Since the rebel sect Boko Haram burst into the international media with an uprising against police in Northeastern Nigeria in 2009, journalists and analysts have frequently translated its name as “Western education is sinful/forbidden.” Yet the group’s primary targets have been: first, the security forces; second, religious/cultural targets like bars, churches, and Christian gatherings, as well as Muslim leaders who speak out against the group; and third, banks. Another major target was the United Nations headquarters in Nigeria’s capital Abuja, which was the site of a Boko Haram suicide bombing in August 2011. Some now believe that Boko Haram is involved in kidnappings.
So it was not until this year that Boko Haram began systematically attacking what one might have expected to be its original target: schools.
Here are two questions, then: Why start a campaign of burning schools now? and What does the school-burning campaign tell us about Boko Haram?
On the first question, I’m afraid I don’t have deep insights, just guesses. According to the New York Times (link above), Boko Haram’s elusive spokesman Abu Qaqa “said they were in response to what he called a targeting of this city’s abundant open-air Islamic schools by authorities,” but NYT writes, “Officials here have denied any such campaign. Indeed, young boys can be seen receiving Koranic lessons, untroubled, all over Maiduguri.”
One possibility is that the state of siege in military-occupied Maiduguri (where most of the school burnings have occurred, even though Boko Haram’s broader campaign of violence now ranges over a larger area) has prompted a search for new tactics. Certainly Boko Haram has changed direction before; its present incarnation as a guerrilla movement in many ways reflects the failure of its open and unsuccessful confrontation with authorities in 2009. Another possibility is that Boko Haram, or part of Boko Haram, wants to scale up the “culture war,” either to complement or change the tone of its larger war with the state. Perhaps the movement even believes it can win support in this way, though NYT suggests the tactic has mostly produced backlash and confusion so far.
On the second question, I think that the fact that organized school burnings have only begun at this late stage of the rebellion confirms that “Boko Haram” has a much broader meaning than just an assault on Western-style education. I have long thought that for Boko Haram, the “Boko” refers to much more than just schools or curricula – it seems to refer above all to a system run by ‘yan boko (literally: the people of boko), ie the elite produced by Western education.* In other words, the idea of “boko” can encode a whole set of meanings related to alleged corruption, lack of transparency and accountability, inequality and stratification, marginalization of dispossessed groups, etc. Burning schools, it seems, will now be a part of Boko Haram’s resistance to this system, but only a part. Attacks on the state and other targets continue.
In related news, the BBC reports on President Goodluck Jonathan’s proposal to build Islamic schools in Northern Nigeria as a means of preventing radicalization – and, presumably, as a gesture of goodwill. Such a proposal will obviously raise some eyebrows, both among some non-Muslims who see “Islamic schools” in a negative light and among some Muslims wary of deeper federal involvement in religious education. In political terms, I would say the proposal is a fairly natural move to make at this point for a government worried of losing an entire generation in a vast region. In terms of effectiveness in preventing radicalization, I would say first that much depends on details – “Islamic schools” is a catch-all term to broad to have much meaning – and second that education is only one part of a broader matrix involving other institutions and how people perceive them. Building schools without addressing systemic governance problems will only go so far in changing the way people see government.
*I am aware that the group is often known by the Arabic name Ahlussunnah lid-Da’wati wal Jihad (there are other ways to transliterate that, of course), with Ahl meaning “people”, Sunnah referring to the pattern of conduct demonstrated by the Prophet Muhammad, Da’wa being the call to Islam, and Jihad meaning (in this context) armed Islamic struggle (so you get something like, “The People of Sunnah for Preaching and Jihad”). But this name carries no special significance in my eyes. The phrase “ahlussunnah” is standard – indeed, “ahlussunnah wal jama’a” (jama’a=community) can be a synonym, depending on who uses it, for “Sunni Muslims” – and there are non-violent groups in Northern Nigeria who are more thoroughly associated with the name ahlussunnah than Boko Haram. So the idea of “Boko Haram” offers more to ponder, for me, even though this is only an unofficial nickname for the group.