October 11, 2012

I. Fertile Ground for Militancy

Northern Nigeria, which is predominantly Muslim, has a long history of Islamic uprisings against the state. In the early nineteenth century an Islamic preacher named Usman dan Fodio launched a holy war against what he saw as the corrupt and unjust rule of the Hausa rulers and established the Sokoto Caliphate, and Sharia law, across much of what is today northern Nigeria.[1] After the British overthrew the Sokoto Caliphate in 1903, they incorporated the northern region, along with the southern territories, into the colony of Nigeria in 1914. The colonial laws in northern Nigeria, including criminal laws, retained some aspects of Sharia, but at independence in 1960 the new government limited Sharia law to civil matters.[2]

The first four decades following independence were dominated by a series of military coups and successive military dictatorships interspersed by short-lived civilian administrations. [3] During this period, radical religious groups in the north flourished and at times came into open conflict with the ruling elite, which were increasingly seen as corrupt and abusive. One such group was the Maitatsine sect, which established a large following among the urban poor in the northern city of Kano with its message that denounced the affluent elites as infidels, opposed Western influence, and refused to recognize secular authorities. [4] Eleven days of violent clashes between the Maitatsine and government security forces in December 1980 left more than 4,000 dead. [5] The military crushed the uprising and its leader was killed, but over the next five years hundreds of people died in subsequent clashes between security forces and remnants of the group in several northern cities. [6]

Following the return to civilian rule in 1999, the clamor for Sharia in the north again intensified. Capitalizing on the mood, governors in 12 northern states adopted legislation that added Sharia law to state penal codes.[7] Christian minorities in the north opposed these moves. Although Sharia was added by state governments as a parallel law to existing penal codes, and only applied to Muslims, Christians saw it as a step toward Islamizing the north and undermining their equal rights under a secular state.[8] In 2000, protests against Sharia by Christians in the northern city of Kaduna led to clashes with Muslims, resulting in more than 2,000 deaths.[9] Regarded by many Nigerians as a ploy by northern governors to win popular support, and with limited enforcement mechanisms, implementation of Sharia soon fizzled out in most northern states.[10]

Meanwhile, corruption flourished. Political elites continued to enrich themselves on the nation’s oil wealth, while poverty among the general population, especially in large parts of the north, deepened. Confidence in the often abusive and corrupt police eroded. Ethnic and sectarian violence further exacerbated tensions, all creating a fertile ground for Boko Haram. This section examines some of these factors in further detail.

Corruption and Police Brutality

Nigeria possesses Africa’s largest oil and gas reserves—and exported US$86.2 billion of petroleum products in 2011.[11] When the country gained independence from British colonial rule in 1960, such resources led many Nigerians to be optimistic about the future of their country. Human Rights Watch has documented, however, how, rather than making concrete improvements in the lives of ordinary Nigerians, oil revenues have often fueled political violence, fraudulent elections, police abuse, and other human rights violations.[12] Over the past few decades, poverty has increased, and key public institutions have crumbled. Several hundred billion dollars of public funds have been lost due to corruption and mismanagement.[13] Despite the federal government’s “war on corruption,” graft and corruption remain endemic at all levels of government.[14]

Poor governance and corruption have provided a rallying cry for Boko Haram. According to one Nigerian journalist who has interviewed senior Boko Haram leaders:

Corruption became the catalyst for Boko Haram. [Mohammed] Yusuf [the group’s first leader] would have found it difficult to gain a lot of these people if he was operating in a functional state. But his teaching was easily accepted because the environment, the frustrations, the corruption, [and] the injustice made it fertile for his ideology to grow fast, very fast, like wildfire. [15]

As far back as 2004, early followers of Mohammed Yusuf cited corruption as motivation for their actions. Before being whisked away by the police, one of Yusuf’s followers, arrested in January 2004, told a journalist: “Our group has definitely suffered a setback, but our objective of fighting corruption by institutionalizing Islamic government must be achieved very soon.”[16]

A Christian man who was abducted by Boko Haram gunmen in July 2009 and taken to Yusuf’s compound before he was released later recalled that the group’s leaders told him that:

The reason they [Boko Haram] killed government officials and police was because of corruption and injustice…. They said they are against the government because of the corruption in the government sector. Islam is against corruption, they said. If Sharia is applied, corruption would be eliminated.[17]

Oil provides a corrosive underpinning for official malfeasance in Nigeria. Human Rights Watch has documented how members of the governing elite have squandered and siphoned off public funds to enrich themselves at the expense of basic health and education services for most ordinary citizens.[18] Corrupt politicians have used oil wealth to mobilize violence in support of their political aims.[19]

Corruption has also infected the Nigeria Police Force, undermined the criminal justice system, and fueled police abuses. Human Rights Watch has documented how police routinely extort money from victims of crimes to initiate investigations or from suspects to drop investigations. High-level police officials have embezzled and mismanaged vast sums of money meant for basic police operations, leaving officers on the ground with few resources to ensure public security. Senior officers also enforce a perverse system of “returns,” in which rank-and-file officers pay a share of the money extorted from the public up the chain of command.[20] The police have been implicated in frequent extortion-related abuses, including arbitrary arrests, torture, and extrajudicial killings. Nearly all of these crimes have been committed with impunity.[21]

Boko Haram leaders blame Western influence in Nigeria for corrupting the country’s leaders and corroding the criminal justice system. The Christian man mentioned above, who was abducted by Boko Haram gunmen in July 2009, recalled what one of their leaders told the captives:

[B]efore Western education in the northern area the emir would sort it [criminal matters] out. But after Western education, the police come and take bribes from the complainant and from the accused, and the person who pays the highest gets justice.[22]

While professing to oppose such corruption, Boko Haram has at times openly exploited it for its own ends. In August 2011, for example, Boko Haram claimed it succeeded in carrying out a car bomb attack on the United Nations office in Abuja by bribing government security personnel at checkpoints along the 800-kilometer route from the city of Maiduguri, in northeast Nigeria, to the nation’s capital. “Luckily for us,” a group spokesperson said, “security agents are not out to work diligently but to find money for themselves, and 20 or 50 naira [US$0.12 or $0.31] that was politely given to them gave us a pass.”[23]


Nearly 100 million Nigerians live on less than one US dollar a day. In January 2012, Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics released a report showing that the percentage of Nigerians living in “absolute poverty” had increased nationwide from 55 to 61 percent between 2004 and 2010.[24] This rise is especially notable in a country that, in 2011, was the globe’s fourth largest exporter of oil.[25]

Poverty is unevenly spread throughout the country and is less severe in many parts of the south than in the north. Unemployment, lack of economic opportunities, and wealth inequalities are a source of deep frustration across the country, especially in many parts of the north.

The National Bureau of Statistics’ report, for example, shows that 70 percent of Nigerians in northeast Nigeria—Boko Haram’s traditional stronghold—live on less than a dollar a day, compared to 50 and 59 percent in southwest and southeast Nigeria, respectively.[26] According to the government’s 2008 Demographic and Health Survey, less than 23 percent of women and 54 percent of men in northeast Nigeria can read, compared to more than 79 percent of women and 90 percent of men in the south.[27]

Chronic Malnutrition among children is also more prevalent in northern Nigeria than in the south. More than 50 percent of northern children under the age of five are moderately to severely stunted compared to less than 30 percent of their southern counterparts.[28] Infrastructure development also lags behind in the north. In northeast Nigeria, for example, only 24 percent of households have access to electricity, compared with 71 percent of households in the southwest.[29]

Inter-communal Violence

Nigeria is the largest country in the world that is almost equally divided between Christians and Muslims. Its population of some 160 million people belongs to more than 250 different ethnic groups. The vast majority of the north is Muslim, while southeast Nigeria is largely Christian. Many parts of central Nigeria, often referred to as the “Middle Belt,” are predominately Christian, though some states in this region have a Muslim majority. The population of southwest Nigeria is roughly evenly mixed among Christians and Muslims.[30] Divisive state and local government policies that discriminate against individuals solely on the basis of their ethnic heritage and relegate thousands of state residents to permanent second-class status have exacerbated existing ethnic tensions.[31] Boko Haram has exploited Nigeria’s history of ethnic and sectarian strife, along with chronic impunity for perpetrators of violence, including Christians accused of killing Muslims, as justification for its own violent campaign.

Though a national phenomenon, inter-communal violence has been most deadly in the “Middle Belt” region, especially in Kaduna and Plateau states. Since 2000, several thousand people have been killed in each of these states. The victims, including women and children, have been hacked to death, burned alive, and dragged out of cars and murdered in tit-for-tat killings that in many cases were based simply on their ethnic or religious identity.[32] Mobs have burned down both mosques and churches. Since 2010, three mass killings in which more than 100 people died in each incident took place in small towns and villages of these states.[33] The highest death toll occurred in an attack on April 18 and 19, 2011 in the town of Zonkwa, in southern Kaduna State, which left at least 300 Muslim men dead. The attack followed election riots and burning of churches in northern states.[34]

Members of ethnic groups from southern Nigeria who live in the north have also faced violence. In 1966, for example, thousands of Igbo, from southeast Nigeria, were killed in pogroms across the north that followed a military coup led by Igbo officers in which mostly northern political and military leaders died.[35] There have been numerous other incidents since then. In February 2006, for example, anger over the publication in Denmark of controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed reached Nigeria, sparking riots by mobs of Muslims in Maiduguri that left some 50 Christians dead and more than 50 churches burned.[36] Subsequently, more than 80 northern Muslims were killed in reprisal killings by mobs of Christians in southeast Nigeria.[37]

In all but a handful of cases, the Nigerian authorities have failed to prosecute the perpetrators of inter-communal killings, and the cycle of violence has continued.

Boko Haram has often referenced these attacks in justifying its own atrocities.[38] For example, in December 2011, when it claimed responsibility for the 2011 Christmas Day bombing of a church in Madalla, Niger State, the group cited an attack on Muslims on August 29, 2011, in Jos, Plateau State, during a religious service at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. A dozen Muslims reportedly died.[39] A Boko Haram spokesperson said: “What we did was a reminder to all those that forgot the atrocities committed against our Muslim brothers during the Eid el-Fitr celebrations in Jos.” When Muslims were killed, the spokesperson asserted, “the Federal Government and the international community maintained sealed lips.”[40]

[1] For a detailed history of Usman dan Fodio, see Mervyn Hiskett, The Sword of Truth: The Life and Times of the Shehu Usuman Dan Fodio (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973). See also S.P.I. Agi, Political History of Religious Violence in Nigeria (Calabar: Pigasiann & Grace International, 1998), p. 29; International Crisis Group, Northern Nigeria: Background to Conflict (Africa Report No. 168), December 20, 2010, p. 3.

[2] See Human Rights Watch, “Political Shari’a”? Human Rights and Islamic Law in Northern Nigeria, vol. 16, no. 9(A), September 2004, http://www.hrw.org/reports/2004/09/21/political-shari, p. 13; Paul M. Lubeck, “Nigeria: Mapping the Shari’a Restorationist Movement,” in Shari’a Politics: Islamic Law and Society in the Modern World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011), pp. 254-57.

[3] The military ruled Nigeria for nearly 30 of its first 40 years of independence. Military governments were in power from 1966-1979 and from 1983-1999, with the exception of a three-month period in 1993 that saw a short-lived, military-installed interim civilian administration.

[4] Mohammed Marwa, the sect’s controversial leader, was accused of practicing sorcery and also allegedly claimed he was a prophet, thus alienating himself and his followers from orthodox Islam. See Paul M. Lubeck, “Islamic Protest under Semi-Industrial Capitalism: ‘Yan Tatsine Explained,” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, vol. 55, no. 4, 1985, pp. 370, 386; Toyin Falola, Violence in Nigeria: The Crisis of Religious Politics and Secular Ideologies (Rochester, University of Rochester Press, 1998), pp. 143-45.

[5] A tribunal of inquiry set up by the federal government in 1981 found that 4,177 people were killed in the violence, excluding members of the security forces who lost their lives. See Federal Republic of Nigeria, “Report of Tribunal of Inquiry on Kano Disturbances,” 1981, p. 102. In addition, the police were implicated in extrajudicial killings and torture of Maitatsine members in their custody. See Paul M. Lubeck, “Islamic Protest under Semi-Industrial Capitalism: ‘Yan Tatsine Explained,” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, pp. 385-86.

[6] See Alan Cowell, “An Outburst of Cult Strife Tests Nigeria’s Civil Rule,” New York Times, November 16, 1982; “11 Killed In Clash Between Police and Outlawed Sect,” AP, April 26, 1985; “Islamic fundamentalists battle police,” Reuters, April 29, 1985.

[7]Under Nigeria’s federal system of government, cases tried in state Sharia courts can be appealed to Sharia courts of appeal at the state level. Decisions by the state courts can then be appealed to the federal Court of Appeal and ultimately the federal Supreme Court. See Human Rights Watch, “Political Shari’a”? Human Rights and Islamic Law in Northern Nigeria, p. 18.

[8] Ibid., pp. 13-17, 93; International Crisis Group, Northern Nigeria: Background to Conflict, December 20, 2010, p. 16.

[9] See Human Rights Watch, The “Miss World Riots”: Continued Impunity for Killings in Kaduna, vol. 15, no. 13(A), July 2003, http://www.hrw.org/reports/2003/07/22/miss-world-riots-0, pp. 4-5.

[10] See Human Rights Watch, “Political Shari’a”? Human Rights and Islamic Law in Northern Nigeria, pp. 90-94; International Crisis Group, Northern Nigeria: Background to Conflict, December 20, 2010, p. 17; David Cook, “Boko Haram: A Prognosis,” James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, Rice University, December 16, 2011, pp. 7-8.

[11] See Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), “Annual Statistical Bulletin 2012,” p. 10, http://www.opec.org/opec_web/static_files_project/media/downloads/publications/ASB2012.pdf (accessed August 28, 2012).

[12] See Human Rights Watch, “Chop Fine”: The Human Rights Impact of Local Government Corruption in Rivers State, Nigeria, vol. 19, no. 2(A), January 2007, http://hrw.org/reports/2007/nigeria0107/; Human Rights Watch, Criminal Politics: Violence, “Godfathers” and Corruption in Nigeria, vol. 19, no. 16(A), October 2007, http://www.hrw.org/node/10661; Human Rights Watch, “Everyone’s in on the Game”: Corruption and Human Rights Abuses by the Nigeria Police Force, August 2010, http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2010/08/17/everyone-s-game-0.

[13] See “Nigeria leaders ‘stole’ $380bn,” BBC Online, October 20, 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/6069230.stm (accessed September 4, 2012); Tobi Soniyi, “U.S.$400 Billion of Oil Revenue Stolen,” ThisDay (Lagos), August 29, 2012.

[14] See Human Rights Watch, Corruption on Trial? The Record of Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, August 2011, http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/nigeria0811WebPostR.pdf.

[15] Human Rights Watch interview with Ahmad Salkida, Abuja, May 29, 2012.

[16] “Detained Nigerian militant pledges Islamic struggle,” Reuters, January 13, 2004.

[17] Human Rights Watch interview with a Christian man [name withheld], Maiduguri, July 9, 2010.

[18] See, for example, Human Rights Watch, “Chop Fine”: The Human Rights Impact of Local Government Corruption in Rivers State, Nigeria.

[19] See Human Rights Watch, Politics as War: The Human Rights Impact and Causes of Post-Election Violence in Rivers State, Nigeria, vol. 20, no. 3(A), March 2008, http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2008/03/26/politics-war-0; Human Rights Watch, Criminal Politics: Violence, “Godfathers” and Corruption in Nigeria.

[20] See Human Rights Watch, “Everyone’s in on the Game”: Corruption and Human Rights Abuses by the Nigeria Police Force.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Human Rights Watch interview with a Christian man [name withheld], Maiduguri, July 9, 2010.

[23] Ahmad Salkida, “Face of UN House bomber,” Blueprint (Abuja), September 5, 2011.

[24] National Bureau of Statistics, “Nigeria Poverty Profile 2010,” January 2012, p. 15.

[25] In 2011, Nigeria exported nearly 2.4 million barrels of crude oil a day, behind only Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Iran. Nigeria was the twelfth largest oil producer in 2011. See Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), Annual Statistical Bulletin 2012, pp. 30 and 49.

[26] National Bureau of Statistics, Nigeria Poverty Profile 2010, January 2012, p. 15.

[27] Literacy rates for women in the south range from 78 percent in the “South South,” 80 percent in the “South West,” and 81 percent in the “South East” regions of Nigeria. Male literacy rates range from 89 percent in the “South South,” 90 percent in the “South West,” and 94 percent in the “South East.” See National Population Commission, 2008 Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey, November 2009, pp. 35-36.

[28] In “North East” Nigeria, 49 percent of children are stunted, while 53 percent of children in the “North West” are stunted. In southern Nigeria, stunting rates range from 22 percent in the “South East” to 31 percent in “South South” and “South West” Nigeria. See National Population Commission, 2008 Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey, November 2009, p. 165.

[29] Ibid., p. 327.

[30] See Toyin Falola, Violence in Nigeria: The Crisis of Religious Politics and Secular Ideologies (Rochester, 1998), pp. 305-07.

[31] See Human Rights Watch, “They Do Not Own This Place”: Government Discrimination Against “Non-Indigenes” in Nigeria, vol.18, no. 3(A), April 2006, http://hrw.org/reports/2006/nigeria0406/.

[32] See “Nigeria: New Wave of Violence Leaves 200 Dead,” Human Rights Watch news release, January 27, 2011, http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2011/01/27/nigeria-new-wave-violence-leaves-200-dead; “Nigeria: Post-Election Violence Killed 800,” Human Rights Watch news release, May 17, 2011, http://www.hrw.org/news/2011/05/16/nigeria-post-election-violence-killed-800.

[33] See “Nigeria: Protect Survivors, Fully Investigate Massacre Reports,” Human Rights Watch news release, January 23, 2010, http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2010/01/22/nigeria-protect-survivors-fully-investigate-massacre-reports; “Nigeria: Investigate Massacre, Set up Patrols,” Human Rights Watch news release, March, 8, 2010, http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2010/03/08/nigeria-investigate-massacre-step-patrols; “Nigeria: Post-Election Violence Killed 800,” Human Rights Watch news release, May 17, 2011.

[34] See “Nigeria: Post-Election Violence Killed 800,” Human Rights Watch news release, May 17, 2011.

[35] See Ministry of Information, Eastern Nigeria, “Nigerian Pogrom: The Organized Massacre of Eastern Nigerians,” (Enugu, The Government Printer, Eastern Nigeria, 1966); Massacre of Ndi-Igbo in 1966: Report of the G.C.M. Onyiuke Tribunal of Inquiry (Ikeja, Tollbrook Ltd., 2001); D.J.M. Muffett, Let Truth Be Told: The coups d’état of 1966 (Zaria, Hudahuda Publishing Company, 1982).

[36] See Christian Association of Nigeria, Borno State, Christianity in Crisis: Lessons From Borno State, 18 Feb. 2006, no date, pp. 109-10.

[37] See “‘Graveyard peace’ as Nigerian city cremates scores of clash victims,” AFP, February 23, 2006.

[38] For example, in January 2012, Abubakar Shekau claimed that the group was carrying out attacks on Christians in retaliation for the killing of Muslims by Christians in central Nigeria, including Kaduna and Plateau states. See “Boko Haram leader ‘Imam Abubakar Shekau’ Message to President Jonathan,” Sahara Reporters (New York), translation of Skekau’s video, January 12, 2012, http://saharareporters.com/video/video-boko-haram-leader-imam-abubakar-shekau-message-president-jonathan (accessed August 20, 2012). Similarly, in December 2010, following attacks on Christmas Eve 2010 in the cities of Jos and Maiduguri, Boko Haram released a statement claiming the attacks were to avenge “atrocities committed against Muslims.” Imam Imam and Seriki Adinoyi, “Jos Bombings –Group Claims Responsibility,” ThisDay (Lagos), December 27, 2010, http://allafrica.com/stories/201012280145.html (accessed September 5, 2012).

[39] See Misbahu Bashir, “Police Begin Enquiry Into Jos Eid Ground Clash,” Daily Trust (Abuja), August 31, 2011, http://www.dailytrust.com.ng/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=26782:police-begin-enquiry-into-jos-eid-ground-clash&catid=2:lead-stories&Itemid=8 (accessed September 25, 2012).

[40] See Hamza Idris, “Boko Haram Claims Responsibility,” Daily Trust (Abuja), December 27, 2011.