The audacious midnight kidnapping of hundreds of girls from a remote boarding school in northern Nigeria has finally focused the rest of the world’s attention on the increasing and seemingly senseless violence of the so-called Boko Haram movement in Nigeria.

Calls for international action are echoing around the world and throughout the Internet. Yet action without understanding can cause more harm than good, and risk backfiring, as has been the case with much of the Nigerian government’s action against Boko Haram to date. Only by understanding this movement can we begin to counter it.

Boko Haram, as many know by now, means “Western Education is forbidden” in the Hausa language of northern Nigeria and neighboring countries. That name is what its neighbors called it when it first appeared. The group’s own name for itself is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad, which means “Association of People of Orthodoxy Committed to Propagation [or ‘call’ — to Islam] and Jihad by the method of Salaf [allegedly original Islam].”

Rejection of Westernization is common in Islamic West Africa. The nature of contact with Western civilization is different than it is in Mediterranean Africa or even in the Middle East.

While North Africans were long exchanging goods and ideas with their neighbors in Southern Europe, and Arabic numerals were even introduced to Western Europe by Pope Sylvester II, who had studied in Muslim schools, the interior of West Africa had almost no contact with Christian Europe until the colonial “scramble for Africa” burst into the region around 1900.

Many Muslims withdrew to wait the second coming of Prophet Jesus, highly venerated though not worshiped by Muslims, or even the end of the world. They were little concerned about political events in the world outside their villages. Many such groups continue to ignore the modern world around them, neither bothering nor being bothered by colonial and postcolonial states. One such movement did cause a series of revolts with much loss of life and destruction of property, the “‘Yan Tatsine” movement led by Muhammadu Marwa out of Kano in the early 1980s. The potential for violent revolt is always there, as it is anywhere.

The Boko Haram movement is different from the ‘Yan Tatsine movement in many ways. It is not really based in the traditional, local, Sufi Islam but rather in Salafist influences. It is thus part of a wider world of Jihadi Islam with which the ‘Yan Tatsine could never really communicate. Furthermore Boko Haram has attracted many people with a Western education, many with college degrees and a level of technological skill that the ‘Yan Tatsine movement with its bows and arrows and muskets could only imagine.

How has Boko Haram been able to attract such a strong and persistent following through the years? Part of the answer lies in its similarity to the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo movement. Both were founded by megalomaniacal but charismatic preachers who turned their followers to terrorism when their message was rejected by their society. Both attracted many young people who had not been able to employ their education in productive ways and who could easily be turned by religion against the larger society and state.

In both societies young people had been taught that their education was an investment that would pay off economically. When it didn’t pay off they were ripe for terrorist recruitment. The main difference is that the Japanese government was able to suppress Aum Shinrikyo, while the Nigerian government is still struggling against Boko Haram.

Other social causes of Boko Haram are more unique to Africa. In polygynous societies where many men have multiple wives there tends to be a shortage of women relative to men. Women tend to be married early, often too early for their health, while men often remain involuntarily unmarried until much later in life, creating a floating population of single men, who are ripe for recruitment into any organization that promises a purpose in life, support and even adventure.

The chance of taking a young bride, by force if necessary, could have been a useful recruiting tool as well.

Much is still unknown about Boko Haram, including the extent of their sympathizers in the larger society (although they seem to have a talent for alienating previously sympathetic elements of society), to what extent they have succeeded in attracting traditionally educated people who are even less employable than those with Western education, their ultimate goals and even the extent of their unity since their founder was killed in police custody. There are even reports that sections of the Nigerian military have been cooperating with them.

Many of the conspiracy theories around them can be dismissed, but in the absence of reliable intelligence such theories continue to circulate.

Is one more colonial state structure about to collapse? The concentration of Boko Haram in Borno state, as well as its spread to adjacent areas of neighboring countries suggests a de facto re-creation of the Bornu Caliphate. This is not the intention of Boko Haram, of course, but it could easily result from their activities. This empire dominated the Lake Chad basin for centuries, conquering far north into Libya and spreading Islam far to the west, south and east. It was famous for the learning of its scholars, and had its own Ruwak (residential college) at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. Bornu Qurans were brought by caravans to the Middle East, where they were prized for their calligraphy.

While the heirs of Bornu are now part of the Nigerian political establishment, their enemies in Boko Haram can call on their legacy as an example of ancient African Islamic greatness more easily than movements like Joseph Kony’s could appeal to tradition. Such states were products of long evolution and far more natural institutions than the artificial states of colonialism.

There is a danger in further outside intervention, no matter how well intended. The Nigerian military and police intervention has already been seen as outside interference that instead of solving the problem only inflamed passions.

The state-sponsored vigilante group known as the Civilian JTF after the Joint Task Force of the Nigerian police and military, showed some promise, and the whole problem has renewed calls for state police to supplement the federal force, presently the only police force in Nigeria.

The United States and other non-African military forces would be even less attuned to local cultures and values than the forces from other areas of Nigeria that have only compounded the problem. One thing that certainly needs doing is coordination and cooperation by Nigeria with their neighboring African countries. Circumstances are forcing African unity as the only alternative to either state collapse or outside intervention.

John Edward Philips is a professor in the Department of International Society at Hirosaki University. He has researched the history of precolonial and colonial Islamic West Africa, especially in Nigeria, for 40 years.

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