The Islamists’ goal is to impose a strict form of Sharia law in a state in northeastern Nigeria, an ambition which takes as inspiration the Islamic Golden Age of more than a thousand years ago.
Muslim states of that time were governed by caliphs, following the tenets of the prophet Muhammad (c. 570-632). Under these leaders, great advances were achieved in science, arts and economy, in the pursuit of knowledge, which was collected and rendered into Arabic.
Literal meaning of ‘Boko Haram’
In contrast today, the group offers extreme violence and little else. Among its main symbols are crossed Kalashnikovs, an open Koran and a black flag similar to that used by the Syria/Iraq-based movement ISIL. “Anyone seen as supporting the authorities is a possible target, especially civil servants, politicians and traditional leaders,” Amnesty International said in a report.
The name Boko Haram translates more or less (from the northeastern regional Hausa language, combined with Arabic) as ‘Western education is forbidden’. Its official full name in Arabic (Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad) means “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad”.
According to an estimate by the Council on Foreign Relations think tank (US), more than 10,000 people were killed by the group last year.
Translation into bloodshed and terror
The jihadists are also active in Chad, Niger and northern Cameroon. One of the worst massacres by Boko Haram, early in January 2015, took place in the cities of Baga and Doron in Nigeria’s extreme northeast, and the surroundings on the shores of Lake Chad.
Ordinary people were murdered and their homes and other buildings were set ablaze. The government gave a death toll in the hundreds while Amnesty International said 2,000 people were killed.
People unprotected in spite of energy wealth
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, with 170 million people, mostly Muslim in the north and Christian and Animist in the south and more than 500 languages. Nigeria is the biggest energy producer in Africa and by far the continent’s biggest economy.
And yet populations flee. Earlier this year the World Food Programme warned that it expects to have to feed more than 230,000 people in the Lake Chad region in 2015. The charity Oxfam said violence by the Islamist group has displaced 1.5 million people within the country.
How many fighters?
Amnesty International in January of this year said online: “The exact number of Boko Haram troops is unknown but it is estimated to be at least 15,000 – although it is likely to be much higher.” A report by Voice Of America news said in February: “US intelligence officials believe the Nigerian Islamic group Boko Haram consists of 4,000 to 6,000 ‘hard-core fighters.’”
Children used as bombs and abducted for slaves
In addition to bank robbery and extortion and kidnapping for ransom, the insurgents’ methods have included car bombings, bus hijackings and the selective execution of passengers, and suicide bombings.
‘Recruiting’ children is common for Boko Haram: on 10th January a girl reported to be as young as ten had explosives attached to her. The bomb was detonated when she was in the midst of a crowded market in Maiduguri in the northeast. At least 20 people were killed and 18 wounded.
Proving the Nigerian military’s ineffectiveness and the government’s failure to stop the killings, the jihadists have abducted hundreds of vulnerable Nigerians unopposed, especially unmarried women and girls. The families of 276 schoolgirls taken last April have all but given up hope of seeing any of them again.
Attitude towards women
Although Nigeria assumed the UN Security Council presidency for that one month, the government’s failure to protect the kidnapped girls highlights the human rights violations terrorising ordinary Nigerians, worst of all women.
Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau boasted and threatened in a video: “I took the girls. Girls, go and get married. Leave western education, ladies. I took the girls, and I will sell them!”
The rumoured price per girl for sale was less than nine euros.
Shekau, according to some sources an intellectual and theologian, said in July 2013: “We support all the attacks on western education, promise to burn down schools that are not of God and the prophets. They are established to fight Islam.”
No responsible government can sit back
The International Red Cross and International Criminal Court have described Boko Haram’s actions as crimes against humanity and war crimes, wrote Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty, adding: “No responsible government can sit back and do nothing in the face of such unfolding horror.”
UN Human Rights High Commissioner Navi Pillay told the Nigerian government it is legally responsible for ensuring that girls and boys have the fundamental right to education, and for protecting them from violence, persecution and intimidation.
Not an army that respects international conventions
Numerous global bodies have also spoken out about abuses by Nigeria’s government forces (police, army and special units) inflicted on civilians and suspected Boko Haram members or supporters.
These abuses, according to a 2012 US State Department report cited by Human Rights Watch, included ‘extra-judicial killings, security force torture, rape and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of detainees… and arbitrary arrest.
Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf was summarily executed five years ago outside a police station.
This year, on a mission to wipe out Boko Haram before Nigeria’s rescheduled March 28 presidential election, General Ahmat Dari Bazine said: “Our defence forces are always one step ahead of our enemies and we are ready to confront them. They’re just bandits, small-time thugs. It’s a criminal sect, not an army that respects international conventions.”
No form of government
Adamawa State Public Affairs Director Phineas Elisha scorned the violence of Boko Haram, saying it mimics the ISIL movement’s state-founding ambitions in Iraq and Syria.
Elisha dismissed those ambitions as the stuff of “…imagination, just telling people they have taken over, and that this is their republic – with nothing to offer and no form of government.” He added: “We were told they applied Islamic law to the people they caught looting.”
A UN Security Council resolution demands that Boko Haram disarm and demobilise.