from Africa in Transition

Nigeria, Boko Haram, and Terminology

April 15, 2013

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Sub-Saharan Africa



Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Wars and Conflict

Looking at the insurgency now underway in Northern Nigeria, I think we have a terminology problem.

The Nigerian government and the media tend to lump the insurgents together under the single moniker “Boko Haram.” Boko Haram certainly exists; it is made up of the followers of Mohammed Yusuf, who was murdered by the police in 2009. His movement is now led by Abubakar Shekau. It commits terrorist acts. But there are many other nodes of the insurrection that appear to be outside the influence or control of “Boko Haram;” lumping them together under a single moniker may obscure what is actually going on in northern Nigeria.

Ansaru, for example, appears to be a particularly violent group that split off from Boko Haram. There are indications that it is based in Kano or Kaduna, rather than Maiduguri, which is the home territory of Mohammed Yusuf’s disciples. It may also have an ethnic Fulani character, rather than Boko Haram’s Kanuri origins.

Other nodes are much more difficult to identify, and they may not be organized or function much beyond the village level. Some of the violence is clearly criminal and some may involve score settling or have a specific political dimension. Tip O’Neill famously said, “all politics is local.” And that includes insurrection and terrorism which, after all, are a form of politics or anti-politics.

Perhaps we should use the term “Islamist” rather than “Boko Haram” to describe the insurrection in the North as a whole that uses an Islamic rhetoric, reserving “Boko Haram” for Yusuf’s followers.