Violence and uprisings fueled by religious beliefs and ethnic-divides are nothing new in Nigeria.
A bombing by Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, 2014. (Flickr/Global Panorama.)
Movements such as Boko Haram and Ansaru have precedents that go back to at least the start of the 19th century in Nigeria, and violent uprisings were rather common even during the 1980s and 1990s.
The recent situation has been compounded by the Nigerian Government's failure to stamp out corruption and distribute the profits from its oil industry in a manner that could have countered violent extremism. Poverty, especially in northern Nigeria where Boko Haram primarily operates, is a major problem.
It is difficult to establish an accurate account of Boko Haram's history and development. It has been argued by a number of scholars that the movement has been active since the mid-1990s under several different names, including Al Sunna Wal'Jamma, Muhajirun, the Nigerian Taliban, the Yusufiyaa Islamic Movement and Ahlusunna wal' Jamma Hijra.
But from 2002 onwards, the movement started to call itself Jamaátu Ahlus Sunnah Liddà Awati Wal Jihad, which translates to 'People Committed to the Prophet's Teachings for Propagation and Jihad.' The group's more widely used name, Boko Haram, is a composite term consisting of the regional Hausa language's word boko (book) and the Arabic word haram (sinful, ungodly, or forbidden). It literally means 'book is forbidden,' but it can be more deeply interpreted to mean Western education and civilization are sinful or ungodly and should therefore be forbidden and rejected.
Boko Haram appears to have received initial financial support primarily from Nigerian politicians and businessmen who supported the cause for a variety of reasons. However, from 2007 onward, the group started to receive funding from al Qaeda; several members of the group were arrested and accused of receiving funds from al Qaeda, in one case up to US$300,000.
Boko Haram started to launch attacks against the Nigerian Government at the end of December 2003, when the movement destroyed a police station and a number of government buildings in northern Nigeria. During the attacks its members hoisted the flag used by the Taliban and various groups within the global jihadist movement.
Boko Haram continued to stage attacks against police stations in the region throughout 2004, most likely in an attempt to acquire weapons. The violence continued throughout 2005, when Boko Haram attacked a number of Christian villages, looted shops and kidnapped several local businessmen and forced them to convert to Islam. In response, Nigerian security forces launched Operation Sawdust in the northeast of the country. Authorities succeeded in arresting Boko Haram's leader at the time, Mohammed Yusuf, but he was later granted bail and allowed to return to Maiduguri.
On 26 July 2009, Nigerian security forces raided one of Boko Haram's compounds in Bauchi state, arresting nine of its members. Ingredients and equipment for the manufacturing of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and weapons were confiscated. Two hours later, Boko Haram launched several reprisal attacks, primarily against police stations. The Nigerian police eventually gained control of the situation but at least 700 people were killed, including many members of Boko Haram as well as civilians. During the fighting, Boko Haram's leader, Mohammed Yusuf, died (or was murdered) allegedly in police custody, together with one of Boko Haram's key financial sponsors at the time, Alhaji Buji Foi.
As a consequence, the group's remaining leadership were forced to regroup and go underground.
Abukarar Shekau, who would eventually become leader, and other senior members hid away in countries such as Niger, Cameroon and Benin. Mamman Nur, another leading member who was originally from Chad, sought refuge in Somalia, where he and other members received training in camps run by al-Shabaab. A number of others spent time in training camps in Mali and Mauritania that were under the control of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). After the confrontation with the security forces in 2009, Boko Haram allegedly received not only training from AQIM but also a significant amount of money.
At this time, the movement only had access to primitive weapons such as bows and arrows, various types of farming equipment, homemade firearms, petrol bombs and simple IEDs. In order to arm itself, Boko Haram launched a series of attacks against patrolling police officers and police stations in the Borno and Yobe states in August 2010. Later that year, the movement started to target and kill Muslim clerics in the region who were perceived as a threat, thus degrading the capabilities and willingness of Nigerian civil society to openly oppose it. Later on, the movement started to target churches and schools in the region.
In recent years, the movement has increased the scope of its attacks by targeting entire villages, often at night. The attacking forces usually arrive on technicals and motorbikes in company-sized units. The targeted village is looted and more or less destroyed together with its inhabitants. Survivors are also often tracked down and killed.
Boko Haram's access to weapons has grown over the years. Some of the weapons were looted or even bought from corrupt Nigerian officers and soldiers. It is also highly likely that the movement has received weapons, including more sophisticated weapon systems such as man-portable air-defense systems, from looted Libyan weapons and ammunition dumps through its contacts with AQIM. It also appears to have good access to technicals, motorbikes and even an unknown number of armoured personnel carriers of various types.
During 2014, Boko Haram started to try to hold on to seized territory and staged raids over the Nigerian border, primarily into Cameroon. It became obvious that Nigerian security forces were unable to deal with the group. As consequence, military units from Chad, Niger and Cameroon have started to fight Boko Haram in Nigerian territory in cooperation with the Nigerian military.
The movement claims to have more than 40,000 members in Nigeria and dispersed throughout Africa in countries such as Niger, Chad, Mauritania and even Somalia. According to US intelligence officials, Boko Haram is estimated to have between 4000 and 6000 hardcore fighters. The movement also appears to have access to a large number of child soldiers, whom it usually recruits by force and often uses in mass attacks as cannon fodder.
As of February 2015, approximately 15,000 people have been killed by Boko Haram.