Boko Haram: A quest for dominance or simply terrorism on steroids?


The scourge of Boko Haram is a well-known disaster to the Nigerian state, but one aspect that has not been looked at by the international community is the issue of the identity crisis of minorities and the domineering attitude of the majority. To the average outside viewer the Nigerian State is a multi-ethnic, multicultural with two main religious groups i.e., Christianity and Islam, they even go ahead to say, especially the media and corporations of the developed nations, that there is the Muslim north and the Christian south. This is admissible in statistics and in less informed conversations, but on the ground it's far more complex than that, thus to really and truly understand BH, an attempt must be made to understand Nigerian history, not the ones in kindergarten history books, and those on the lips of politicians, but that closed, labyrinth of horrendous, sinister and complex interconnected events from pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial periods and the present state of the Nigerian state which characterized Nigeria’s regions and its people.

Over the last decade or so, the Islamist group Boko Haram has been responsible for a wide range of horrible and unspeakable violence, thousands of deaths, and the displacement of one million people in Northern Nigeria and surrounding areas. The roots of that agenda stretch back several centuries to pre-colonial Nigeria. The chronology of events from the Borno empire, then the Sokoto caliphate (Usman Dan Fodio jihads), colonial Nigeria, and finally “independent” Nigeria.

The Borno Caliphate

The roots of Boko Haram lie deep in northern Nigeria’s past. The impetus for the group’s current activities can be traced back to three historical processes: The Islamic reform movements of the 19th century that took place in West and Central Africa, the changes wrought by the British colonial presence in northern Nigeria, and in the inter-ethnic conflict and struggle for natural resources that accompanied the creation of the modern state of Nigeria. Empires and Islamization: 16th-18th Centuries Maiduguri, the capital of the state of Borno in Nigeria, is Boko Haram’s current base of operations. Borno is now among the poorest states in Nigeria, but in the 13thcentury Kanem-Borno was one of the most extensive kingdoms in sub-Saharan Africa. During this time, Islamic institutions and practice put down roots in the region. And Boko Haram’s social and religious identity is rooted in developments in the region over the following centuries.

The Sudanic Belt, or Sahel, spanning from Senegal to Eritrea this region, known as the Sudanic Belt, encompasses the bio-geographic zone south of the Sahara, stretching from the west Atlantic coast of modern-day Senegal, eastward to contemporary Eritrea, but bounded on the south by the forest and savanna regions of the continent. Hummay, Muslim founder of the Sefuwa dynasty and the first Mai (King) of Kanem-Borno, conquered the region in 1068 and encouraged the spread of Islamic institutions. The Sefuwa Mais controlled large swathes of territory from the eastern shores of Lake Chad in the south to the oases of Fezzan, the southwestern part of modern Libya, in the north. Hummay ruled for nearly 12 years, but the emergence of various more or less autonomous ethnic groups distinct from the Sefuwa ruling dynasty prevented the development of a centralized political system. In addition, Kanem, which consists mostly of desert and semi-desert, lacked the primary resources needed to make such a political system and entity viable. A serious crisis finally led to the collapse of the Kanem state in the latter part of the 14th century.

The Mai Umar Idris (1382-87), with a group of his supporters, left for Borno to the west of Lake Chad where necessary resources could be found, and where the Sefuwa had already subdued their vassals. A large number of immigrants from Kanem had also already settled there. The Sefuwa’s main objective on their arrival in Borno was to build a strong regional economy to support a well-organized, Sefuwa-dominated political structure.

The period from about 1480 to 1520 was a time of active Islamization in the Sudanic belt. During this period many scholars from Mali, North Africa, Egypt, and the Saharan oases visited the region of West and Central Africa known as Hausaland (the dominant northern tribe), and contributed to the deepening of Islamic ideas and culture. The Sefuwa Mais of Borno had been Muslims since the 11th century and they traditionally surrounded themselves with Islamic scholars (ulama). Borno became a great intellectual center visited by scholars from Sudanic Africa and other parts of the Muslim world, and its cultural influence was felt outside its own regional sphere of influence.

Most scholars agree that Borno reached its zenith under the rule of Idris B. Ali (1564-c.1603). He was a skilled diplomat and keenly interested in Islamizing the region. In 1571, Idris B. Ali made the pilgrimage to Mecca, and upon his return he initiated many reforms in order to bring his country in line with other Muslim states. He also forged strong diplomatic alliances with the sultans of the Ottoman Empire and the sultans of Morocco, which fostered trade relations between the three states. Borno’s primacy in Islamic education and control of trade led to its ascendancy in Sudanic Africa as a serious geopolitical player during this time. The death of Idris b. Ali (c.1603) did not mark the end of Borno as an empire. Rather, it resulted in Ali’s conquests being consolidated under his successors and to the emergence of the Kanuri as a distinct ethnic group. The term Kanuri came into use in the early 17th century, and referred to the dominant ethnic group of Borno. The majority of the Sefuwa mais hailed from this ethnic group.

Though that ethnic group only makes up about eight or less percent of Nigeria’s total population today. The Kanuri are distinguished from their Hausa and Fulani neighbors by their language and by the distinguishing vertical marks on each cheek. Both men and women have these markings. This custom of marking the faces of children was done to identify the family and ethnicity of a person, though the practice is now in decline. Islamic religion is the defining cultural factor that unites the Kanuri people in Borno state. And Kanuri scholars credit their ethnic group for spreading and preserving Islam in the region. Islamic Reform Movements of the 19th Century Despite widespread Islamization, many areas continued to embrace a syncretic form of religion blending Islam with older animist religions.

Islamic scholars railed against this religious syncretism, and the Western Sudanic region witnessed a series of Islamic revivalist movements in the 19th century that sought to end this practice. Boko Haram is a direct descendent of these efforts to cleanse Islam of animist and other spiritual beliefs.

Also during this period of Islamization by the Mais, other smaller and different ethnic groups migrated away from these areas, since the choice of accepting Islam was not a choice but through the sword. For members of such smaller ethnic groups the choices were either practice their pagan ways in secret while adhering to Islamic codes in the open, and later revert back to a religion of their choosing when it is more convenient. The other choice of course as was stated earlier was to migrate away from the Mais domain, most moved south wards to central Nigeria, what is called the middle belt in today’s parlance. The plight of the northerner minority outside the Muslim faith is the center of the Boko Haram insurgency.

Sokoto Caliphate

Records of the formation of the Sokoto Caliphate, (754-1817) The ultimate goal of the reformers was to establish a state modeled upon the nascent Muslim state in 7th century Medina. The reformers criticized the rulers and the common people alike because both engaged in this syncretic form of Islam. The ulama (scholars) had turned a blind eye to this blending of Islam with animism because they received patronage from the rulers. However, the reformers looked askance at this compromise and preached openly against the rulers who married more than four wives, did not allow women to inherit, and, most egregiously, mixed Islam with animism. The rulers sought to resolve this conflict militarily, but were defeated. The old rulers were overthrown and replaced by devout reformers. The participants in these revolts hailed from diverse social and ethnic backgrounds. But their leaders were mostly from the Fulani ethnic group. The most successful revolt occurred in what is now northern Nigeria and culminated with the formation of the Sokoto Caliphate. By 1812, a Muslim empire emerged with the charismatic Fulani cleric, Uthman Dan Fodio, at its helm. Dan Fodio had defeated the corrupt and, from his perspective, irreligious, Hausa Muslim rulers of various kingdoms in the Western Sudan, and created an empire based upon the Prophetic precedent. Borno was never conquered by Uthman Dan Fodio, but the revolts staged by him and his followers influenced a movement in Borno at thesame time. This movement was led by Muhammad al-Amin ibn Muhammad al-Kanami, a scholar of the Kanembu people. (The Kanuri and Kanembu are closely related.) Muhammad Al Amin ibn Muhammad al-Kanami.

Colonial Nigeria

Nigeria as its well-known and documented all over the world is a British colony which started in the early 1900’s, but what is not said in public parlance is that the crown were not the first Britons to have actually come to, and administer Nigeria. That first step of “nationhood” was taken for Nigeria by The Niger company (a british company) now known as unilever today. The british government paid Niger company £865000 (pounds) to take over the territories of what constitutes Nigeria today.

The coming of the british did stop the military expansion and Islamization drive (jihad) of the sokoto caliphate to conquer the whole of the geographical location of Nigeria, more importantly the ideology was kind of given a go ahead since what the British were more concerned with was what gains the British Empire could make from this new colonial outpost. Also the missionaries that tagged along with the colonial masters, brought Christianity to Nigeria almost a century after the establishment of Islam in the far fringes of the north, now minority tribes that were forced into hiding or convert to islam, moved over to the Christian faith. These actions set in motion conflicts that will engulf Nigeria especially its north for years to come.

For administrative purposes amalgamated the northern and southern protectorates for ease of administration, since they bought it as two regional/geographical entities. For the colonial authorities it was just an administrative procedure, but in doing so ushered the different ethnic nationalities to conflicting ideals and interests. Some call the 1914 an unholy marriage as it was done outside the consent of the constituents that it brought together as citizens of the same country.

The problems of the amalgamation lie in the beliefs of different groups that make up the country, how they view development and above all how they view each other.

The British presence in Northern Nigeria was characterized by the policy of “Indirect Rule,” wherein colonial administrators chose compliant local rulers in order to preserve British interests in the region. Established local elites cooperated with the British in order to secure peaceful trade relations and oversee the collection of taxes.

All northern Muslim rulers were required to take an oath of fealty to the British crown. For their part, the British maintained that the rulers would not be required to do anything contravening the laws of Islam. Despite their public pronouncements that they were interested in ruling in an even-handed, neutral manner, the British colonial administrators’ commitment to Indirect Rule required them to support those already in power and to quell any revolts, real or imagined, that might threaten the status quo. Many British had a negative view of Islam. So the colonial administrators identified so-called “good Muslims” and placed them in positions of power and authority over the “bad Muslims.” The “good Muslims,” in the eyes of the British, were the former rulers of the Sokoto Caliphate because British officials considered them to be religiously moderate. Members of Sokoto Caliphate, 1900 by contrast, they considered the Tijaniyya, Mahdiyya, and Sanusiyya Sufi orders to be fanatical and thus “bad Muslims.”

The British believed that Islamic education would lead to fanaticism. And this conflict over education is the origin of the name “Boko Haram.”

Thus, the British and the former rulers of Sokoto had a symbiotic relationship that continued until Nigeria’s independence in 1960 and the creation of the Republic of Nigeria. Independence, however, did little to change the political arrangements established by the British. The descendants of the Sokoto rulers who the British had placed in power continued to have the same relationship with the independent state of Nigeria, existing into the contemporary period. This reality is at the core of Boko Haram’s grievances.

Independent Nigeria

The independence brought hopes of a nation that will be built on a democratic path, with equal opportunities for all ethnic nationalities that make up the new state. But beneath this beautiful surface is a complex web of ethnic nationalities bent on total dominance of all other ethnic groups and regions, chief among these different sections was the north with its Islamization agenda and political domination which was passive during the colonial times, this cause was now on steroids with a hybrid of both hard and soft power, one famous statement to support this was that of Sir Amadu Bello premier of northern Nigeria, and a son of the sultanate caliphate of the Sokoto Usman Dan Fodio dynasty. Quoting one of such statement he said “we will strive till we dip the Quran in the Atlantic ocean”. These words were marched with action as traditional stools of northern Nigeria that were not loyal to the grandiose plans and supremacy of Islam were not recognized by this northern premier, thusthey were quasi illegitimate as a staff of office were not issued to such chiefs and thus not being represent in forums to drive and defend the interests of their people. This led to a substantial number of chefs from minority tribes to convert to Islam to protect the interests of their subject and or their traditional stool, other sinister approaches were used for other unyielding tribal chiefs, one of such chiefs was the Ngolong-Ngas of the Ngas people of Plateau state Nde. Gotus. This when on till his death (Sir Amadu Bello) in the coup. This was true for all other No-Hausa/Fulani ethnic nationalities but with no visible sign of expansion militarily, but by domination over these groups in Nigeria, in the socio-economic, and political spheres, such as political appointments, employments and other social benefits, the trend then convert and get what you desire, and fairly enough tribes were converted.

Independent Nigeria in 1960 went through different challenges, and political turmoil which culminated in a civil war. The civil war was against secessionist from the south-east of the country who clamored for a homeland as they felt marginalized by the ruling class. It should be noted that this was not the first time powers meddled in the affairs of the country but the first time, through their mass media incited an all-out war between supposed brothers. The war was ignited after radio france broadcasted in Hausa that the Igbos in the south-east had unleashed a terror of violence and killing off the northerners in the south-east of the country, though there was tension in the land over the coup that killed and deposed of Gen. Aguiyi Ironsi, Nigerians first military ruler from the Igbo extraction.

Nigerian political life continues to develop based on patronage-clientage networks and affinity, with religious and ethnic loyalties superseding those of the nation.

For a Nigerian, they are first a tribal person, then religion, and lastly a Nigerian, in other scenarios especially in the north were religion comes first and any other affiliation is a distant second.

These sets of loyalties have led to a continued quest for dominance for a preferred ideology, this is what has set the stage and given Boko Haram its potency, and longevity. The corruption and mismanagement of the political class has undoubtedly provided a viable and fertile ground for the activities of this terror group. Boko Haram is a radical Islamist movement shaped by the Nigerian context and reflecting Nigeria’s history of poor governance and extreme poverty in the north. The movement combines a sectarian, radical Islamic agenda with violence. Its stated goal is the establishment of a Sharia state, but it shows little interest in actually governing or implementing economic development. It is based on the fundamentalist Wahhabi theological system; the group adheres to the strict Wahhabi understanding of “tawhid” (the oneness of God or monotheism). According to Boko Haram rhetoric, a secular nation promotes idolatry, i.e. state worship. The pledge of allegiance to the flag and singing of the national anthem are manifestations of such idolatry and hence punishable by death. For Boko Haram the state is a nest of corruption that exploits the poor. The state is formed and sustained by Western values and education, both of which are against the will of Allah.

For the northern non-Muslim, the campaigns of the descendants and subjects of the Mai’s and sultans, never ended it only when into a passive phase, with Boko Haram activities in full swing, it signifies the resumption of hostilities.

There are four factors that have sustained, aided and abetted the horrors of this terror network; first political, second religious fanatism, third economic/financial, global geopolitics, and finally in-fighting within Islam.

Political cover

Nigeria has, over the years, shown a dangerous tolerance and concession for violent pursuit of political power, in its recent democratic history from 1999 to date, the region or ethnic group that shows the greatest propensity, and threat to national peace are those considered and even given power. Prior to 1999 the south-west of the country started an uprising with many colorations; secessionist, economic blackmail, and outright terror in the form of OPC (odua people’s congress) the activities of this group apart from its terror seems to pull sympathizers of the June 12, 1993 election when a southerner from the Yoruba extraction chief M.K.O Abiola was denied the presidency and later died in jail from trumped up charges. Some factions pushed for breaking away from Nigeria albeit in low hush tones, but with a clear agenda towards trying to right the wrong of 1993, with economic blackmail of Nigeria losing its premier commercial nerve center Lagos, either to secede or terrorize the activities in these areas thereby robbing Nigeria of a vital source of finance and stability. Their action culminated with gaining of political power by being elected to the presidency of Olusegun Obasanjo, a Yoruba from the south-west.

This set a dangerous precedence which will haunt Nigeria for years, drawing directly from the South-west scheme for power, an age long militancy for resource control was reignited with a vengeance, with sustained blowing up of oil pipeline, kidnapping and other economic security sabotage. The minorities of the south-south led by the ijaws were compensated with the vice presidency, by providence or design they achieved the highest political office in the land, Goodluck Jonathan was president after the death of Umaru Musa Yar Adu’a in the year 2010.

Some interest groups of the north seeing this tapped into the vile, and perverse ideologies of Boko Haram to terrorize the country, and show the president to be an incompetent leader, and propel themselves to the highest office in the land. As a tried and tested method that people will clamor for order in the face or violence and disorder among others set the stage for Gen. Buhari coming to power. Boko Haram was given what can be akin to a political backing and cover when in 2013, when an onslaught was mounted

Prominent Nigerian politician of the northern extraction, some with apparent political ambitions accused the government of committing genocide against the north. Such a statement by some statesmen is detrimental to the unity of the country and provides political tolerance and thus embolden boko harams activities. These interest’s groups still hold unto Boko Haram as a trump up card for the future, hence the continued activity of the terror network.

Religious Fanatism

Adherence of the Islamic faith in Nigeria as in any part of the world, have different views of how the religion should be practiced, but a section within a larger group hold that a whole country should adhere to their own versions of Islam with the strictest form of Sharia law, thus they believe that their own brand of Islam should be imposed on all and everyone, by enslaving and converting by all forms necessary. People with such views are pulled to the cause of forced Islamization as advocated and carried out by fundamentalist terror, with Boko Haram not an exception. These set of people feel a sense of duty to spread Islam and boko haram provides that, and thus these segment of persons see Boko Haram as a divinely given opportunity, as the group provides an impetus to carry out their nefarious activities in the name of god. It has been proven over the years that ideologies such as this is extremely hard to defeat, add in centuries, and two dynasties of trying to Islamize sub-Saharan Africa then one understands the challenge and strength of fanatism to the growth and persistence of boko haram in Nigeria and surrounding countries.

In-fighting within Islam

There is a subtle conflict between the Borno and Sokoto caliphate, with the consolidation of powers and authority concerning Islam in Nigeria, centered and directed from the Sokoto caliphate (sighting of the moon to commence or stop the fast etc). The Borno caliphate a represented by the Shehu’s feel side-lined feeling that their birth right as the first people and civilization within Nigeria to receive Islam but have to answer to latter converts or generations so to speak. To correct this perceived injustice, forms part of the justification for violent tendencies to prove to the Muslim community, who has the moral right to the spiritual leadership of Islam in Nigeria.

Economic Benefactors

There are persons, groups and forces in the boko haram camp of the struggle, in it for the economic and financial gains. With high unemployment rate, and extreme poverty in the country and the whole Sub-Saharan Africa, it’s no wonder that some certain set of people view Boko Haram like a job opportunity and a way meeting their needs. Throw in weapon merchants, the military top brass and procurement officers then one can see a set of people with interest in the continuation of Boko Haram because of the economic gains, as the flow of cash and weapons in different directions has perpetuated a system were the economic benefits are so lucrative to shown any concern for the sufferings of common fellow nationals, because personal economic interest supersede that of the nation.

Power Struggle of Global Powers

It is clear and no longer news that there is a scrabble for Africa, its resources and labour, what is news however is that this once mainly western Anglo-French-American bastion of influence and control over its resources has turned into a contested area of geopolitical interest and meddling of great nations of the world. Chinaovertook the US as Africa's most prolific trading partner back in 2009. Trade between the continent and Beijing stood at over one hundred and twenty billion dollars as of 2010, with China holding influence over the economies of multiple states, not to mention the African Union (AU).

In this instance the Asian-African ties are starkly clear, with the AU'stwo hundred-million-dollar headquarters inAddis Ababa, Ethiopia, having been funded entirely through Chinese donors.TheNigerian-basedInitiative for Public Policy Analysis (IPPA) maintains that, as of 2012, a grand total of $14.7 billion dollars in Chinese FDI had manifested in Africa; a sixty percent leap from 2009. Since last year this figure has grown to exceed $40 billion dollars. While China does not allow political issues such as democratic or authoritarian systems to interfere with its pragmatic ties with African countries, the U.S. has strong value-oriented policies that prevent Washington from engaging governments with poor human rights records. On the technical level, China views development and foreign aid as practical policy instruments to promote political friendship and economic cooperation, while the U.S. attaches clearly stated goals, stringent conditions, and strict criteria to its development programs. In reality, these vast differences significantly limit the potential for U.S.-China cooperation on the African continent.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development was claimed that, as early as 2007, Beijing was antagonizing western powers by dealing with governments with less than ideal attitudes towards human rights. Despite impressing local political leaders with equitable loans and abundant aid, China was setting a “dubious” precedent by allegedly failing to make human rights a consistent part of its African policy. With all this clear clash albeit in a subtle manner lends credence to the African saying that says “when two elephants fight it is the ground that suffers” this is a true reflection of the African situation today.

There is a long list of meddling in sovereign African states that have gone wrong at least for Africa and its people as the US and its allies try to keep governments and regimes in their control as they clearly wish to join the Chinese economic and development train. Ivory Coast (Lauret Gbabo), Angola, among so many others as the list is long and endless. As the story is now changing as there is a challenge from a different block, with the Chinesecontinuous vying and courting the attention of many African countries with good result for both parties. But this comes at cost as Africa is drawn into the conflict of big powers and is the battle ground for proxy wars in the future, it is clear that the Anglo-French-American combo won’t go down (lose its influence in Africa) without a fight. This subject is a whole area and subject of study and analysis.

In the context of this in relation to boko haram, it can be seen in the disastrous campaigns of the NATO led intervention in Libya, as of the time of the Libyan crisis before the deposition of the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, there was relative calm in the Sahara region and its countries, and it is also known that the Tuaregs and other nomadic tribes of this region fought on the side of the Libyan government as mercenaries, with the death of Gaddafi these battle hardened mercenaries returned home with weapons gotten from the Libyan military and depots also along they came with an ideology to establish an Islamic homeland, northern Mali readily comes to mind as fallout of the Libyan crisis and death of Gaddafi.

After the French campaign to reverse the militant Tuaregs push for seceding of the northern territories of Mali, some of these fighters joined the ranks of boko haram and injected a renewed vigor to their fighting style and military equipments. Many soldiers in the Nigerian army I had the opportunity to speak with will tell you that boko haram are mostly not Nigerians but foreigners as their appearance and looks is not like any Nigerian ethnic group.

But the most apparent signs of foreign interests is the refusal of some world powers led by the US to sell to Nigerian government necessary weapons and technology to fight the terror of Boko Haram under the flimsy excuse of abuse of the Nigerian military against civilian, what in their own case in the middle east will call collateral damage. It was not until president Goodluck Jonathan looked to Russia for technical assistance and training that the battle against Boko Haram started to turn in favor of the Nigerian military.

This is done with the motive of achieving two goals, first since China’s drive for economic domination on the African continent is centered on development projects and other forms of barter trade in the form of exchange of technology, goods and services for mineral resources to continue fueling in part the growth of the Chinese economy, stability on the African continent is of the most importance to the Chinese as they cannot build and develop African states if there is crisis and chaos. The same cannot be said for the US, as Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and others like them where the US has intervened, show that this empire is fine and at home achieving its goals under the ruins of countries. This sharp contrast will shape this continent for years to come, as different powers vie for control. Boko Haram can be a major beneficiary if a global power sees it as a tool of furthering and achieving its end goals.

With the north-east of Nigeria having the worst social indices in the country, with a population of 24.5 million people it has the greater number of the very poor and vulnerable (poverty incidence 67.3%; [Nigeria living standard survey, 2004, Nigeria poverty assessment]; world bank 2006) and worst environmental related diseases in the world at 30% least. There are currently 2.2 million people displaced in the region (IOM DTM). Majority of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) are identified in Borno (1,650,799; 77%) then Yobe (195,918; 9%) and Adamawa (117,729; 5%). Refugees outside of Nigeria are also staggering as of 2015: 93,888 in Niger, 14,824 in chad and 56,003 in Cameroon, more than 105,000 in Diffa region (UNCHR, 18/08/2015). Some 9.7 million people, including IDPs, are staying in 34 areas worst affected by Boko Haram insurgency. The entire population of north-east Nigeria of 24.5 million people is indirectly affected, of which 1.5 millionof the 2.2 million displaced are children with half of them being under 5 years old. Children constitute 56% of the IDP population. Analysis of the demographics of the IDPs shows that 52% are females and 48% are males, it further shows that 94% of the directly as a result of insurgency.

On a final note Boko Haram has a great potential to metamorphose into an even bigger humanitarian catastrophe with deadlier consequences, and at the same time the potential to disappear and vanish from the face of the earth. what is done next by the Nigeria government, regional partners (feeling the threat and pain of Boko Haram activities directly and indirectly), and global partners and friends of Africa to correct an age long yearning of parties involved.