Northern Nigeria and the prospect of an Islamic state

28 August 2014

On Sunday the Nigerian Islamist organisation Boko Haram claimed an “Islamic caliphate” in the north-eastern town of Gwoza, Borno State. In a video obtained by Agence France-Presse (AFP) the group’s leader Abubakar Shekau announced that: “Allah used us to captured [sic.] Gwoza, Allah is going to use Islam to rule Gwoza, Nigeria and the whole world.” This supposed seizure follows an attack on the town earlier this month which left dozens of people dead and sent others fleeing into Cameroon.

The Nigerian military has been quick to refute the announcement, assuring the rest of the country and the international community that the “sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Nigerian state is still intact.” Some 480 Nigerian soldiers have crossed into Cameroon in what the Nigerian government has described as a “tactical manoeuvre” not a retreat. This contingent is part of thousands of troops that have been deployed by Nigeria and neighbouring countries in those areas of north-eastern Nigeria worst-affected by Boko Haram’s attacks.

Boko Haram militancy

Boko Haram (‘Western education is sin’) was founded by Muhammed Yusuf in 2002 with the intention of establishing an Islamic state in north-eastern Nigeria. This is what makes it an Islamist, rather than purely Islamic organisation: it seeks to make the social political, thereby acting in contravention with Nigeria’s constitution which prohibits the adoption of a state religion. Despite this Sharia law has been instituted fully or as a main part of civil and criminal law in twelve northern states since 2000. The existence of two legal systems – Nigerian and Sharia – running in parallel to one another has created a mechanism for increasing discrimination against non-Muslims and systematically marginalising Christians. This environment has allowed Boko Haram to thrive.

Yusuf was executed by Nigerian security forces in 2009, forcing Boko Haram underground. The group has since led a five-year insurgency in the north of the country. In May of 2013 President Goodluck Jonathan imposed a “state of emergency” and deployed government troops in the three states where Boko Haram is most active: Borno, Yobe and Adamawa. The state of emergency was extended another six months in November of last year and is ongoing.

Since January estimates of the number of people killed from intercommunal conflict in the region have reached as high as 5000. Furthermore, the ongoing violence has created a humanitarian crisis in which huge numbers of people have been internally displaced. According to the most recent Humanitarian Bulletin by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), there are 705,000 Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in Nigeria, of which 646,693 reside in the north-east.

Recent headlines

Boko Haram’s militancy was thrown into the international spotlight in April of this year when it kidnapped over 200 girls from Chibok, Borno State. Local sources report that around 1800 people have been abducted by Boko Haram so far this year, and that Chibok was not unprecedented in scale for a single kidnapping. Nevertheless the Chibok kidnapping sent a shockwave through the international media and the heavily publicised ‘Bring Back Our Girls’ campaign did much to highlight escalating violence in the region.

Although the campaign is ongoing it now receives considerably less media coverage. This is despite continued violence and insecurity in the region. Since April Boko Haram has carried out multiple kidnappings of a lesser scale and has seized a number of government institutions in the north-east – all indicative that its military capacity and confidence is growing and that the extremely volatile situation in the region should not be ignored.

This most recent display of aggression – the declaration of Gwoza as an “Islamic Caliphate” – has a precedent in the markedly similar announcement made in July by the leader of the Islamic State and the Levant (ISIL), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Boko Haram was vocal in its support of ISIL’s declaration and this seems to suggest a connection between the two groups. However, such Pan-Islamist collusion appears to be unlikely since Shekau did not reiterate his connection to Baghdadi in his announcement on Sunday. Rather, Boko Haram’s attention remains focused on establishing a separate Nigerian caliphate, not on transcending the borders and oceans separating Islamist insurgents.

During HART’s visit to Nigeria two months ago we heard first-hand how many people now express deep concerns over the possible disintegration of the nation. Fears of the potential dissociation of the southern states from the north were also recorded in HART’s 2012 Visit Report. This indicates just how enduring the idea of succession is and reminds us that it is not beyond imagining that Boko Haram might succeed in its determined efforts to sever the north from the rest of the country.

Cultural difference and conflict

In Shekau’s speech released on Sunday he alternated between Arabic and the Hausa language that dominates in Northern Nigeria. These languages represent the two spheres most frequently cited by media headlines as the cause of conflict in Nigeria: religion and ethnicity.  Although religion is the cultural distinction Boko Haram plays on, Nigeria’s history concerning ethnicity provides a useful comparison to show that a history of conflict does not inevitably follow from the fact of distinction. Rather, social distinctions are a part of a complex history and it takes work to turn difference and inequality into group boundaries.[1]

The Biafran War, from 1967 to 1970, was an ethnic conflict between south-eastern Nigeria, with a majority Igbo population, and the north, dominated by the Hausa people. It began when the south-east declared its succession from Nigeria and the creation of the Republic of Biafra.  Advocates of a separate state of Biafra cite the country’s colonial past as the root of social distinctions between these ethnic groups. Osita Ebiem is one such advocate. The self-proclaimed ‘Biafran citizen’, in his recently published book Nigeria, Biafra & Boko Haram, argues that the merging of north and south into one colony by the British after World War One created the myriad of people that live in present day Nigeria. This conglomeration, he argues, lies at the root of Nigeria’s instability.

Ebiem is right to argue that Nigeria’s colonial past aggravated the ethno-characteristics of the country’s regions: British rule in Nigeria was organised regionally and this reinforced dominant political parties and ethnic groups in specific areas. But Ebiem misleadingly enforces the presumption that there are irreconcilable differences between ethnicities that obstruct any form of accommodation. This is not the case. The economist Dambisa Moyo argues that it is futile to cite ethnic difference as an excuse for economic failure and/or conflict: ‘In fact people in African cities live in a more integrated way than you might find in other cities – there are no ethnic zones such as exist in Belfast, London or New York, for that matter.’[2]

Ethnic diversity did not inevitably cause the instability of the late 1960s. Rather, the political circumstances leading up to the war and the colonial legacy of regional rule prompted the declaration of a new state drawn along ethnic lines. Similarly, it is Boko Haram’s determination not to allow the divisive role of religion to evaporate as well as the colonial legacy of western education in the south that has formed the basis of the current environment in Northern Nigeria. It is in this environment that Boko Haram could force the north’s schism from the south.

The importance of understanding that it takes work – kidnappings, violent attacks, and perpetual conflict – to turn difference and inequality into group boundaries, and that division does not innately exist in Nigerian society, cannot be understated. It has implications for the future of Nigeria as a whole and provides vital hope for the prospect of peace and reconciliation in the country.

Complexities of conflict now

The complexities of Boko Haram’s discrimination have been glossed over by the ink-saving headlines of the international media: violence in north-eastern Nigeria no longer fits the overly simplistic narrative of Muslims killing Christians. Although there remains an asymmetry in the number of attacks on Christians, Boko Haram’s increasingly indiscriminate attacks against Christians and Muslims have forced many Muslims in the region to change their attitudes and the group now finds itself increasingly isolated.

The Civilian Joint Task Force (C-JTF) – also known as the Borno Youth Association of Peace and Justice – is a loose group of vigilantes that was formed in Maiduguri. The group consists of citizens who have taken it upon themselves to oust Boko Haram from their city without the legal authority of the Nigerian government. Despite a lack of legal sanction, the C-JTF is seen as a necessity by Borno’s local and state governments and its presence has become increasingly visible since they began manning the military checkpoints in Maiduguri last month.

However, the role of ‘protector’ that the C-JTF has adopted is just as complex as Boko Haram’s attacks. As early as November of last year, Human Rights Watch reported that the rise of the C-JTF has ‘added a worrisome new dimension to the violence.’ Now reports that the C-JTF has begun to recruit children are just as shocking as reports that Boko Haram has begun to force its victims to fight for them. More disturbing still is the video footage, uncovered by Amnesty International, showing that the C-JTF has been involved in brutal extrajudicial killings. In HART’s own visit to Northern Nigeria two months ago one man we met said that the C-JTF was not accountable to anybody.

The fact that it is not simply religious difference that has created an escalating situation of violent conflict in Northern Nigeria is both worrying and reassuring. It is worrying because Boko Haram has been able to cultivate a landscape of terror that has killed thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands, they have both created and heightened hostilities between faith communities, and because they have perpetuated violence through those who seek retaliation and retribution. However, it is also reassuring because there remains hope for reconciliation between faiths that are not innately irreconcilable.

Peace and Reconciliation

Two months ago HART visited interfaith projects working to bring peace and development to Northern Nigeria. At the heart of a seemingly intractable conflict, we found many impressive stories of reconciliation and grassroots projects promoting peace. In Jos, Plateau State, we learned about an interfaith income generation project that aims to bring together Christian and Muslim women and young people to learn entrepreneurial skills. This began in March 2013 with 40 women and young people. Now there are around 150 participants.

HART continues to emphasize the need for inter-faith peace-building initiatives such as this. Imams and Christian leaders play a vital role here in continuing efforts to preach against revenge attacks and in favour of peace. But the way the conflict in Northern Nigeria is understood by and presented to the rest of the world also matters: emphasis on the country’s religious divide should not obscure the potential for healing the rupture Boko Haram so determinedly seeks.

HART continues to seek funding to support its partners’ aid relief work and development work across parts of Northern Nigeria. If you wish to donate to HART, please do so via the website or through our London office. Please let us know if your donation is restricted to our work in Nigeria.

Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust
3 Arnellan House
144-146 Slough Lane
London NW9 8XJ

[1] F. Cooper, Africa since 1940 (Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 7.

[2] Dambisa Moyo, Dead Aid (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009), p. 32-33.

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