Boko Haram, Nigeria’s latest terrorist group, has been bombing its way into the headlines in recent months. Zach Warner (of the NGO, Human Wrongs Watch) traces the group’s antecedents to the economic, political and religious frustration of northern Muslims, and says the group will not be defeated unless the frustration is addressed.
When you get a situation where a bunch of people can go into a place of worship and open fire through the windows,” Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka lamented in a recent interview with the BBC, “you’ve reached a certain dismal watershed in the life of the nation”.
A spate of Boko Haram bombings, including the horrendous coordinated attacks in Kano on 20 January, has over the last few months pushed Nigeria beyond this grisly threshold. The escalating violence, however, is not as novel as Soyinka implies. Communal violence has been a constant for the last three decades, while the mobilisation of faith-based political identities has been a defining feature of Northern Nigeria for centuries. It is precisely this historical embeddedness that grants Boko Haram its importance and makes clear the group’s political aspirations. Borno State, the seat of the Boko Haram insurgency, is situated at the heart of what was once the Kanem-Bornu Empire. Though its origins are murky, this polity dominated the region from the time of its Islamisation in the 11th century until its eventual decline in the late 18th century, when it was finally felled with Usman Dan Fodio’s successful jihad and the establishment of the Sokoto Caliphate in 1809.
Though the empire was strong enough to resist subjugation to the emerging emirate hierarchy to the west, Bornu was relegated to a marginalised power, its leaders left outside Islamic networks of authority. While Islam in the Caliphate mainly fell within Sufism, Bornu turned to Mahdism as it spread westward from Sudanic Africa. A strand of Islam that encouraged militancy and opposition to authority, this school of thought preached that the Mahdi (“saviour”) would reappear in times of difficulty. Muslims would be rid of oppression, and Islam would triumph over evil, with equity, peace, and riches for all to ensue. This message understandably appealed to the poor and marginalised, and its widespread embrace in Bornu was no surprise. Resistance to political masters in Sokoto was vocalised through theological divergence.
Colonial administrators resisted Mahdism. Recognising the strength of the emirate governance structure, British administrators in the early colonial period chose Sokoto as a first test of indirect rule, investing in it all the formal and legal authority they could muster to bolster its substantial social and religious legitimacy.
This alliance of indigenous elites and British bureaucrats pushed back the Mahdist threat and its early expressions of self-rule through local empowerment. Its leaders were driven out of northern Nigeria and its followers persecuted.
Though the danger to elite authority was quelled, the result was the further exclusion of young Bornu Muslims from local power circles. This marginalisation continued into the negotiations surrounding decolonisation. Now organised into three distinct regions, Nigeria was to achieve independence under the collective leadership of the Christian-Igbo east, the interfaith Yoruba west, and the Muslim Hausa-Fulani north. Representing the latter in constitutional negotiations were the Emir of Kano, the Sultan of Sokoto, and his cousin and great-great-grandson of Dan Fodio, the Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello. By assigning the northern region to the tutelage of traditional rulers at the helm of emirate society, the British reinforced the notion that Islam in Nigeria was coterminous with Caliphate rule. Those outside the Sokoto networks of authority were left voiceless.
Further challenges to emirate rule came sporadically throughout the postindependence period, epitomised by the early 1970s emergence of Mohammed Marwa, a controversial Muslim scholar known for preaching a syncretic, violent form of Islam. Though originally from north-central Nigeria, “Maitatsine”, or “the one who damns”, saw his following explode in the northeast, where his mix of Islamic language and Hausa practices resonated with local traditions of protest.
Adherents to his teachings, the Yan Tatsine grafted this indigenised Islam onto their long-standing revolt against the dominance of the Sokoto elite.
By 1980, the movement began to make good on its violent rhetoric, sparking anti-establishment riots in 1982 that killed 5,000 in Kano. When further clashes broke out in 1984, the government allied with emirate leaders, and the Maitatsine threat was snuffed out.
In the last 20 years, however, the Islamic establishment has been utterly crippled. Demographic pressures drove a wedge between the younger generation and the old guard of former military rulers and emirate leaders, who refused to hand over northern power.
Combined with expanded access to education and few economic opportunities in the continually underdeveloped north, Muslim youths were left displaced. Their frustration eroded the political and cultural legitimacy of emirate society from the bottom up.
At the same time, General Sani Abacha’s brutal regime in the mid-1990s chipped away at the legitimacy of the Sokoto system, first by co-opting the Islamic authorities’ support for a wildly unpopular military regime and later by imprisoning the sultan and installing Abacha’s preferred office-holder as successor. Thus, by the time of Abacha’s death and the restoration of civilian rule, centuries-old social and political hierarchies of Islamic power had been completely smashed. President Olusegun Obasanjo emerged as the only viable leader of the Fourth Republic, engendering a massive power shift to the south after decades of predominantly northern military rule. Elite Muslims were sent reeling; the Sultan could hardly show his face throughout the region. Amid such social confusion, young Muslim men again tried to assume their place at the helm of the north. From late 1999 to 2002, 12 states expanded Sharia (Islamic law).
Reacting to what they perceived as endemic corruption and moral decay, this crop of younger politicians enunciated a wish to return to Islamic governance outside the strict confines of the emirate structures which they felt were complicit in failed governments and national decline.
As John Paden wrote in 2002, the sum effect was a split in Islamic solidarity and “significant confrontations between anti-establishment groups and northern Muslim elites, which in turn, [sic] are causing these elites to reconsider how to strengthen their own politico-religious credentials”. Boko Haram’s language, strategy, and aims must be seen within this historical context. Centuries of elite formation yielded an unassailable religious, social, and political hierarchy in the Sokoto Caliphate. Traditional leaders such as the Emir of Kano and the Sultan of Sokoto repeatedly fought off challenges to emirate authority from groups on the geographic and religious margins of Sokoto society; whether Bornu-Kanem elites, Mahdist reformers, or the Yan Tatsine.
Boko Haram’s confrontation with distant centres of power and its leaders’ calls for a return to a just Islamic society are directly traceable through this lineage of like-minded young Muslims from northeast Nigeria. The group is a product of structural upheaval as young, pro-Sharia politicians seek to build a new religious constituency. In the early years of the Fourth Republic, they were able to upend traditional authority at the cost of widespread violence. When the federal government declared their push for expanded Sharia law unconstitutional in early 2002, the marginalised were again cut off from political power. Diverted to a new movement, their economic, political, and religious frustration found expression in the suicide bombings of Boko Haram.
Any solutions to the present crisis, then, must not only ameliorate the local dynamics of the conflict, to which many observers rightly point. Nor can President Goodluck Jonathan’s government simply frame Boko Haram as a military threat produced by global Islamic extremism.
Instead, the federal government must address shifting power structures in the north and provide an outlet for the expression of local Islamic aspirations within the framework of a stable Nigeria.
It cannot block young Muslims’ ascension to regional power or attempt to co-opt them into the ruling networks of authority. If Boko Haram is to be defeated, a vehicle to allow economically disadvantaged young men to access governance structures needs to be devised, and the long-standing fractures within Islamic society resolved.
On Thursday 19 January, President Jonathan took a swipe at Boko Haram and challenged them to come out and state their grievances as a basis for dialogue. While admitting that Boko Haram had links with other terrorist groups outside Nigeria, Jonathan said that military hostility alone will not end their insurgency and there needs to be dialogue.
“If they clearly identify themselves now and say this is the reason why we are resisting, this is the reason why we are confronting government or this is the reason why we are destroying some innocent people and their properties, then there will be a basis for dialogue. We will [have] dialogue – let us know your problems and we will solve your problems. But if they don’t identify themselves, who do you dialogue with?” he said, adding:
“Military confrontation alone will not eliminate terror attacks. An enabling environment for young people to find jobs is also needed. Our commitment is to make sure our irrigation programmes are all revitalised, so most of these young people are engaged in productive agriculture and will not be free to be recruited as political thugs.
“This is because the Islamist militants do not have a clear public figurehead or negotiable aims. If anybody invited Osama bin Laden [to talks], he wouldn’t have appeared, just like Boko Haram. If you invite them, they will not come. They operate without a face, they operate without a clear identity, so it is difficult to interface with such a group. That is the greatest difference between Boko Haram and the Niger Delta issue.”
The president continued: “There is a lot of evidence that there are linkages… meetings are being held in North Africa; the movements of people in these places have been monitored and noticed. The level of involvement and probably in terms of funding and equipment, I do not know.
“There is no way Nigeria will go into civil war. These are different situations. I will not rule out that maybe some politicians are close to some members of Boko Haram, but I will not say that Boko Haram is a political group trying to undo Goodluck Jonathan. I cannot say it’s because a southerner and a Christian is president that the Boko Haram saga comes up.
“Nigerians are angry about certain things that the government has not been able to conclude very quickly. You cannot sentence a person without trial. I believe that before the end of February, I’m very hopeful, we’ll submit [a new law on terrorism] to the national assembly. But of course, the president has no powers over the national assembly.”