In April 2014, the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls at Chibok brought global notoriety to the Nigerian Islamist organisation Boko Haram. The group has been active since at least 2002 and in many respects represents a continuation of Nigerian history. The usual translation of Boko Haram to “Western Education is Sin” obscures the fact that they oppose not just Western education, but more importantly the values and form of civilization with which it is associated. They seek instead the strict application of Sharia law and the abolition of Western-style political and economic structures.
Although Islam has been present in West Africa since the 11th century, the most significant recent development took place at the beginning of the 19th century. Led by Usman danFodio, a group of nomadic herders entered Northern Nigeria hoping to encourage greater devotion to Islam amongst the local population. The result was the establishment of the Sokoto Caliphate, which governed so effectively that even with the advent of colonial rule the British were compelled to respect it. Nevertheless, colonialism contributed to a long-lasting division between the Muslim North and the Christian South, as Christians became associated with administrative elites and the military.
Following independence in 1960, Nigeria has suffered a troubled history and the Western-influenced political and economic structures it adopted have failed repeatedly. In the early 1980s, an Islamic preacher nicknamed Maitatsine led a popular movement based in the North that protested the injustices of poverty and their dissatisfaction at contemporary Islamic teaching. Their activities became increasingly violent and they were eventually suppressed by the army in clashes that killed over 5000. Boko Haram has been seen as continuation of this movement. The following year a series of raids on police stations in Yobe State once again led to intervention by security forces. By 2009, Boko Haram had grown dramatically in membership and ambition, resulting in further attacks upon state institutions.
Last month, the African Union proposed a multinational intervention of 7500 troops to combat Boko Haram. However, it seems unlikely that this will see an end to violence in the region, especially given that this will be an election year in Nigeria. International links to other terrorist organisations and attacks in Cameroon and Niger indicate an increasing confidence and ambition amongst this terrorist group, and ultimately the development of stable political and economic institutions will be a prerequisite for a long-term solution.