This brief explainer examines the backgrounds of Nigerian society and the relationship between the rise of Boko Haram and Nigeria demographics. You can learn more about Boko Haram with full fact sheets, timelines, backgrounders and history here.



It is impossible to grasp the danger and issues that have given rise to Boko Haram as well as the organization’s ability to endure without an understanding of the historically ethnic and religious organization of Nigeria.


Boko Haram and Nigeria Demographics: Religious Divisions


Nigeria possesses the largest population in the continent of Africa at over 183 million people. This population is divided among approximately 250 distinct ethnic groups, the largest being Hausa-Fulani (29%), then Yaruba (21%) and finally Igbo (18%).

Boko Haram and Nigeria Demographics

Unintended consequences from historical decisions under British colonialism have created a distinct divide between northern and southern Nigeria. The north contains the bulk of Nigeria’s Muslim population which account for 50% of all Nigerians while another 40%, largely based in the southern part of the country, profess Christianity. This organization of Nigeria’s population is directly related to the shaping of the nation’s development along the lines of education, industry and wealth distribution.


The difference between northern and southern Nigeria is as stark as two different nations. The Christian south is far more modernized and economically developed than the Muslim north.

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Boko Haram and Nigeria Demographics: Economic Inequality


The greatest illustration of these distinctions is found in the Borno State, also the state farthest removed geographically from the more prosperous and developed Christian south. Borno State is a picture of corruption, mismanagement and horrific poverty. It has also been the stronghold for bursts of Islamic radicalism since the beginning of the 20th century with Boko Haram being the most recent.


Boko Haram and Nigeria Demographics: Political Divisions



Since Nigerian independence in 1960 the Muslim population of the north has been frequently distracted by internal divisions along doctrinal lines. While many of Nigeria’s Muslim population approach their faith along Koranic interpretations of Sufi Islam, a growing number opt for Salafi interpretations. Sufi is the more mystical branch and interpretation of Islam while Salafi is seen as a radical doctrine and interpretation made popular among parts of the Muslim world only in recent decades.


While Nigeria’s Muslims were distracted with doctrinal disputes the Christians of the south gained in influence throughout Nigeria during the post independence decades. This growth was reflected in the presidential election in 1999 of Christian Olusegun Obasanjo (reelected in 2003) and Goodluck Jonathan in 2010.


JB Shreve and the End of History

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All of these issues are covered in explainers and backgrounders in my in depth look at Everything You Need to Know About Boko Haram.