Interview with Fr. Aniedi Okure on Boko Haram

In light of Boko Haram’s recent attacks and kidnappings in Nigeria and the rise of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, we turned to Fr. Aniedi Okure, the Executive Director of Africa Faith & Justice Network and a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies, to discuss Boko Haram, its origins, and the situation in Nigeria today.

Millennial: Can you tell us a little about Boko Haram and its background?

Fr. Aniedi Okure: The recent abduction of over two hundred school girls in the northeast of Nigeria by a radical Islamist group has generated protests, passionate outcry, and denunciations across the world. The radical Islamic sect whose Hausa name Boko Haram translates as “Western education is abomination” has been in existence since 2002.

Since 2009 the group is responsible for numerous terrorist activities that have left more than 5,000 dead in Nigeria. But the emergence and flourishing of Boko Haram is rooted in both social and political, as well as religious contexts. It is important to understand the contexts that enable Boko Haram to thrive, the fundamental tenets of Boko Haram, and the mindset of its founder and followers. In brief, Boko Haram emerged as an Islamic sect to sanitize Islam; it then grew into a movement aimed as imposing Islamic rule in the community and gradually it radicalized into a terrorist group.

Millennial: What is the political and social context that led to the rise of Boko Haram and its current level of influennce?

Fr. Aniedi Okure: There are two factors to note in this area. Before 1914, modern Nigeria existed as two colonial territories, namely the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria with an entrenched feudal system and the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria with independent democratic states, both under the British Empire. In 1914, the two territories were amalgamated into one country – modern day Nigeria.

However, despite the amalgamation into one country, the entity retained two political systems side by side: direct rule in the south and indirect rule in the north. Indirect rule meant that the colonial administration used traditional rulers who were also Muslim leaders as surrogates between the people and the rulers. Although the two systems were officially synchronized in 1960 when Nigeria attained political independence from Britain, in practice, the dynamics of governance in the north remain largely untouched.

The practice of indirect rule generated major unintended consequences that have disadvantaged the predominantly Muslim areas of northern Nigeria. The first is that it further entrenched the feudal system, giving undue power to the rulers and distancing the people from the governing apparatus. Secondly, by leaving the Islamic culture fairly intact and Sharia law interwoven with customary law, it prevented many citizens in the north from being educated and therefore largely kept them out of the socio-economic system.

The residual influence of the feudal system in the northern part of Nigeria and the resistance to western-style education is a major reason the north is poorer than the south. In addition, the shenanigans of Nigeria’s politicians affect both the north and south of Nigeria.

Analysts who argue that poverty is the cause of Boko Haram’s senseless violence are not only missing the point, they are doing a big disservice to the poor. People do not carry arms and kill innocent people, slaughter young boys who are trying to get an education and make a better life for themselves, blow up worshipers at prayer in the church or abduct young girls from schools and turn them into sex slaves because they are poor. To better understand how Boko Haram can thrive the way it does, one need to examine this context carefully alongside Nigeria’s weak and corrupt political system and the culture of impunity that exists.

A major drawback of the practice of indirect rule that has negatively affected Nigeria’s national unity is that over time, it created a certain mindset by which the Muslim rulers in the north came to see themselves as endowed with divine rights to rule Nigeria. They perceive Christians, mostly southerners, as those more intimately linked with the West and therefore, as people to be viewed with suspicion or, at best, tolerated. In this context, Christians who contest for political office are seen as intruders by many Muslims, even if they do not publicly voice that sentiment. This ideology has contributed to fermenting Boko Haram and serves as source of attraction to followers.

More importantly, it is the political culture of modern Nigeria that is the immediate and direct enabler of Boko Haram, allowing it to thrive. It is a political culture seriously lacking the rule of law, one where politicians act with great impunity and arrogate public funds for their private use, one where most politicians run for public office not to serve their constituencies but to have the chance to get their hands at the “national cake.” Besides, there are large groups of unemployed youth who are susceptible to recruitment by groups like Boko Haram.

Millennial: And how about the religious background? Will you describe that context?

Fr. Aniedi Okure: Boko Haram was founded in 2002 by an Islamic cleric, Mohammed Yusuf, as a Salafi movement named “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad.” The movement aims to restore what it considers the authentic (ancestral) teachings of Islam and to enforce strict Islamic observance in the region.

But Boko Haram is not the first of such movements in Nigeria. Numerous Islamic reform movements have emerged in the last century, from the Jihad of Shehu Uthmam Dan Fodio in the early 1900s through riots of the followers of Mohammed Marwa, popularly known as Maitatsine, in the 1980s to the insanely violent and radical Boko Haram. All claim to resist intrusions and restore the authentic practice of Islam. Boko Haram is the most radical and most violent of all.

Mohammed Yusuf believed that many scientific explanations of natural elements such as the formation of the rain, the spherical nature of the earth, and Darwin’s theory of evolution taught in Western-style schools ran contrary to Islamic tenets, and therefore must be rejected outright and condemned as evil. Hence the mantra-style name of the movement: Boko Haram – Western education is abomination.

In a BBC interview before his death in 2009, Yusuf stated that “Western-style education is mixed with issues that run contrary to our beliefs in Islam. Like rain; we believe it is a creation of God rather than an evaporation caused by the sun that condenses and becomes rain. Like saying the world is a sphere. If it runs contrary to the teachings of Allah, we reject it. We also reject the theory of Darwinism.”

With such a mindset, institutions of western education are sinful structures and acquiring Western education is tantamount to learning sinful ways. This mindset is important in understanding how this Salafi Islamic sect turned insanely violent.

The movement started as a sect within the Muslim community. As it radicalized, it spilled over to the people outside the Muslim community. They began to demand the imposition of Islamic law, Sharia, on the northern part of Nigeria, Muslim or not, and had occasional skirmishes with law enforcement.

In a 2009 clash with law enforcement, Mohammed Yusuf was captured and later killed in police custody. The death of Mohammed Yusuf further radicalized his followers. By December 2011, they had evolved into a domestic terrorist group, targeting Christian churches, government institutions, police headquarters, and innocent civilians at random. As law enforcement countered the movement, they committed human rights violations in the process. Figures given by the end of April 2014 show that over 5,000 people have died as a result of Boko Haram’s terrorist activities.

Boko Haram as we know it today has a political agenda. It aims to destabilize Nigeria and impose an Islamic state. It has succeeded in recruiting followers largely by exploiting the failings of the government and the frustrations of people.

Millennial: What is the solution to the threat posed by Boko Haram? Is it military, economic, political, or some combination?

Fr. Aniedi Okure: Military might alone is not a solution to the problem. For a lasting solution, the government of Nigeria needs to address the root causes that create an environment that ferments a movement like Boko Haram. More especially, and as a matter of urgency, the government must establish the rule of law. It must rid itself of a culture of impunity, starting with politicians and law enforcement personnel, and purge the system of a kleptocratic political elite who are at the heart of Nigeria’s political and economic failings.

After these are addressed as a matter of urgency, the government can then tackle the remainder of the feudal system in northern Nigeria and a culture that keeps the young people in the north from getting an education that allows them to function in the social and economic system of the country.

Millennial: To learn more about Boko Haram, you can view: “Western Education is an Abomination”: Boko Haram and the Challenge of National Unity in Nigeria