Past and Present: Boko Haram in Historical Context

24 October 2014

Nigeria is no stranger to religious and ethnic conflict. The militant Islamist group Boko Haram is the latest in a long line of fundamentalist groups and movements that have existed in Nigeria over the centuries.

This is not to say however that the country is destined to be a battleground for those who carry out brutal killings and punishment against Christians, moderate Muslims and others alike, all in the name of a narrow, violent and perverse interpretation of Islam. The history of ethnic and religious tensions in Nigeria helps to create an environment in which Boko Haram is able to exacerbate divisions and create unrest in the country. In order to better understand the current situation in Nigeria, it is necessary to consider the ethnic and religious tensions that have dominated the region for much of its history.

Like many states, Nigeria is the product of complex historical, religious and cultural dynamics. Since the 11th century nomadic Muslims, known as the Fulani, had grown in influence in Northwest and West Africa. They were largely responsible for the spread of Islam across the region as a result of a series of religious wars launched from 1750 onwards. From 1808, the Fulani Jihad led to the establishment of the Sokoto Caliphate across the north of Nigeria and the wider region, centralising power and uniting its peoples (predominantly from the Hausa and Fulani ethnic groups) under the religion of Islam. South of this, the region consisted mostly of those from the Yoruba and Igbo ethnic groups – those of Christian and animist faiths. At the start of the twentieth century however, Britain and France turned their attentions to West Africa. In a typically ‘thick pens on bad maps’ approach, the region was carved up, with Northern and Southern Nigeria falling under the rule of the British colonial authorities. In 1914 Northern and Southern Nigeria were officially united. The inherent religious, ethnic and socio-economic divide remained.

In the mid-twentieth century a radical preacher, known by the moniker of Maitatsine (Hausa for ‘He who curses others’), emerged on the scene. Having been deported by the British early on as a result of his militant and anti-Western rhetoric, he returned to Nigeria after its independence in 1960 and began to build his support base. Exploiting the socio-economic divide at the time, Maitatsine denounced the influence of the West, declaring the need to return to the fundamentals of Islam and inciting violence against the state and other civilians, moderate Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Clashes continued throughout the 1970s. By 1979, Maitatsine had declared the use of cars and watches haram, and had allegedly even gone so far as to proclaim himself the true Prophet, rejecting the prophethood of Muhammad altogether. By exploiting the disaffection of poverty-stricken urban in-migrants, Maitatsine successfully whipped up a large support base known as Yan Tatsine (‘Followers of Maitatsine’). Yan Tatsine targeted established religious and social groups around Kano, whom it believed had been responsible for the former marginalisation of their followers. The subsequent violence culminated in an uprising in December 1980 in and around Kano, after police and security forces attempted to crack down on the movement’s violent rioting. In the end, over four thousand people, including Maitatsine himself, were killed.

But it didn’t end there. Deadly riots and clashes continued throughout 1982 and 1984 in Kaduna, Maiduguri and other northern cities, with many casualties being the result of brutal military and police crackdowns. The clashes were the product of anti-Western sentiment, the exploitation of tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims, and poor, working-class youths rebelling against the affluent elite. In a state where such a significant gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ exist, these riots showed just how easily political and social dissatisfaction could spill over into violence. In these circumstances, the manipulation of ethnic and religious identity is an attractive tool for those who wish to exacerbate existing tensions and feelings of injustice.

Boko Haram is doing much the same. Founded in 2002 in the northeastern state of Borno, the group seeks to establish an Islamic state throughout Nigeria. Since 2009, Boko Haram has resorted to a strategy of brutal violence to further these aims, attacking political, military, religious and civilian targets. The group is exacerbating the existing religious tensions in the country in order to boost anti-Western sentiment, gain support and bomb its way to its ultimate goal. Boko Haram’s support base is a result of popular anger over poverty, inequality, disparity in development and political dissatisfaction.

Religious tensions play a key role in the group’s existence, but do not explain the group’s endurance. Some in fact argue that the ‘religious face used by Boko Haram is a deceptive cloak to deceive Nigerians that share Islamic sentiments. Evidence certainly suggests that not all Boko Haram supporters follow the fundamentalist Salafi doctrine that the group claims to represent.

Defeating Boko Haram requires a considered strategy that tackles the root causes of the dissatisfaction that is creating the group’s support base. Religious tensions must be understood as the means to reach their political end, rather than simply a cause of the phenomenon. Boko Haram has capitalised on the inherent fragility of Nigeria’s ethnic and religious make up. By better understanding the history and context in which Boko Haram is operating, the better equipped we are to understand the reasons for the group’s existence and endurance.

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