While Nigeria remains in the throes of armed conflicts and terrorist attacks, the violent Islamic organisation Boko Haram, which has killed and maimed thousands since launching its violent campaign in 2009, remains the country's biggest challenge. Kidnapping, armed robbery and other violent attacks have continued to plague the country, despite the efforts of the authorities.
But by far the toughest challenge is how to curtail the activities of the sect, known as Jama’tu Alhlissunah Lidda await wal Jihad (People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teaching and Jihad).
Boko Haram sees Western influence on Islamic society, particularly Western education, as the basis of the weakness of the religion, hence the meaning of its name in the local Hausa language: Western Education is Forbidden’
The sect, which rejects Western education and democracy, says it is campaigning to establish an Islamic state in the secular nation that boasts roughly of an equal number of adherents of Islam and Christianity.
At the beginning, the sect was located in just four states in the predominantly-Muslim north - Borno, Yobe, Katsina and Bauchi.
But over time, it has recruited more followers and has now established operating cells in almost all the states in the north.
The majority of its foot soldiers are drawn from disaffected youths, unemployed graduates and Almajiris (Islamic pupils).
While different versions abound on the emergence of the sect, a publication titled, ’Boko Haram-Anatomy of a Crisis, published by E-International Relations, a leading website for students of International Politics, said: 'The popular belief is that it was founded around 2001 or 2002 by Mohammed Yusuf.
'This belief has however been challenged by Isioma Madike who contends that the sect was actually started in 1995 as Sahaba and was initially led by one Lawan Abubakar who later left for further studies at the University of Medina in Saudi Arabia.
“Yusuf was said to have taken over the leadership of the sect after the departure of Abubakar and immediately embarked on an intensive and hugely successful membership recruitment, such that he had over 500,000 members before his demise,” Madike wrote.
If there is controversy about the origin of Boko Haram, there is no doubt that it was under Yusuf that the profile of the group soared.
He was reported to have established a religious complex that included a mosque and a school in Maiduguri, capital of Borno state in Nigeria's North-east which is regarded as the spiritual home of the sect.
Many poor families from Nigeria and the neighbouring countries enrolled their children in the school.
The publication also observed that until 2009, Boko Haram had conducted its operations more or less peacefully and that its radicalisation followed a government clampdown on the group, upon receiving intelligence report that its members were amassing weapons and ammunition.
Giving an insight into what might have influenced the radicalisation of the group, apart from the government clampdown, Abeeb Salaam, a lecturer at the University of Surrey, United Kingdom, in a paper titled, ’The Pschychological Make Up of Muhammed Yusuf’, said ideological intolerance was a factor.
'A highly peculiar and common trail of contemporary, radical elements, which Yusuf might also have possessed, is ideological intolerance, which describes a belief system that specifically refuses to tolerate the practices, beliefs and or tenets of other individuals or groups.
'It encompasses bigotry and demonstration of bitterness and or enmity towards those who dissent or disapprove with one’s belief system,” Salaam wrote.
He also posited that relative deprivation necessitated by seeming collapse of the state structure due to corruption, rising inequality between the rich and poor, the gross violation of human rights, political exclusion, economic deprivation, unemployment and in accessible education, can also facilitate radicalisation.
This postulation seems to fit into the group’s discontent with the system and perhaps its resort to the use of violence to achieve its religious goal.
Its mode of operation is to launch armed attacks against schools, prisons, churches, mosques, security agencies, military barracks, kidnapping foreign nationals and attacking telecommunications infrastructure like base stations and masts to make mobile phone communication impossible.
Since 2009, the sect has become a metaphor for insecurity and violence, after the government launched a clampdown on it that resulted in some 800 deaths, mostly members of the group.
In that attack, the Boko Haram leader was arrested and he died in police custody, believed to have been executed in extra-judicial fashion.
In an apparent retaliation for the killing, the group, under its new leader Abubakar Shekau, launched its first terrorist attack in January 2010 in Borno, at Dala Alendan ward in Maiduguri, killing four people.
Since then, the group has intensified its terrorist activities, attacking prison formations, individuals and embarking on bank robberies, apparently to fund its activities.
In what became the first case of suicide bomb attack in Nigeria, on 16 June 2011, Boko Haram bombed the Nigerian Police Force Headquarters in the capital city of Abuja, claiming several lives and destroying dozens of vehicles.
Two months after the attack, on 26 Aug. 2011, another suicide bomber blew up the United Nations Building in Abuja, killing at least 21 people and injuring dozens more.
The terrorist attacks were also extended to other parts of the north, including Kano, Bauchi, Yobe, Adamawa, Kogi and Niger states.
In an attack in Kano, more than 185 people were killed.
Though an official ballpark figure of those killed by Boko Haram since 2009 is not available, the number is believed to be over 10,000.
The government has responded mostly with an iron hand, setting up a military Joint Task Force (JTF) that comprises members of the Armed Forces and other security agencies.
Though many members of the sect have been arrested - including Kabiru Umar, alias Kabiru Sokoto, who was recently jailed for life by a Federal High Court in Abuja - this has not stemmed the attacks.
The government has also declared a state of emergency in three of the worst-hit states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe, but again the sect has retained its ability to carry out spectacular attacks, even though the massive deployment of troops in the wake of emergency declaration is believed to have largely dispersed the sect
What then is the way forward?
A retired military officer, Capt. Emmanuel Sodipo, told PANA in an exclusive interview that it will require the support of all Nigerians to fight terrorism and violent crimes.
“The security agencies are doing their best to deal with the insurgencies. The way out is for everybody to be security conscious. Let us fish out those involved by providing useful information to the security agencies. Let us give out information on suspicious movements of people.
'It is only in Nigeria you see strangers around the house without any challenge. In other countries they don’t do like that, so we need to change our attitude, criminals and terrorists live among us, we should be bold enough to expose them,” he said.
A cross section of Nigerians who were interviewed by PANA also urged the government to fight terrorism and other violent activities with technology, like the installation of surveillance cameras in strategic locations across the country.
They also stressed the need to improve on the welfare of the security agencies, provide them with necessary equipment and address the growing unemployment problem among the country's youths.
By Abudu Babalola, PANA Correspondent