Home / Events / ISS Seminar Report, Pretoria: The Threat of Boko Haram and the Challenges to Peace, Security and Unity of Nigeria
ISS Seminar Report, Pretoria: The Threat of Boko Haram and the Challenges to Peace, Security and Unity of Nigeria
Date: 2 February 2012
Venue: , ISS Conference Room, Block C, Brooklyn Court, 361 Veale Street, New Muckleneuk, Tshwane (Pretoria), Parking in Brooklyn Mall & ABSA court for a fee

Presented by the Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis & the Transnational Threats and International Crime divisions, Pretoria

Thursday, 2nd February 2012



Since gaining independence in 1960, military coups, ethnic and religious tensions have characterised post-independence Nigeria.  The end of the civil war (1967-1970) was believed to be an opportunity to unite Nigerians. Yet, in the post-civil war era, Nigeria has been confronted by daunting security challenges including recurrent communal violence that has pitted various communities against one another in the country. After many years of military rule, the reintroduction of multiparty democratic rule in 1999 has coincided or seems to have led to an intensification of ethnic and religious militancy, characterised by acts of terrorism, civil strife and protests.

The re-emergence of the violent militant group called Boko Haram in 2009 has threatened the survival and the cohesiveness of Nigeria as a state. Some are fearful that Nigeria is at the edge of a civil war as Boko Haram has gone on a killing spree, launching rampant and deadly terrorist acts that have claimed the lives of thousands of Nigerians and caused widespread fear across the country. At the same time, the announcement by government to cut fuel subsidies from early January has also led to waves of protest movements that have further accentuated tensions and divisions in that country. Boko Haram is only one of many groups that have committed atrocious acts with impunity. Similar militant attacks by insurgent groups spearheaded by the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta, have in the recent past caused mayhem in southern and south-eastern parts of Nigeria.

The main objective of this seminar, jointly organized by the Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis (CPRA) and the Transnational Threats and International Crime (TTIC) divisions, was therefore to shed a critical light on this state of insecurity (its causes, wider dynamics and ramifications) in Nigeria and explore options for containing it. Questions asked included the following: Who are the Boko Haram? What do they stand for? What are the dynamics within the group? What the role of religion and politics is in its activities? Does it have political and/or financial backing from the country? Who are those and for what purpose? Does it have foreign links? How valid are those? What are the main implications of all this? And what are the policy options to engaging with the group?

In his introductory remarks as chair of the seminar, Dr Issaka SouaràƒÂ©, Acting Head of CPRA-Pretoria, commenced the proceedings by welcoming the participants and introducing the panel, which consisted of two prominent Nigerian scholars, in addition to the discussant, Mr Marti Ewi of ISS` TTIC division.  Dr SouaràƒÂ© noted that the growing prevalence of the violent activities of the militant group, Boko Haram, in Nigeria since 2009 has generated a lot of attention from policy-makers, the media and scholars alike. He then introduced the first speaker, who joined the seminar via Skype from the United Kingdom and then gave him the floor.


The first speaker began his presentation by noting that very little is known about Boko Haram and that a lot of opinion that has been articulated in the media about the group is inaccurate and misleading. He outlined two main questions, which would guide his presentation. Firstly, who or what is Boko Haram and secondly what do they represent with regards to the integrity of Nigeria as a state.  But before trying to answer these questions, he noted that the atrocities committed by the violent group has killed approximately 1000 people and resulted in the displacement of scores more in the country.  This is particularly important as it establishes the criminal aspect of the group, in addition to its other characteristics. 

After highlighting the series of violent activities carried out by the group against the Nigerian population, the speaker situated his presentation within Nigeria`s historical context by providing a timeline of the militant Boko Haram. He noted that from 2002, when the group was formally established, to 2010, the group had evolved considerably, making it as a group in transition.

Description of the group

A large number of the group`s members hail from the north-eastern parts of the country, particularly the states of Borno and Yobe. He went on to describe the group as comprising of mostly the lower-middle class of the Nigerian society, ranging between 25 and 40 years of age. While some of them may have university degrees, the vast majority of the group`s members are only partly educated. The north-eastern region of Nigeria represents some of the most marginalised groups in the country both geographically and in terms of the socio-economic distribution of resources. He cited that social-economic indicators are poorer in the region compared to other regions in the country, including the infant mortality, and unemployment rates, especially among youths for the latter indicator, which is as a major problem.

Belief System

The speaker noted that various members of the group (or people purported to member its members) have expressed their beliefs and the value system of the group through videos posted on the Internet, as well as some media statements. He said that in one of these videos, one leader stated that he believes the earth is flat and not in fact round, indicating his rejection of Western informed knowledge systems and ideas. The speaker cited that the group is generally opposed to the corrupt elite of society and, as such, blames this pattern of corruption on their purported ‘Western education`.    However, he warned that this intolerance towards corruption in Nigeria and, invariably, towards the West should not be mistaken for a rejection of ‘Western science` as a system of knowledge or the scientific advancements that have been made in recent history, but rather a rejection of the ideas and excessive desire for material gain that they think is fuelled by the exposure to Western education.  While it is not clear as what it is the Boko Haram long to achieve in the country or seek to attain because of the shifting demands over the years, the speaker contended that the key demands for them seem to be for the government to relent in the apparent persecution of their members and sympathisers by the state security apparatuses and for government to put an end to their feeling of continuous marginalization, underrepresentation and exclusion from the gains of the country. Akin to this, is the right to freedom of belief.

This notwithstanding, he stated that this right to believe what you want should not be pushed to impose one`s beliefs on others. Furthermore, the speaker cited that some members of the group have openly positioned themselves as champions of the Muslim community, while emphasising the division of society along religious lines, which, to him, is very problematic because one finds indigenous Muslim communities in the southern parts of the country and indigenous Christian communities in the North. He highlighted this point to debunk the widely reported view that Nigeria is divided into a ‘Muslim North` and a ‘Christian South`. In any case, he noted that the group also contradicts itself in its demands for the Islamisation of the whole country. The speaker suspected that these pronouncements, allegedly by members of the group, appear more like propaganda than they are real, since their name suggests a Jihadist ideology.

The group seen through foreign lenses

To complement the above, the speaker gave an outline of what other people are saying about Boko Haram, based on observations he`d made from Christian and Muslim groups in Nigeria, the media, academics and policy makers across the world.  He labelled these views as ‘conspiracy theories`. One such theories, held by some Christians in Nigeria is that ‘Muslims hate Christians and that Boko Haram is an instrument for the islamisation of the country.` A second conspiracy theory he mentioned as being prevalent among some Muslim communities is to argue that ‘Boko Haram doesn`t really exist and that it`s a ploy by southern Nigeria to take control of the oil resources and deny the north any of its gains, since all the oil is located in the south of the country.  He however noted that other members of the Muslim community on the hand believe that the criminal actions of the group are likely to lead to widespread civil conflict under the banner of the ‘Islam` and, in the process, discredit the image of Islam in the country.  He said this has created a lot of confusion on the ground about the real identity of the Boko Haram. 

In addition to the above, he also mentioned some conspiracy theories that have been posited by academics and policy makers. He noted for example a very prominent American ‘Nigerianist` who argues that Boko Haram ‘no longer exists and that the group actually broke down and disbanded in 2004.` According to this theory, recent incidences of attacks in Nigeria believed to have been the work of Boko Haram are the work of small criminal groups. He said that views such as this clearly show a sense of denialism.  A fourth theory relies or an historical analysis that looks at the history of Islam in the Sahelian stripe of West Africa over the centuries and observes a recurring pattern of rise of such groups in the region. The speaker found some truth in this analysis, but called for a very holistic approach in analysing the complex group that Boko Haram is.

Policy responses to Boko Haram

In response to Boko Haram, the speaker recommended that scholars and policy makers alike look at the structural poverty that plagues much of Nigeria, particularly the north-eastern part of the country where the group emerged. He called for a proper analysis of the Nigerian national security situation and urged scholars and researchers to collect as much information about the group as possible.  Moreover, he touched on the need for collective efforts to eradicate poverty in Nigeria in order to curb the development of Boko Haram and the emergence of other groups.  The speaker then emphasised the significant role played by history and the political systems of the country. He cited the Nigerian people`s loss of faith in the country`s electoral system, in the government mainly due to lack of accountability. In conclusion he highlighted the sectorial dimension in this, as Boko Haram increasingly adopts the style and tactics of Al-Qaeda, despite the humbleness of their network in comparison to the well-established Al-Qaeda international network, the group is expanding its appeal while maintaining its roots on the soil with the people of Nigeria. Perhaps the main mitigating factor here is the group seems so far to limit its demands to national issues, and sometimes even local ones, and not issues beyond Nigeria`s borders. 

Boko Haram as a Symptom of the Crisis in Nigeria`s Nation-Building

The second speaker of the seminar complemented the views presented by the first speaker, while differing on others. He began his presentation by reminding the audience that the official name of the militant group is actually a translitrration of an Arabic word that reads as Jama`at Ahlis Sunna Lidda`awati Wal-Jihad meaning the Association of people committed to the teachings of the Prophet [Muhammed] and struggle, Boko Haram being a nickname given to it by others based on the preaching of some of its members, which means ‘Western education is sacrilege` or ‘Western educations is a sin`. However, he maintained that perhaps the most accurate definition is the translation that offered by Ioannis Mantzikos (2010) is ‘Western civilisation is forbidden`.

Following this, the speaker contextually situated the development of Boko Harem in Nigeria by briefly outlining the timeline of the group, since its inception in 2002 when Mohammed Yusuf founded the ‘sect` in the impoverished north-eastern part of the country.  He argued that the group Mohammed Yusuf founded the group in the north-eastern city of Maiduguri, capital of the Borno State, by establishing a religious complex that included a mosque and a school where many poor families from Nigeria and the neighbouring countries enrolled their children. In 2004 the group extended the complex to Yusuf`s home state of Yobe in the village of Kanamma near Niger State where it set up a base called Afghanistan. He argued that the group`s followers consisted initially of largely impoverished northern Islamic students and clerics as well as university students and professionals, many of whom are unemployed. For the first seven years of its existence, he argued, the group conducted its operations more or less peacefully. This however changed in 2009 when prompted by repeated warnings that the group was arming itself, the Nigerian government launched a clampdown, which left some 800 people dead. The group`s leader was killed in that attack while in police custody.

As a consequence, Boko Haram changed its approach, adopting a more militant strategy.  Thus, in what was apparently retaliation for the extra judicial killing of its leader, the group carried out its first terrorist attack in Borno in January 2010, at Dala Alemderi Ward in Maiduguri metropolis which resulted in the death of four people. In January 2012, Abubakar Shekau, a former deputy to Yusuf, who was thought to have died in the government clampdown of 2009, appeared in a video posted on Youtube. According to media reports, Shekau took control of the group after Yusuf`s death in 2009.

Following this, the speaker touched on the groups alleged linkages with the international terrorist network, Al-Qaeda.  This is a view that is strongly held by the government, which has since adapted its approach to dealing with Boko Haram as a ‘terrorist` group or a militant movement that is likely to intensify its activities in such a manner as a terrorist group. However, he was quick to refute this and warn against such a characterisation as it could work in the groups favour in terms of creating appeal and recruitment.  To him, linking Boko Haram to international terrorist organisations is like the Devil`s alternative for the government. It needs such a linkage to attract international sympathy and assistance and blunt domestic criticisms that it is weak on security. On the other hand, talks of such linkages, if Boko Haram does not already have one, increases the likelihood that it will get the attention and sympathy of Al-Qaida and similar international terrorist groups, especially with the expectation that the US and other Western countries would likely get involved.  Again if Boko Haram actually has an external linkage, the government will lack the capacity to fight it on its own, meaning an inevitable involvement of the Western countries, which will facilitate membership recruitment for Boko Haram.

The theories that the speaker provided for the Boko Haram phenomenon in the country echoed those that were offered by the first speaker, highlighting the repositioning of the group`s strategy to a more militant approach could be understood as the ‘frustration-aggression hypothesis`. According to this postulation, the recent state of insecurity in Nigeria can be attributed to frustration that, in this case was extensively experienced by an isolated group that felt helpless and unable to challenge the status quo, displaced their frustration on the innocent upon failure of exerting it towards those it deems at fault.

This said, he argued that the main factor underpinning the emergence of Boko Haram is the ‘crisis in Nigeria`s Nation-Building project, which is largely due to corruption, mismanagement of resources and moreover the lack of socio-economic divisions in Nigeria`s population that run along religious and cultural lines.`  To substantiate this view, the speaker contended that Boko Haram is not the only purveyor of violence or source of insecurity in Nigeria - even if the audacity of its activities is in a special league of its own. In the South-East, he observed, ‘the pervasive fear of kidnappers generates as much sense of insecurity as the fear of Boko Haram`s bombs.` In the South- South state of Bayelsa, he continued, ‘militarised gangs fight for turf while in the rest of the country stories of violent armed robberies and ritual murders are a daily staple.` To the speaker, there is in Nigeria s a heavy burden of institutionalised sectional memories of hurt, injustice, distrust and even a disguised longing for vengeance.  This means therefore that any strategy to confront the security challenge in the country is bound to evoke these ugly memories in some sections of the population. No individual or political authority enjoys universal legitimacy across the main fault lines. ‘Nigeria is therefore a country in desperate need of creating Nigerians`.

In his closing remarks, the speaker emphasised the need for the country to unite and reach consensus on common goals that can shape the course of the construction of the country in its entirety.   


For more information on an on-going research on the subject matter, see the Oxford-based Nigeria Research Network at:

Seminar report prepared by Refiloe Joala
Research intern in CPRA-Pretoria  


ISS Conference Room
Block C, Brooklyn Court
361 Veale Street, New Muckleneuk
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Parking in Brooklyn Mall & ABSA court for a fee

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