Religion & Liberty Online

Explainer: The Boko Haram Massacre in Nigeria

nigeria-boko-haramWhat’s going on in Nigeria?

During an attack that started January 3 and continued through this past weekend, the African Islamic militant group Boko Haram opened fire on 16 northern Nigerian villages. The death toll estimates range from 200 to as many 2,000 people.

Another 10,000 people who managed to escape have fled to neighboring Chad. Many Nigerians drowned in an attempt to cross Lake Chad to escape what is now described as  the “deadliest massacre” in the history of Boko Haram.

Over the past six months, Boko Haram has taken control of more than two dozen towns in northeast Nigeria, most of them in Borno State, and launched attacks into Chad and Cameroon. As Alexis Okeowo notes, their territory now nearly equals the Islamic State’s in Iraq and Syria.

What happened this weekend?

A girl believed to have been no more than 10 years old detonated a bomb concealed under her veil at a crowded northern Nigeria market on Saturday, killing as many as 20 people and wounding many more.

The explosion is believed to be a new tactic in the Islamists’ campaign with Boko Haram’s decision to use perhaps their youngest-ever suicide bomber.

What was the recent criticism by the Catholic archbishop?

The Catholic Archbishop of Jos has accused the western world of focusing on mourning last week’s terror attack in France, while ignoring the ongoing massacre of Nigerians.

“It is a monumental tragedy. It has saddened all of Nigeria. But… we seem to be helpless. Because if we could stop Boko Haram, we would have done it right away. But they continue to attack, and kill and capture territories… with such impunity,” Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama told the BBC.

Archbishop Kaigama said facing down Boko Haram required international support and unity of the type that had been shown after last week’s militant attacks in France.

“We need that spirit to be spread around,” he said. “Not just when it [an attack] happens in Europe, but when it happens in Nigeria, in Niger, in Cameroon.

Over 40 world leaders joined with a million French citizens who marched in Paris on Sunday to honor the 17 people killed in terror attacks in the French capital last week.

Who is Boko Haram?

Boko Haram (which translates to “Western education is sinful”) is the Hausa language nickname for the Congregation of the People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad. Founded in 2002, the terrorist group is comprised of radical Islamists who oppose both Westerners and “apostate” Muslims. Based in Nigeria, Cameroon, and Niger, the organization seeks to establish a “pure” Islamic state ruled by sharia law, putting a stop to what it deems “Westernization.” Its followers are said to be influenced by the Koranic phrase which says: “Anyone who is not governed by what Allah has revealed is among the transgressors.”

Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, announced in August his mission to establish his Islamic caliphate, a political-religious Muslim state of which he would be the leader.

The group is known for attacking, kidnapping, and killing Christians and Muslims, bombing churches, attacking schools, and destroying police stations. Violence linked to the Boko Haram insurgency resulted in an estimated 10,000 deaths between 2002 and 2013.

Wasn’t Boko Haram the group behind the mass kidnappings of children in Nigeria?

Yes. During the night of April 16, 2014, dozens of armed men from Boko Haram captured over 300 Christian girls aged 12 to 15 who were sleeping in dormitories at Chibok Government Girls Secondary School in northeast Nigeria.

Some of the kidnapped girls have been forced into “marriage” with their Boko Haram abductors, sold for a nominal bride price of $12, according to parents who talked with villagers. All of the girls risk being forced into marriages or sold in the global market for human slaves.

The kidnappings were the focus of the ‘Bring Back Our Girls’ social media campaign that garnered much attention last year.

Why can’t the Nigerian government stop them?

It’s unclear whether the government is unable or unwilling to suppress the insurgency. In 2013, the Nigerian military responded to an attack on Baga by Boko Haram fighters, but were criticized for executing more “destruction than protection.” At the time, at least 37 people were killed and 2,275 homes were destroyed. When Boko Haram overtook Baga on January 3, government soldiers abandoned post left unarmed citizens to defend themselves.

“We are very dispirited,” Borno North senator Maina Maaji Lawan told BBC. “There is definitely something wrong that makes our military abandon their posts each time there is an attack from Boko Haram.”

What’s the West doing to help?

The United States has put a $7 million bounty on Abubakar Shekau, the elusive leader of Boko Haram, and has designated the group a foreign terrorist network. Some Western nations, including the U.S., have also provided technical and financial support to the Nigerian teams battling the insurgency.


Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).