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The armed Islamic terror group known as Boko Haram has generated global outrage by its claimed kidnappings of nearly 300 Nigerian teenage girls. The United Nations and United States have both taken measures to ensure justice, and now the #BringBackOurGirls social media campaign has the whole world considering the return of the missing school girls as a collective victory in human rights. Everyone knows Boko Haram for its violence and terror, but what most people do not know is that the group was very different in the beginning.
One point of misinformation is the actual meaning of the group’s name. Many news sources have cited the name to mean that “Western education is a sin.” While the abduction of hundreds of school children—not just the girls that have been the center of recent attention—certainly seems to imply disdain for Western education, that is not the basis of Boko Haram activity. It is easy to see how rumors and inaccuracies ignite, as in some translations, “boko” means “book” in the Hausa language.
Upon giving other anthropological and historical literature a closer look, there are explanations that the word “boko” is more closely translated to mean “something fraudulent or deceptive.” Even here, it should be noted that there are almost a dozen different meanings. Of paramount importance is the point that the armed extremists of Boko Haram have not based their corrupt and violent agenda on Islamic opposition to Western or Christian education ideals. Boko Haram does not discriminate in its violence.
In fact, what most people do not know and probably would not assume about Boko Haram is that it began as a nonviolent group. Founded in 2002, Boko Haram originated in the northern Borno State as an organization that spoke out against poverty and corrupt government. This region is historically the most underfunded in the country, and Boko Haram leaders preached about the need to fix the lack of education and employment exacerbating chronic poverty.
It is not an unfamiliar platform in times of economic distress. Boko Haram had civil interactions with the Nigerian government and continued their nonviolent organization until the imposition of a seemingly inoffensive 2009 law enforcing bicycle helmets. Police stopped some members of the group for not wearing helmets in the Borno state a few months after the law was passed, and an argument escalated quickly until shots were fired. Boko Haram members were already aggravated by corruption in the police system, and they responded to the violence in this incident with violence, killing several policemen and taking over Borno’s capital.
Mohammed Yusuf, the group’s leader, was executed while in police custody, and so began Boko Haram’s downward spiral into persistent terrorism and dominance over the Nigerian government.
Another thing people likely do not know about Boko Haram is that many of the tensions that fuel the group to commit horrendous human atrocities are commonly shared. Several studies and reviews conducted worldwide have linked economic and environmental crises to the ebb and flow of Boko Haram terrorism. The Africa Review reported a pattern seen in Boko Haram soldiers; every year that farmers and herdsman are displaced by drought and starvation, they cross into Nigeria looking for answers, and Boko Haram recruits many new soldiers. Many of the members of Boko Haram are not even Muslim, they are just poor and looking for help that they seem not to find elsewhere.
Another global tension rearing its ugly head in Nigeria through Boko Haram is the crude oil crisis. The oil production rates in Nigeria have declined significantly, which has led the government to slash fuel subsidies. Most of this misfortune is offloaded on the public, making already devastating poverty even worse.
While there is some hope that the #BringBackOurGirls campaign will be a success in helping to stifle Boko Haram’s previously unchecked, uncontrolled crimes against humanity, what most people do not know about Boko Haram is that they are responsible for far more than just the kidnapping of school girls, and their aims are reflective of issues that permeate tensions across the world.
By Erica Salcuni