Boko Haram and Challenge of Envisioning Effective Choices


Allan Christelow explains the rise of Nigeria’s militant Islamist group and suggests ways to put an end to the on-going streak of terror and chaos

On April 14, 2014, Nigeria saw two dramatic incidents which were the work of militant Islamist activists. One was a bombing in a motor park in Nyanya just outside the federal capital, Abuja, in which over 70 people were killed. The other was the abduction of over 270 schoolgirls from a secondary school in Chibok, a town in the unstable region of north-eastern Nigeria.

A Movement with Diverse Elements

Both events have been attributed to a movement known as Boko Haram, a Hausa language term meaning ‘modern education is prohibited.’ This is a loose movement involving diverse elements. The diversity is illustrated by the differences between these two events. The Nyanya attack can be seen as blind violence, killing mainly poor working people waiting to take a bus to their jobs in the capital.

This incident poses a relatively simple problem. The government needs to strengthen its security system and avoid arbitrary repression. And Nigerian politicians need to avoid jumping at opportunities to use such incidents to besmirch their rivals, a tempting activity as a presidential election approaches in 2015.

The schoolgirls’ abduction presents a more complex problem. It requires a choice between either military measures – which might produce embarrassing, or tragic results – or negotiation with a terrorist group. The environment of the Sambisa forest where some of the girls may be held is a difficult one for military operations.

Envisioning a path to negotiation requires a perspective, which explains the factors that led to the emergence of the movement.

A New Movement Emerges

Before the British colonial intrusion in the early 1900s, most of northern Nigeria was under the control of the Sokoto Caliphate, a state established by the early 19th century jihad of Shehu Usman Dan Fodio. He might be understood as a figure comparable to Europe's Charlemagne. Like Charlemagne, he built an effective state over a wide area, and he supported the development of a strong religious establishment.

The caliphate failed to take control of the Sultanate of Bornu in the northeast, and it had weak control over the area just south of Bornu, the emirate of Adamawa. As one moved east, one entered the mountainous region of what is now northern Cameroon, an area where people still followed traditional religion.

By the late 19th century, the effectiveness of the Caliphate's leadership began to decline, following the pattern of Ibn Khaldun's theory of historical cycles. A figure who lost out in the bitter competition at the centre of the Caliphate, Hayat Bin Sa'id, moved to Adamawa in the 1880s. At this time, British control was extending down the Nile valley, and a resistance movement had formed in Sudan, led by a figure who proclaimed himself to be the Mahdi, the one who would prepare Muslims for a millenarian transformation. Hayat was drawn to this Mahdist vision, in effect hoping for a miracle.

The period from the 1880s through the end of the World War I was one of the efforts to mobilise Muslims around the greater Sahara region to fight against European colonialism, but these efforts failed largely due to the Europeans' advances in technology, especially in weaponry. Realistic colonial administrators understood that they needed to negotiate with local leaders and respect tradition. Realistic members of northern Nigeria’s traditional elite thought it prudent to adapt to their new situation. Thus they maintained their traditional dress and ceremonies, but sent their sons to British schools.

After Nigeria's independence in 1960, there arose new challenges, above all the migration of poor people from rural areas into major cities such as Kano. Some of these immigrants were boys who came as almajiri, students attached to Islamic teachers who would go around the streets begging for money, and live in shacks set up by their teacher.

In northern Nigeria's largest city, Kano, there emerged a leader by the name of Muhammad Marwa. He came originally from the mountainous region of northern Cameroon, where his family followed traditional religion. He converted to Islam, but developed his own vision and preached in the streets condemning modern technology, and, by implication, the people who had access to this technology, the established urban population. And that established population scoffed at his wild preaching, in which he allegedly said, "May Allah withdraw his blessings from those who disagree with me." This was incorporated into the Hausa name they used for him, Mallam Mai Tatsine, which might be rendered in English as 'Reverend Damn You.'

Conflict broke out on December 18, 1980, and the police were ineffective in their attempt to control the ‘Yan Tatsine militants - even though they only used swords and bows and arrows. Eventually local militias mobilised to keep the ‘Yan Tatsine under control, and the army moved in to crush the movement, with some 4,000 people being killed. The peculiar sect was driven out of the city, but the underlying problems remained.

Boko Haram Rises in the North-East

Similar dynamics can be seen in the emergence of the Boko Haram movement in north-eastern Nigeria, starting in the 1990s, though the two movements were not identical. The new movement recruited members among poor young men, often immigrants from rural Nigeria or neighbouring countries.

Like the 'Yan Tatsine, they aroused the contempt of the established urban population who called the movement 'Boko Haram,' meaning modern education is prohibited. The movement put forth a different name, Ahl as-Sunna lil-Da'watu wa-l-Jihad, meaning roughly, 'people following Islamic tradition promoting its message and fighting for its cause.’

It arose at a time when there were widespread efforts to restore Islamic law in northern Nigeria, not just for family matters, but in the area of criminal law. This needs to be seen in part as a response to the ineffectiveness of government, police and courts. For instance, it was common to see incidents on the streets of Kano where someone was accused of theft, and a crowd gathered around to beat the accused thief. Now young men were organised into hisbah (common good) brigades to patrol the streets.

These brigades did not operate on their own, but came under the control of the Hisbah Board, run by members of the traditional ruling class and Islamic scholars. In Kano, the Hisbah Board brought together a complex understanding of Islamic law and an approach drawing on modern sociology. It recognised that among the problems they faced were not just poor boys who became almajiri and could be drawn into a militant sect. One had to consider what happened to these boys’ sisters.

Many of them became ‘child brides’ married off by their families, especially in times of economic hardship. In years of low rainfall, many 'drought brides' came in from the poor rural areas. Their families needed the bride price in order to survive. Many child brides were aged 14 or even younger. They were taken into the homes of wealthy men in the cities. Old enough to get pregnant, but not physically mature enough to bear a child, they often came down with fistula. For the rich husband, there was a simple solution to the problem – divorce. The local court system did little to prevent such actions.

The Kano Hisbah Board recognised the problem of large numbers of divorced or widowed women, and also the large numbers of men with limited income who could not afford to get married. The Board argued that family relations are a key to social stability. So they arranged marriages between these men and women, providing them with subsidies to help make the new families succeed. And the Board arranged elaborate celebrations where 1,111 couples were married.

In Maiduguri, there was not an effective effort to create a similar structure. The Ahl as-Sunna movement, led by Muhammad Yusuf came to be seen as a dire threat by the police and in 2009, there was a brutal crackdown. Many militants were killed, but others fled to the countryside, and began what can be seen as a guerrilla movement under Abubakar Shekau.

Unlike the 'Yan Tatsine, this group did not reject modern technology. They acquired modern weapons and the skills needed to use them. They gained skills in using modern media, creating videos for YouTube.

It is conceivable that Nigerian authorities could find a way to say that both their own forces and the Ahl as-Sunna have engaged in violent excesses, and that both should be given amnesty to prepare the way for a solution. And that solution would involve incorporating the Ahl as-Sunna forces into local hisbah brigades. Among their chores would be protecting girls' schools. At the same time, the government would need to find more effective programmes for education and the protection of women's rights.

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Allan Christelow

Allan Christelow is an emeritus professor at Idaho State University and a historian whose research has focussed on Islamic legal institutions and civil society organisations both in Algeria and Nigeria. He was living in Kano at the time of the Mai Tatsine disturbances in 1980.

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