In this United States Institute of Peace special report, freelance journalist Andrew Walker explains the history of Boko Haram, an extremist Islamic sect in Nigeria, that has created havoc across the north of the country and its violent attacks on government offices, the United Nations, and churches.
Nigeria has had a long and unfortunate history of communal conflicts and ethnoreligious violence. For example, in Plateau state, in Nigeria's "middle belt," there have been many outbreaks of bloody violence between different communities since the return of democracy in 1999. There have also been riots in the urban centers of Kaduna and Kano, and for several decades there has been a simmering conflict in the Tafawa Balewa district of Bauchi.
When viewed from outside, it can appear that these conflicts boil down to religious differences, tensions between blocs of Muslim and Christian inhabitants. When one looks deeper, however, one finds that politics—more precisely, control of government patronage—is the primary cause of many of these conflicts. Election disputes have also led to breakdowns along Muslim and Christian lines, as was seen in the most recent polls in 2011, when youths went on the rampage in southern Kaduna state. When violence erupts in these circumstances, the genesis is usually in one group asserting control of the apparatus of government over another group or groups in a very heterogeneous and ethnically diverse part of Nigeria.
There is also a history of Muslim sects growing in the cities of northern Nigeria. In the
1980s, for example, the Maitatsine sect, which heretically claimed Muhammad was not the
messenger of Allah, established itself in the slums of Kano. The sect was wiped out very
brutally, with women and children of the sect attacking heavily armed military and police
forces with bows and arrows and knives. The group scattered and was fully eliminated over the course of a decade.