How Inequality Fuels Boko Haram

To Stop the Militants, Nigeria Needs to Resolve Its North-South Divide

People stand near burnt structures in the aftermath of heavy fighting between security forces and Islamist militants in Baga, Nigeria, April 21, 2013. Courtesy Reuters

The militant Islamist group Boko Haram, which killed hundreds, possibly even thousands, in the northern Nigerian town of Baga in January, is often seen as another foe in the war on terrorism. It has called for overthrowing the Nigerian government and declared a caliphate over the areas of Borno State that it controls. While it carries many features of a terrorist group, it is more insightful to consider it—and even crucial in figuring out how to defeat it—in another light: as a product of Nigeria’s poor and unequal governance.

At the time of its founding by an Islamist cleric named Mohammed Yusuf in 2002, Boko Haram—which in the Hausa language is colloquially known as “Western education is a sin”—did not seek to violently overthrow the government but to implement Sharia law in the northeast. The group began to radicalize in 2009, however, after experiencing routine police brutality and harsh government treatment. For instance, the police shot and wounded several members of Boko Haram for simply refusing to comply with a new law requiring motorcycle passengers to wear helmets. Shortly after, the group launched a series of attacks against the police in the town of Bauchi, and security forces responded by killing more than 700 Boko Haram members, as well as innocent bystanders. Later that year, when the police captured Yusuf, they summarily executed him in front of a crowd gathered outside of a police station, an act that has been considered key in driving the group toward its modern, brutal form. Although Boko Haram generally lacks popular support from the north, especially after it became so indiscriminate in its targets, Boko Haram’s rise is a direct result of the poor governance and poverty in the region.

Since 2009, Boko Haram has kidnapped hundreds, killed thousands, and internally displaced over a million people. While the government declared a state of emergency in the region over a year ago, the military, tasked with defeating Boko Haram, has been unable to provide

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