Magazine article New African

The Sad Rise of Boko Haram: Boko Haram, Nigeria's Latest Terrorist Group, Has Been Bombing Its Way into the Headlines in Recent Months. Zach Warner (of the NGO, Human Wrongs Watch) Traces the Group's Antecedents to the Economic, Political and Religious Frustration of Northern Muslims, and Says the Group Will Not Be Defeated Unless the Frustration Is Addressed

Magazine article New African

The Sad Rise of Boko Haram: Boko Haram, Nigeria's Latest Terrorist Group, Has Been Bombing Its Way into the Headlines in Recent Months. Zach Warner (of the NGO, Human Wrongs Watch) Traces the Group's Antecedents to the Economic, Political and Religious Frustration of Northern Muslims, and Says the Group Will Not Be Defeated Unless the Frustration Is Addressed

Article excerpt

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 coordinated attacks in Kano on 2.0 January, has 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. 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 with Usman Dan Fodio's successful jihad and the establishment of the Sokoto Caliphate in 1809.

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Though the empire was strong enough to resist subjugation to the 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 CO Mandism as it spread westward from Sudanic Africa. A strand of Islam that encouraged militancy and opposition to authority, this school of thought preached that the Mandi ("saviour") would reappear in times of difficulty. Muslims would be rid of oppression, 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 resisted Mahdism. Recognising the strength of the emirate governance structure, British administrators in the early colonial period chose Sokoto as a first test of indirect rule, investing in it all the formal and legal authority they could muster to bolster its substantial social and religious legitimacy.

This alliance of indigenous elites and British bureaucrats pushed back 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 the 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 the Sokoto networks of authority were left voiceless.

Further challenges to emirate rule came sporadically throughout the post-independence period, epitomised by the early 197os 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. …

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