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Geography in the News: Nigeria’s Boko Haram Terrorists

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM

Nigeria’s Boko Haram

A storm has been brewing in Nigeria for several years. In 2011, Christmas Day attacks on Christian churches and a bomb blast to an Islamic school a few days later, foretold a series of brutal attacks that have captured the world’s attention. A terrorist organization called Boko Haram kidnapped more than 300 schoolgirls in at least two separate events in Northeast Nigeria in April and May 2014. This was just a few of the terrorist acts attributed to Boko Haram and Nigeria’s plight has become international news.

Nigeria’s militant groups, of which there are quite a few, have been ramping up their violence over much of the country. Many of the groups had been relatively quiet since amnesty was offered to top leaders in 2009. But Boko Haram, a militant Islamist group, has continued attacks unabatedly against civilians, both Christian and Muslim.

Nigeria is located on the Gulf of Guinea. Its total area is 356,670 square miles (923,775 sq. km.), slightly more than twice the size of California. Its estimated 2012 population was 169 million, making it Africa’s most populous country.

gitn_1130_Nigeria
Map by Geography in the News and Maps.com
Boundaries and names shown do not necessarily reflect the map policy of the National Geographic Society.

Petroleum deposits both onshore and offshore around the Gulf of Guinea are the source of Nigeria’s major oil exports, making the country the world’s twelfth largest producer of petroleum and the fifth largest exporter. Much of the oil revenue, however, has been squandered through political ineptitude and corruption

Besides trying to reform a petroleum-based economy that has been mismanaged, Nigeria’s government, run by President Goodluck Jonathan, has faced longstanding religious and ethnic tensions throughout the country.

Nigeria’s population is comprised of more than 250 ethnic groups with the largest being Hausa/Fulani at 29 percent of the population, followed by the Yoruba (21 percent), Igbo (18 percent), Ijaw (10 percent) and Kanuri (4 percent).

Those ethnic groups are further divided along religious lines with 50 percent of the population adhering to Islam, 40 percent to Christianity and 10 percent to indigenous beliefs. For the most part, Nigeria’s Muslims inhabit the northern part of the country, while the Christians live in the south. This geography tends to accentuate regional and ethnic divisions in Nigeria and has been blamed for past and present sectarian conflict.

While there are numerous militant groups operating in Nigeria, the most prolific currently is Boko Haram, an Islamic extremist group, run by Abubakar Shekau, a little known leader. The Nigerian government has been fighting the group, whose name loosely means, “Western education is a sin,” since its inception in 2002. Nigerian military forces have sought the terrorist group and its leaders with only limited results, but killing the former leader of Boko Haram.

Boko Haram’s goal is to overthrow the Nigerian government and create an Islamic state. Nigerian security forces believe that members of Boko Haram have travelled to Somalia and perhaps even to Afghanistan for terrorist training

Up until recently, the group has waged low-level attacks mostly as assassinations conducted from motorcycles. Militants typically have targeted Christian and Muslim religious leaders, politicians, police officers and government forces. In 2011, Boko Haram’s increasingly sophisticated bombing campaign killed at least 500 people, most of whom were civilians. While previously confined to the northeastern part of Nigeria, Boko Haram has spread out geographically, waging attacks over the past few years in the centrally located capital, Abuja.

Boko Haram’s latest kidnappings of schoolgirls occurred in the Northeast Nigerian towns of Chibok and Gamboru Ngala, very near the porous border with Cameroon.  There is great fear that the group may have taken the victims across the border. Abubakar Shekar appeared on social media threatening to sell the girls as “wives” and chiding the Nigerian military for its ineptitude.

These events have captured international attention and have led to promises to assist the Nigerian military. The United States, United Kingdom and other Western powers have promised assistance in the form of military intelligence, remote sensing, coordination and advice. Few countries are willing to commit any personnel other than advisors.

In addition to Boko Haram’s attacks, groups in the oil-producing Niger Delta area may be ready to renew conflict in that region. In the 1990s, foreign oil corporations clashed with a number of the Niger Delta’s minority ethnic groups who perceived they were being exploited for oil. Since then, competition for oil wealth has incited violence between innumerable ethnic groups. Today, the entire region is almost totally militarized by ethnic militia groups and Nigerian military and police forces.

One of the biggest threats from the predominately Christian south may come from the Movement to Emancipate the Niger Delta (MEND). According to the BBC (Oct. 30, 2011), MEND appears to be frustrated by the Nigerian government’s decision to shift its attention to the country’s mainly Muslim northern half, where Boko Haram operates.

In the wake of the recent attacks against Christians by Boko Haram, other militant groups in Nigeria’s south have threatened to take up arms to protect themselves. While Nigeria is by no means facing civil war, Jonathan would like to quickly control these militant groups, and especially Boko Haram, from inciting further violence.

Nigeria’s total security is currently at risk. While the protection of civilians is the government’s primary goal, it undoubtedly would also like to protect its economic future. Continued unrest could create political instability in Nigeria, further destabilizing President Goodluck Jonathan’s government.

And that is Geography in the News.

Sources: GITN 1130 “Nigeria’s Turmoil,” Maps.com, Jan. 31, 2013;  http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Africa/2011/1030/Move-over-Boko-Haram-Nigeria-s-MEND-rebels-set-to-restart-oil-war-in-Niger-Delta; and http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Africa/2012/0103/Nigeria-dispatches-troops-to-north-to-stop-Boko-Haram-attacks

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor. Geography in the NewsTM  is solely owned and operated by Neal Lineback for the purpose of providing geographic education to readers worldwide.