Boko Haram and the dangerous frustration in Nigeria

Homeless in Nigeria

Boko Haram emerged out of the economic, political and religious frustration of northern Muslims – it will not be defeated unless these issues are 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 co-ordinated attacks in Kano on 20 January, 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.

On the Margins of History

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 by 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 this 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 the more violent Mahdism as it spread westward from Sudanic Africa. A strand of Islam that encouraged militancy and opposition to authority, this “menace” school of thought preached that the Mahdi (‘saviour’) would reappear in times of difficulty.

Muslims would be rid of oppression, the unfaithful killed, 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

Colonial administrators resisted Mahdism. Recognising the strength of the emirate governance structure, British administrators in the early colonial period had chosen Sokoto as the first test of indirect rule, investing in it all the formal and legal authority the British could muster to bolster its substantial social and religious legitimacy. This alliance of indigenous elites and British bureaucrats pushed back on 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 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 Sokoto networks of authority were left voiceless. Further challenges to Emirate rule came sporadically throughout the post-independence 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.

Decline and Fall

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, Sani Abacha’s brutal regime in the mid-1990s chipped away at the legitimacy of the Sokoto system, first by co-opting Islamic authorities’ support for a wildly unpopular military regime and later by imprisoning the sultan and installing Abacha’s preferred officeholder 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. 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.

Endemic Corruption

Amid such social confusion, young Muslim men again tried to assume their place at the helm of the north. From late 1999 to 2002, twelve 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”.

(Re-)building Northern Society

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 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 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 the Jonathan administration 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 young, economically disadvantaged young men to access governance structures needs to be devised, and the long-standing fractures within Islamic society resolved.

**A homeless man in Nigeria. Photo by Sarkin Yakin Chan Think Africa Press

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