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Nigeria: Northern discontent and the history of Boko Haram

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Nigeria: Northern discontent and the history of Boko Haram

Stephen Buchanan-Clarke

Peter Knoope

02 Oct 2017

5min min read
  • International relations and terrorism
  • Religion and politics

This is an edited extract from "The Boko Haram Insurgency: From Short Term Gains to Long Term Solutions" by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. Read the full paper here


oko Haram is not the first radical Islamist organisation to have emerged in northern Nigeria that denounces ‘Western education’ and calls for a return to religious rule to purify society of its social ills. 

There have been several — both violent and non-violent — social movements, usually formed around a specific preacher, who have either rose up against the government and religious establishment, or tried to establish small communities governed by strict Sharia law. These have included, for example, the Talakawas in the 1940s and 1950s, the Yan Tatsine in the 1960s and 1970s, Darul Islam and followers of the Ndimi mosque in the early 2000s, to name a few. 

This is an important point to highlight to better understand the historical, economic and political drivers that led to the emergence of Boko Haram. If not addressed, they will likely give rise to similar organisations in the future. 

Northern Nigeria has been profoundly influenced by religion and politics, the former often being used as a dialect of social organisation in relation to the latter. By 1903, the Borno Sultanate and powerful Sokoto Caliphate, which ruled over an area which would now include southern Cameroon, Niger and northern Nigeria, came under British control. 

However, as Moses Ochonu writes, typical of British colonial strategy, the British “came to northern Nigeria desirous of identifying and collaborating with a group of rulers representing a cultural and political entity that they deemed ‘civilised’ and sophisticated enough to be partners in the colonial project. The Hausa-Caliphate world view and those who best represented it — the Hausa-Fulani emirs and the Caliphate aristocracy — were recruited into this role.” 

These circumstance created early opposition to Western influence by indigenous populations who began to distrust the Hausa-Fulani elite due to their apparent co-option by the British colonial administration. Furthermore, Christian missionaries who used Western education as a mechanism for evangelism were viewed with additional suspicion by local northern populations. 

As Femi Owolade writes, “The Western influence of British colonialists caused a division among the people of Northern Nigeria, who were once united by Islam. This division saw, on one side, the so-called 'civilised' — by Western standards — elite who were used by the British as agents of colonisation; and on the other side, the commoners, who vehemently resisted Western influence in the region.” 

In the 1940s, a popular social movement known as the Talakawas (commoners) formed in northern Nigeria. The movement’s leader, Aminu Kano, led an Islamic uprising against British colonialists and the ruling elite. As Ira Lapidus writes, “Kano’s criticism was directed not only at Britain but also against the native establishment... The party rallied teachers, clerks, servants, petty traders, craftsmen, workers, and lesser ‘ulama’ to oppose colonial rule.” 

In the 1970s and 1980s, several more fundamentalist organisations began to emerge in opposition to the state, such as the Yan Tatsine, led by the radical preacher Mohammed Marwa. Marwa reviled Western education and went as far to denounce the use of radios, bicycles and watches. He received the nickname ‘Maitatsine’, which translates from Hausa as ‘the one who curses’, due to his fondness of making curse-laden speeches against the Nigerian state, who he saw as irredeemably corrupt and beholden to Western powers. 

He slowly grew a following of religious scholars, youths, unemployed migrants and others who felt mainstream Muslim leaders were not doing enough for their communities. As his following grew so did the frequency of confrontations with the police. 

By 1980, Yan Tatsine reprisal attacks against religious figures and the police forced the Nigerian army to become involved, and they killed Marwa. Subsequent clashes between his adherents and the authorities led to the death of around 5000 people.

The birth of Boko Haram

While the name Boko Haram, which loosely translates from the Hausa as “Western Education is evil/forbidden”, may sound slightly absurd to an outsider, it is appropriate if one considers the established narrative the organisation is drawing on – that the Nigerian state is morally corrupt, fueled by greed, and beholden to the Christian West. In the colonial period, British or ‘Western’ education systems were at the core of the inequality, repression, domination and exploitation that characterised colonialism – as only a favoured ethnic elite had access to English and Christian schools that enabled commercial and professional career advancement and access to power. 

The group that would come to be known as Boko Haram was founded by Yusuf Mohammed in 2002 in Maiduguri, the capital of the northeastern state of Borno. Like Mohammmed Marwa and the Yan Tatsine, Yusuf Mohammed sought to gather impressionable youth who felt abandoned by the government and disenfranchised by an economic system which favoured only a politically connected elite. He offered a sense of hope through religious commitment and sketched out a simple picture of an enemy at which their anger and discontent could be focused. Yusuf spent several years during the 1990s in Saudi Arabia, meeting with like-minded Salafi preachers, before returning to Nigeria and travelling around the northeast, preaching against the Nigerian state and citing spiritual corruption as the cause of Borno’s ills. 

"Like Mohammmed Marwa and the Yan Tatsine, Yusuf Mohammed sought to gather impressionable youth who felt abandoned by the government and disenfranchised by an economic system which favoured only a politically connected elite."

As Andrew Walker writes, “Yusuf was one of thousands of Almajiri children – religious students who beg on the streets for a living. But by the early 2000s he had found a place as a leader of the youth wing of a Salafist group at Maiduguri’s popular Alhaji Muhammadu Ndimi mosque.” He was deeply opposed to any Western form of democracy and cited the education system, put in place by the Christian British during colonial rule, as the wellspring of corruption and social ills. Chris Kwaja asserts that with regard to Boko Haram, the “religious dimensions of the conflict have been misconstrued as the primary driver of violence when, in fact, disenfranchisement and inequality are the root causes”. 

Between 2005 and 2009, Yusuf established a sect at a compound in Maiduguri’s Railway District, consisting of hundreds of followers, most of whom were unemployed and impoverished Islamic students, clerics, university students, and others. This sect was, by most accounts, non-violent and more interested in practicing and preaching an austere form of Salafism then violence. However, like the Yan Tatsine before them, as the Yusuffiya grew in numbers and influence so did the sect’s run-ins with local police. 

On 20 February 2009, a disagreement between a convoy of Yusuffiya and local police turned violent, leading to the deaths of several members. Things quickly escalated in the following months. Yusuf’s farm and the sect’s headquarters in the Ibn Taymiyyah mosque compound were raided by police. In response, the sect took to the streets, killing any police and soldiers they found, as well as scores of civilians. Mohammed Yusuf was captured by the military and handed over to the police who summarily executed him in front of the police station and a group of journalists who captured the event on camera. The group scattered and went into hiding but emerged in 2011 under the new leadership of Abubakar Shekau, Yusuf’s second-in-command. 

Boko Haram had evolved from the remnants of a radical sect to a fully-fledged terrorist group and immediately began to wage the bloody insurgency which, up until today, has claimed the lives of thousands of civilians and displaced millions.

(Main image by Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty: A soldier stands at a damaged house in Bosso military camp on June 17 2016 following attacks by Boko Haram fighters in the region. Boko Haram on 9 June attacked a military post in Bosso in Niger's Diffa region, killing 26 soldiers.)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.