Boko Haram began as a small Salafist sect based in northeastern Nigeria led by a charismatic but crudely educated preacher named Mohammed Yusuf, who was killed in 2009. He believed that British colonialism and the Nigerian state that resulted from it had imposed an unIslamic way of life on Muslims.
This led him to oppose Western-style education, which is how the group came to be known as Boko Haram. The phrase, which translates roughly to “Western education is forbidden”, was a label given to them by outsiders. The group calls itself a name that translates as People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad.
After Yusuf’s death his deputy, Abubakar Shekau, took over, and the group’s attacks grew more deadly and sophisticated.
It has formed links with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, probably involving training, financing and weapons procurement.
But the extent of such co-operation is unclear, and lumping Boko Haram in with some vague notion of “global terrorism” is misguided and unhelpful. Its aims, as much as they can be deciphered from a factionalised group without a clear structure, remain largely local: the creation of an Islamic state and release of detained members.
These factors complicate the question of what the rest of the world should do to help.
Foreign advisers can provide useful intelligence and assist with hostage negotiations, but working closely with a Nigerian military accused of serious human rights abuses presents its own dangers and may signal approval of its tactics.
It would also not seem wise for foreigners to engage in on-the-ground operations given their lack of knowledge of not only the terrain, but also the identities of those involved in the insurgency.
In Nigeria things are very often not what they seem.
Then there is the question of further raising Boko Haram’s profile, and playing into the hands of some elements of the group: Shekau will probably be delighted to know that he has drawn the attention of Barack and Michelle Obama.
Perhaps if any good can come from the kidnappings, it will be that Nigeria’s leaders will be pressured into looking harder at what years of bad governance have wrought. In the short term the world should certainly do what it can to help to free the girls captured by criminals with a warped view of Islam.
But the larger problem will remain if Nigeria does not begin to provide its people with the government they deserve. – © Guardian News & Media 2014