A Brief History of Boko Haram
Boko Haram members prefer to be known by their Arabic name—Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati Wal-Jihad—meaning “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad.” The group is believed to have been formed in the town of Maiduguri in northeast Nigeria, where the locals nicknamed its members “Boko Haram,” a combination of the Hausa word “boko,” which literally means “Western education” and the Arabic word “haram” which figuratively means “sin” and literally means “forbidden.” While the popular belief is that it was founded around 2001 or 2002 by Mohammed Yusuf, some have argued that the sect was actually started in 1995 as Sahaba. The group claims to be opposed not only to Western civilization (which includes Western education) but also to the secularization of the Nigerian state. There is a fair consensus that, until 2009, the group conducted its operations more or less peacefully and that its radicalization followed a government clampdown in 2009, in which some 800 of its members were killed. The group’s leader, Mohammed Yusuf, was also killed after that attack while in police custody.
A better and more comprehensive view of the Boko Haram and Ansaru phenomena is to see them as symptoms of the crisis in Nigeria’s nation-building processes. While the bombings, kidnappings, and other unsavory acts linked to the sects are condemnable, it is important to underscore that Boko Haram is only one of several groups in the country that purvey terror and death because there is an increasing tendency to discuss the spate of insecurity in the country as if it all began and ended with Boko Haram or as if without Boko Haram Nigeria would be a tranquil place in which to live.
The truth is that there is everywhere in the country a pervasive sense of what the German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil.”  Her argument is that the great evils in history are not executed by fanatics or sociopaths but rather by ordinary people who accept the premises of their actions and therefore participate in them on the grounds that those heinous actions were normal. This is the so-called notion of “normalizing the unthinkable” or the routinization of evil. This argument captures an important element of what is happening throughout Nigeria: Violent armed robberies across the entire country, kidnapping (especially in the southeast), turf war by militarized cults and gangs (in Bayelsa State), and senseless intra- and inter-communal “warfare” are all increasingly common.  The crisis in Nigeria’s nation building mixes with the crisis of underdevelopment to create an existentialist crisis for many Nigerians. For many young people, a way of resolving the consequent sense of alienation is to retreat from the “Nigeria project”—the idea of fashioning a nation out of the disparate nationalities that make up the country—and instead construct meanings in primordial identities, often with the Nigerian state as the enemy.
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Jideofor Adibe is a senior lecturer in political science at Nasarawa State University, Keffi, Nigeria, and adjunct associate professor in the Department of International Relations and Diplomacy, Baze University, Abuja. He is also the editor of the academic journal African Renaissance and a weekly back-page columnist for Daily Trust, one of Nigeria’s leading newspapers.