John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Nigeria, Boko Haram, and Terminology

by John Campbell
April 15, 2013

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan survey the scene a day after a bomb blast ripped through the United Nations offices in the Nigerian capital of Abuja August 27, 2011. (Ho New/Courtesy Reuters)


Looking at the insurgency now underway in Northern Nigeria, I think we have a terminology problem.

The Nigerian government and the media tend to lump the insurgents together under the single moniker “Boko Haram.” Boko Haram certainly exists; it is made up of the followers of Mohammed Yusuf, who was murdered by the police in 2009. His movement is now led by Abubakar Shekau. It commits terrorist acts. But there are many other nodes of the insurrection that appear to be outside the influence or control of “Boko Haram;” lumping them together under a single moniker may obscure what is actually going on in northern Nigeria.

Ansaru, for example, appears to be a particularly violent group that split off from Boko Haram. There are indications that it is based in Kano or Kaduna, rather than Maiduguri, which is the home territory of Mohammed Yusuf’s disciples. It may also have an ethnic Fulani character, rather than Boko Haram’s Kanuri origins.

Other nodes are much more difficult to identify, and they may not be organized or function much beyond the village level. Some of the violence is clearly criminal and some may involve score settling or have a specific political dimension. Tip O’Neill famously said, “all politics is local.” And that includes insurrection and terrorism which, after all, are a form of politics or anti-politics.

Perhaps we should use the term “Islamist” rather than “Boko Haram” to describe the insurrection in the North as a whole that uses an Islamic rhetoric, reserving “Boko Haram” for Yusuf’s followers.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Chike Chukudebelu

    “All politics is local”, but is violence ever justified?

    When you use the expression “Islamist” in a nation like Nigeria, you stand the risk of closely associating this violence with Islam. This is what the Nigerian government wants to avoid, because it understands context a lot better than most foreign observers.

  • Posted by Sulayman Dauda

    it may sound insulting to use the word “Islamist” referring to the groups unleashing violence across the northern Nigeria because Islam never promote and have forever forbid killings and destruction. I may agreed with you that there is Terminological error in using the word “Boko Haram” simply because the Concept or word “BOKO” does not mean Western Education. it is a shame to Hausa scholars for keeping silence to the abuse of the word. in reality the Word “BOKO” simply means “Western” while for one to say “Western Education” an addition to the concept must be pronounce as “Ilimin Boko” because the word Education or Knowledge in Hausa means “ILIMI”. May GOD in his infinite mercy restore peace and stability in Northern Nigeria, Nigeria itself and the World at large.

  • Posted by jake z

    Interestingly, on this theme, there have been a series of attacks in northern Nigeria targeting Asians (North Koreans, Nepalese, Indians, Chinese), often involving thefts (possibly since they are easier targets); IED factories uncovered and other attacks in Kogi State, often against Christians; attacks in Adamawa State where the Christian victims’ names have been called out before they were slaughtered; and attacks on polio workers. None of these have been claimed by BH (Jamaatu Ahlisuna Lidawaati wal Jihad) or been investigated and concluded to have been the work of BH. Nonetheless these attacks seem to follow the “BH” mold. It could very well be that these are attacks by members of BH acting on their own, independent militants, or different groups of criminals, but they seem to be part of the broader trend of organized violence in northern Nigeria that transcends regular levels of criminality which can be expected in any given society, whether or not these attacks are “BH.”

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