News / Africa

Boko Haram's Rise in Nigeria Sparks Civil War Fears

A survivor of a bomb attack rests at a hospital bed in Nigeria's northern city of Kano, January 21, 2012.
A survivor of a bomb attack rests at a hospital bed in Nigeria's northern city of Kano, January 21, 2012.

Friday's deadly bomb attacks in Nigeria's second largest city, Kano, are the latest in a series of spectacular strikes by the radical Islamist sect Boko Haram. The coordinated series of assaults on police stations and other government offices killed at least 200 people. The rise of Boko Haram is sparking concerns that Africa's most populous country may be edging closer to civil war.

Nigeria's Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka predicted it; political analysts are regularly asked about it; and the Kano attacks prompted the Leadership newspaper to run as its weekend edition headline, “Finally, Boko Haram Launches War.”

The radical Islamist Boko Haram has made headlines with increasing frequency lately for a series of audacious terrorist strikes. Among them, a Christmas Day bomb blast that killed worshippers at a Catholic Church and a deadly suicide bomb last August at a U.N. headquarters in Abuja.

Nigeria's 160 million people are roughly divided between a mostly Muslim north and a predominantly Christian south.

The Christmas Day church attack, and the name Boko Haram, which in the Hausa language spoken in the north means “Western education is sacrilegious,” are seen as signs of the group's Islamic radicalism.

But nearly all experts and scholars interviewed for this report agreed the Boko Haram phenomenon is not mainly fueled by religious extremism. Rights activist and expert on the causes of political violence Damian Ugwu says Boko Haram's support base is mostly unemployed northern youth who see a corruption-riddled government stealing the country's vast oil wealth.

“I see Boko Haram as the end result of manifestation of bad policies and impunity in Nigeria," said Ugwu. "For me it is a society where the wealth of the country is being cornered by the elite who do not care what happens to the rest of the country.  You are bound to see a lot of people who are angry with the system.”

President Goodluck Jonathan's government has portrayed Boko Haram as a Muslim fundamentalist group bent on establishing an Islamist state in the north. They have appealed to the international community for financial assistance in fighting terrorism.

Former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell, now with the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, says there is undoubtedly a criminal element within the Islamist group. But in a telephone interview, Campbell said the government's counter-terrorism strategy could backfire.

“What the Nigerian government is doing is treating Boko Haram as a security problem," he said. "I see it more as a political problem, and rather than focusing so much on police methods, I would try political initiatives that might have the potential for sucking the oxygen out of Boko Haram.”

Campbell suspects the number of hard-core Boko Haram operatives is small.  It is likely to have been made smaller by losses suffered in the Kano attacks.

Among politicians in Nigeria's north, the concept of Boko Haram as radical Islamists seems peculiar. National Secretary of the opposition Congress for Progressive Change, Buba Galadima, says what is really a group engaged in class warfare is being portrayed in government propaganda as terrorists in order to win counter-terrorism assistance from the West.

“It is a class war born out of poverty," Galadima. "They are attacking their oppressors. I want you to buy this rather than those propaganda that government is churning out because they want Western support, because it is what the West will not want to hear.  Jihad.”

Galadima denies any connection with Boko Haram, but he argues that the name “Western education is sacrilegious” is widely misunderstood. He says it is really a rallying cry against Nigeria's corrupt Western-educated elite.

"What the Boko Haram people are saying is it is sacrilegious to acquire Western education and use it to cheat, shortchange your fellow human being," he said. "If that is all Western education is about, for you to get into a position of authority and steal from the public treasury, then it is bad."

Galadima and others accept that Boko Haram is both radical and Islamist. It has also used terrorist tactics against Christians. But they point out that in the Kano attacks, the targets were police officers, who in a predominantly Muslim city are likely to be mostly Muslims.

They also note that a week earlier, the story from Kano was about Muslims and Christians protecting each other as they conducted prayers during the national strike against gasoline price increases.

Nigeria has a long and proud history of religious tolerance.

So while Nigerians worry about the potential for civil war and disintegration, the fault lines of greatest concern are more economic than sectarian. Poverty, and the disgust with a government perceived as corrupt and inefficient, transcend religious differences.

You May Like

Video Russia’s Syrian Escalation Tests Obama’s Crisis Response

Critics once again question whether president has been slow to act on Syrian conflict, thus creating opening for powers like Russia More

Ancient African DNA Shows Mass Migration Back Into Africa

First genetic analysis of ancient human remains in Africa suggests massive migration from north around time of Egyptian empire More

NASA: Pluto Has Blue Sky

New photos also reveal the presence of water ice More

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugeesi
Henry Ridgwell
October 08, 2015 8:02 PM
Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugees

Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Iraqi-Kurdish Teachers Vow to Continue Protest

Sixteen people were injured when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse teachers and other public employees who took to the streets in Iraq’s Kurdish north, demanding their salaries from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). VOA’s Dilshad Anwar, in Sulaimaniya, caught up with protesting teachers who say they have not been paid for three months. Parke Brewer narrates his report.

Video Syrian Village Community Faces Double Displacement in Lebanon

Driven by war from their village in southwestern Syria, a group of families found shelter in Lebanon, resettling en masse in a half-built university to form one of the biggest settlements of its kind in Lebanon. Three years later, however, they now face being kicked out and dispersed in a country where finding shelter as a refugee can be especially tough. John Owens has more for VOA from the city of Saida, also known as Sidon.

Video Bat Colony: Unusual Tourist Attraction in Texas

The action hero Batman might be everyone’s favorite but real bats hardly get that kind of adoration. Put more than a million of these creatures of the night together and it only evokes images of horror. Sarah Zaman visited the largest urban bat colony in North America to see just how well bat and human get along with each other.

Video Device Shows Promise of Stopping Motion Sickness

It’s a sickening feeling — the dizziness, nausea and vomiting that comes with motion sickness. But a device now being developed could stop motion sickness by suppressing certain signals in the brain. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

VOA Blogs