Is the Boko Haram menace rooted in poverty or fanaticism?

The menace of Boko Haram is rooted in the nihilistic philosophy of islamism, not poverty, suffering or neglect.

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The menace of Boko Haram is rooted in the nihilistic philosophy of islamism, not poverty, suffering or neglect, writes Leo Igwe

The world has suddenly woken up to the terrorism of Boko Haram. It has dawned on many people across the globe that Nigeria for the past five years has been fighting a mini al-Qaeda group that is poised to visit on the country and in fact on the region-atrocities worse than September 11 attacks.

The abduction of at least 200 school girls by this terrorist group has shocked particularly the western world into acknowledging that Boko Haram is a vicious Islamist militant organisation that poses serious threats to peace and security in the region.

Unfortunately, some segments of the western press are trying to present these terrorists as villains, reacting to rampant poverty and agitating for development.

Some analysts have even tried to underplay the jihadist thrust of this terrorist group.

They argue that the Boko Haram attacks are a result of pervasive poverty in the region and the neglect of the Nigerian government. They maintain that Islamic long suffering resignation has turned into anger and desperation; and that Boko Haram is the face and front of this righteous and justified anger. These analysts say that Boko Haram militants are using their attacks and kidnapping to draw the attention of the government to their marginalized predicament.

Any intelligent member of the Nigerian society knows that nothing can be further from the truth.

I have been writing about the activities of this extremist groups for years. And I have followed with interest the activities of fanatics and theocrats in the region. I can understand why some segments of the press in Europe and the United States would want to omit the Islamic component in this ‘holy war’ and interpret the situation differently. They want to avoid being accused of islamophobia. They do not want to be seen to be criticizing Islam even when such criticism is necessary, as in this case.

And this has led to a misrepresentation of the situation in Nigeria – a misrepresentation that is largely responsible for the reactive rather that a proactive approach to addressing the problem.

Boko Haram is a jihadist group whose campaign of violence and bloodletting is rooted in its fanatical interpretation and appropriation of Islam. Its name, Boko Haram, a hausa language expression which roughly translates ‘western education is forbidden’ or non-Muslim teaching is forbidden, says it all. The militants are attacking and destroying ‘western’ styled schools. They are attacking and bombing churches where non-Islamic doctrines are taught. They have attacked some mosques and killed Muslim clerics critical of their mission.

Boko Haram’s other name – Jam’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-da’wa wal-Jihad – tells us more about the group’s vision. The rough translation is “The Fellowship of the People of the Tradition for Preaching and Holy War”. Boko Haram’s campaign is against western style education and for the propagation of Islamic tradition, preaching and holy war.

In what way does this translate to a righteous indignation over the long suffering and poverty in Bornu and other states in Northern Nigeria? How does bombing mosques, churches and schools imply agitating for the development? How does killing and kidnapping foreigners attract attention to poverty in the region?

Boko Haram has always made clear its mission – the establishment of sharia in Nigeria. It is opposed to the way sharia is currently being implemented in Muslim majority states. Boko Haram wants a more radical enforcement of the Islamic law. But the quest for sharia law is not new to Nigeria history and politics. Delegates from Muslim majority states led by Alhaji Shehu Shagari staged a walk out during the 1978 constituent assembly following the rejection of sharia law. The then government brokered a compromised and some aspects of sharia – the muslim personal laws – were included in the 1979 constitution.

Was the walk out by those theocrats a sign of long suffering and marginalization of their states? Alhaji Shehu Shagari, who led the walk out, became president. The army led by military officers from the Muslim majority states toppled him in 1983 and ruled the country till 1999. Does it mean that these military officers – Muhammadu Buhari, Ibrahim Babangida, Sani Abacha and Abudusalami Abubakar – who ruled Nigeria during this period, impoverished and marginalized their own region?

Shortly after Nigeria’s return to democratic rule in 1999, the governor of Zamfara State, Alhaji Sani Yerima, imposed sharia on the state, in fulfillment of what he calls an election promise. Was this election promise a factor of poverty and neglect?

Other Muslim majority states followed and adopted sharia. Sharia implementation led to bloody riots and clashes between Muslims and Christians in some states across Northern Nigeria. It has made religious militancy a way of negotiating space in Northern Nigeria till date. Muslim militants and jihadists mobilized across the country to further the cause of sharia and political Islam. This was the circumstance that led to the emergence of Boko Haram. The group has become the radical face of political sharia that prevails in Northern Nigeria.

The group draws from the reserve army of indoctrinated Muslim youths to advance its cause. Young Muslims are brainwashed by clerics in mosques and ‘scholars’ in Quranic schools with hateful and intolerant messages. Their minds are poisoned with dogmatic and absolutist doctrines. They are made to believe that Boko Haram is fighting Allah’s cause and that if they die fighting this jihad, they will inherit paradise.

The menace of Boko Haram is rooted in the nihilistic ideology of Islamism, not poverty, suffering or neglect.

Leo Igwe is researcher at Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies (religious studies), University of Bayreuth in Germany

9 Responses to “Is the Boko Haram menace rooted in poverty or fanaticism?”

  1. Simon93

    That’s right, Leo. Ideology develops regardless of socio-political context. Jesus wept.

  2. Sam Atwell

    This is a poor article.

    ‘They do not want to be seen to be criticizing Islam even when such criticism is necessary, as in this case’

    Might I suggest that they don’t want to be seen to be criticizing Islam because they recognise that >99.99% of Muslims have no designs on committing terrorist atrocities?

    “In what way does this translate to a righteous indignation over the long suffering and poverty in Bornu and other states in Northern Nigeria? How does bombing mosques, churches and schools imply agitating for the development? How does killing and kidnapping foreigners attract attention to poverty in the region?”

    Since when do any warlords offer a systematic alternative to the public sector? Recent African and European history surely tells you that warlord-ism can be motivated by frustrations about one’s life chances without it translating itself into a coherent alternative ideology. Young men join groups like Boko Haram because they offer a chance of camaraderie and power. Not because there simply happens to be a convenient caucus of extremist ideologues living (somewhat mysteriously) in the same region of Nigeria.

    And what’s more, do you not think that Islamic Conservatism in Northern Nigeria might have something to do with the fact that the majority of development, urbanisation etc in Nigeria is in the Christian south?

  3. ThisIsTheEnd

    The reason for the disparity in development is due to corruption.

  4. swatnan

    Fanatacism They are all mental. There should be the death penalty for all terrorists.
    (No Mandela and gerry Adams were not terrorists but freedom fighters; their cause was legitimate). There’s going to be an awful backlash against all islamists, unless the international community can get this threat under control.

  5. Astrid Fernandez

    Well said. Liberal hand-wringing and west-blaming is getting very old, and harder and harder to shoehorn into every atrocity committed by religious freaks.

  6. Mike Stallard

    Mr Igwe, I want to thank you for a very thorough and perceptive account of this Salafist movement.

  7. baboulie

    To claim that radicalism is born out of poverty and inequality is not to say that it is a logical, clearly articulated – even conscious- direct response to poverty, injustice etc. Its a far subtler dynamic than that, one where the conditions of inequality, poverty and a sense of injustice makes a very fertile breeding ground for nihilistic fanaticism bound up in the trappings of religious faith and ardour.

  8. Pierre Gardin

    “>99.99%”

    Oh, you could have made up even better numbers. Why not “>99.99999%” or even “>99.999999999%”?

    In the real world:

    64 percent of Muslims in Egypt and Pakistan support the death penalty for leaving Islam. 13 pc in Indonesia.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/05/01/64-percent-of-muslims-in-egypt-and-pakistan-support-the-death-penalty-for-leaving-islam/

  9. Ortega

    I think an important question which is not addressed in this article is why does Nigeria even exist as one country? If the North of the country has such a different vision of its destiny compared with the South, then what purpose does “Nigeria” serve? Also, using “Islamist” to describe feudalistic rural communities is completely anachronistic.

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