On April 14, 2014, Boko Haram kidnapped 270 Nigerian schoolgirls from the hostel where they were staying in Chibok, Borno state, the furthest northeast state in Nigeria.  Borno has been part of the area designated in a state of emergency since May, 2013 by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, and is one of the states that has been under Boko Haram’s influence for several years.

Boko Haram is a mishmash of native Hausa and Arabic, combining the Hausa word “boko,” meaning roughly “Western Education,” derived from the English “book,” and the Arabic “haram,” meaning “sin” or “forbidden.” “Boko Haram” is in fact the local nickname for the organization, which is officially named “Jamāʻat Ahl as-Sunnah lid-daʻwa wal-Jihād,” or “The Congregation of the People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad.”

Founded twelve years ago by Muhammad Yusuf, both in response to accusations by Yusuf that Nigerian government forces were committing ethnic cleansing against the Hausa and Fulani people of the northeast, and in an effort to enforce strict Shariah law and Islamist governance in Nigeria, the group’s attacks have continued to escalate since Yusuf’s death and Abubakar Shekau’s ascension to leadership. They have bombed churches, mosques, and government buildings, and oppose any Westernization of the country.

The attack in Chibok was only the latest in Boko Haram’s attacks on schools; on February 27, they attacked the Shuwa Primary School in Adamawa, Yobe State, just south of Borno State, killing between 20 and 37 (estimates have varied).  The school was run by the local St. Augustine Catholic Church.

Abubakar Shekau has appeared on video, chuckling about the kidnapping, and claiming he has been instructed by Allah to sell the girls at market as wives, since they were receiving Western education.  Appearing in front of what appears to be a BTR, wearing a camouflage jacket with an AK slung in front of him, and scratching himself while grinning widely, he claimed that women are Allah’s property, and therefore he will sell them.*

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President Goodluck Jonathan has asked for US aid to help get the girls back, although the US is already pumping considerable aid into the country, as it is considered a major US partner in Africa. The US designated Boko Haram a terrorist organization in 2013, and has placed a $7 million bounty on Shekau’s head.  He is extremely elusive, however; he’s been reported dead by Nigerian authorities multiple times, always to crop back up again.

There has been extensive speculation that Boko Haram is connected to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, but no solid links have yet been exposed.  Aside from Shekau, there has not even been a solid command structure for the group that anyone can necessarily see; it appears to be “diffuse” and “cell based.”

While Lagos has generally adopted a “so what?” attitude to the violence in the north, the kidnapping has led to numerous protests in the capitol, demanding the government get the girls back.  More political tension has risen in Lagos, as one of the more prominent protestors, Naomi Mutah Nyadar, was arrested by Nigerian police, though later freed.  The government has claimed that she was only brought in for questioning.

(Meanwhile, the north has generally been sympathetic to the shariah aspirations of Boko Haram; while they despise the violence, they are sickened by the corruption of the Nigerian government and the often heavy-handed violence against Muslims in trying to crack down on the Islamists, including accusations of Nigerian troops shooting people simply for wearing traditional Muslim dress.)

Boko Haram became locally known as the Taliban in 2004; not because of any direct link with Mullah Omar’s organization, but because of their fanaticism and rejection of anyone or anything that doesn’t agree with their interpretation. They have been known to be just as violent towards other Muslims in Nigeria as they are against Christians and the government.

As an example of their ideology, in an interview with the BBC before he was killed, Muhammad Yusuf said, “There are prominent Islamic preachers who have seen and understood that the present Western-style education is mixed with issues that run contrary to our beliefs in Islam.  Like rain. We believe it is a creation of God rather than an evaporation caused by the sun that condenses and becomes rain.  Like saying the world is a sphere. If it runs contrary to the teachings of Allah, we reject it. We also reject the theory of Darwinism.”

However, there may be another goal, whether explicit or not, to the recent high-profile kidnapping.  Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, is hosting the World Economic Forum on May 7-9, and the lack of control of their own country overshadows their own security setup for the WEF, as well as lessening Nigeria’s attractiveness for foreign investment.  Following a GDP recalculation, Nigeria recently became the largest economy in Africa.  The protests could only make matters worse.

*This writer’s impression on watching the video was that Shekau was high as a kite.

(Featured Image Courtesy: AFP/Getty)