Reyna with the kids in Fiamah, Monrovia, Liberia

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Boko Haram: The Rise of Muslim Extremism in Nigeria

When you hear the word "terrorist", what is the mental picture that your mind conjures? For most Americans, the images of the bearded and turbaned men who led the suicide attacks on 9-11 would be our default response. Easy to define, and even easier to keep at a safe distance from us since they are so clearly "other". But if you live in northern Nigeria,the most populous democracy in Africa,  a "terrorist" might look like your next-door neighbor or the shopkeeper down the street, someone who looks like you, speaks the same language as you, and even practices the same religion.

In the West, many people wrongly equate the word Muslim with ideas like jihad, ignoring the fact that there are millions of moderate Muslims within our borders and around the world that have lived a peaceful existence with neighbors of differing religions for decades, and in the global case, centuries. There are whole sections of society, especially in America,  who are convinced that all Muslims are extremists.I want to be very careful how I present this issue, because I do not want to condone those ignorant views.  In Africa, and specifically northern Nigeria, it is widely known that this is not so. Most of the northern half of Nigeria is Muslim, and most of the southern half is Christian. Yet there are Christians who live in the North, and Muslims who live in the south. They have co-existed relatively peacefully for years, but now a new brand of  Muslim extremism, propagated in Nigeria by a group called Boko Haram, has exacerbated tensions between the two religions and made life fearful, even for moderate Muslims. 

Boko Haram has stepped up its resistance to the government and increased its attacks on authority structures and innocent civilians alike in the past two years, their most recent and deadliest attack to date being the January 20th attack that killed over 200 people in northern Nigeria's largest city Kano. Kano is a mostly Muslim city with a population of 9 million people. Police stations, passport offices, and immigration buildings were the main targets of a coordinated attack where around 20 bombs, some car bombs and some suicide bombs,  were set off at various locations throughout the city. A spokesman for Boko Haram, Abul Qaqa, told journalists that these attacks were in response to the government's failure to release some of their members who were being detained in Kano.Indeed, northern civil rights activist Shehu Sani had organized a meeting between Boko Haram members and former Nigerian president Olesegun Obasanjo last September, and in that meeting sect leaders stated clear demands that some of their leaders be released, that the military be removed from Maiduguri, Boko Haram's home base, and that justice be served for the death of their leader. At that point, it wasn't clear if the government would honor any of those demands. What the Kano attacks clearly show is that this extremist sect is serious about its agenda and that they are arming themselves and planning for an even greater and longer insurgency.

When President Goodluck Jonathan visited Kano after the bombings, he stated that the security situation in Nigeria  was more complicated now than during the Biafran war of 1967-1970, because this time the enemy is not clearly visible. They rely on surprise attack, they hold to extreme ideals, and they refuse to compromise with the government, Christians,  or even moderate Muslims who do not support their tactics. The government response has been at best inconsistent, and many feel this is a main reason that Boko Haram is still growing in strength and spreading the scope of their attacks. Though in recent weeks after the Kano attack President Jonathan opened the door for dialogue with the leaders of Boko Haram , an offer they have refused, the response of the government up to that  point had been one of indiscriminate force, and this led many people in the north to feel even further isolated and disenfranchised by their Westernized, southern-led government.

Boko Haram's home base is in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state in north-eastern Nigeria and home to a million people. Muslim extremism in West Africa appears to be a new phenomenon, but not that surprising if you consider the history of this much-neglected area of Nigeria. The Muslim roots of this area can be traced to the precolonial Sokoto caliphate, an Islamic empire made up of mostly Fulani people that covered parts of  northern Nigeria, Niger, and Cameroon. This empire took pride in its scholarly Islamic tradition, and this can still be seen today in the fact that many Muslims in this part of Nigeria look down on Western education and do not allow their children to attend government schools. The Sokoto empire was crushed by the British colonizers in 1903, but the brand of Islam remained undiluted through the years of colonial rule.

This area of Nigeria has been largely ignored by the central government because it is far from the oil wealth found in the South, and is mostly home to more traditional Muslims who never fully assimilated into Western culture. As a result of the alienation by the government, poverty and lack of resources are endemic in this region,and are only made worse by the fact that many Muslims refuse to take part in the government services that are offered. As often happens, women and children are the ones who suffer the most. In areas where sharia law is in place, the legal age for a girl to be given in marriage is 9.  There are many young girls in northern Nigeria who were married by 12 or 13, dropped out of school, had a few children, and then were divorced by 19 or 20 with no means to support their family. The statistics are staggering: around 5 million children in northern Nigeria alone are not in school, and 2 out of 3 of those are girls. Some children are not in school because their parents cannot afford it, but many are not in school because of the fear of Western morals being taught or the pressure to marry young and start a family.

It was in this environment that Mohammed Yusuf set up a mosque and Islamic school in the city of Maiduguri in 2002. The school became renowned and drew poor Muslims from all over northern Nigeria and the surrounding countries. As Yusuf's following grew, the group named themselves Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati Wal-Jihad, which in English means "people committed to the propagation of the Prophet's teachings and jihad". The name Boko Haram, a Hausa term translated loosely as "Western Education is forbidden", was given to the group later by the press and the greater Nigerian public. The group established a community that lived by strict Sharia law principles  around their mosque in Maiduguri. Their leader, Mohammed Yusuf, taught that followers should withdraw from all aspects of Western society such as government schools and democracy as a form of governance and base their lives solely on the teachings of the Prophet Muhammed. His school became the African equivalent of the madrassas in Afghanistan , a seat of learning for extreme Islamic ideology and a training ground for future jihadis.

In July of 2009, government officials, fearing Yusuf's increasingly radical sermons calling for jihad against the ruling powers in Nigeria, sent in security forces to attack the group's mosque in Maiduguri. The sect fought back and went on a killing spree in the city that lasted for four days. When they ran out of ammunition, the government retaliated and killed or arrested many alleged members of Boko Haram,including Mohammed Yusuf who later mysteriously died in police custody,  but also innocent civilians suspected of associating with the radical sect. After the dust settled, over 700 people in Maiduguri had lost their lives in the senseless violence. The government declared then that they had crushed the "uprising" and considered the sect to no longer be a threat. As proof, they laid out in public view the bodies of group members that they had killed. This was a huge offense to even moderate Muslims, as their religion prohibits mistreatment of the dead. Then accusations started to come out that the government was indiscriminately killing those that had been arrested under suspicion of affiliation with Boko Haram. One journalist reported that at the jail where he was detained, some 50 young men were taken away and executed. These extra-judicial actions of the security forces led to much distrust among the people of Maiduguri, and many citizens expressed that they  felt they could trust noone, the Boko Haram sect who was willing to wage war against any person, even another Muslim, who did not subscribe to their radical ideology, and the police who were supposed to protect them but had instead killed many innocent people in their violent crackdown. This climate of distrust and fear has spread to the majority of Muslims in Nigeria. Professor Kyari Mohammed at Modibba Adamo University in Yola, says that "For the average northerner, it is double jeopardy. He is targeted in the North by Boko Haram because he does not believe in their brand of Islam, and also in the South by Christians who feel that attacks by Boko Haram are attacks by all Muslims."

The government gravely underestimated the strength of the radical group. They were not exterminated after the government crackdown in Maiduguri , but instead recovered quickly and have unleashed waves of terror throughout northern Nigeria in the past year. In December of 2010, the group took responsibility for a number of bombings in the central city of Jos, which killed 80 people. In May of 2011, they bombed several areas after the inauguration of Jonathan, a southerner and Christian, as president. Then in August, in their first attack with global implications,  they bombed the UN headquarters in Abuja, killing 24 people. Throughout the year, small-scale attacks and gun battles were waged in Maiduguri and Damaturu in the North, killing hundreds of innocent bystanders. On Christmas Day, Boko Haram claimed responsibility for a bombing in a church in Abuja that killed 43 people. Some small groups of Christians retaliated by bombing a mosque in a southern state and killing a handful of people. Violence always begets more violence. It seems clear that an ideology that embraces extremism is unlikely to accomplish its goal and will more likely alienate itself even further and hurt many innocent people in the process.

In response to the Christmas day church bombings, the head of the Nigeria Christian Association, Ayo Oritsejafor, said that his members would do "whatever it takes" to defend themselves from the pattern of killings which suggested " systematic religious and ethnic cleansing". Many Christians in the North and the South have been keeping their children home from school after the spokesman for Boko Haram warned that their next targets would be primary and secondary schools. It is evident that the rise of Boko Haram has exacerbated tensions between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria, and even created tension and fear where there was none before. One can only hope that these extremist elements do not spread further into West Africa. I have witnessed in Liberia Muslims and Christians living peacefully as neighbors, attending school and church separately, but mingling freely in all other areas of everyday society. When women rose up in peaceful protest against the civil war in Liberia, Christian and Muslim women marched, sang, and even prayed together. There have been similar cooperative movements even in Nigeria recently, where it was reported that Christians and Muslims formed human shields for each group to pray during the fuel subsidy protests. The radical brand of Islam that groups like Boko Haram propagate only serves to undermine the somewhat  thin fabric that holds these societies together. There have been rumors of ties between Boko Haram and other terrorist groups, like Al-Shabaab in Somalia and the Al-Qaeda cell that has sprung up in the Maghreb region of northern Mali. The head of counter-terrorism operations for the African Union, Francisco Jose Madeira, said that "The possibilities of this group expanding its activities into the neighboring countries, deep into the Central African region or West Africa, should not be discarded." In other words, it is time for African governments to regard Boko Haram as far more than just a small radical insurgency but as a real threat to stability in the region.

The need to confront this growing threat is obvious, but how to do it is a very complex issue. Security forces did round up 158 alleged members of the sect in Kano last week, and arrested one of the key spokesmen for the group, but several people were killed in the raid which led to more allegations about the government responding with force. In another incident, the key suspect from the Christmas day bombings escaped custody, which led to inquiries about whether there were security officials who were sympathetic to the group. The chief of Nigerian police Hafiz Ringim was fired.  It is hopeful that the Nigerian government has learned from their past mistakes that retributive violence will only make the problem bigger. Indeed, President Jonathan and other government officials have recently said that they want to use dialogue to solve this security crisis, but that is something that Boko Haram is unlikely to agree to unless their demands are fully met, which is also unlikely to happen. This further alienates some people in the North, who do not understand why the government is not willing to compromise when they were willing to reach an agreement with militias in the Niger Delta that entitled those groups to monetary settlements for their grievances. To some Northerners, that just looks like another example of patronage in the South and neglect of the Northern Muslims.

Human rights activists in the North say that the government should pursue a greater program of development there, with better economic opportunities made available and essential services such as health care and education improved. The introduction of better social services and education planned in concert with and having the support of  local Muslims could help to alleviate the chronic poverty in the North, which many say creates a prime breeding ground for extremist elements like Boko Haram. These steps will take time, though, and a Nigerian leadership committed to do what is best for the entire country, not just their own ethnic or religious group. President Jonathan claimed to be that President in his campaign, but this crisis and the fuel subsidy crisis have greatly tested his leadership skills. In the meantime, people in the North and the South, Christian and Muslim, live everyday with the knowledge that there are people bent on committing acts of terror living among them. I am reminded of the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., who said "Darkness can not drive out darkness. Only light can do that." The fight against extremist elements in Nigeria, in the Middle East,  indeed throughout the world, will not be won by force or by retribution. Our own country's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have proved that well. Good governance, dialogue, and equal distribution of resources are the best options to create an environment of stability where extremism will find it difficult to thrive.

1 comment:

  1. Its so sad to hear what the Muslim extremist are doing in Nigeria and around the world. I do agree there are millions of moderate Muslims that live within our border and are living peacefully and have been for decades. Although I do see why people here in the West equate Muslims with terrorist. Although not every Muslim is a terrorist, every terrorist is a Muslim. Islam here in the West in a way has formed its own Islam. They have watered down the meaning from the original Arabic to English translation and are trying to perceive Islam as a peaceful religion empowering women. With that being said I'm sure translations in other languages have been watered down as well. Unlike Christianity Islam looks at 3 sources to be authoritative. The Quran, Hadith, and the Sunnah. The Quran is direct "revelation" from Allah, and the Hadith and Sunnah are the ways and sayings of the "Prophet" Muhammad. Muslims believe that Muhammad was the greatest prophet and was the greatest example. The interesting thing is that most Muslims only have a copy of the Quran. If Muslims would read the Hadith and Sunnah they would learn all the horrible things Muhammad said and would read the disgusting things Muhammad did. It would be impossible for a Muslim here in the West to live my Muhammads example bc we have laws and freedom. I believe that these Muslim extremist are not being extreme in the sense that they are taking everything the Quran, Hadith, and Sunnah teaches. The are not adding to what Islamic sources are teaching but obeying them. These Muslim groups are having these Children in marriage bc they are living by Muhammads example. The Hadith teaches that Muhammads 3rd wife Aisha was 6yrs old and that they became sexually active when she was 9. The Quran and Hadith teaches to kill nonbelievers, it teaches abuse towards women and so on. It breaks my heart to hear these stories and opens my eyes to see how the Devil is at work. Thankfully those Moderate Muslims you mentioned in the beginning are living peacefully but unfortunately they are still living by the lies of Islam and are not at peace with the Lord. I pray that the Lord will convict their hearts and I pray that the Lord will protect the people in Nigeria. Thank you for your post it was very informative.