African Taliban Terrorizes Nigeria

As Hillary Clinton visits Nigeria, the oil-rich country central to Africa’s success, she should be wary of a deadly new threat: the African Taliban.

Khalil Senosi / AP Photo

Under Hillary Clinton’s watch, the State Department has called Nigeria “probably the most important country in Africa.” Why? Three words: light, sweet, crude. Nigeria is one of America’s largest oil producers, and poised to become even a bigger one. It is also Africa’s most populous country—one in six Africans comes from Nigeria—and one of the continent’s richest and most corrupt democracies.

Yet despite its staggering oil wealth, more than half of Nigeria’s 140 million people live on less than a dollar a day. More than 60 million of them are under 18; Nigeria’s population is also growing faster than almost any other country in the world.

The young and disaffected really do call themselves the Taliban because it marks them as part of a larger order, and one standing up to the West.

And this is the root of the problem: The state supplies its citizens no services whatsoever—no water, no electricity, and most important, no public education. And in these stunning statistics lie the birth of Africa’s Taliban.

Not all of Nigeria is in such dire straits. Its southern megacity, Lagos, thrums with BlackBerrys, Hummers, and nightclubs. Among the urban elite, the common denominator is a degree from Harvard. But not so outside Lagos or the capital, Abuja, where Clinton is visiting. Everywhere else, Nigeria is like a country coming out of a war, except there has been no war.

Boko Haram—meaning school (Western-style) is forbidden—is a few hundred northern Nigerian devotees of the young, charismatic, and deeply flawed Mohammed Yusuf. Think gang leader, not religious scholar. A few weeks ago, the group attacked police stations in the northern Nigerian city of Maiduguri, and created mayhem by pulling people out of their cars and killing them in the name of banning Western education. The violence spread to at least four other states, until Yusuf was killed last week in government custody—meaning shot to death in the care of the Nigerian police—and his followers were rounded up and thrown into prison.

So that’s the news, but who are these guys, really?

There’s no way to understand where Africa’s Taliban comes from without having a larger view of this weak and wobbly democracy. Let’s start with oil. Nigeria’s oil comes from the swampy south: the delta, where people live along the creeks in fishing communities mostly devastated by oil.

Although some states have up to $1 billion in oil revenue, a friend of mine at Human Rights Watch told me schools and hospitals are almost nonexistent, while the state’s governor drinks Cristal by the caseload. The result: Delta boys, a series of gangs Nigerians call “cults.” They are tooled-up teenage braggadocios of the worst kind, who sabotage pipelines and siphon oil, all in the name of self-empowerment, but really only for money.

What the Delta boys are to the south, groups like Boko Haram are to the north. Nigeria’s north is predominantly Muslim, and has been for a thousand years; since the seventh century Muslim traders and missionaries carried the religion over trade routes from the holy city of Mecca on the Arabian peninsula to the West African country of Timbuktu.

In the north, school has traditionally meant Islamic education— madrassas, or religious schools that go by the name al majari in Nigeria, and millions of itinerant students travel on foot or by truck to traditional capitals of Islamic learning. One of the oldest is Maiduguri.

These schools used to be legitimate centers of learning, and kids from 8 to 18 would travel thousands of miles to attend them. They were also free, and the teacher was able to support the school by putting the students to work on his farm. But thanks in part to climate change and desertification, the land can no longer support the farms, so these teachers move to cities, and the only way to function is to send the kids out begging for most of the day.

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And here, patient reader, is where Boko Haram comes in. The movement is purely a product of this screwed-up educational system. It is fueled by the state’s total failure to meet the needs of its people, primarily its young people. So they turn to groups that will safeguard their interests.

This is primarily a social problem, not a religious one, but the young and disaffected take on a global religious identity—they really do call themselves the Taliban—because it marks them as part of a larger order, and one standing up to the West.

In the north, 12 of Nigeria’s 36 states have adopted Islamic law, or Sharia, over the past several years. This new law was supposed to answer their problems—which means corruption—and its adoption scared Western observers and human rights groups. But Islamic law has not proven to be the cure-all northerners hoped it would be. And out of that disappointment comes Boko Haram, spoiling for a fight against the West, which the group believes has oppressed it. But local people pay the price for their rage. In the name of attacking the West, they target local Christians, but the people they pulled out of their cars and killed recently were mostly fellow Muslims.

the decades-old fights between Nigeria’s Christians and Muslims, who are almost evenly split. Given that ratio, the explosive growth of people and dwindling resources, religion becomes a means to secure a group’s rights to things the state doesn’t provide: jobs, scholarships, and even electricity and water.

None of this means such groups can’t be lethal. I had my own run-in with these Taliban guys in Maiduguri two years ago. I was waiting in a car with a colleague and photographer, Seamus Murphy, who was snapping some images through the window, when one young man saw the camera and started yelling. The Taliban did not want to be photographed. They surrounded the car and pulled out long, sword-like knives and began to rock the car, blades flashing in their hands. Our translator was nearly killed. “Please, no knives,” he pleaded with the men who were beating him.

We were saved by a combination of three men: a toothless elder, a Muslim preacher, and a secret policeman who climbed into our car as we drove away. Each represented an essential component of society: the elder, tradition; the preacher, religion; the policeman, the state. Without all three we would have been killed. There was no hesitation whatsoever on the part of those men.

Clinton is unlikely to have such an encounter. In real time, Boko Haram is as far away from the capital of Abuja as Washington, D.C., is from Washington State. And, lucky woman, the secretary of state will not be going to Maiduguri—but she would be remiss not to bring the attention of Nigeria’s weak president, Umaru Yar’Adua, a northern Muslim, to the plight of his young people and the lack of school, which is the root cause of such chaos. If no one addresses such basic failings as Nigeria gets richer—as it will with U.S. oil money—then life for most Nigerians, especially the more than 60 million who are under 18, is going to get even worse.

Eliza Griswold is a New America fellow and a recipient of the 2010 Rome Prize. Her book, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line between Islam and Christianity, will by published by FSG this spring.