A Passionate Education?: The Creation of Boko Haram

Sam Epps explores the formation of Boko Haram and the lesser publicized effects it has had on Nigeria. See also Garrett Clark’s work on the aesthetics of Boko Haram’s violence. Both Elizabethtown College students are working with Dr. Richard Newton to document Boko Haram’s violence in Nigeria and to analyze the discourse around its mediation. 


Boko Haram’s Standard, Adopted following an agreement of solidarity with the Islamic State in 2015.

Nigeria is a coastal country located in Sub-Saharan Africa. After gaining independence from British rule in the 1960’s followed by years of civil war and military rule, Nigeria became a democratic nation in with the 1999 election of Umaru Yar’Adua. In 2002, an Islamist movement against Western education was formed in Maiduguri, a major city in the northeast of the country. The organization set up a mosque and an Islamic school, educating the children of poor Muslims that were upset with the public (i.e. Western-influenced) education system in the country. This movement, which became known as Boko Haram, began acts of violence in 2009 when followers attacked police stations and government buildings in Maiduguri. Since then, over 20,000 people have been killed by Boko Haram. The current president, Muhammadu Buhari, was elected in 2015 and promised to put an end to Boko Haram.

The question of how a small group of dedicated Muslims quickly became a powerful, violent assembly that has stunted the growth of the biggest economy in Africa can be answered quite simply: this minority group led by an energetic leader became upset with the majority in the country, and “recoded” its followers to believe that invoking fear, violence, and stunting the economy is the best way to bring about change.[1] Bruce Lincoln would classify this vision as a “maximalist” form of religion, which describes a situation where religion dominates all aspects of life. Boko Haram was founded on the belief that education wasn’t a priority of those governing the country, and public (Western) education should be forbidden. As the group grew in size, they began recruiting jihadists and developed the goal of an Islamic state operating under Sharia Law in Western Africa.

Boko Haram was initially created by an energetic Muslim cleric named Mohammed Yusuf. He was responsible for the infrastructure behind the movement, but when the movement became violent in 2009, Yusuf was killed after Boko Haram’s headquarters was seized. After the death of Yusuf, many thought the Boko Haram was finished, but a much more radical leader took over. Abubakar Shekau is described as a “fearless loner, a complex, paradoxical man – part-theologian, part gangster.” A trained theology student, Shekau has cited his relationship with Allah as reason for violence.[2] In many of the videos released by the organization, Shekau is seen giving messages to his followers.

The violence, which is mostly concentrated in northeast Nigeria, has frightened parents. According to a UNICEF report , an estimated one million children have been forced out of school since the violence began. Parents are aware that schools are targets of Boko Haram, with over 600 teachers killed by the group. Over 2,000 schools in Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and Cameroon have been closed. Hundreds of other schools have been looted, burned to the ground, or completely destroyed. Many of the children who’ve been forced from school haven’t been to class in over a year, which puts them at a high risk for dropping out of school all together.

Boko Haram’s war on Western education has brought mass casualties as well as stunting the economic development of Nigeria, and halting the education of over a million children. Ethicist Darlene Fozard Weaver notes, “Religiously sponsored violence also includes such things as: psychological harm through mechanisms that induce shame, guilt, and social isolation; sexual assault and the beliefs and practices that make people, especially women and children, vulnerable to it; life-threatening economic deprivation; and environmental damage.”[3] Women and children have been heavily targeted by the extremist group, often being forced into marriage, sexual abuse, and mutilated. This has traumatized parents and caused many to withhold their children from going to school even if an area is deemed safe.

Many of the children have experienced the violence of Boko Haram or lost family members to violence, which has left them psychologically scarred. When asked what they want to become in the future, many children respond with one word: Soldier. Rene Girard talks of desire and mimetic violence of which the response of the children is an example. They’ve had their childhoods and family taken away from them, and they want vengeance in return.

A small movement with passionate leaders and followers, Boko Haram became violent and spread fear amongst the entire country. Suddenly the group had stunted the growth of the biggest economic power in Africa, put over one million children out of school, and killed 20,000 people in six years. Much of the media has focused on the chaos and destruction they have brought, but the psychological torment has been staggering. Rather than learning in school in hopes to go to college, children are at home or refugee camps, hoping that they can become a soldier and avenge the ones they’ve lost.

[1] Darlene Fozard. Weaver, “Violence and Religion,” in Introduction to Religious Studies (Winona, MN: Anselm Academic, 2009) 98-99.

[2] The use of religion to support a just war is not simply a feature of Islamism. For comparison, see also the 1831 The Confessions of Nat Turner, the antebellum slave who led the largest slave revolt in American history. Turner cited a calling from God, and led an insurrection of 75 slaves that killed 60 white people before being overpowered and eventually killed. Turner was also able read which lead to his passion for religious texts, and was raised by his mother to hate slavery.

[3] Weaver, “Violence and Religion,” 98.

Sam EppsSam Epps ’19 is a first-year student at Elizabethtown College. He is a Business AdministrationInterfaith Leadership Studies double major. Follow him on LinkedIn.


Join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s