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Understanding the Dynamics of Islamic Radicalism in Nigeria is key to Bringing Boko Haram to Book

By Uyo Salifu, Researcher, Transnational Crime and International Crime Division, ISS Pretoria

Nigeria has started talks with the Islamic sect popularly known as Boko Haram in an attempt to remedy the security crisis that has crippled the country for the past two years. This dialogue takes place after much wrangling and procrastination on the part of both parties. While the attempt at dialogue is welcome, doubt remains as to whether this strategy will succeed. The decision to negotiate with a sect that the authorities had previously taunted as being a group whose days were numbered, could suggest that the government’s military approach has failed. Further, it seemingly indicates that the government has run out of options to contain Boko Haram on its own terms. Boko Haram’s incessant attacks, which have included suicide missions, bombings and gun battles, have claimed thousands of lives and injured many more. 

The quest for a lasting solution to the crisis must begin with an understanding of the root causes and the ideological motivations for youth participation in Boko Haram’s violent campaign. Boko Haram is the product of a long history of Islamic radicalisation that began in 1903 with the demise of the Sokoto caliphate, following Britain’s colonisation of Nigeria. The abrupt end of the Sokoto caliphate, which once served as an important centre of Islamic learning, led to a rise in radical tendencies among northern Muslims, who called for its reestablishment. This nurtured Islamic radicalisation in northern Nigeria and today fuels Boko Haram. Understanding the historical manifestations of Islamic radicalism in Nigeria is key to understanding Boko Haram’s grievances and addressing its violence. 

There is a misconception that the Boko Haram crisis in Nigeria is one between Muslims and Christians. Such a perspective fails to capture the root causes of the crisis and may mislead policy makers. Indeed, the historical dynamics continue to entrench Boko Haram as a domestic challenge to Nigeria. 

According to the historian Niels Kastfelt, the historical roots of Islamic radicalisation are found in the amalgamation of southern and northern Nigeria in 1914 and the emergence of constitutional regionalism and regionally based political parties in the 1950s. These events resulted in the politicisation of religion as affiliation to political parties developed on the basis of religion, particularly along Christian-Muslim lines. An additional factor is the emergence of the ‘maitasine revolution’ in the 1980s, which centred on purifying Islam and rejecting aspects of Western civilisation that were perceived to corrupt Islamic reverence. This was expressed through violent riots in places like Jos, Kano and Kaduna, where over 4 000 people died and several more were injured.

Islamic radicalisation denotes the pursuit of revolutionary change on the basis of strict adherence to a set of Islamic beliefs. Expressions of Islamic radicalism may be violent or non-violent. It is therefore not uncommon for radical groups to pursue their objectives peaceably. Boko Haram started off as a non-violent radical Islamic group, but began to employ violent tactics in 2004. Although other Islamic groups exist in Nigeria, Boko Haram has emerged as the most violent. Groups such the Yan Izala and the Al-Sunna Wal Jamma have been in existence since 1978 and 2002 respectively, but are not as popular as Boko Haram.

The potent combination of socio-economic and political inequalities currently leads to violent expressions of radicalisation in Nigeria, as well as the rise of Salafist ideology, which is based on a fundamentalist interpretation of the Qur’an. The latter is perpetuated by the prevalence of radical madrasas or religious schools. Boko Haram has used such schools to promote its objectives of establishing a shar’ia state in Nigeria and eliminating the influence of Western education on Islam. The recruitment and violent radicalisation of Boko Haram members have also been conducted through prisons. In September 2010, for example, Boko Haram orchestrated a prison break that resulted in the release of approximately 750 prisoners. Only 100 of these were alleged to have been Boko Haram members. In June 2012, the group broke into another Nigerian prison, releasing 40 inmates. These events show the importance of prisons in recruitment. In addition, Boko Haram has also used the social media, including the Internet and YouTube, to promote its objectives, including radicalisation and the recruitment of youths.

However, the group has criticised the media for inaccurate reporting on its activities and statements and for erroneous information on its dealings. The bombing of the offices of This Day, a Nigerian popular newspaper, was a demonstration of its grievances with the media. Nigerian forces have responded to Boko Haram with attempts to violently suppress the group through killing several of its members. Boko Haram has, nonetheless, remained obstinate in its objectives. Addressing the challenge of radicalisation requires measures that transcend simply crushing Boko Haram through military means. Violent responses may temporarily quell the revolt, but it will more likely than not just produce variants of the group. The current dialogue with Boko Haram is also unlikely to produce a sustainable outcome, as giving in to the group’s demands could promote impunity rather than mitigate insecurity. The group’s recent demand for the release of all its members in police custody is likely to send the wrong message to other radical groups on the government’s stance on radicalism. 

A more long-term solution to violent radicalisation includes a robust criminal justice approach that combines sound military strategies with effective legal measures. Such an approach requires the use of Nigeria’s counter-terrorism legislation to prosecute crimes committed. More so, the rule of law needs to be efficiently applied across the board. It also involves the full capacitation of law enforcement to adhere to human rights in addressing crimes. The Nigerian government must also address the root causes of the phenomenon through concerted efforts to address endemic corruption and poor governance. Widespread corruption is responsible for the absence of trust in the government and the general feeling of hopelessness concerning the state of affairs. Linked to corruption is the underdevelopment in northern Nigeria, which should be tackled comprehensively. The government must also collaborate with religious clerics and the community at large to build trust with northern Nigeria. These measures will engender a feeling of inclusion among the people and decrease the rationale for violence. Beyond this, the challenges created by the media in reporting inaccuracies should be addressed by thorough sensitisation of the media on reporting on issues such as radicalisation.  


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