Al Qaeda killed almost 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001, triggering two wars and a decade of global strife. Another Islamic terrorist group killed more than 4,000 people in just five years yet drew scant notice outside its base of operations. Then a hashtag called attention to its latest outrage: the kidnapping of 276 teenage girls. It is Boko Haram, dedicated to imposing Islamic law on Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country and its biggest economy. Its name means “western education is a sin” and it has brought another jihad to a poor, ethnically divided region and provoked a global discussion of what the world should do about it.
The girls were abducted April 14 from a dormitory in the predominantly Christian town of Chibok. The same day, at least 75 people were killed by Boko Haram on the outskirts of Abuja in the capital’s worst-ever bomb attack. Abubakar Shekau, the group’s leader, has since appeared in two videos, threatening first to sell the girls into slavery and then saying he would exchange them for Boko Haram prisoners. Their plight unleashed a viral social media campaign — using the Twitter hashtag #bringbackourgirls — protesting violence against women and impediments to their education. The U.S. and the U.K. sent security teams to Nigeria to help mount a rescue effort. Boko Haram stepped up its attacks after the group’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf, was killed by police in July 2009 along with 800 of his followers. Nigeria’s crackdown has led to accusations of human rights abuses by the country’s security forces as they try to quell the insurgency.
Islam has been practiced for more than 1,000 years in what is now northern Nigeria and adjacent countries, with a history of radical clerics. In 1804, pastoral ethnic Fulani converts waged a jihad against the Hausa kingdoms to purify the faith. They went on to build the Sokoto Caliphate, one of the largest pre-colonial states in Africa. Fulani princes, wary about having their subjects swayed by new ideas, struck a deal with British colonists not to bring western education to the region in exchange for loyalty. The northern part of the country began to lag behind the south, which embraced education offered by Christian missionaries and quickly produced skilled workers, administrators and professionals. Petrodollars flowed into the country as it became Africa’s biggest oil producer in the 1970s, spawning corruption. While a handful of well-connected northerners became billionaires, the rate of poverty in the north climbed to more than 70 percent — double that in the south — and the gap is still widening. Agriculture and infrastructure were neglected and farmers remained stuck in subsistence methods, helpless to resist the steady advance of the Sahara desert. Boko Haram emerged around 2002 and preached against corruption, misrule and oppression, focusing attention on the excesses of the elite. It took up arms against the symbols of the state, attacking police stations and government buildings, then switched to ruthless killings and kidnappings of civilian targets. The main oil-producing region in the Niger River delta hasn’t been affected, though it was the key prize in the 1967-70 civil war, which claimed more than 1 million lives.
Nigeria’s government has been criticized for sometimes doing too little to rein in Boko Haram, and sometimes too much. President Goodluck Jonathan didn’t speak publicly about the abducted schoolgirls for almost three weeks and failed to take quick action to seek their release. At times, the Nigerian security forces have matched the rebels in their brutality. In March, Amnesty International accused them of “uncontrolled reprisals” including extrajudicial executions, and called for investigations into possible war crimes. The allegations make it complicated for outsiders to get more involved in what could become a human-rights quagmire. With the roots of the conflict in poverty and inequality, it will take much more than a hashtag to defuse Boko Haram.