The Role of Religion in Ethnic Wars: A Case Study of Boko Haram

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Introduction to the Study

Prolonged crises in emerging societies jeopardize the stability of state governance structures. Recurring religious and ethnic wars characterized by wanton destruction of lives and property have also spread across state and national boundaries, creating insecurity, driving many below the poverty line, and impoverishing global economies. In West Africa, religious and ethnic wars are considered a major cause of underdevelopment. To an exceptionally considerable extent, Nigeria is a typical example of leadership incompetence as crises across the thirty-six states expose the nonchalance attitude of government officials whose key responsibility is to ensure the safety of citizens and their property (Onukwuba, 2018; Cyr & Widmeier, 2021).

Since the Nigerian civil war between 1966 and 1970, citizens have never seen a revival of violence and instability when compared to the massacre, insecurity and lawlessness caused by Boko Haram, the religious sect founded by Muslim radicals. The multi-faceted sectarian insurgency has thrown Nigeria’s leadership structure into a state of chaos, and political leaders seem not to have an answer to many questions raised by citizens and foreign observers (Karram, 2013).

Evidence-based research shows that Africans are more religious than people in other continents. Although religious crises have inflicted wounds on Europe and America, a comparative analysis of African countries indicates there is a wide gap in theory and practice. Religion has been “an opium of the masses,” according to the German scholar, Karl Marx. The Bible and Quran have been wrongly interpreted on many issues and followers of religious organizations are, mostly, brainwashed to believe and pursue the selfish interests of their leaders. So, religion is practiced differently even among Christians and Muslims (Onukwuba, 2018).

However, most Africans not only stick to a single faith, but they also regard their religious beliefs as more precious and serious than secularized Europeans. According to statistics, Africa is home to around one-fifth of the world’s professed Christians denominations, one-fourth of Muslims, and half of all adherents to various kinds of traditional or ethnic religions—with few non-believers. The prevalence of religious sects in West Africa dates to centuries of contact between the continent’s Indigenous religions and those of the Arabs and of the Europeans. The first phase was an Arab colonization mixed with Islamic missionary activity, followed by a Christian colonization and missionary deployment from Europe (Cyr & Widmeier, 2021).

Anyanwu and Nwanaju (2010) opined that “Africa as a continent seems to confirm the long-lasting belief that people are deeply religious because of the plurality of religion and religious beliefs found in it. So, the continent is full of moderates and extremists, fanatics and realists, simple minded believers and complex adherents, liberals, and conservatives who contribute to the multi-religious nature of West Africa in general.” This confirms that religion has remained a dynamic force in the mind of an average African man and his society’s history. As a result, religious leaders increase their power and influence by their ability to change people’s minds with positive or negative intentions (Karram, 2013).

When cannot discuss the role of religion in the development of West African countries without referring to the proliferation of certain religious organisations. Boko Haram has become a threat in West Africa due to its belief system which promotes violence and lawlessness. Over the past decade, Nigeria has been tumultuous due to the secessionist activities of Islamic extremist groups liked to Boko Haram and the global terror organization Islamic State of Iraq (ISIS), a militant organization that emerged as an offshoot of al Qaeda in 2014 (Onukwuba, 2018; Cyr & Widmeier, 2021).

The History and Ideology of the Boko Haram

Boko Haram’s disruptive actions, according to Ewuzie (2012), are a theological and sectarian dilemma produced by a fringe sectarian problematic interpretation of Islam’s essential teachings. Mohammed (2012), however, believes that the insurgency caused socioeconomic factors rather than religious or ethnic factors. But an analysis of these differing viewpoints shows that Ewuzie has a more credible and plausible idea due to Boko Haram’s use of mischief and violence. This is ironic considering the noble role played by religion across the world. According to Uche (2017), religion is not only for promoting the ideal ethical association between God, man, and society; it is also a normative institution that commands the worshipper not to engage in murder, theft, or deviant behaviour. Thus, Boko Haram’s acts of terrorism are the opposite of what the author considers as true religion, and religious devotees of the Islamic sect are terrorists and murderers without conscience or respect for “God.” Their destruction or demolition system is known as massacre, and it includes the callous destruction of lives and property. As a result, their commander has bestowed power upon them by means of religious teachings, allowing them to conduct demonic operations legally (Onukwuba, 2018).  

Insecurity has become a jigsaw puzzle engulfing West Africa, particularly Nigeria. Boko Haram, as the primary and most well-known perpetrators of this threat, has always relied on its erroneous notion that “western education is sin.” This is how the sect derives its name, “Boko,” signifying “Western European education” and Haram signifying “sin” (Anyanwu, & Nwanaju, 2010). Due to this religion-driven assumption, Boko Hara insurgents primarily target schools that provide Western education. They eventually extended target points to public places particularly churches where they believe European religion is preached and practised (Karram, 2013; Duruji et al, 2019).

An investigation into the origins and root causes of Boko Haram’s emergence and insurgency shows how the phenomenon of failed leadership and weak institutions in Nigeria’s North-eastern region created loopholes that selfish religious leaders exploited to incite mass condemnation and hatred for the Nigerian state. Homeless children growing up as beggars are the most vulnerable group lured or forced to serve the selfish interests of politicians. However, religious sect supporting Boko Haram’s agenda are known to recruit children, train them to become child soldiers, and deploy them to unleash mayhem on the society. Women and young girls have also been kidnapped, enslaved, and forced to bomb various locations in the country—especially churches and schools—to achieve political and religious objectives. Politicians collaborating with religious leaders often bribe or use Greek gifts to influence people’s perception of political opponents, partisan politics, and governance. Research indicates that some politicians from Muslim-majority states exploit the ignorance of their gullible and vulnerable followers, especially able-bodied youths, and use them to gain number advantage during elections. And after achieving victory at the polls through bribery, electoral fraud or other justifiable means, the politicians abandon the youths to focus on looting, arms proliferation, and ethnic/religious cleansing (Geda, 2011; Mohammed, 2012; Cyr & Widmeier, 2021).

Cases of corruption and theft of state funds have exacerbated the Boko Haram situation because sponsors of the deadly sect rely on persistent acts of violence and fear to remain in the seat of power. This explains why political institutions have failed to fulfil their constitutional obligation of providing good and responsible governance as well as development dividends to the poor masses who are perpetually marginalized and subjected to poverty and destitution. Boko Haram lay claims to the governmental failures as its motivation to bear arms against Nigeria. Kukah (2010) recently described Boko haram religious violence in Nigeria together with its sectarian upheavals as “going beyond the religious.” This is a lingering political and economic issue which highlights the failure of Nigerian government to address secular matters in a timely, cost-effective, and result-oriented manner. But the level of corruption, hatred and ethnic bias among politicians who control the leadership structures creates more chaos than the solutions they were elected to offer (Onukwuba, 2018).

Furthermore, the establishment of this sectarian group underscores the link between religion and violence. Boko Haram has an ambition to Islamize Nigeria and enforce Sharia law across their caliphates. The goal of making Islam a dominant religion in society was first touted under the administration of Late Gen. Sanni Abacha. To achieve this purpose in present-day Nigeria, Boko Haram leaders use the iron fist tactic which either forces people into subjection or destroys them as infidels. So, other religions and their members have faced subjugation in various degrees. For the fear of death and a frantic search for protection, Christians and other religious groups in hard-hit areas avoid church gatherings and public display of their religious beliefs (Salvaterra et al, 2009; Cyr & Widmeier, 2021).


Within the confines of instability, the horrible effects of the Boko Haram insurgency extend beyond the health and housing of its victims to include food and nutrition, education, and protection, all of which are essential necessities of existence (Duruji et al, 2019; Ukwueze et al, 2019).

Results from this research indicate that Nigeria’s agriculture system has been severely affected due to the increasing rate of invasions, bloody wars, and destruction of lives, farmlands, and properties in the country’s most important food-growing regions. Production of cowpeas, rice, millet, tomatoes, onions, yams, corns and sorghums, animals, and fish grown in hard-hit states like Yobe, Adamawa, and Borno has significantly fallen below record numbers. Also, Nigeria has suffered food shortage, and the exorbitant price of foodstuff is a result of farmers’ fear of insurgents who attack on farmlands and in vulnerable communities (Onukwuba, 2018). “No one can move a kilometre due to fear,” Abba Gambo, a lecturer at Maiduguri University, sadly stated. More than 1.5 million people, farmers, fled their homes as Boko Haram’s insurgency increased death toll last year, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (Cooper & Yue, 2008).

Furthermore, violent attacks on trade routes between the north and south disrupted free movement of people and goods thereby reducing food supplies. The negative impact of Boko Haran insurgency on food transit and distribution chain across Nigeria widened the poverty line and increased death tolls significantly. Food distribution problems caused by the insurgency, according to the Central Bank of Nigeria, are one of the country’s biggest inflationary threats. Boko Haram has halted the supply of beans, according to Eme et al. (2014). They also mentioned that two food staples in particular, pepper and tomatoes produced in the North and used in every household across Nigeria are in low supply. As a result, monthly household expenditure on food items has skyrocketed dramatically (Ukwueze et al, 2019).

If the sect’s violent attacks continue, the country will plunge into long-term food shortages—with unexpected impact on economic growth indicators. Food prices will increase steadily, making it difficult for individuals and households to obtain enough nutritious foods that sustain good health and expand lifespan. Nigerians are facing hunger, famine, malnutrition, and death because of Boko Haram insurgency. Malnutrition is common in places most affected by insurgency and violence in general (Cyr & Widmeier, 2021; Salvaterra et al, 2009).

The sect has also attacked schools and colleges, injuring, killing, or kidnapping students and staff, as well as destroying buildings. “Conflict and insecurity have had a direct and compounding negative impact on children’s access to education, the availability of educational spaces and materials, and the ability of teachers,” says HNO (2014). According to Michael Olukoya, the National President of the Nigerian Union of Teachers commemorated the death of 600 teachers who fell victim to Boko Haram insurgency on 5th October 2015 (, 2015). Bandits damaged over 882 classrooms in Borno State as of August 2013, while all schools in Yobe State closed between June to September 2013. (Awortu, 2015). The kidnapping of almost two hundred female students at the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok on April 14, 2014 (Hassan, 2014) has prevented parents from enrolling their children and wards in schools. Some parents also withdrew their children who were already enrolled in schools. All of this occurred in a region that was already educationally inferior before to the rebellion (Onukwuba, 2018).

With an increased number of school dropouts, illiterates, and unemployed youngsters who are vulnerable to people recruiting them for suicide bombing and terrorists, Boko Haram insurgency has hampered the economic development of regions/states and the education sector is collapsing day-by-day. “When the rate of illiteracy and school dropout is high, there is a tendency that violence will increase and persist in Nigeria,” says Awortu (2015). According to HNO (2014), “an estimated 2.15 million men, women, girls, and boys are facing physical and psychological trauma related to insurgency.” Children, particularly females, have been more manipulated in recent attacks. Islamists have conducted deadly ambushes throughout Nigeria’s borders, and women have been employed in them (Audu, 2018).

Further, there is a high rate of early child marriages in Boko Haram camps. The negative health consequences on young girls, slave wives and their children are unimaginable. The humanitarian needs of people affected by the conflict, particularly internally displaced persons (IDPs), are frequently unmet by Nigerian leaders and this is heart-breaking. Employees working in IDP camps lack protection and robust administration mechanisms required to achieve objectives, according to HNO (2014). Human rights violations have been a feature of counter-insurgency operations, too. The Nigerian political system lacks coordination. As the 2023 elections loom, there is great need for the electorates, media, religious organizations, academic associations, professional bodies, and international agencies to regroup and save the nation from chaos (Audu, 2018; Onukwuba, 2018; Musa & Kurawa, 2018).

To summarise, religion has, according to Tunde Babawale (2008), “left people badly divided and deeply embittered toward one another”. It should be a beneficial instrument for the sustainable development of the Nigerian people and West Africans as a whole, rather than a source of bad influence or violence that stifles growth. The crooked politicians understand religion as a crucial campaign and leadership tool. And they will never relinquish power without a fight notwithstanding the increasing level of sensitization and self-awareness (Onukwuba, 2018; Geda, 2011; Ukwueze et al, 2019).

Unlike the destabilising effects of Boko Haram, Nigeria owes a substantial portion of its current level of growth to religious influence. As Eme (2010) argues, it is disturbing that observers of the Nigerian situation chose to link religion to crises rather than supporting the widespread campaign against ineptitude among the biased, selfish, gullible, and brazenly corrupt politicians ruling the country.


The relationship, if any, between Nigeria’s Boko Haram and ISIS is a question that vexes the policy community. If there is one, it would support the argument that Boko Haram is, indeed, a new front in the international war on terrorism, as Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan maintains. If a relationship does not exist, or if it is minimal, that would support the argument that Boko Haram is a domestic Nigerian issue, while ISIS has more of a global agenda. For movements that have caused so much disruption and suffering, from a practical perspective, their internal workings and their governance remain obscure (Karram, 2013; Onukwuba, 2018).

ISIS seeks to recreate the legalities and governance of Islam’s earliest years dating back to the seventh century. He places ISIS in the context of the salafist school of Sunni Islam. Salafism is characterized by the literal reading of the Koran and the earliest scriptures while stripping away later accretions. Boko Haram is also part of that tradition. Both also emphasize the excommunication and killing of Muslims who, by behaviour or belief, diverge from their orthodoxies. Accordingly, most of the victims of both are Muslims (Cooper & Yue, 2008). However, if ISIS seeks to recover seventh century Islam, Boko Haram appears much influenced by Ibn Taymiyyah, a thirteenth century theologian originally from what is now Iraq. He is seen as one of the theological pioneers of salafism.

Boko Haram and ISIS sound similar, and they have expressed mutual admiration. But there exist significant differences beyond their differing geographies and circumstances. Among them is the emphasis that ISIS places on holding territory as the basis for a caliphate, and that a universal caliphate is a requirement for the End of Times. Hence, critiques argue that for ISIS, there can be only one caliphate (Olabode, 2018).

It is difficult to imagine that Boko Haram would accept subordination to a caliphate based in the Middle East. Islam has existed in northern Nigeria for more than a thousand years. Boko Haram’s “face,” Abubakar Shekau, may have announced the creation of his own caliphate, or he may simply have established an Islamic state. The evidence is inconclusive, but the distinction is important: a ‘caliphate’ would imply an institution with much broader reach than an ‘Islamic state’. The former has religious implications and associations far beyond the later (Ukwueze et al, 2019; Karram, 2013; Onukwuba, 2018).


Both ISIS and Boko Haram are authoritarian and reject compromise in matters of faith. Further, Boko Haram’s leadership and structure appears much more diffused than that of ISIS. Hence, Boko Haram and ISIS are unlikely to reach a political agreement that would require either of them to compromise.

Theology is only one dimension of ISIS and Boko Haram, along with alienated youth, economic depression, and predatory states. But the theological dimension is an important one if the international community is to understand and counter ISIS and Boko Haram.

Viewed from a much broader perspective, religion is only minor to the significant socio-economic elements and variables that gave birth to Boko Haram religious violence. The solution that will reduce tension, conflict, and bring about reconciliation is intra and inter religious dialogue between the various stakeholders. But the aggressive implementation of socio-economic and democratic reforms that will strengthen the state and democratic institutions is necessary to successfully deliver democratic and development dividends to Nigerians. This enabling environment of poverty reduction, effective administration, strong state institutions, and citizen discussion will certainly provide long-term solutions to Islamic insurgency and violence against the Nigerian state and its inhabitants. Hassan (2014) emphasises that creating people’s security is the first stage in counterinsurgency because no nation is secure and ready for development unless it can guarantee the security of its citizens (Danjibo, 2012; Audu, 2018; Onukwuba, 2018; Ukwueze et al, 2019).


The government should ensure that it prioritizes the needs and aspirations of citizens. While it is necessary to invest in the agricultural sector to increase food production, policymakers need to agree on R&D investments that promote health innovation, improves care delivery, and make it easy for Nigerians to access quality care. Development of the Primary Health Care (PHC) systems starts with an improvement of the education system, regular training of health professionals, technology integration, and a review of payment models in the healthcare system. Additionally, education should be free and affordable at certain levels. The government, NGOs and donor agencies should also collaborate to establish more schools with high-quality facilities and experienced teachers.

Internally displaced persons deserve suitable housing programs. The government should also compensate victims of violent crimes, especially those kidnapped, extorted, raped, or maimed by insurgents. Politicians across the state therefore have a responsibility to provide adequate protection for lives and property. The government can achieve this security objective by strengthening national security with advanced internet communication technologies, intelligence=gathering systems, and robust network of initiative-taking anti-crime and terrorism organizations. Lastly, policymakers should set up a panel review to analyses the performance of Nigeria’s legal system and proffer solutions to increase efficiency, strengthen accountability, and enforce fairness and equity to protect citizens against insecurity, human rights abuse, and religious wars.


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