By: Salem Abraham*

Long before the kidnapping of the 276 Chibok schoolgirls, the mass killings of over 20,000 individuals, and the displacement of 2.3 million people, Boko Haram’s rise within the ranks of global terrorism came as little to no surprise to observers of the region. Just recently, the New York Times ranked Boko Haram as the deadliest terrorist group in the world – ahead of ISIS.

Boko Haram’s origins began in the Northeastern part of Nigeria. Secular primary education in Northern Nigeria is almost nonexistent to most of the population. The government and the ruling elite have largely underfunded public education in Northern Nigeria and have left several primary and secondary schools in a state of disrepair. In a region rife with poverty and high levels of illiteracy, formal primary education is largely ignored. Islamic education at the primary level (makarantar alio) is nearly universal, because one must learn the Quran in order to perform daily prayers. Many teachers (malamai) offer instruction in their alley-side schools, where young pupils memorize the Quran by reading from slate tablets on which Quranic verses have been written. (Morgan, Ismailia & Abdullahi 2010). Islamic education is usually the first and many times the only formal education that many of these residents receive. This form of education serves as an individuals’ introduction to fundamental Islam and the first formation of religious in-group and out-groups identities.

            Social Identity Theory: Treatment of In-Group vs. Out-Group Members  

The indoctrination of fundamentalist Islam to the agrarian/nomadic culture of Northern Nigeria has further stifled development within the sub-Saharan region and has given rise to a widespread neo-collective ethnic orientation amongst the populace. Several societal groups in Northern Nigeria can be classified as neo-conservative and collective. Collective societies or cultures view themselves as interdependent of one another and place group goals and interest over personal goals and interest. These largely Islamic societies regard themselves as interdependent of one another, with special priority given to those who share similar faith and ideological values.

These cluster groups are highly benevolent when dealing with in-group members. The application of both the generosity rule (giving a large share to others) and the equality rule (equal division) in regards to resource distribution is typical amongst several Hausa/Fulani clans. On the other hand, people who do not share common religious ideology or ancestry are regarded as outgroup members and are usually victims of in-group members’ exploitation and hostility. An unbalanced and disparate equity rule is usually enacted when members of the in-group deal with non-group members. This disparate equity rule always views the contributions of outgroup members less than that of the contributions made by in-group members regardless of the outgroup members contributions.

Those who do not share such ideological values are treated as outgroup members and are primary targets of hostilities and violence within various communities. Such hostilities are not limited to: mob lynching, arraignment before Sharia courts without due process, stoning, honor killings, non-medical (punitive) amputations, and executions via religious cleric fiat.

This underlying societal persuasion is most beneficial to terrorists groups, such as Boko Haram, who use their religious ideology to exploit the neo-conservative collective orientations within such societies. Groups such as Boko Haram incite their members and supporters towards moral exclusion of other members of society who do not share the same fundamentalist views. This supports Brewer’s (1979) viewpoint that in-group bias is the tendency for people to give preferential treatment to others when they are perceived to be in similar groups.


Boko Haram’s ideology is a textbook example of the six types of injustices that are involved in oppression as stated by Deutsch, Coleman, and Marcus (2006). These types of injustice are: distributive injustice, procedural injustice, the sense of injustice, retributive and reparative injustice, moral exclusion, and cultural imperialism.

Distributive injustice is concerned with the criterion that leads an individual or group to believe that they deserve a fair outcome. Boko Haram enacts its own brand of distributive injustice within its governing ideology. Followers of this group are said to be influenced by the Koranic phrase, “Anyone who is not governed by what Allah has revealed is among the transgressors.” (BBC News, 2011). Therefore, any person or group of people who are not aligned with their ideology are seen as “partners with Satan” and by default are shortchanging all of society. The group believes that only true practitioners of Islam should be political, spiritual, and economic leaders and all secularist and democratic institutions have violated the rights of the group and its followers.

Procedural injustice examines the fair treatment in making and implementing the decisions that determine the final outcome. In other words, procedural injustice examines the level of fairness in the decision-making process. The goal of the group is to have the Nigerian nation governed by Sharia Law. However, Boko Haram members see themselves as the ones who should be enforcing such laws. In their own minds, the group members see themselves as the judge, jury, and executioner of all social and moral affairs – the be-all and end-all of all authority.

Deutsch, Coleman, and Marcus (2006) explained that the sense of injustice centers on what factors determine whether an injustice is experienced as such. Boko Haram members are of the belief that all institutions, political, religious, and otherwise, that are associated or affiliated with the Western world, are all agents of injustice. The group blames all societal ills on Western society and denies all responsibility and culpability for the deterioration of society. The group sees itself as messengers of hope and salvation in a world ridden by paganism and immorality.

Retributive and reparative injustice is concerned with the response to the violation of moral norms and how to repair the moral community that has been violated. The group members of Boko Haram see Western Civilization as a violation of Islamic doctrine and the primary source of evil in the world. To this end, the group believes in the violent overthrow of the status quo for justice to be restored to all of humanity. The group’s moral community is so myopic that it sees everyone and anyone who does not support their cause as “the enemy.” Furthermore, the group has excluded over ninety percent of the Nigerian population from its moral community. Boko Haram uses moral exclusion as a reason for perpetrating dastardly and violent acts on ordinary citizens since by their perception and definition; they are helping to rid the world of all undesirable elements – many of which are either liberal or non-Muslims. The group desires to rid Nigeria of all traces of Western imperialism but in the same token attempts to enforce Islamic imperialism upon the nation. The group opposes the values and norms of the Western world which they attribute to cultural domination. Nevertheless, the same group seeks to enact its own version of imperialism over Nigeria.

            McClelland’s Four Power Orientations

Boko Haram, which can be classified as a low-power group (LPG), made efficient use of McClelland’s (1975) four power orientations (dependence, autonomy, assertion and community) to some degree and developed an effective strategy towards achieving their aspirations. By utilizing a dependent strategy, the group was able to solicit the support of other well-established jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda, the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al-Shabaab. These groups provided special paramilitary and intelligence to Boko Haram members and enrolled them into their international terrorism framework. This input from other terrorist cells made Boko Haram financially and technologically independent from the ruling political and religious northern elite which can in turn be classified as high-power groups (HPG’s). Therefore, local politicians and religious clerics were neither able to account for their activities nor predict their targets. Thus, Boko Haram members were able to operate at a great level of anonymity and strike local police headquarters at will.

However, attacking local police officials was not really the group’s end objective. The group attacked local police structures in order to bait federal security operatives into an all-out war and garner both national and international attention.

The Nigerian Police Force, being a federal agency, would inevitably send reinforcements to quell the uprising. The group then implemented an assertive strategy by using the arms and ammunition at their disposal to instigate a rebellion against local, state, and federal authority. The national security forces retaliated and successfully seized control of the group’s training base and executed its leader, Mohammed Yusuf. The national security forces displayed Yusuf’s bullet-ridden body on state television as proof that the insurrection had been subdued. However, national security forces had unwittingly made him a martyr amongst Islamic fundamentalists and drew sympathy to the group’s cause.

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*Edited by Christine Sanders