THE BLOG
05/09/2014 10:59 pm ET Updated Jul 09, 2014

Understanding the Historical Roots of Boko Haram

In its March 31, 2014 issue, Time magazine published an article entitled "Nigeria's Reckless Neglect" by Alexis Okeowo. The premise of Okeowo's article was that the Islamic military insurgency in North-East Nigeria was as a result of past Nigerian governments neglect of social and economic problems of the North leading to one of the highest illiteracy rates in the world. The writer also claimed that investments were done in the oil-rich South at the expense of the North. Such analysis is oversimplified and seen in binaries.

There is no doubt that the current Nigerian government has displayed some high degree of ineptitude when it comes to dealing with the problem of Boko Haram, but one should not be amiss with it's complexity. The roots of this problem predate Nigerian independence and can only be understood in its long historical context. The problem is rooted in the scope and nature of British colonial rule in Nigeria, and one can trace a rather complex continuity between what is happening now and the structure that the British set up in the early 1900s.

Prior to the 1914 amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorates of Nigeria into one territory, the British High Commissioner of the Northern Protectorate, Frederick Lugard championed a form of native administration which was known in British colonial history as "Indirect Rule." In this part of the country, the rule was mainly carried out by Muslim emirs. After 1914, this rule continued and Lugard tried to extend it to the southern part of Nigeria. The danger associated with this rule in the North was that Lugard vociferously prevented Christian missionaries from extending Western education to the North. Sir Hugh Clifford, who succeeded Lugard in 1919 as Governor General of Nigeria, was critical of indirect rule in northern Nigeria as he believed it insulated the North. Clifford, like Lugard, maintained indirect rule for the simple reason that they did not want to wrestle the socio-cultural and religious structure upon which the colonial state rested. The fear was that the presence of missionaries would challenge the colonial structure, which seemed to be stable. For several decades, the education that was exposed to the north was Koranic/Islamic education. While Western education flourished in the South; the North was left behind.

On independence of Nigeria, power was left by the British in the hands of the north with Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, as prime minister, and Chief Nnamdi Azikiwe as the ceremonial president. The vitality of the new independent state was soon to be stifled by the inability of the Nigerian leaders to form a national consensus toward ripping the benefits of self-rule that they had so longed for and promised the people. Sadly, the battle over who controls the "national cake" (the economic resources of Nigeria) wrapped in ethnically based regional parties would soon lead to political strives and ethnic tensions. These resulted in coups and counter-coups that were sectarian in nature. These led to the Nigerian civil war, which in its three years of existence, created mass casualties and ruptured the vestiges of whatever had existed in the name of nationhood.

Flushed with cash from the oil boom of the 1970s, the country that emerged from the war tried to rebuild all that was destroyed during the war. Perhaps, what could not be changed was the mutual suspicion between the ethnic and regional bases that comprised of the Nigerian polity.

To further complicate things, when the southern part of the country, at this time composed of the western and eastern regional governments, introduced very successful programs of universal primary education in 1955 and 1957 respectively, the northern part of the country stayed out of this project because they associated for the most part Western education with Christian education because most of the schools in southern Nigeria were housed in mission locations, headed by mission teachers, and taught Christian religion. The North was content with Islamic education, which if it were only visualized from a distance seemed comparable with the education that was offered by Christian schools in the south. However, Western education was not simply the study of the Bible and catechism, but it imbued its subjects with some core philosophies and values that were necessary for success in a global world; mostly ruled by a Western educational value system. Other subjects beyond Christianity such as arithmetic, history and civics were taught in these schools. This was not the case in the Koranic schools in the North, where the children were taught mainly the memorization of the Koran and the Islamic tenets.

By 1976 when a Christian president from the South, Olusegun Obasanjo introduced nationally, the Universal Primary Education project and pushed it strongly across the country, northern Nigeria was starting at a place of disadvantage; one caused by the early British colonial leaders and the late colonial northern rulers. While northern leaders now saw the advantage of this new system, many remained reluctant to embrace it and still favored the koranic schools. Many young people continued to be steeped in the ideology that Western style education was corrupt and out to undermine Islam. This notion was propagated by some imams and preachers who wanted to maintain their relevancy. Further compounding the problem in the region was the nomadic nature of the Fulani cattle rearers who were a significant bloc of northern Nigeria. They continued to shun Western education in such massive proportions that the military administration of Ibrahim Babangida, a northern Muslim, introduced nomadic education in 1989. This program has remained a colossal failure and it is important to mention that some of the riots and massacres that have happened in some of the villages in northern Nigeria have been attributed to these nomads. The Nigerian government is also reporting that Boko Haram groups are embedding themselves with these Fulani herders.

How did Boko Haram become a part of this history? Boko Haram simply means that Western education is forbidden. Why? It is because members of this group believe that it is corrupt, morally bankrupt and evil. Their goal is to institute an Islamic sharia state. It is important to note that its ideology is gradually developing. Of recent, the terror group did not even have a leader who spoke for the movement and even now, it is in question whether the group has one unified movement with a single plan, or separate groups are working disparately for the same broad mission.

This kind of terrorist movement that has attacked Western values is not new to Nigeria. It has always been brewing underground and even raised it's ugly head in the 1970s. An Islamic militant movement emerged in 1972 called Maitatsine. It was actually not an entirely new movement as its founder, Mohammed Marwa had originally been exiled by the British from Nigeria during colonial rule, because of his extremist views and preaching. Marwa was born in the northeast region of British Nigeria and Cameroon's (now a part of the Cameroon's). He returned from exile in 1972 and gradually began to build his followership. By the early 1980s when the group emerged publicly and started carrying out attacks, the members believed that both the traditional Muslim rulers and the politicians had betrayed Islam and deserved death. The members rejected everything Western such as radios, cars and Western education. The movement, like Boko Haram, concentrated its attacks in northern Nigeria. Over 5,000 people were killed by the sect between 1980 and 1985 before the Nigerian military government crushed them and many members flew across the borders to Cameroon. Marwa himself was killed in 1980. Musa Makaniki, his successor was arrested by the Nigerian government in 2004 after a visit to Nigeria from Cameroon. Little is reported of his activities in the Cameroon's during the 19 years he spent there. Many questions remain unsatisfactorily answered. Had he established links with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb? Was he radicalizing many young Muslims for an eventual battle with Nigeria? The styles of attacks of the Boko Haram group do suggest similarities with the Maitatsine group, which was notorious for going into peoples homes at night and slitting their throats; something Boko Haram consistently does. The group also attacked police and army constellations, as well as churches and schools; another trademark of Boko Haram attacks. The origins of the attacks and the places used as safe nets also suggest strong parallels with both groups. The only discernible difference right now, and one we are not completely certain of, is that Boko Haram is comprised mostly of educated Muslim youths while we know as a matter of fact that the Maitatsine sect was made up mainly of uneducated laborers. This difference still needs to be carefully explored.

To curb the deadly activities of Boko Haram in Nigeria, careful attention must be paid to its regional connections beyond Nigeria. The activities from the Cameroonian side of the border need to be carefully analyzed, since this has not received much attention. In order for the problem to be contained, both the Nigerian and Cameroonian governments must cordon off their border areas, temporarily relocate law-abiding citizens and declare the whole area a conflict zone. Without which, many innocent people would continue to be slaughtered each day, as it has been happening in the last few years.