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The origins of Boko Haram

Analysis

The origins of Boko Haram

By Peter Ezeh

The Boko Haram movement began in 2002 as a pro-Islam anti-establishment cult in Nigeria’s extreme north-eastern state of Borno, which borders northern Cameroon, where some accounts trace the origins of its founder, Uztaz Mohammed Yusuf.

That precursor of the now deadly sect was known simply as Yusfiyya (or ‘followers of Yusuf’) or Yara Malam (‘Teacher’s Children’). Its less charitable critics called it the Nigerian Taliban. Boko Haram is actually the popular alias of this group and roughly translates as ‘Western Civilisation is Evil’, or ‘Western-style Education is Sin’. Its official name is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, translated as ‘People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad’.

Boko Haram’s objective is the establishment of a theocratic state run on the Muslim sharia (the legal system of Islam). Their preaching resonated with the teeming, unemployed youth in Borno State. In those early days, Ali Modu Sheriff, who later ran for governor of Borno State and won, was widely publicised as cashing in on Yusuf’s cult for his electioneering – something Sheriff denies.

What is beyond doubt, though, is that as Yusuf’s movement grew in popularity, it also began to shift away from non-violence. The group began having a series of brushes with the police; the confrontation peaked in 2009 with a bloody insurrection in Borno State’s capital of Maiduguri and neighbouring towns. Yusuf was arrested by the police and he died in their custody afterwards.

At Yusuf’s death, his deputy, Abubakar Shekau, with the nom de guerre of Darul Tawheed (or ‘home of monotheism’) took over. The death seemed to have fuelled a more fiery approach to the agitation in a part of Nigeria that had gained the reputation of being a hotbed of Islamist activism.

Early in 1999, following the preaching of an earlier but short-lived cult led by Abubakar Lawan, some Muslim students at the University of Maiduguri had burnt their certificates and joined the Ahlusunnawal Jamah Hijra group.

Not many were surprised when Yusuf’s group morphed into a full-scale well-armed insurrection in the shape of Boko Haram the same year. By 2010, Boko Haram had grown defiant enough to take on not only the police, but also the Nigerian army. Christians and Muslims and other critics were routinely killed. The group also began to attack all emblems of ‘Western civilisation’ including hotels, universities, European-style health workers, and once, the Nigerian office of the UN in the federal capital, Abuja.

Shekau connected Boko Haram to international terror groups, pledging loyalty to Islamic State of Iraq Syria (ISIS) and linked his group to the so-called Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA).

In 2016, an internal disagreement over leadership caused a split and Boko Haram’s international partners preferred to work with his rival, Barnawi. Shekau stuck to his guns, though, and rejected the leadership of his former lieutenant. Both the US and the Nigerian army have offered separate bounties on Shekau.   

Curious copycat group

One curious copycat group with methods that mimic those of Boko Haram, has embedded itself with herders of the humped Bos indicus species of cattle and now roam the entire length and breadth of Nigeria. This development, with its ethnic dimensions, could be even more dangerous and spark off widespread ethnic conflict across the country.

The more familiar herders of these livestock used to be confined to only the northern parts of the country. They were simple country folk armed with nothing more than canes, following their animals about as they grazed in the green savannah, which those parts of the country boast more than any other districts in Nigeria. Lately however, men with military-grade assault rifles can be seen with them, ready to attack at any opportunity. The central and southern districts are the most targeted, for obvious reasons. These are mainly agrarian districts. In typical cases, the cattle consume crops that are growing or have been harvested.

In a method that reminds one of the Janjaweed versus farmer encounters in Sudan, the armed companions of the herders swoop on those who oppose or try to resist them and vast numbers of casualties in favour of the invading herders are always the result. They also often rape women and kidnap men to extort ransoms.

One noticeable difference with the Sudan case is the Nigerian attackers come by motorised transport, usually minibuses or motorcycles, instead of on horseback. The conflicts can only be asymmetrical because in Nigeria, it is illegal for non-military people to bear such powerful assault rifles. Since the hapless members of the farming communities respect the law, many accuse the Nigerian federalist government of being nonchalant to complaints about the ravages of the herder-gunmen.

The herders exempt no space in these central and southern areas. It is curious that known critics of the authorities are usually targeted. They are known to have invaded universities, taken a former presidential candidate – Olu Falae – captive, and to have invaded the residence of vocal Nobel literature laureate, Wole Soyinka, to give only some examples.

Professor Docknan Sheni, the Vice-Chancellor of Plateau State University in central Nigeria, called a press conference to raise the alarm. “Lectures will be going on and cattle will be roaming around up to the administrative block. This is not good for the system,” he told journalists.

Some governors of states where such carnages had taken place are known to have wept publicly in their helplessness. On New Year’s Day this year, the attackers swooped on the central state of Benue – considered the breadbasket for some Nigerian food staples – and massacred 73 people.

Governor Samuel Ortom organised a mass burial and many commentators criticised President Buhari for not attending or promptly sending condolences. The President later denied having any ulterior motive for delaying action.

Edwin Ujege, a spokesman of the Tiv, one of the horticultural groups that have borne the brunt of the violent raids, told a committee sent by President Buhari in the wake of the New Year’s massacre, that since the attacks had begun 2,000 people had been killed in Benue State alone. He described the killings as a jihad (a Muslims’ holy war), adding that it was nothing short of ethnic cleansing.

Wilfred Anagbe, the Catholic bishop of the diocese of Markurdi, Benue’s capital, told the committee that in reaction to previous forays, several horticultural villages had been deserted before the grisly onslaught of January.

It was David Umahi, governor of Ebonyi State, Benue’s south-western neighbour, that President Buhari named to lead the delegation to the aggrieved state. In an ironic twist, as Governor Umahi returned to his office in Abakaliki shortly afterwards, the herders had begun killing farmers in two communities there.  Previously the armed group had attacked a village in the neighbouring state of Enugu and slaughtered 50 farmers in a dawn raid. After the Benue killings, former president Olusegun Obasanjo, a known critic of the extension of cattle grazing to the south, went to the mass grave and repeated his recommendation of cattle being confined to ranches rather than having open-field grazing. On an earlier occasion Obasanjo had said, “My village is not a traditional pastoralist area… We do not see cattle unless a big man dies [and some are required for the funeral feast].”

It has been suggested that the herders be declared a terrorist group, a situation that will be embarrassing to President Buhari because they are officially known as Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN), and before his election to his present lofty office, he (Buhari) was their godfather. Nearly all members of MACBAN are of the Fulani ethnic group to whih President Buhari belongs. The Nigerian journalistic term for the herders is in fact “Fulani herdsmen”.

Government spokesmen have said that many of the violent elements following the herders are not Nigerian. They come from other West African countries. Rather than assuage critics, this has given rise to more disquieting views, one of which links the operations of the gunmen to the Boko Haram group. No documented evidence supporting such a link is known to the public as yet.   

Possible solutions

Some critics of the violence point to the fact that both Boko Haram and the violent pro-herder fighters are Muslims with pro-sharia ideology. One analysis is that, given the composition of the pro-herder fighters, they are most likely the ‘occupation arm’ of the ISWA, which uses the apparently innocuous pastoralism to gain a foothold in all parts of Nigeria.

This suspicion has grown after suggestions that would have put an end to killings were made but were not accepted by the herders. The Governor of Kano State offered to accommodate as many herders, with their animals, as were interested in coming to the vast land mass he controls.

A governor in the south-west proposed using trains to take chilled beef from the North to consumers in the South, reducing any needs to take cattle to market in the South.

After the Nigerian military claimed that it had dislodged Boko Haram from the large uninhabited bush known as the Sambisa Forest on the Nigerian-Cameroonian northern border, it was suggested that the herders take their animals to that place. The most talked- about idea is the proposal that the herders should change from open-field grazing to sedentary ranching. Neither the herders nor the central Nigerian government seem eager to accept any of those proposals. Instead, the government is intent on establishing what it has named cattle colonies in each of the country’s 774 local government areas. However, many governors of Nigeria’s states refuse to provide land for cattle colonies, which in their ideal form would provide the Fulani herders with the land to feed their livestock.

Lately, some commentators have accused President Buhari’s federal institutions of being in sympathy with the violent Islamic groups. President Buhari has denied any collaboration between the military and the violent Muslim groups or the killer herders. The President cautioned against inflammatory statements capable of drawing down anarchy of the type that was witnessed in Somalia.

Government spokesmen have advised commentators to stop making unsubstantiated statements and instead, think of solutions to the security problems. When the former teenage captives from Dapchi were taken to him at Abuja, President Buhari said he was ready to grant amnesty to and rehabilitate Boko Haram members if they laid down their arms. He was silent on the pro-herder fighters, though.

Perhaps the way forward is to heed the call of an NGO, the International Society for Civil Liberties and the Rule of Law, for the UN to investigate the alleged complicity by some of the Nigerian federal institutions in the onslaught on unarmed civilian populations. The group is led by Emeka Umeagbalasi, who is described as a criminologist and an expert in security studies. The group said that the UN has such powers under Chapter VII of its Charter. There is the need, it said, “to unravel the remote and immediate causes and perpetrators of the killings” and those who profit from them.

Until then, the menace of Boko Haram and the killer herders will continue to dominate Nigerian thoughts and continue to unhinge an already fraught ethnic balance in the country.  NA         

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