Boko Haram was an avoidable mistake waiting to happen

Nigeria's extremist Boko Haram won't go away until the indignities and abuses imposed by an arbitrary and unjust government are ended.

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Over the last year, an esoteric Islamist extremist group has propelled Nigeria to the brink of religious conflict, killed some 500 people in bomb and other attacks, and set off alarm bells worldwide that Africa's most populous country could soon become a terrorist haven.

Boko Haram, as the group has come to be known, has only a few hundred members, and before 2009, they were clustered almost exclusively in one mosque in the small, dusty city of Maiduguri.

But if Boko Haram was the push, Nigeria was close to the edge.

The truth is, Boko Haram could have been anyone. The trouble in Northern Nigeria - and across the country for that matter - has been brewing below the surface for so long that it was bound to boil over.

Nigeria is Africa's largest oil producer and a major supplier of crude to the US. Yet despite its vast wealth, enormously diverse population, impressive economic elite and political dominance in the region, Nigeria fails at doing the one thing it needs to do: delivering any semblance of government, justice, and security for huge sweeps of its 150 million people. The country ranks an abysmal 156th out of 187 countries on the United Nation's Human Development Index despite having the world's 32nd largest GDP.

Material suffering alone doesn't build rebellions, though. What has built Boko Haram - and other movements in the past - is injustice at the hands of arbitrary governance. Boko Haram has won influence and converts by resisting the indignity of encounters with the state. The movement won't go away until the indignities do too.

In the dusty capitals of the country's north, the grievances are not hard to see. Police wrestle young men off to prison in hopes of winning bribes from their families for their release. Jobs from the state are portioned off to cronies and family members. Corruption is on display; while most people walk or take motorbike taxis where they need to go, roaring convoys of new SUVs shuttle even the most insignificant political office-holders around in freshly pressed suits. The people are useful only when elections roll around - and politicians can buy their votes.

Responding to these degradations, many in the country's north supported a movement at the turn of the century to impose Sharia law there - an attempt to bring true justice to a system that lacked any semblance of such. Sharia was implemented, but the abuses went on. The more extreme supporters of Islamic law retrenched, arguing that the problem was that Sharia hadn't been implemented completely enough.

So emerged Boko Haram, a movement about which the world still knows remarkably little, other than its promises to shatter the status quo.

Boko Haram's aims - to establish a stricter form of Islamic governance - are understood only in the broadest of terms. Rumours of links to Al Qaeda and other international terrorist groups abound, but whether those ties are aspirational or operational is largely conjecture. Even the name Boko Haram (which translates to mean "Western education is banned") is a best guess at the group's intentions; the sect's members call themselves by another name, Jama'atul Alhul Sunnah Lidda'wati wal jihad, or "people committed to the propagation of the Prophet's teachings and jihad."

What transformed Boko Haram from accident to inevitability was simple: the government's response to it, particularly that of the army and the police.

For years, the security forces responded to threats of extremism by rounding up anyone who they thought might possibly be connected. Usually that meant tens or hundreds of innocents would be jailed for every few guilty. When Boko Haram first struck in 2009, the police reacted by raiding their compound and summarily executing the group's leaders.

Since that day, Boko Haram has waged war on the Nigerian police in retaliation. In the middle of last year they took their battle to the Nigerian state and anyone who associates with it. They have bombed the police headquarters and the United Nations compound in Abuja. And most recently, Boko Haram has turned its gaze toward Christians, bombing several churches on Christmas day. The government's response to this has been, predictably, to clamp down.

But what the Nigerian government has done more than anything is score goals on its own side. The hard-handed crackdown has only pushed more and more sympathisers into Boko Haram's camp.

As the extremist group enters its third year in the spotlight, religious and political ambitions have been irreversibly grafted onto it. Boko Haram's grievances have come to symbolise the historical competition between the country's majority-Muslim north and Christian south over the capital Abuja - and all its oil wealth. Countless elites have piled into that competition for control, and some are even thought to be behind the high-profile bombings.

The question in all this is just how long Nigerians will put up with it. And by every indication this week, patience is running thin. Thousands have taken to the streets in a national strike against the end of a petrol subsidy - the only benefit many Nigerians received from their state's vast resource wealth. What's striking is that they aren't holding placards only about the pain of the rising gas prices; Nigerians are also denouncing corruption and mismanagement. They know that no extremist group—however despicable—is to blame for pushing Nigeria to the brink. That was Nigeria's doing.

Elizabeth Dickinson is a freelance journalist and a former Nigeria correspondent for the Economist.