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AP/Press Association Images People gather at the site of a bomb explosion in Kano.

Explainer: What is Boko Haram and why can't Nigeria stop them?

The group killed over 2,000 people last week.

OVER THE WEEKEND, militant group Boko Haram used a 10-year-old girl as a bomb.

Reports from Nigeria indicate that the girl did not know what was under her hijab as she walked through a crowded mobile phone market in the northeastern city of Potiskum.

The blasts killed at least 19 people and came at the end of a week in which the group is believed to have killed over 2,000 people, razing 16 towns to the ground.

But how has Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, with armed forces of around 130,000, been unable to cope with the attacks?

Who are Boko Haram?

Boko Haram was founded in the early 2000s by Mohammed Yusuf.

The name roughly translates to “Westernisation Forbidden”. Its members reject any education that is not based on the Qur’an.

Yusuf himself rejected western education, telling the BBC before he died in 2009 that education “spoils the belief in one God”.

He also rejected that the earth is a sphere, that rain evaporates and the theory of evolution.

Yusuf founded the hardline sect in the province of Borno in 2002, forming a religious complex that took in poor Muslim families.

The stated aim of the centre was to create a caliphate in Northern Nigeria.


For the first seven years of its existence, Boko Haram was a largely peaceful operation, withdrawing from Nigerian society. However, the Nigerian government consistently ignored warnings about the militarisation of the group.

In 2009, police arrested members after an operation that uncovered weapons and bomb-making equipment.

After this, a series of running battles killed up to 700 people in just four days.

Yusuf was arrested and died while trying to escape. He was replaced by Abubakar Shekau.

Nigeria and Sharia Law

Around 50% of Nigeria’s 151 million people are Christian, with another 6% ascribing to traditional African religions.

The remainder, 43.5%, are Muslims.

In 12 Nigerian states, there is some form of Sharia Law.

NG-Sharia Wikimedia Wikimedia

It is in these states that Boko Haram is most prevalent, advocating for a strict version of Sharia, along with the rejection of the westernisation of Nigeria.

How does Boko Haram recruit?

This is a crucial question. While Nigeria’s economy is technically massive (it is the 26th largest in the world on GDP), the country’s wealth, which stems from massive oil creation, is concentrated in the south.

2012-03-27 sfrc nigeria charts exp3 Senator Chris Coons Senator Chris Coons

In the poorer states, such as Borno, many people live on less that €1 a day. In total, 60% of Nigeria’s population lives on less than €1 a day.

This allows Boko Haram, which funds itself largely through kidnapping wealthy Nigerians and foreigners and drug trafficking (it also is believed to receive funding from Al Qaeda and Islamist sympathisers throughout the Middle East), to tap into a feeling of resentment by young men.

Offering them homes, education and livelihoods, Boko Haram has been able to attract members for over a decade.

What has Boko Haram done?

Under Sekau’s leadership, Boko Haram stepped up their campaign in Nigeria.

In June 2011, they bombed the UN HQ in Abuja, killing 23 people. They continued attacking what they saw as western targets. Within hours of the inauguration of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, they bombed targets across the country.

In 2012, they killed 190 in police buildings in Igbo, before expanding to Cameroon, Niger and Chad. Their actions have caused 650,000 people to flee their homes.

In 2014, they became known around the world after kidnapping 276 schoolgirls from a school in Chibok.


The ensuing outrage shone an international spotlight on the group, with the hashtag #bringbackourgirls trending on Twitter worldwide.

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Just one month later, however, the group kidnapped the wife of Cameroon’s vice-president. She was released in October.

The group also over-ran and took the border town of Gwoza. This would signal a shift in strategy for Boko Haram, which announced in August that the region was now an Islamic caliphate.

On 19 October, Nigeria’s Chief of the Defence Staff claimed that a ceasefire had been brokered with Boko Haram. However, attacks continued unabated, with the city of Mubi (which has a population of 200,000), falling to the group.

Nigeria Boko Haram Villages Seized AP / Press Association Images A woman who lost a limb receives treatment at Jos University Teaching Hospital in Jos following a Boko Haram car bomb. AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

In a shocking move, the group slaughtered 120 Muslims during Friday prayers at the Central Mosque in Kano, the largest city in northern Nigeria.

Shekau said the emir of Kano had “deviated from Islam”.

Then, at the beginning of this year, the group razed at least 16 towns, capturing the military base in Baga, killing as many as 2,000 people.

Why hasn’t anyone stopped them?

There are couple of key reasons why nobody has been able to stop Boko Haram.

The first, according to Arizona State University professor and expert on sub-Saharan African politics G. Pascal Zachary, is that Nigeria as a state is simply too big to govern effectively.

Pieced together from colonial regions left behind by the British and Germans, Nigeria is almost 50% larger than France.

Zachary makes the point that Nigeria is “dealing with a civil war where one side wants to secede”, but that this could bring some communities closer together.

Nigeria Violence AP / Press Association Images Civilians who fled their homes following an attack by Islamist militants in Bama. AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

The second, and likely more important reason, is that the Nigerian military is simply not up to the task.

A research paper by the US Congressional Research Service published last year highlights mass failings within the Nigerian Armed Forces.

According to the paper, morale is low, corruption is rife and losses have been heavy.

“Among the various dynamics limiting the government’s response to Boko Haram are a lack of coordination and cooperation between Nigerian security agencies; corruption; misallocation of resources; limited requisite databases; the slow pace of the judicial system; and lack of sufficient training for prosecutors and judges to implement anti-terrorism laws.

“Soldiers, particularly in the northeast, reportedly suffer from low morale, struggling to keep pace with a foe that is reportedly increasingly well-armed and trained. By many accounts troops are not adequately resourced or equipped to counter an insurgency, despite a security budget totaling almost $5.8 billion.

In the assessment of Department Of Defense officials, Nigerian funding for the military is “skimmed off the top,” and Nigerian troops are “showing signs of real fear,” and becoming “afraid to even engage.

Boko Haram has been designated a terrorist organisation by the US, UK and UN, but outside intervention from the west has been slow.

An African coalition force of 3,500 has been pledged, but that is just one-third the size of Boko Haram’s estimated forces.

Read: Boko Haram use 10-year-old girl suicide bomber in attack outside market

Read: “I saw them kill my father, they slaughtered him like a ram”

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