Islamic militants in Nigeria belonging to the Boko Haram group are being blamed for a series of attacks in the city of Maiduguri including bombings on Sunday and Monday that killed at least 28 people.
Boko Haram began in 2004 as a gathering of fundamentalist, middle-class university students united behind the meaning of the group’s name, which in the Hausa language means “Western education is sinful.”
“Boko Haram started as a very innocuous and seemingly harmless organization of people who acted more or less as devotees, as religious devotees who have taken religion so seriously as to segregate themselves, confine themselves to certain settlements far away from the mainstream society,” said Abubakar Umar Kari, a professor of sociology at the University of Abuja.
Boko Haram set as its goal the creation of a new country under Islamic law. It recognizes neither Nigeria’s constitution nor the federal government in Abuja. That drew the attention of security forces, especially when more than 200 members of the group set up camp in Yobe State along the border with Niger.
Nigerian police say that group attacked a local police station and escaped with weapons. Boko Haram says they were harassed by police who assaulted unarmed militants.
Already facing growing unrest in the oil-rich Niger Delta, Professor Kari says the government of then-President Olusegun Obasanjo could not allow Boko Haram’s threat to go unchecked, which only reinforced the group’s militancy.
“Their decision to resort to violence, it started largely as a reaction to the spate of attacks that were being meted against them by the security,” noted Kari. “And that is another major problem with Nigeria. Normally, those in authority think the best way to tackle or address a problem is through coercion.”
Boko Haram launched a coordinated uprising across much of the north in July 2009. That revolt was put down by Nigeria’s military in a campaign that killed more than 800 people, including Boko Haram leader Mohammed Yusuf.
Since then, the group has focused on ambushing military convoys and political and religious leaders as well as bombing police and military posts.
Boko Haram bombed national police headquarters in Abuja earlier this month. In a telephone interview before the most recent attacks in Maiduguri, Boko Haram spokesman Usman Alzawahiri said there can be no reconciliation with people who want to destroy the movement.
Alzawahiri added that Boko Haram fighters have returned from training in Somalia and will drive the Nigerian government into exile in Ghana or Cameroon just as Islamic militants in Somalia drove the government into exile in Kenya.
President Goodluck Jonathan has repeatedly offered to open talks with the group. Appealing for calm, he says terrorism is a global threat, and Nigeria is no exception.
“No country is free,” said Jonathan. “Nigeria is also having some ugly incidents relating to that. We have been meeting the security agencies on top of this. People should not be panicky at all.”
President Jonathan is a Christian from southern Nigeria who was elected in a vote that broke down along the country’s regional and ethnic divide. Jonathan won most of the vote in the mainly-Christian south. His opponent, former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, won most of the vote in the mainly-Muslim north.
Sociology professor Kari says that makes Boko Haram particularly troubling for President Jonathan.
“His major challenge, even minus Boko Haram, was to try to reintegrate the country,” added Kari. “But now in their activities and tactics and strategies, Boko Haram can easily sharpen or worsen this divide.”
By targeting non-Muslims in bombings of beer gardens in Bauchi and Maiduguri, Kari says Boko Haram increases the risk of faith-based reprisals in a country where Human Rights Watch says at least 800 people were killed in religious violence following last month’s vote.