as property rights by positing that everything belongs to Allah. The Muhajirun,5Muhajirun refers to someone who has left his house or comfort zone for the sake of Allah. made up mainly of religious students, also emerged in 2002 to demand the full implementation of Sharia in the core northern states and attacked the police and other state institutions. The Kalakato, or Quarniyun sect, which surfaced in 2009, believed only in the literal words of the Quran, discarding the Hadith6The Hadith is a compilation of the acts and sayings of the Prophet by his companions and wives. and Ijma7The Ijma is the consensus of learned scholars on Islamic jurisprudence and practices. as fallible human compilations.

Although in different locations, these sects shared an aspiration for a northern Nigeria governed by strict Sharia law. Using what David Eric Troolin describes as “hope narratives”8David Eric Troolin, Conceptual Blending in Millennial Movements An Application of Conceptual Theory to Case Studies in Papua New Guinea and Israel. www.sil.org accessed on November 6, 2014. The salvation, or “millennial movement,” as it is portrayed in the conceptual blends are groups that usually aim to remake the world through the use of religion using discursive narratives of recreating a “golden age” or “hope narratives.”in appealing to largely unemployed youths and other disenfranchised populations living on the margins of society, the group stealthily acquired a posture and agency akin to typical Wahabist Salafist doctrine9Wahabist Salafism, as opposed to Salafist al-Jihadist al-Qaida, supports sovereigns like the king of Saudi Arabia, a regime rejected by Osama bi Laden as illegitimate. It also decries the call to jihad. as explained by Oakley and Proctor.10David Oakley and Pat Proctor, “Ten Years of GWOT, the Failure of Democratization, and the Fallacy of Ungoverned Spaces,” Journal of Strategic Security 5, no. 1 (2012): 1–14.

Boko Haram’s origins

Between January 2004 and July 2009,11Ibid., 6. Boko Haram emerged as an amalgam of different sects12Muhajirun, the Yusufiyah, Hijrah, and Ahl al Sunnal Wal Jamma’ah. led by Mohammed Yusuf. Yusuf was an estranged disciple of a prominent Kano Islamic preacher, Imam Jafar, who was allegedly killed by Boko Haram men for condemning Yusuf’s radical approach to the Islamization of northern Nigeria.13During this period the sect could be likened to a Wahabist Salafist group because some members functioned as political thugs or vigilantes for a former state governor Alimodu Sherif, hoping to remake the world through a Western-style democratic process. On June 11, 2009, seventeen members of Boko Haram died during clashes with the police for contravening the law on riding motor cycles without helmets.14Members were riding on motorcycles to bury one of their own when the police accosted them for not wearing helmets, which they considered provocative because they were in a funeral procession. The altercation escalated, and the police reportedly shot and killed seventeen of them. This triggered a wave of violent clashes across northern Nigeria15The affected states included Bauchi, Kano, Katsina, Sokoto, and Yobe. which culminated in the extrajudicial execution of Yusuf by police on July 30, 2009,16As part of retaliatory exchanges, the Boko Haram attacked a police station in Bauchi five days after the clash over helmets. The violence spread across northern cities. in Maiduguri, and made him a martyr, thus prompting further radicalization of the sect.

On January 11, 2012, Yusuf’s successor, Abubakar Shekau, appeared in a fifteen-minute video, wearing a brown and white kaffiyeh17A symbol of Palestinian authority popularized by Yasser Arafat. on his head and an army-colored bulletproof vest over his white shirt. “We are known as Jama’atu Ahlil Sunnaah Lil-Da’awati Wal Jihad which some people derogatorily term as Boko-Haram,”18Abubakar Imam Shekau, quoted in Bamidele Johnson, “A Nation on the Brink,” The News 38, no. 5 (February 6, 2012): 17. he declared. “Ours is a clear fight for the blood of our founder Mohammed Yusuf and other leaders who were slain in cold blood by Alimodu Sherif, former governor of Borno State, the former Borno state commissioner of police, and the late president Yar’adua.”19Ibid. A spokesman of the sect, known by his pseudonym Abu Qaqa, later claimed “We have been motivated by the stark injustice in the land. People underrate us but we have our sights set on [bringing Sharia to] the whole world, not just Nigeria.”20Monica Mark, “Boko Haram vows to fight until Nigeria establishes sharia law,” The Guardian, last modified June 3, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/jan/27/boko-haram-nigeria-sharia-law, accessed March 10, 2015.

Implications for Nigeria’s future

The foregoing narrative of Boko Haram’s trajectory and the need to address the roots of home-bred terrorism assumes greater relevance as Nigeria prepares for elections in a matter of weeks. This overview provides a deeper understanding of a potent security challenge to the holding of free and fair elections in Africa’s largest democracy. Given this, analysts of Boko Haram and its use of extreme violence have to be cognizant of the group’s trajectory, including its domestic roots in one of the poorest geopolitical regions of Nigeria—the Northeast, which has high levels of youth unemployment, collapsing social and educational infrastructure, and widespread poverty.

These factors, alongside a crisis of state legitimacy amid growing distrust of the ruling elite, have opened the door for extremist elements to seize the socio-political space and forge expedient connections to transnational and global jihadist narratives in pursuit of its agenda of overthrowing a local political order it considers corrupt and “un-Islamic”. Such an understanding will be useful in tackling the challenges of violence and security at their core. Also important is the need for a proper mapping of the geographies and politics of violence with a view to exploring opportunities to peace.

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