Lately, Nigeria has been all over the news for its lackluster response to the kidnapping of more than 300 schoolgirls. The kidnapping, in case you haven’t heard, happened on April 14th and was conducted by the radical Islamist group Boko Haram as an attempt to get the Nigerian government to release certain Boko Haram members from imprisonment.
But who is Boko Haram and where did they come from?
Well, Boko Haram- which when translated means the Congregation of the People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad- was originally started by Mohammed Yusuf back in 2002. For the first 7 years of its existence, Boko Haram operated as peaceful protest group against the government.
However, the mood of the organization dramatically shifted when reports started to surface that the group was becoming armed in 2009. Not surprisingly, the Nigerian government grew paranoid and anxious. They wanted to intervene under any circumstance, and they finally did during a traffic stop in 2009.
In January of 2009, the Nigerian government instituted a law that mandated that all motorcycle riders were now required to wear helmets. The law was put in place because of the lack of safety on Nigerian roads.
Riders, however, were not happy with the law and often ignored it. Some even taunted police by wearing dried pumpkin shells, painted pots, and rubber tires on their heads. In an interview with the BBC, one Nigerian official said, “We are impounding their bikes and want to take them to court so they can explain why they think wearing a calabash is good enough for their safety.”
Then, on June 11th 2009, things got out of hand.
It happened when officers in an anti-robbery security unit known as “Operation Flush” decided to stop a Boko Haram funeral convoy because they were not wearing their helmets. Ironically, the funeral was for a group member that had died in an auto accident a few days prior. Boko Haram members were not pleased with the stop, though, and a conflict quickly started. Nigerian officers then opened fire and injured 17 members.
This event is often pointed to as the origin of the major conflict between the Nigerian government and the Boko Haram group. The Atlantic writer Uri Friedman says, “A bike-helmet law, of all things, played a role in Boko Haram morphing into what we know it as today: an armed, al Qaeda-linked insurgency whose battles with security forces and violent operations have left thousands dead- including more than 100 just this week in a series of suspected Boko Haram attacks.”