Sometime in December 2015, President Buhari stated that Boko Haram was ‘technically defeated’. I do not want to go into whether this is true or not. Rather, I want to examine the question: is Boko Haram – not as a physical group, but the concept it represents – truly defeated in Nigeria? Boko Haram represents what the ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Lybia), Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab, and other islamist terrorist groups represent – radical islamist ideology. Before I proceed, it should be noted that there is a significant distinction between Islam and radical Islamism. Whereas the former is a system of religious belief grounded in the Quran and the Sunnah, the latter is the active pursuance of the goal of islamization of a particular region, or generally any goal purported to be Islamically-based, through extreme methods such as physical violence.
In 2014, Boko Haram, gained the attention of the international community when it kidnapped over 200 schoolgirls. But long before then, the group existed, and was active in making Northern eastern Nigeria an insufferable place to be. Although Boko Haram as a group can be traced back to 2003, radical Islamism in Nigeria did not begin in then. Many Nigerians do not know this, but before book haram, there existed an Islamist (albeit smaller) terrorist group called the Maitatsine – led by Mohammed Marwa. This group operated in the 1980s and was responsible for the deaths of thousands of people in Northern Nigeria.
The reason why the maitatsune did not gain traction to persist and grow was due to economic, ideological, and strategic impediments. Mohammed Marwa thought himself a prophet – something any Muslim reading this would naturally frown at, as most Muslims believe that the Prophet of Islam was the last prophet to be sent by God. Marwa also taught that many other things that most Muslims would deem blasphemous and heretic. Hence, dying for his cause was not something most Muslims were attracted to. This, in my opinion, was the most significant barrier to its growth. Boko Haram’s ideological barrier is significantly lower than that of the Maitatsune, and hence it would naturally attract more followers and sympathizers than the Maitatsune did. Furthermore, the maitatsune were less economically sufficient than Boko Haram. The nature of their attacks attests to this. They were not sophisticatedly armed (fighting with bows and arrows and locally-made guns), they were localized, and they did not have sufficient artillery to raid the arsenals of the Nigerian armed forces. They also did not carry out bomb attacks. So this militaristic limitation impeded their growth factor immensely. Their strategic focus was also narrow. Unlike Boko Haram, they did not focus on expanding their operations geographically. They were not intent on capturing and managing a territory.
But why did the maitatsune even grow at all? Why did people follow Mohammed Marwa? There are two primary factors that played a role for what little traction Mohammed Marwa got: his scholarly status and the nature of his target audience. Mohammed Marwa attended an Islamic school and became an Islamic cleric. Naturally, this earned him the respect of people, and a willingness to listen to his teachings and opinions.
Marwa’s got the audience of the most vulnerable: poor immigrants and the unemployed. His preaching against the Nigerian government redirected the frustrations related to their problems and poor conditions towards the Nigerian state. The fact that he was an Islamic cleric gave more credence to his teaching. Hence, he was able to motivate enough people to carry arms and act violently. Boko Haram’s fighters are also comprised of uneducated, poor youths.
The conditions that facilitated the emergence of the maitatsune and Boko Haram are still present in the North. This leads me to believe that even if the army is successful in dissipating Boko Haram as a group, the ideology will still spring up as another group sometime in the future. Also, we are no longer faced with domestic sources of instigation of terrorism, but now a significant external one in the form of digitally accessible ISIS propaganda, and the appeal of this group to young muslims (even educated, well-off ones, as seen in U.S. and European countries). Thankfully, governments have stepped up efforts to push back ISIS in recent months, but as long as the group still remains a significant and perceptively credible voice, they still have some ability to influence the adoption of their beliefs. Evidence of this is seen when, last year, Boko Haram reportedly changed its name to the Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP) and swore allegiance to ISIS.
If the ideology of radical Islamism is to be checked from spreading or keep on emerging, these two primary factors that lead to its rise are to be quelled. This includes the improvement of the socio-economic conditions of Northern Nigeria, and ensuring that Islamic schools do not become or remain hubs of extremist ideologies. I am not saying we should go full blown Saudi Arabia and sentence clerics to death for speaking, but rather, using soft, not hard tactics to ensure this. Soft tactics would involve something like having a moderate cleric speaking at areas reported to be extremist hubs. News about new radical clerics should not be ignored as Mohammed Marwa was ignored initially, and should be kept under radar. Nigerian muslims also have a responsibility to preserve the religion from heretics and extremists (who do nothing but place Islam under bad light). When radical ideologies arise, moderate muslims (clerics and students alike) must speak out to make their reservations known. We must wage warfare at the ideological level when an extremist ideology emerges, and not allow it to spill into physical warfare as it gains traction.