By Nick Tattersall, for Reuters:

LAGOS, Aug 6 (Reuters) – An uprising by a radical Islamic sect in northern Nigeria may ostensibly have been about religion but such bloodletting will recur unless underlying issues of poverty, unemployment and education are addressed.

West African Islam is overwhelmingly moderate and northern Nigeria home to a powerful political elite, yet militant cleric Mohammed Yusuf was able to establish a cult-like following whose members became violently anti-establishment and anti-Western.

Yusuf’s sect, Boko Haram, wanted sharia (Islamic law) more widely applied across Africa’s most populous nation. Its name means “Western education is sinful” and its followers are supposed to eschew the use of all Western-made goods.

But the support Yusuf drummed up — from illiterate youths to professionals who quit jobs and families to join him — came as much from frustration with what is seen as a corrupt and self-serving political establishment as from pure religious fervour.

“Even established leaders of Islam in the north, who condemn Yusuf’s preaching, are aware of how government has failed Nigeria’s young,” Jean Herskovits, Research Professor of History at the State University of New York, wrote in Foreign Affairs.

“What has Western education done for them lately? For that matter, what have other Nigerian institutions, all easily seen as Western-inspired, done for them,” he said, arguing that a decade of supposed democracy had yielded “mounting poverty and deprivation of every kind” in the country of 140 million people.

Armed with machetes, bows and arrows, shotguns and home-made bombs, Boko Haram attacked symbols of authority in the city of Maiduguri and other towns, including police stations, prisons, government offices and schools during last week’s uprising.

Five days of gun battles with the security forces killed close to 800 people before Yusuf was captured by the military and later shot dead in police detention. Churches were also burned, but the targets were overwhelmingly state institutions.

Terrified residents were told by Yusuf, clad in military fatigues and brandishing a Kalashnikov in the early hours of the uprising: “I’m not after you, I’m after the government.”


The authorities said the killing of Yusuf and the flattening of his mosque by tanks meant Boko Haram had finally been destroyed. Residents flocked to see his bullet-riddled body to make sure.

But the frustration Yusuf exploited remains. A failed education system, scant job opportunities and easy access to weapons over porous borders are a dangerous cocktail.

“What heightens the toxicity of the mix is not only the space that poverty and poor governance opens up, but also the complacency and cynicism of some of those in elected office,” said Nigeria expert Antony Goldman.

Nigeria is home to Africa’s biggest energy industry but five decades of oil extraction have only exacerbated the poverty gap, making a small elite among the world’s wealthiest while the majority continue to live on $2 a day or less.

The upper echelons of the civil service and military are full of northerners but the private sector aristocracy — oil, banking, telecoms and trading moguls — are largely southerners, leaving parts of the north feeling economically marginalised.

Near the northeastern borders with Cameroon, Chad and Niger, Maiduguri sits in the Sahel, a strip of arid savannah on the southern edge of the Sahara which has been used as a training ground by militant groups including al Qaeda’s North African wing.

Western intelligence agencies have for years been concerned that such groups could gain a foothold in Nigeria.

“I don’t think anyone believes this has gone away,” said one political analyst in Nigeria, asking not to be named.

“The prospect of it coming back under another name or led by someone else who can find a series of issues which are attractive to the youth or those who are disillusioned with the establishment seems quite likely,” he said.


The state government recognises better schooling is vital if sects like Boko Haram are to be prevented from taking root. Integrated schools teaching both the Koran and Western subjects in Arabic and English are increasingly popular, for those who can afford them.

At the El-Kameni College of Islamic Theology in Maiduguri, with 3,500 primary and secondary pupils, children pray alongside teachers on mats outside brightly painted classrooms while others across the courtyard play on climbing frames and swings.

School director Muhammad Sani Idris is proud of the achievements of his graduates, many of whom have gone on to read subjects such as medicine or engineering in countries including the United States, Britain and Dubai.

“When it is time for prayer they lead the congregation and when it is time for physics they lead the class,” he said. “Islam is an all-encompassing religion … (Yusuf) misrepresented us.”

But El-Kameni is a private school costing around 35,000 naira ($230) per semester, beyond the reach of many.

At Maiduguri police headquarters some less fortunate children are waiting to be returned to their villages.

Their fathers came to join Yusuf’s sect but have since been killed or fled. Their mothers, wrapped in black or blue burqas, were brought in by the police after being found in Boko Haram compounds.

“I came to recite the Koran,” said Mohammed Abdullahi, 8, when asked why his father brought him to Maiduguri. Police said his father was presumed dead and the whereabouts of his mother unknown.

“I do not know where my father is. He brought us here and went away,” Abdullahi said, dressed in a torn blue kaftan and tracing a line in the sand with his toe.