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Since 2002, Africa’s largest country in terms of economy and population has home to one of the most violent terrorist organizations in the country and the continent as a whole. Undoubtedly, the government has implemented some measures and policies to quell this group. Nevertheless, this group has managed to survive through thick and thin and successful recorded itself as one of the most violent terrorist groups the world has ever seen. In this report, I intend to analyze the ideology, goals and strategies used by this organization. The first part of this research explains the general economic, social and political structure of Nigeria while inferring to history to understand how they play a role in the Boko Haram phenomenon. This paper shall also take a look at the factors that helped such an atrocious group to flourish. Finally, a perspective on Turkey-Nigeria relations in dealing with terrorism is discussed.

Economic, History, Social and Political factors and how they facilitated Boko Haram emergence and development.

In understanding the Boko Haram issue, one can not treat political, historical and social dynamics as independent of each other. It is vital to understand that factors from these aforementioned perspectives all come together to explain what the country is today.

Historically, Nigeria as a unified country was only created in 1914 by Sir Fredric Lord Lugard when he amalgamated the Northern and Southern Protectorates with disregard to the several differences between the people. It was only established for the convenience of the colonial masters in ruling the region (Taiye, 2013). During this period of British rule colonial policies had resulted in several uprisings among which was the 1953 riot of Kano between the Northerners and Southerners. The reality of this riot was that it was more like a conflict between the major political parties in each region trying to gain as much power as possible. This rivalry between the major political parties continued even after independence leading to the Tiv Riots in the North-Central region which resulted in the death of people in the hundreds. The East had also not stayed out in these historical conflicts. Perhaps the deadliest civil war the country has ever seen occurred when leaders of the major political party in the East declared the region independent in 1967. This newly self-declared ‘Republic of Biafra’ faced harsh responses such as massacre, invasion, etc. (Aghedo & Osumah, 2012, pp. 856-857).

Looking back at these historical occurrences, it could be argued that Nigeria is a country of several nations formed against their willingness for the selfish purpose of the colonial master. Rampant wars marring the peace between this people serves as the evidence for this argument. Before the mergence the North and the South, they were independent lands that had independent ruling systems. For instance, the North comprising of the Hausa-Fulani tribes had been ruled under a caliphate system which had lasted for about a century. Created by Dan Fodio, the Sokoto Caliphate served as the body of authority until it was ended by the British in 1903. Before the caliphate system, the Hausa people were known for their kingship system which continues to exist today. Similarly, the Yoruba people in the Southern region in the South had their own chieftain system led by their Chief/King. They have also been known to have had a constitutional monarchy headed by a prime minister during the 15th century. The Igbo people in the East did not have a unified structured system like the other two regions. Leadership was mostly family-based.

The arrival of the British came along the birth and eventual formation of a new socio-ethnic identity. Even though the British combined its protectorates to form Nigeria, the people were growing more and more apart due to the policies used by the British. The colonial masters faced lots of resistance mostly from the people of the north as they were not willing to give up their caliphate and religious system. As a solution to this problem, the British used an ‘indirect rule’ system in which the northern region was allowed to go back to its original way of life—culture, religion and language—led by its traditional kings and religious leaders. The South and the East were however denied this privilege (Constitutional Rights Foundation, 2010).

With time, the two identities, being northerner from the Hausa-Fulani tribe and beig a muslim came to merge together. This automatically translated to a southern identity of being a Yoruba or igbo ad being a Muslim. Consequences of this policy emerged during the post-independence period as northern political parties thought they were more suited to rule the country. This North and South divide can be considered as one of the factors that paved way for the emergence of Boko Haram.

The economic structure of Nigeria is not so different from the socio-ethnic division. Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy records one of the highest income inequalities within the region. Many federal states in the north have a poverty level higher than 70% with the northeast having the most. One explanation to this situation is the fact that Nigeria’s natural resources are mostly deposited in the south. This automatically translates into a high level of investment in the southern region which in turn increases trading and opportunities of the region. Geographically, the north is on the borders of the Sahel region which is mostly dry and arid lands not suitable for farming. Little rainfall often leads to droughts and famines in that part of the country (Elden, 2014, p. 419).

The rate of poverty in the country comes as a surprise for a country that gains billions of dollars from oil production yearly. Le Billon (2005, p. 24) pointed out the fact that “over the past 30 years, more than $350 bn worth of oil has come out of the Nigerian ground, but the percentage of Nigerians surviving on less than $1 a day has risen from 36% to 70%“. Moreover, it has been argued that even though oil has been a driving force that put Nigeria on a global scale thereby making it visible to the world, “a corrupt and undisciplined oil-led development, driven by an unremitting political logic of ethnic claims making, has fragmented and discredited the state and its forms of governance” (Watts, 2003, p. 5092).

What can be seen from the context of Nigeria is that poor economic governance in Nigeria created a condition that facilitated segregation and divisiveness. This division may not have necessarily been the cause of Boko Haram, but it made their emergence easy and their rhetoric more appealing to the unemployed young men desperate to survive on more than one dollar a day, or perhaps desperate to pay back (in the form of violence) to the politicians who kept looting the public finance.

The political structure of Nigeria is no different from the economic and historical structures that facilitated divisiveness. As a federal state, the country is operated under three types of law: the English law otherwise referred to as the common law, the Islamic law also known as the Sharia law and the customary law. The Common law is considered the general law of the land and therefore applicable to the whole country. The Sharia law is employed by the northern states where Islam is the main religion while the customary law applies to non-legal regulations enforced by the ethnic groups or chieftaincies. To some extent, the Sharia law is seen as a part of the customary law. Undoubtedly Boko Haram is an advocate of the Sharia law; it has also its dissatisfaction about it being limited in the sense that the English or common law presides over it (Elden, 2014). The politics of Muslims in Nigeria dates back to the 11th and 12th century when the local people traded extensively with merchants from the Middle East region (Alao, 2013, p. 128). A more recent political history is the Sokoto caliphate which ended in 1903. The caliphate established under Dan Fodio was ruled under sharia law and survived for a century with the ideology that the social, economic and political difficulties of the country was a direct consequence of the moral decay of the community. Boko Haram in some instances has cited the caliphate as the right way to rule and hopes that its endeavors would eventually lead Nigeria back to a similar system. For this reason, it sees the sharia law in the north as crippled, hence inadequate (Badejogbin, 2013, p. 231).

Upon the departure of the British rulers from Nigeria after independence, a highly politically divided country was now left with the problem of power gap. A country formed by joining different groups unwillingly was now a victim of war between the groups and their major political parties. Domestic politics in Nigeria now turned into a rivalry between the Northern People’s Congress (NPC) locally referred to as Jamiyya Mutanen Arewa in the Hausa dialect, the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) which had control of the Eastern Region (Igbo), and the Action Group (AG) which was the major party from the Yoruba dominated Western region. Since then, doubts and skepticism have become a major part of the nation’s politics. Badejogbin (2013) noted that the implementation of Sharia law in 1999 was a way the northern politicians dealt with their loss in the 1999 general elections in the current republic. Boko Haram on the other hand goes beyond using sharia law whenever it is dissatisfied; it generally resorts to violence and extremism as its major tool.

The social structure of Nigeria also indicates some levels of inequalities that may have played a role in the emergence and development of Boko Haram. Statistics of the socio-economic under(development) in the country shows that level of education and standards of living have been very low in the northern region for the past decade. With an illiteracy rate of 80%, the north represents the most underdeveloped part of the country. Activities of Boko Haram have also made the situation worse because parents at some point were afraid to take their kids to school in fear that some harm may come to them.

Conceptualizing terrorism and the context of Boko Haram

Despite the rich literature on terrorism and terrorist groups, there is still a difficulty in defining what terrorism is. Scholars often focus on describing rather than analyzing it as it is the easiest way. Among the adjectives used to describe the term are ‘abstract’, ‘confusing’, ‘dangerous’ and ‘indispensable’. For the purpose of this paper, terrorism as a concept can be seen as “the dliberate creation of a sense of fear, usually by the use or threat of use of symbolic acts of physical violence, to influence the political (and, in the case of Nigeria, social) behavior of a given target” (Adegbulu, 2013, p. 261). In recent years, many parts of Africa and the Middle East have witnessed several acts of terrorism for so many reasons. First, governments nowadays possess several first-grade weapons that makes it difficult for revolting groups to ignite a face to face war with state security forces. For this reason, they instead stage attacks on innocent civilians. Nevertheless, Boko Haram has occasionally engaged the police directly and in all cases have lost several of their members. Second, it is easier now for terrorist groups to find targets due to rapid urbanization. Boko Haram in this sense has attacked public places such as bus stations and even the UN office in Abuja. Third, the media has made it easier for terrorist groups like Boko Haram to gain both audience and attention. Last, in our age of technology, terrorists can acquire weapons that can create more damage than they used to.

Boko Haram: Origin and Agenda

In 2002, Mohammed Yusuf of Yobo state organized a meeting with some university students from the University of Maiduguri in the state of Borno. During this meeting, he convinced the young and fresh minds to join his agenda in the creation of an organization that will eventually be known as Boko Haram by the public. Of course, his targets were not random students whom he happened to come across by chance. Instead, they were students who were unhappy about the education system modelled on the West which made them more inclined to join his cause. Additionally, he built an Islamic school (Madrasa) for teaching Islamic studies in Borno state. Membership of Mohammed Yusuf’s cause was not solely exclusive to the university students. As a matter of fact, it also included “unemployed youth, migrants from neighboring countries, and a few elites and their children” (Onapajo & Uzodike, 2012, p. 27).

It should be noted the group in and of itself has rejected the term Boko Haram as its name as used by the public and the media. Coming from the Hausa language, Boko Haram means “education is forbidden”. In aa clearer sentence reflecting the ideology of the group, it means western education is sin. This term became popular thanks to the media and the general public who thought the term was a literal representation of the group’s actions and rhetoric. What then does is the official name of the group? Officially, the group has referred to itself by the name “Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad meaning people of the tradition of the Prophet [SAW] for preaching and striving” in an interview a television channel had with one of its members, Aliyu Tishau (Onapajo & Uzodike, 2012, p. 26). It has also referred to itself as Yusufiyah (followers of Yusuf) on some occasions.

In 2009, Vanguard newspaper in Nigeria published a release in which Boko Haram leadership explained that

Boko Haram does not in any way mean ‘Western education is sin’ as the infidel media continue to portray us. Boko Haram actually means Western civilization is haram. The difference is that while the first gives the impression that we are opposed to formal education coming from the West, that is Europe, which is not true, the second affirms our believe in the supremacy of Islamic culture (not education), for culture is broader; it includes education but [is] not determined by Western education. (Vanguard, 2009).

It could be inferred that the group’s agenda is an opposition towards Western culture as a whole, and not limited to or specifically Western Education. The founder of the group has “asserted that seeking knowledge is permissible. However, it must not be contrary to the teachings of Islam’. In seeking knowledge, one could not find any knowledge in contraction to the Islamic faith and therefore sciences like astronomy is forbidden. (Onapajo & Uzodike, 2012, p. 27). In line with thinking, the group sees the government and state authorities as agents of western culture which has been a reason for its refusal to recognize the power of these bodies. It has also made it clear that its fight does not end only with the police or the state but whoever dares to oppose them, be it a muslim or non-muslim. In one of its address, it declared that:

We are fighting those who are fighting us, soldiers and police and the rest; and anybody, even if he is a leraned Muslim teacher, if we confirm that he exposes us to the government, his children will become orphans and his wife will become a widow, God’s willing. That’s our way.

The above-mentioned quote was reportedly an indirect message to one Islamic scholar, Mallam Ja’afar. who time and again spoken against the actions of the group (Onapajo & Uzodike, 2012). 

Activities of the group and government reactions

The agenda of Boko Haram can be understood from its actions and activities since its emergence. For some scholars, Boko Haram embodies a new wave of radicalism and extremism in Nigeria. On the other hand, some argue that Boko Haram is merely a continuance of religious extremism in Nigeria. In 1980, roughly two decades before the emergence of Boko Haram, a similar extremist group with an agenda not so different from Boko Haram’s organized series of terrorist attacks that killed over 4000 people. Like Boko Haram, this radical Islamic sect known as Yan Tatsine was in opposition to western culture. The founder, Mohammed Marwa held the mindset that western influence was a threat to proper Islamic practice. In 1982, another extremist sect led by Abubakar Gumi burned down eight churches. Gumi, a religious leader, inspired his followers to take violent actions by telling them that a non-Muslim couldn’t be chosen to lead the country.

As of August 2008, Boko Haram insurgency had claimed the lives of over 25,000 people while also forcing about 2.5 million people from their villages and homes. During the early years of the group, its victims were comparatively little. In 2009, an operation known as “Operation flush” by the Nigerian government resulted in the death of many members and the arrest of the founder. Mohammed Yusuf while in police custody died under mysterious circumstances. After this occurrence, the group had to go in hiding to reorganize itself. When it eventually came back, its actions become more violent and deadlier, now under the rule of Abubakar Shekau. Among the victims of the Boko Haram insurgency are police stations (2003-2004), prisons (2010), churches (2004, 2014), bus stops, schools (2014), state buildings, UN building (2011).

The Nigerian government has used harsh methods as a means of combatting the Boko Haram insurgency. Unfortunately, this means has not been effective in stopping the group. This is because the government is focusing on the effects rather than the causes. Economic, political and socio-ethnic structure of Nigeria is one that inspire the emergence of radical groups in the country. On the international level, the Nigerian security department has joined forces with neighboring countries affected by the insurgency under a taskforce called the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF). This taskforce is effective in the short run as it has been instrumental in preventing wanted Boko Haram fugitives from escaping to bordering countries.

How should the Nigerian government tackle the problem?

As it has been shown in earlier analysis in this paper, the internal dynamics are key factors in making terrorist groups strive. In 1968, an economist Gary Becker showed that “property crimes are predicted by poverty and lack of education” (Adegbulu, 2013, p. 263). Even though Becker’s argument is not a hard evidence that low poverty rate and unemployment will prevent the emergence of terrorist groups such as Boko Haram, a correlation could be established between such crimes and development and survival of such groups. Hence, if the Nigerian government were to focus resources towards reducing the poverty rate, Boko Haram would seem less appeasing to poor people. The government could do so by allocating substantial part of the budget towards investment in the poorer states of the North as well as improving the living conditions. This way, the marginalized North would feel as being part of the whole nation. Rhetoric used by Boko Haram shows that they advocate for divisiveness. Through education and inclusive policies, the government can help establish a sense of nationhood in order to mitigate the problem of segregation in the country. Nigeria as country needs to welcome opposing views in policy making. Since the country is made up of several communities with different cultures and backgrounds, one of the most effective ways of making sure a group is not alienated is to genuinely welcome the ideas of all groups.

Turkey and Nigeria in fighting terrorism

One thing that both Nigeria and Turkey have in common is the threat of terrorism. In the past decade, Turkey has faced several security problems from ISIS due to its proximity to Iraq and Syria. In fact, the central cities of Turkey—Ankara and Istanbul—have been victim of terrorist attacks in the past few years. Night clubs, bus stops, bazaars, and shopping malls within the cities have all been targeted by terrorist groups. In the South East region of Turkey, security forces have been in serious armed wars with a Kurdish militant separatist group considered by the Turkish government as a terrorist group. More recently, a terrorist group known as FETO attempted a military coup against the current President Erdogan. As a result of this coup which took place in 2016, the government had to implement a state of emergency that lasted 2 years in order to deal with the terrorist group.

From the aforementioned, it can be understood that indeed the Turkish nation is not new to terrorist group. The Turkish president in a joint conference with Nigerian President Buhari in the Turkish presidential palace announced a partnership between the two countries in which Turkey shall help Nigeria in dealing with its Boko Haram issue while Nigeria helps Turkey in dealing with its FETO problem. During this press conference, President Erdogan expressed that from his perspective, “there is no difference between Boko Haram, DAESH and FETO. Regardless of their names, claims and goals, they all are herds of terrorists feeding off the blood of the innocent. We stand with our Nigerian brothers in their fight against terror and I told my august brother Buhari that we are ready to share our experience and knowledge and to lend them every support” (Turkey, 2017). In return, Nigeria can help the Turkish government in dealing with local branches of FETO in Nigeria established in the form of schools and languages. This relationship is a quid pro quo in which both sides benefit.


The main cause of Boko Haram can not be boiled down to one specific factor. The ideology is not new to the Nigerian society; unfortunately, the consequence of radicalism becomes worse whenever it reemerges in the country. With a diverse environment, Nigeria is prone to segregation if proper policies are not implemented by policy makers. While international support such as the Turkey-Nigeria relations can help mitigate the problem, the politicians need to implement inclusive and open-minded policies which can help discourage emergence and public support of similar groups in the future.


Anita OMODIBO – SASAM Intern
Yıldırım Beyazıt University – International Relations Department


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Alao, A. (2013). Islamic Radicalisation and Violent Extremism in Nigeria. Conflict, Security and Development, 13(2), 127-147.

Badejogbin, O. (2013). Boko Haram: An Enquiry Into the Socio-Political Context of Nigeria’s Counter-Terrorism Response. Law, Democracy & Development, 17(1), 226-256.

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Le Billon, P. (2005). The Resource Curse. The Adelphi Papers, 45(373), 11-27.

Onapajo, H., & Uzodike, U. O. (2012). Boko Haram Terrorism in Nigeria. African Security Review, 21(3), 24-39.

Taiye, A. (2013). “A Historical Perspective in the Christian-Muslim Relations in Nigeria since 1914. Journal of Arts and Humanities, 2(5), 59-66.

Turkey, P. o. (2017, October 19). There is No Difference between Boko Haram, DAESH and FETO. Retrieved from Presidency of the Republic of Turkey:

Vanguard. (2009, August 14). Boko Haram resurrects, declares total Jihad. Retrieved from Vanguard:

Watts, M. (2003). Economies of Violence: More Oil, More Blood. Economic and Political Weekly, 38(48), 5089-5099.

sahipkiran Hakkında

Sahipkıran; 1 Aralık 2012 tarihinde kurulmuş, Ankara merkezli bir Stratejik Araştırmalar Merkezidir. Merkezimiz; a) Türkiye Cumhuriyeti’nin ülkesi ve milletiyle bölünmez bütünlüğünü savunan; ülkemizin her alanda daha ileri gitmesi ve milletimizin daha müreffeh bir hayata kavuşması için elinden geldiği ölçüde katkı sağlamak isteyen her görüş ve inanıştan insanı bir araya getirmek, b) Ülke sorunları, yerel sorunlar ve yurtdışında yaşayan vatandaşlarımızın sorunlarına yönelik araştırma ve incelemeler yaparak, bu sorunlara çözüm önerileri üretmek, bu önerileri yayınlamak, c) Tespit edilen sorunların çözümüne yönelik ulusal veya uluslararası projeler yürütmek veya yürütülen projelere katılmak, ç) Tespit edilen sorunlar ve çözüm önerilerimize ilişkin seminer ve konferanslar düzenleyerek, vatandaşlarımızı bilinçlendirmek, amacıyla kurulmuştur.

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