The background and history (which goes centuries back) to the recent violent offensive by Boko Haram, a radical Islamist group, that wants to establish a Talibanist-style rule of Sharia across entire Nigeria...
This article first appeared in Family Security Matters
On Sunday, July 26th, in the northern Nigerian city of Bauchi, violence erupted between Islamists and police. The conflict arose after a dawn raid by Islamic militants upon a police station. Thirty-nine people were killed, and 176 arrested. A curfew was imposed but even though there were no reports of violence in Bauchi city (in Bauchi state) on Monday, reports came in of other attacks in other towns which had been staged simultaneously.
In Gamboro-Ngalu in Borno state, Islamists went on an offensive, burning down a church, a customs post and a police station. According to one resident, a customs officer was burned to death and an engineer had his throat cut. Outside a police headquarters in Maiduguri, Borno state, a journalist counted at least 100 bodies (pictured).
Another attack is said to have taken place in Wudil, a few miles from Kano city, the capital of Kano state. Kano city is the third largest city in Nigeria. Three people were said to have died in Wudil, with 33 people arrested. In Potiskum, Yobe state, a gun battle continued for hours and a police station was set on fire.
Sharia and Conflict
After a period of military dictatorship, Nigeria returned to democracy in May 29, 1999. The return of democracy also saw the return of legislation that is – by its very nature – anti-democratic. In October 1999, Zamfara became the first Nigerian state to introduce Sharia law. Within a few years, the total of states in Nigeria that had introduced Sharia had risen to 12. These were all located in the north of the country, where Islamic traditions have been practiced assiduously for centuries. Sharia had been banned by the British more than half a century earlier, and its re-introduction saw chaos and violence between Muslims and Christians.
The irony of Nigeria's Sharia legislation is that it was introduced by a Christian, President Olusegun Obasanjo of the Yoruba tribe. Obasanjo became the first democratically elected President of Nigeria since military dictatorships took control of Nigeria in December 1983. Obasanjo ignored Chapter One, Section 10, of the country's constitution, which decrees that law in Nigeria should be secular: "The Government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as State Religion."
The Nigerian Taliban
The anti-Christian violence that had erupted with the arrival of Sharia law led to the rise of fanatical Islamists who have been called variously the Nigerian Muhajidin and also the Nigerian "Taliban." Though more of a movement than a specific group, the Nigerian "Taliban" emerged at the end of 2003, when attacks happened in Kanama in Yobe State, under the leadership of an individual who called himself Aminu Tashen-Ilimi. For a brief period, Kanama was under the control of the Islamists, who then numbered around 200. The village had been invaded on December 24, 2003, and 30 villagers were kidnapped at gunpoint by the Islamists, forced to dig defensive trenches and forced to pray with their Islamist captors. On December 31, 2003, the rebels wrote the word "Taliban" upon a captured vehicle and left the village to seek out new targets.
Tashen-Ilimi (not, apparently, his real name) led his mujahideen in attacks upon police stations in Borno state and also in Damaturu, capital of Borno. This first insurgency was met with resistance from the army and police, and by January 2004, the Taliban appeared to have been defeated. Within months, police stations were being attacked again in Borno and Yobe.
In September 2004, between 40 and 60 members of the Nigerian Taliban had attacked a police patrol near Gwoza (Gworza), close to the border with Cameroon. Twenty-eight mujahideen were killed in subsequent fighting. The attacks upon police stations appear to have had a twofold purpose – to procure arms and ammunition, but also to show contempt for those who upheld law and order. For the Nigerian Jihadis, takfiri ideology means that Muslims who do not support their strict interpretation of Islam are seen as apostates and do not deserve to live.
In January 2006, Aminu Tashen-Ilimi had been promising a "comeback." He said: "Allah, the almighty Lord, has authorized every Muslim to fight and establish an Islamic government over the world. One day it will happen in Nigeria and everywhere."
Tashen-Alimi described his mission: "When I repented and discovered the true faith, understood the true words of Allah, I left everything behind: my family, my job, and migrated. I'm ready to take up arms. I don't know who gave us the name Taliban, I prefer 'mujahideen’ – the fighters. I only know the Taliban in Afghanistan, and I respect them and what they did very much. Those who fought in Kanama and Gwoza are only Muslims who performed their holy duty."
The current conflict is said to be the work of a group calling itself "Boko Haram" – which roughly translates as "Western education forbidden." The ideologue of this group is a preacher who is called Mohammed Yusuf. He lives in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state.
The BBC states that Yusuf vowed to attack the police following the killing of mourners at a funeral in June.
"Boko Haram" as a group may not be the main participants in the current insurgency. Like the Nigerian Taliban, it may not even be a specific group; more a collection of disparate groups whose shared values have coalesced to form an Islamist movement. The attitudes of Mohammed Yusuf reflect the same ideology as the Islamists who campaigned for the introduction of Sharia law as much as the attitudes of those who have carried out indiscriminate slaughter.
Mohammed Yusuf condemns "Western education." He has condemned the University of Maiduguri for promoting "Western" education. In early 2003, similar values were being expressed by a senior religious figure, but his target was Western medicine, rather than education.
Ibrahim Datti Ahmed (born in 1937) was an influential preacher who claimed to be a physician. He was president of the Supreme Council of Sharia Law in Nigeria (SCSN). This body had been behind the introduction of Sharia law into the 12 northern states, and advised Islamic judges on issues of jurisprudence. It officially regulated the punishments but had no respect for the rule of law, least of all Section 10 of the nation's constitution. In 2002, SCSN claimed it had introduced Sharia law into Oyo state in the south. Representatives of this group had introduced themselves at a mosque in Ibadan, claiming to be there to supervise Sharia rulings. The state of Oyo never recognized the authority of the Supreme Council of Sharia Law.
In August 2001 Ibrahim Datti Datti Ahmed, speaking on behalf of the Supreme Council of Sharia Law, publicly said that the SCSN would avenge the killing of northerners in clashes which had taken place in southern states. In October 2001, in the northern city of Kano, hundreds of people were killed by Muslim rioters, apparently inspired by Datti Ahmed. Most of the victims were either southern Nigerians or Christians. Datti Ahmed is a fundamentalist who complained in 2002 that apart from the states of Sokoto, Niger and Zamfara, the northern states which had introduced Sharia were not committed enough to its rigid implementation.
In 2003, Ibrahim Datti Ahmed had deliberately sabotaged the Nigerian operations of the World Health Organization's strategy to rid the world of polio. He had claimed that there were "documents" that showed that the United States had since 1975 been implementing a campaign to reduce the populations of Muslims and Africans. He claimed that hormones had been added to tetanus vaccines, and suggested that polio vaccines were similarly designed to make Nigerians sterile.
Ahmed had said: "The council (SCSN) harbors strong reservations on the safety of our population not least because of our recent experience in the Pfizer scandal, when our people were used as guinea pigs with the approval of the federal ministry of health and the approval of all the relevant UN agencies." His unsubstantiated claims that the polio vaccines were designed to make recipients sterile led to the suspension of the polio campaign. Soon, Muslim clerics in India followed Datti Ahmed's lead and poliomyelitis, a disease that could have been eradicated, had not only shown no signs of disappearing, but it had returned to countries from which it had been eradicated (Yemen, Sudan, Ethiopia, Angola, Mali, Cameroon, Chad and Eritrea). In 2007 a Pakistani cleric, following Ahmed's position, sabotaged local polio vaccination campaigns.
In 2004 after the Nigerian "Taliban" under the leadership of Aminu Tashen-Ilimi had rampaged and killed policemen in their first, highly publicized insurgency, Ibrahim Datti Ahmad refuused to condemn the Jihadists. He said of the rebels: "These are very sophisticated youth. They are not just the trash that is in government. I can understand why they did it. I'm not in a position to say whether I support it or not, but they must have their reasons."
Ibrahim Datti Ahmad still leads the Supreme Council of Sharia Law. He still appears to support acts of terrorism carried out by Islamists.
The city of Jos in Plateau state was subjected to violence between Muslims and Christians in November 2008. This violence followed the controversial results of a local election, and at least 400 people were killed. Thousands were forced to abandon their homes. Jonah Jang, the governor of Jos, called a curfew which appeared to stop the violence. In January 2009, Ibrahim Datti Ahmed urged Muslims to boycott the investigation which was launched by Governor Jang to ascertain what had triggered the attacks.
The "Boko Hamam" group may be a new, more coordinated faction of Islamists, but the situation in northern Nigeria has been created by politicians and by fanatical Muslim clerics. Mohammed Yusuf is now being named as the current "instigator" of the recent violence, but the Supreme Council of Sharia Law has been equally responsible for fomenting resentments and tensions between Muslims and Christians in northern Nigeria.
With tensions ratcheted up by Islamist ideologues, all it takes is a small external trigger for the violence to erupt. In February 2006, after the Danish cartoon affair, the city of Maiduguri in Borno State (home of Mohammed Yusuf) saw Muslims attacking Christians. Eleven churches were attacked, and 16 people were killed. One victim was "necklaced," having a gasoline-soaked tire placed around his neck and then set alight. The number of Maiduguri churches destroyed could have been as high as 15.
In November 2002, the annual Miss World competition was due to be staged in Nigeria. On Saturday November 16th, a newspaper columnist, Isioma Daniel, published an article in the Lagos-based daily This Day. In this, she wrote of the beauty contest: "What would Muhammed think? In all honesty, he would probably have chosen a wife from among them." As a result, riots broke out. In Kaduna in the north of Nigeria, Muslims attacked Christians and churches. Local mosques were used to incite the violence. The violence spread to Lagos, the capital of Nigeria, where the Abuja mosque was the source of much of the incitement.
In Kaduna, after three days of violence, more than 250 people died, and several churches were totally destroyed (pictured). Frequently, accusations of blasphemy are used by Islamists to attack Christians in northern Nigeria. Lynchings of "blasphemers" in northern states are common. In March 2007 in the northeastern state of Gombe, Muslim pupils killed their Christian teacher, claiming she had "desecrated" a Koran.
Usman dan Fodio and the Sokoto Caliphate
The current violence in Nigeria has its roots – like most Islamist violence – in a desire to go back in history, rather than to move forward. Where many Islamists in the West and in the Indian subcontinent wish to revive the Ottoman Caliphate (which was officially disbanded on March 3, 2004), the Islamists of northern Nigeria have a desire to revive the empire created by Usman dan Fodio (Ousmane dan Fodio).
Fodio was born in Gobir in 1754 in what was formerly called Hausaland, named after the Hausa-speaking peoples of the north. Between 1804 and 1808, he waged armed Jihad (the Fulani War) against the local rulers, accumulating all the territories that are under Sharia law in the modern day, as well as several more. In 1809, these territories were called the Sokoto Caliphate, and Ussman dan Fodio was its "Caliph," a religious and political leader. The Caliphate was the largest African empire since the 16th century. After Fodio's death in 1817, the Caliphate was ruled by his son, Mohammed Bello, along with Fodio's brother.
The Sokoto Caliphate collapsed in 1903 when both Kano and Sokoto, its main cities, were sacked by colonialists.
The Islamists who are attacking police stations and capturing weapons, and the Muslim clerics who urge the uncompromising imposition of Sharia, are working toward the same end. Inspired by the glories of the past, as represented by Usman dan Fodio, they are seeking to reject wholesale the fragile democracy of Nigeria. They look to the past, and have no desire to live in a pluralist or a secular society. They want to recreate the Sokoto Calipate.
There have been other Islamists who have tried to recreate this Caliphate. One movement was called the Maitatsine Sect, after its founder, the Cameroon-born Mohammed Marwa Maitatsine. He established a cult in Kano state, northern Nigeria in the 1960s and 1970s. He denounced modern items such as bicycles and watches. He arrogantly saw himself as a Muslim prophet, which placed him as a heretic but he gained a wide following. He led an insurrection in Kano in December 1980. Maitatsine was killed. In October 1982, his followers rioted in Mauduguri and then spread to Borno state.
The Maitatsine Sect's overt insurrections seem to have inspired the current Islamists of northern Nigeria. The rioting took place in the same locations as the current unrest, continuing until 1985. In 1987 other Islamists, probably inspired by the Maitatsine Sect, led attacks upon Christians in Kaduna state, where 150 churches were burned over a period of just over a week. In October 2006, one leading Muslim cleric from the Maitatsine Sect was sentenced to be hanged. 51-year-old Musa Ali Suleiman was found guilty on three counts of "murder, conspiracy and incitement of public disturbance."
The recent violence that is happening in northern Nigeria is only the latest chapter in a conflict that has done nothing to recreate former glories. More conflicts will follow. "Boko Haram" is just one small platoon in a disorganized army fighting a war that can never be fully won. Though history provides lessons, it is impossible to go back to the past. Islamists in Nigeria and elsewhere seem unable to comprehend that basic lesson.