Violent bombings and attacks have struck Nigeria, with media reports swirling about a new fascist Islamic bogeyman in town – Boko Haram.
Two recent events have brought Boko Haram to public attention. Firstly, the group exploded a bomb at a busy bus station in the Nigerian capital of Abuja on Monday April 14, killing 71 and injuring at least 124 people.
This was Boko Haram’s first attack in the capital in two years; most of their activities revolve around the region from which they originated in north-eastern Nigeria. The north of the country is poorer and prominently Muslim compared to the more affluent, Christian-centric south.
Like many fundamental religious groups, they believe that false or impure individuals of their religion have control of their country and that imposing a strict interpretation of their religious doctrine, in this case Islam and Sharia Law, will purify and improve it.
Their name itself tells us something about their raison d’etre. Boko Haram’s full title in Arabic is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, which means: “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad”.
Quite a mouthful.
Residents in the north-eastern city of Maiduguri, where the group was headquartered, shortened it to Boko Haram, which when translated from the local Hausa language means: “Western education is forbidden.” They hate the country’s secular state education, seeing it as polluting the minds of young Muslims.
Which leads us to the second recent high profile incident perpetrated by Boko Haram. Over 200 girls and young women were abducted by the group from the high school they were attending in north-eastern Nigeria. Forty-four have managed to escape so far by jumping off the back of the bus they were on. However, there is confusion over how many girls were taken and how many are currently missing, with claims made by the government and counter claims made by the principal of the school.
The reason for abducting the girls remains open to speculation. Zack Beauchamp expects Boko Haram to ransom the girls for money, but the group could have done it simply for sexual gratification. Abducting women is something that Boko Haram has been doing for some time now. A report by Human Rights Watch contains one case relayed to them by a man from Maidiuguri: “After storming into the homes and throwing sums of money at their parents, with a declaration that it was the dowry for their teenage daughter, they would take the girls away.” The report goes on to state that some of the girls return months later, showing signs of pregnancy.
A commander of the anti-Boko Haram Civilian Joint Task Force, which is allied to the Nigerian Security forces, is quoted in the report:
“When we made Maiduguri ‘too hot’ for Boko Haram, they ran away without their wives. Now they are picking up women anywhere and using them to satisfy themselves. Some of the girls we found hiding when we invaded Boko Haram camps around Sambisa told us they were dragged into vehicles when hawking on the street. When we return them home, their families are too ashamed to keep them because nobody will marry a girl who has been raped or has a child for these bad people.”
The group has not always been violent. They were formed in 2002 in Maiduguri by cleric Mohammed Yusuf. Yusuf preached that Nigeria was governed by an illegitimate and non-Islamic government. According to a report by the Council on Foreign Relations, “Violent clashes between Christians and Muslims and harsh government treatment, including pervasive police brutality, encouraged the group’s radicalisation.”
In July 2009, the members of Boko Haram refused to follow a motorbike helmet law, leading to heavy-handed police tactics that escalated into an armed uprising. The army moved in to suppress the incident, with 800 people dying and Yusuf being executed on television. Human rights advocates labelled these as “illegal killings”.
Boko Haram is, in all actuality, not such a “new Islamic fascist bogeyman”. The purpose of calling them “new” was to demonstrate how poorly reported the situation is in Nigeria. It takes an abduction that ticks every box of stereotypes surrounding Islam, in particular that they hate women, and an attack on the capital to gather media interest even though there have been numerous attacks in the remote north-east of Nigeria, with Human Rights Watch claiming that 3,000 lives have been lost since 2009.
Recent reporting led John Campbell to take a swipe at the American press, contrasting the lack of coverage of the Nigerian situation to the media’s extensive coverage of the Ukraine crisis. These words ring true for Australian media outlets as well; it only takes a cursory glance at the headlines to realise which story is considered more important.