Limits of the Game of Masks: Class, Ethno-religious Identities, and the Rise of Salafi-Jihadism in Northern Nigeria

The intermediary bourgeois (our ruling elite) cannot claim political leadership openly on the grounds that he is, or wants to be, an exporter, shareholder, rentier or rich bureaucrat. He has to take over as a Muslim or Christian. He has to take over as an Ibo, Hausa, Idoma or Efik… The manipulation of religion in Nigeria today is essentially a means of creating the context for this fancy dress ball, for this charade of disguises. This game of masks. – Yusuf Bala Usman 1979: 88-89 

Introduction

In his Christmas 2012 message, Pope Benedict XVI specifically mentioned Syria and Nigeria as two countries that the world should not lose hope on in 2013 (Pullela 2012). Considering the dire situation in Syria, this gives a glimpse of the state of strife in Nigeria. One of the main ominous possibilities looming over Nigeria is Salafi-jihadism waged since 2009 by the Jamā’atu Ahlis Sunnah Lādda’awatih wal-Jihad (People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad), better known as Boko Haram, and Jamaatu Ansarul Muslimina Fi Biladissudan (Vanguards for the Aid of Muslims in Black Africa), which started as one of at least two splinter groups from Boko Haram. The activities of Ansaru, as this splinter group is simply called in the popular press, have deepened the terror of Salafi-Jihadism since 2011, particularly with its strategy of kidnapping expatriates, many of whom it has killed.

The name Boko Haram, which non-members in Borno state use to describe Jamā’atu Ahlis Sunnah Lādda’awatih wal-Jihad and which has become its universally recognised nomenclature, roughly translates as “Western education is sin.”  But this particularistic definition of the sect actually marks two very important elements of its emergence and dynamics. First, its call for the return of Moslem practice to the “pure” steps of early Islam is actually a universal characteristic of (militant) Salafism. Second, the definition “reflects the social, political and generational dynamics” of Boko Haram’s emergence within the larger field of northern Nigerian radical Islam, as represented most prominently by the Yan Izala movement (Arabic: jama‘at izalat al-bid‘a wa-iqamat al-sunna, meaning “the community for the eradication of un-Islamic innovations and the establishment of the Sunna”) (Loimeier 2012: 138).

The socio-economic and political dynamics which threw up Boko Haram and the array of political Islamist platforms in the northern parts of the country are part of a broader spectrum of the deepening systemic crises of Nigeria. Ethnic and religious conflicts have exploded time and again along the lines of a multi-national and multi-religious canvas that is the “Nigerian project.” In recent times, these have merged with “the pervasive insecurity of lives and property, as evidenced by the spate of armed robbery attacks, [and] assassinations.”1 These two forms of violent convulsions – the outright criminal and the “ideological” (based on ethnicity and religion) – are two sides of the same coin of a system where rising poverty and disillusionment mark the incapacity of Nigeria’s ruling elite to salvage a country on the precipice of disaster.

The potential consequences of this situation are quite dire. It could lead to the chaotic disintegration of Nigeria as an entity, driven largely by fratricidal ethno-religious strife.  It is not only celestial representatives like the Pope that have expressed concern about Nigeria’s stability and continued existence. The possibility of the country’s collapse by 2015 was expressed by some US experts on sub-Saharan Africa in 2005 (National Intelligence Committee 2005). In 2011, the projected year of probable implosion was revised. It would now be 2030 (Kinnon et al. 2010). 

Ethnic and religious identities have been stirred into fatal conflicts for decades in the country, which has 374 identified ethnic groups and an almost evenly divided population of Muslims and Christians (Salawu & Hassan 2010: 28). Ethnic politics was the mainstay of elite politics in the later period of de-colonisation in the mid-20th century. This led to a 3-year civil war that left over a million dead in the late 1960s, less than a decade after Independence was won from Britain. The first military interregnum from 1966-79 managed to maintain a lid on ethno-regional conflicts after the civil war.

The period of democratisation leading to the Second Republic (1979-83) saw a rise once again of such identity-based politics. The politicisation of religion from the top subsequently took on added fillip during the second military interregnum (1983-99), with the Federal Military Government’s surreptitious entry into the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) sharpening the edges of ethno-religious identities and conflict. Ethnic and particularly religious crises in the past fourteen years of the Fourth Republic have been more intense and convoluted. These have also been largely, as always, in the northern regions.

One could perhaps grasp this reality as being an expression of social anomie peculiar to Nigeria. But it is impossible to understand the changing nature of ethno-religious conflicts in the country without situating them within a broader global context. Part of this context is the general decline of the influence of socialist ideas and radical-secular politics in the era of neoliberal capitalist triumphalism, which has manifested itself in the country with a largely de-ideologized working class. While the trade unions have been able to mobilise the immense majority against anti-poor people policies, they have not been able to constitute a counter-hegemonic bloc around a national-popular agenda that would consistently undermine the divisive force of religious (and ethnic) identities within the working masses.

This article thus has three major sections. In the first, ethno-religious politics in general and the rise of political Islam in particular are situated within the changing forms of the capitalist world order. In the second, we explore the dimensions of Islamism in post-colonial Nigeria by analysing ethno-religious identity in relation to elite politics. In the third section, we take a closer look at the Boko Haram sect which is currently the “vanguard” of Salafi-Jihadism in the country. The contradictory politics of the group, which claims to advocate for the poor (and against the perceived corruptive influence of Western education) while its leadership lives ostentatiously, is drawn out.2 The emerging third phase of the Boko Haram phenomenon, marked by the state of emergency declared by the federal government in May 2013, is equally considered. Finally, in the conclusion, we consider the problems and prospects for emancipatory working-class politics in the areas ravaged by Islamist insurgency.

Ethno-religious politics, changing world order and the rise of Islamism

Wimmer, Cederman and Min (2009: 316) argue that “The twentieth century has not been, as Karl Marx predicted, a period of revolutionary struggles but rather of ethno-nationalist conflicts.” This echoes the “clash of civilizations” thesis of Huntington (1996). This line of reasoning “wants to make “civilizations” and “identities” into what they are not: “shut-down, sealed off entities that have been purged of the myriad currents and counter-currents that animate human history” (Said 2001: 3). It conveniently overlooks the fact that ethno-nationalist conflicts arise from real or perceived socio-economic inequality, political domination and exclusion.

Ethno-nationalist conflicts do not stem from ethnic diversity, but from the politicization of ethnicity in “societies undergoing dramatic social change” (Brass 1991: 25). Such “change” marked the 20th century at each step, especially in its last quarter with the assaults of the neoliberal “counterrevolution.” Capitalist development has been associated with ethnic and religious conflicts from its origins in the Italian city-states, through the Netherlands to Britain, as terrestrial scores were settled between the rising class of capitalists and the feudal classes which they replaced. Ethno-nationalist and religious conflicts in the present era are some of the more critical, diverse symptoms of that interregnum in human history where, as Gramsci puts it (1971: 276), “The old is dying and the new cannot be born.”

Ethnicity was largely identified with (mini-)nationalist projects thrown up by modernization and accompanying de-colonization for most of the 20th century.3 “Religion is an aspect of ethnicity, with its importance varying over time and place” (Fox 2002: 70). This aspect, particularly Islamism, has come to attract great attention across the world since the last quarter of the 20th century. Whilst ethnic conflicts were previously associated more with nationalism, “the politics of the Middle East and beyond have been dominated by Islamist movements at least since the Iranian revolution of 1978-9” (Harman 1994). The “beyond” includes countries with large Muslim populations such as Nigeria, which has the fifth largest Muslim population in the world.4

Modern Islamism generalised beyond the efforts of solitary groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt in the 1960s (Kepel 2002: 17). The period witnessing the rise of militant Islamism was that of the neoliberal globalist project from the late 1970s, which set aside the class compromise of the earlier Keynesian period and gleefully made sorrow, tears and blood the defining reality for millions of people across the world. Related to capitalist triumphalism in its neoliberal garb was the sharp downturn of socialist influence, as “actually existing socialism.”  In response, as Marx (1844) describes, religions arose again, as the heart of a heartless world. It has not been the religion of Islam that made militant Islamism popular. There are “socioeconomic factors which drive people against their current regimes” (Woltering 2002: 1140). These include the pauperisation, dispossession and disillusionment of the working masses, worsened in the decades of neoliberal globalisation.

While contemporary radical Islamists in Nigeria and elsewhere claim to represent “authentic” Islam, “Salafiyya is not a unified movement and there exists no single Salafi ‘sect’” (Blanchard 2008: 3). The rejection of Western values as being corruptive of puritanical Islam is, however, a common tenet of Salafi-Jihadism. “But most so-called Western values are not rooted in some mythical European culture, but arise out of the development of capitalism over the last two centuries” (Harman 1994). The ideology of militant Islamism thus conflates the substance and the shadow in an idealist rubric which rejects moderate Islamism as being part and parcel of “the West.” In the place of earlier conservative Islamism which strove to achieve modernization, militant Islamism is anti-modernist. The capitalist economic and political ties that bound moderate Islamist rulers to the United States and Europe, are presented as justifications of their being mere lackeys of the “faithless” West.

This is a pointer to the variegated class base of Islamism. Harman identifies this as encompassing: 1) the old exploiters with a reactionary Islamism meant to undermine modernization; 2) the new exploiters committed to a moderate Islamism aimed at modernizing; 3) the poor with a romanticist fallback on religion as “the sigh of the oppressed creature[s]” (Marx 1844) that they are; and 4) the new middle class which has expanded with urbanization, enhanced access to higher education, and the increasing tertiarization of the economy. The old exploiters spurred the old Islamism of the 1960s; the new exploiters who arose from under its shadows dominated the still moderate Islamism of the early 1970s, strengthened by petro-dollars. They continue to play central roles within established politics in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as Turkey. Salafi Jihadism at both the global and local levels, starting from the “Afghan Arabs” who returned from expelling the Russian forces from Afghanistan (and later from fighting the US army), has been mainly driven by the new middle class of ex-students, professionals, artisans and the like, who stoke the earthly anger of the dispossessed poor, with the hope of both a better NOW and heaven in the hereafter. An ideology based on material reality, but rooted in religious faith.

Ethno-religious identity, elite politics and Islamism in northern Nigeria

This global perspective helps situate the phenomenon of Islamist revivalism as a form of ethno-religious politics in Nigeria generally, and the recent development of Boko Haram in particular.

The roots of post-colonial “ethnic politics” run deep in the country’s colonial past. As Adebisi (1998: 22) points out: “Prior to independence from the British in 1960, Nigeria as a nation was already divided along ethno-regional lines.” The 1946 Richards constitution structured the federation as three regions – North, West and East, dominated by elites of the Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo ethnic nationalities respectively.5 But well before the 1946 constitution which was described by the first post-colonial President of Nigeria as being aimed at the “Pakistanization” of the country (Azikiwe 1961: 100), colonial policy had laid landmines for subsequent ethno-regional conflicts.

The “core North” comprises roughly the current twelve states that introduced Shari’a law between 2000 and 2002 out of the nineteen states in the north with a predominantly Muslim population. In 1804-09, a Jihad was waged by the Sufi scholar, Uthman dan Fodio, who established the Fulani Caliphate (empire) with its capital in the northwest city of Sokoto. The Jihad was largely against (Muslim) Hausa kingdoms and was led by Fulani tribesmen with the support of Hausa poor peasants who suffered from excessive taxation by their overlords. The Fulani Caliphate integrated the larger (and still existing) Hausa, creating the current “Hausa-Fulani” ethnic category. But in the northeast, the Kanem-Bornu Empire6 repulsed dan Fodio’s Jihad. This area is now the most poverty-ridden part of the country and the heart of Salafi-jihadism.

At Independence, the “East”7 of the country, subsequent to interactions with Europeans in the period of the palm oil trade, consisted largely of Christians. In terms of religious affiliation, the Yoruba “West” was and remains largely mixed with many a family having both Christian and Muslim members while traditional rituals also coexist easily with the imported religions. In the East and West, which together constituted the Southern Protectorate before the 1914 amalgamation that gave birth to Nigeria; Western education had flourished for a century, provided mainly by missionaries. But in the North, “the colonial administration generally discouraged Western innovations. It allowed Christian missionaries and their schools only in the non-Muslim fringes of the defunct caliphate” (International Crisis Group 2010: 5).

This was due to the colonialists’ reliance on the Emirs for indirect rule. They permitted Shari’a in the Northern region, while limiting it to civil cases and restricting acts it considered barbaric, such as public whipping. The old elite of Emirs and their lackeys who dominated the “Native Authorities” in the North intended to maintain Shari’a after Independence. But by then, the elite had become somewhat discredited by its opposition to the popular pro-Independence mood. And it was also “told in very clear terms that the region would never be able to attract the foreign investment it needed for development, unless it amended its laws in accordance with Western principles of justice” (International Crisis Group 2010: 5). A compromise “Penal Code” was established for the region with an apex Shari’a appeals court, thus creating two concurrent legal systems.

The colonial roots of ethno-religious identity politics in northern Nigeria

The legacy of divide and rule by the colonialists, relics of which still survive, was not limited to the legal system. Physical segregation was encouraged, indeed enforced, in the urban centres of northern Nigeria. Ironically, this started when the Southern and Northern protectorates of Nigeria were amalgamated in 1914, when integration should otherwise have been the colonial administration’s watchword, given the commitment to nation-building implicit in the act of amalgamation. Southerners and even other “northerners” who had been living as traders and artisans within the walled centres of Hausa-Fulani cities were then relocated to quarters on the outskirts of these cities.

All together, six different urban residential settlements emerged, consisting of: (a) European Reservation Areas (ERA or GRA); (b) Bariki, Lebanese/Syrian areas (found in Kano and Zaria); (c) Walled City, housing the indigenous population; (d) Tudun Wada, established by the British for northerners who were not indigenous to the town; (e) Sabon Gari, for those the colonial administrators called ‘native foreigners’ who were largely Christians from southern Nigeria; and (f) satellite village settlements. (Abdu 2010: 66)

As Independence drew closer, though, and subsequently during the First Republic, the old Caliphate-based elite in the region was constrained in more ways than one; it had to maintain the divisions it had forged with the colonialists, as a junior partner, and yet it had to transcend them somewhat. The ideology of “one North” was a central element of its power. But the “non-Muslim fringes” of the region, in the North Central (better categorised in today’s power calculus by the country’s elite as the Middle Belt), had become largely Christian due to aggressive proselytising by missionaries. The United Middle Belt Congress of new elite from these areas faced severe persecution from the state apparatus under the control of the Northern People’s Congress (NPC), led by Sir Ahmadu Bello.

Also, in breeding the new elite, the Caliphate base of the old “Northern” elite systematically worked towards incorporating the emerging middle class from the north-eastern base of the emasculated Kanem Bornu Emirate (see Paden 1986). While in many superficial ways projecting the mirage of a monolithic North8 as the country’s dominant power base,9 Islamism remained a central tenet of the old Caliphate-based elite’s ideology. With this tenet it seemed to be more successful for decades in incorporating the emerging elite in the North East.

But as the decolonization process took on added steam, secular resistance took the form of a challenge to the NPC, which was the establishment’s party that was dominant in the region. A major development in this direction was the formation of the Borno Youth Movement (BYM) in 1954. It won two seats in the 1961 elections and teamed up first with the radical Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU) and later with the social democratic Action Group which held sway in the Western region. Within the immediate enclave of the Caliphate, apart from NEPU, which spoke for the talakawa,10 winning seats in the metropolis of Kano, there were small, localized left-leaning parties such as the Zamfara Commoners Party and alliances such as the Northern Progressive Front. With the shift to a Presidential system and the introduction of stringent rules for registration of parties, the field of play for secular parties was reduced. The constraints on popular left parties had become even more disempowering by the Fourth Republic.

The first wave of political Islamism in post-colonial (northern) Nigeria

Meanwhile, the traditional Islamism of the old Caliphate elite flourished through internationalisation as the more radical Islamism of Boko Haram would half a century later, even if in a different manner. “[Ahmadu] Bello’s commitment to ‘dip the Holy Koran in the Atlantic Ocean’” in the south of the country was popularised internationally (F. Ajayi 2009: 42). He was not only “in the second position, after King Faud, amongst the founders of the World Muslim Leaders League, in 1962”; speaking in Medina at the 1964 World Muslim League, he declared his “endeavour to expand the religion of Islam” as the central cause of his life and asserted that “I have been able, by the grace of Allah, to convert some 60,000 non-Muslims in my region to Islam within a period of 5 months [November 1963-March 1964]” (F. Ajayi 2009: 41).

But behind this grandstanding with political Islam lay a more worldly pursuit: the forging of a new Northern elite built around the scions of the Caliphate from the north-western zone of the ‘one North’. These were sent to some of the best schools in the world.11 The ideology of a monolithic North was also of immense value for the Caliphate-based old elite to wield control over the army. A very significant proportion of the men and officers were from the non-core “North.” Being “northerners” though was quite useful for their career progression. With this scenario, the two military interregnums were seen largely as periods of continued “Northern” hegemony, even all the long-serving juntas in these periods were led by officers from the “Middle Belt,” with the longest serving being led by General Gowon, a Christian who prosecuted the civil war against the Eastern region (“the Republic of Biafra”), which had a predominantly Christian population.

“Many analysts date the beginning of Nigeria’s religious crisis to 1978, when the Constituent Assembly for a Presidential Constitution was holding deliberations” (Falola 1998: 2-3). The issue of contention was the inclusion of Shari’a in the 1979 Constitution. The ripples of this debate led to clashes between Muslim and Christian students in the Ahmadu Bello University, resulting in the death of six students. Subsequently, during the presidential elections that ushered in the Second Republic the following year, the National Party of Nigeria, whose stronghold was in the North, had campaigned that its one-finger sign reflected monotheism as against the two-finger (victory) sign of the Unity Party of Nigeria, which was seen largely as a Yoruba party, while Sheikh Abubakar Gumi, an influential Islamic cleric12 urged the umma on national television not to vote for a non-Muslim candidate (Falola 1998: 3).

Militant Islamism: the second wave of political Islamism

It was however not just in the terrain of partisan politics that the impact of Islamism was on the rise in this period. On the contrary, political Islam waxed stronger in and was intertwined with establishment politics. The watershed in this direction was the establishment of the Jama’t Izalat al Bid’a Wa Iqamat as Sunna (Society for Removal of Innovation and Re-establishment of the Sunna), otherwise known as Yan Izala, in the north central city of Jos, in 1978. Its founder was Sheikh Ismaila Idris, and it had the staunch backing of Sheikh Gumi in its anti-Sufi crusade. Yan Izala promoted a modernizing Islamist ideology which placed a premium on Western education alongside Islamic education, providing scholarships for its adherents and their wards to pursue higher education in Saudi Arabia. It has been the centre-piece of militant Sunni Islamism despite a series of schisms in its ranks.

The first of these was in the mid-1980s over the movement’s closeness to the federal military government: “both Abubakar Gumi and the Yan Izala leadership were highly supportive of the Babangida government, despite its agenda of economic liberalization and its conservative foreign policies” (Loimeir 2012: 144). By the 1990s Yan Izala was obviously in crisis. Allegations of embezzlement, disillusionment by a younger generation which discovered to its chagrin that modern education was not providing them with jobs, and the demands for greater autonomy by different sections of the movement in different parts and states led to the withering of its central leadership’s authority.

In this milieu, an emergent generation of Yan Izala leaders broke out of the movement with new agendas of reforms as Islamic teachers/preachers, leaders of new sects or Islamic NGOs (Umar 2012). Doctrinal disputation was, not surprisingly, a feature of the process of such separation. One group that emerged was the ahl al-sunna sect in Kano. Its ideas and strategy were rooted in Yan Izala’s Sunni traditions. It was however less stridently anti-Sufi, as it stood for pan-Islamic unity (in the face of expanding Christian missions in the north) and the more active participation of Moslems in partisan politics (Kane 2003). Its most outspoken leaders were Dr. Ibrahim Datti Ahmed, the medical doctor who chairs the Supreme Council for Shari’a in Nigeria, and Ja’fae Mahmud Adam, the Saudi-trained intellectual who represented the British alMuntada al-Islami (Islamic Assembly) organization in Nigeria. Adam was the teacher of Muhammad Yusuf in Kano. They parted ways with much acrimony in 2004.  He was assassinated in 2007, most likely by Boko Haram activists (Brigaglia 2012: 18-23).

Anti-establishment militant Islamism was not mainstream in this period. The most resounding group was the rabidly anti-modernist movement led by Mohammed Marwa (Maitatsine) which went on a rampage in Kano in 1980.13 This Yai Tatsine movement tends to be the “natural” pair for comparative analysis of “militant” (i.e. violent) Islamism with Boko Haram.14 This is because of the sheer magnitude of fatalities from its rampage (4,179 persons killed and hundreds of buildings razed in just 11 days of riots – Isichei 1987) as well as its anti-modernist ideology and its anti-establishment politics. But these similarities mask very sharp differences.

The Yai Tatsine blended syncretism with an anti-technologist ideology that condemned the use of anything modern from cars to wristwatches, radios and even spectacles. Its leader denounced parts of the Holy Koran, criticized some of the practices of Prophet Mohammed, and even declared “himself to be an annabi; a prophet with divine power and a mission to save the world” (Falola 1998: 143). Boko Haram on the contrary holds that Salafist ideological purity is not anti-technology (especially with regard to weaponry), but anti-Western education. It is also noteworthy that the acme of violence unleashed by the Yan Taitsine was largely spontaneous, starting on December 18, 1980, as a backlash against attempts by the police to stop them from preaching, ostensibly because they had not secured a police permit. Boko Haram violence has been a more organised and methodical form of urban guerrilla warfare with the intent of overthrowing the state.

An interesting similarity between the two groups can be found, however, in the elite’s political manipulation of religion. In response to the report of a Federal Commission of Inquiry (set up by the National Party of Nigeria) which indicted it, the state government of Kano (led by the Peoples Redemption Party) accused the NPN of commissioning the Maitatsine sect “to create the conditions that would guarantee the declaration of a state of emergency in Kano by the NPN controlled Federal Government.” It went on to assert that, it was the “NPN Kano aristocracy and the propertied class that organized, sustained, equipped and shielded the gang of religious fanatics from the period of its gestation, birth and infancy” (Zahradeen 1988: 113).

The other main anti-establishment Islamist organisation in this second wave was the Shi’a Moslem Brothers led by Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky. He was a leading member of the Muslim Students Society of Nigeria (MSSN) during the Iranian revolution, and was inspired by the developments in Teheran. He remained active in the Sunni fold of the Yan Izala movement, with the ikhwan (Brothers) movement he established from his days at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. In 1994, during the downturn of the Yan Izala movement, he made an open turn to Shiism. “Under military rule, corruption, economic stagnation, and repression of opposition forces… encouraged increased Shia Muslim activism in northern Nigeria”. This was partly because “Shiism, with its history of activism and martyrdom, has provided an attractive alternative to the stagnant, corruption-tainted traditional religion” (Aymer 1996). This naturally resulted in conflicts with the Sunni congregation and on August 5, 1996, altercation led to violence that claimed one life and left dozens wounded. While there was an expansion of Shi’a groups in the subsequent period, El-Zakzaky’s group has tried to forge unity within radical Islam with the Islamic Movement of Nigeria platform.

Beyond organised platforms of radical Islam, the 1980s and 1990s were filled with spontaneous episodes of mayhem supposedly in the name of God, in the key northern states stretching from Kano in the mid-north west to Borno in the far North East. These raged in the urban centres, including the universities. While the elite never failed to appropriate the mask of religion, it was becoming clearer at the same time that in its turning and turning, the falcon of the mask could no longer hear the falconer of the elite, not unlike W.B. Yeats’ Apocalyptic sphinx.15 Organised militant Islamist platforms were becoming the heirs of the moderate political Islamist bodies who had been much more malleable allies (and even members) of the ruling elites.

The lethal third wave; a closer look at Boko Haram

The last thirty-odd years have witnessed rising incidence of ethnic and, particularly, religious-based conflicts, which have gone beyond the elite-propelled manipulation they used to be, while still being closely related to it. There have been several cycles of such conflicts. But none of these was as sustained or systematic as the campaign of terror which the Boko Haram has waged, particularly since 2009. The rise of this group is part of a broader upsurge of religiosity in general and political Islam in particular. This has established the context for increasing tempos of inter- and intra-religious conflicts. As Salawu observes (2010: 345), “about forty percent (40%) of ethno-religious based conflicts” in Nigeria occurred between 1999 and 2010.

The period since 1999 has indeed witnessed the flourishing of religiosity and with it ethno-religious conflict. This obviously is not unconnected with the fact that it is also when pauperisation of the masses has been most rampant, in the face of the ostentatious living of a few. The promotion of religious identity is not limited to Islamism. The two Presidents (out of three) that have been Christians from the southern parts of the country have both gone to Pentecostals’ revival grounds to seek God’s forgiveness for their re-contesting office after losing popularity in the eyes of the citizenry in their earlier tenures. And increased blind faith in the Church by an increasing mass has contributed significantly to the purchase of private jets by quite a number of Pentecostal bishops.16 The hope which spurs such devotion might not hinge on a better life after death. There are welfare projects for the poor as part of a broader evangelical mission. There is also a fervent promotion of the ideology that “salvation leads to prosperity even here on earth.”

In the “core North,” starting with the far north-western state of Zamfara in 2000, Shari’a law was introduced in twelve states.17 But the origin of Shari’a in Zamfara was actually anything but religious. It was introduced as a campaign platform by Alhaji Yerima in 1999 when it seemed obvious that his All People’s Party was unlikely to secure victory at the polls (Tertsakian 2004: 93). It was latched onto by other governors as a basis for guaranteeing their hold on power. But this was at a great cost in some instances. The first major religious explosion in this period was in 2000 when Kaduna State, which has a significant proportion of Christians in its southern parts, introduced Shari’a. It left not less than 1,000 people dead. The violence consumed Moslems and Christians alike, but arguably, most of those felled were non-Moslems considered as infidels by the ravaging hordes of déclassé elements mobilised around the political Shari’a agenda.

But there was a limit to how far the mask of religion could keep a lid on seething mass anger. Despite huge allocations from the Federal purse, the immiseration of the poor in the northern states worsened and they could see their supposedly Islamic governors as living anything but Islamic lives.

It was in this context that Boko Haram emerged in 2002, the same year that spontaneous riots against the “sinful” Miss World pageant in Nigeria led to the death of hundreds of persons and the relocation of the pageant to London.18 This was when Mohammed Yusuf took over what used to be the Shabaab Muslim Youth Organisation, formed earlier in 1995 at the University of Maiduguri as Ahlulsunna wal‟jama‟ah hijra, and led by Mallam Abubakar Lawal, an Islamic cleric. The sect worked with Senator Ali Modu Sheriff during his bid for the gubernatorial seat of Borno, with the aim of establishing Shari’a in the state.

Boko Haram was not very impressed by the Shari’a as introduced by Sheriff when he became governor in 2003, as they did not consider it far-reaching enough. Considering the lessons he might have learnt from the earlier carnage in Kaduna state, this was not surprising as the southern parts of Borno state also has a significant proportion of indigenes that are Christians. But the sect had acquired funds from Sheriff during the period of its collaboration with him.19 With these resources, it established its own enclave with mosque and school for Koranic education. In 2004, it relocated to neighbouring Yobe State and dubbed its enclave “Afghanistan.” That same year, the group’s leaders “established links with the Algerian Salafist Group, now known as Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)” (Ajayi 2012: 105). But its activities remained largely peaceful for a few more years. Interesting also is the fact pointed out by Isa Yuguda, governor of the North Eastern Bauchi State, that while Yusuf railed against “western civilisation” and “corruption,” he lived an ostentatious lifestyle.

The ranks of the sect also swelled with “respectable” members of society at this stage. These included the Borno State Commissioner of Finance who resigned to join the sect and urged the Governor to do likewise (Danjibo 2009: 7). Tertiary institutions students, including many from prominent homes in Borno and Yobe States also “withdrew from school, tore their certificates and joined the group for Qur’anic lessons and preaching” (Lawal 2009: 34). Boko Haram’s membership thus comprised a broad array of persons from amongst the new elite, the middle class, youth and the poor, bound by a radical Islamist ideology.

The sect has razed schools (and churches) starting in Borno state. But it has with as much if not more vehemence attacked institutions and establishments that are secular and have nothing to do with education. These have included military, police, civil service, electoral and press establishments. That these bodies are part of the apparatus of a Western-inspired state of infidels, in the view of the group, has been only one reason for these attacks. The sect has not hidden its quest to avenge the assassination of its founding leader in police custody after the mayhem of 2008 which brought it to global attention. It has also accused media houses such as This Day of slanted reportage and the “crime” of “dishonouring our prophet” ten years earlier.20

As of 2012, the sect’s insurgency had claimed about 3,000 lives (Balogun & Sessou 2012), with perhaps almost the same number being killed by the security forces. Most of the killings occurred since 2009. This period could be considered the second phase of the sect’s development (Cook 2011: 12-21). The Federal Government’s response to this phase of the sect’s activities has been one of dilly-dallying between further repression and “dialogue.” “Serious abuses, including extrajudicial executions, by the Nigerian police and military in response to the Boko Haram violence” (Human Rights Watch 2011), which have been rightly condemned, have accompanied its repressive steps. Meanwhile, until recently, its efforts at dialogue have been shrouded in lies. While the government turned down (a faction of) the sect’s proposals for talks in Saudi Arabia, it secretly met with it in Senegal, with both the Senegalese and Malian governments playing “significant roles” (Okpi 2012). But even at that, some members of the ruling class including Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, a former President, seem to be of the opinion that the carrot has not been utilised as much as it should have been with the stick (Somorin 2013).

Between dialogue and repression: the amnesty tactic and state of emergency

By the turn of 2013, a new dimension unfolded in the push and pull of a negotiated settlement and crushing the militant Islamist movement, leading to what could be considered the third phase of the Boko Haram insurgency. On January 30, His Eminence Alhaji Alhaji Muhammad Sa’ad Abubakar III, the Sultan of Sokoto, who is considered the Amir-ul-Momineen (i.e., leader of the Moslem faithful), called on the government to grant the insurgents amnesty. As of December 2011, he had stood for strong-arm tactics to break the group which he described as “an embarrassment to Islam” (Oladeji & Agba 2011). The change of heart, if so it could be called, can be seen as an act of self-preservation, as it came just a few days after an assassination attempt by the group against the longest serving and most respected of the Emirs, Alhaji Ado Bayero, the Emir of Kano, the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the north. The conservative Northern Elders Forum and others took up the chorus of negotiation and amnesty. Like the Sultan, they were most likely concerned with saving their hides.

President Jonathan’s response initially, over two months after the Sultan’s call, was that the Federal government could not negotiate with “ghosts.” He expressed the view that the leaders of Niger delta militants that were granted amnesty in 2009 were known, while Boko Haram leaders were “faceless.” But the government never responded to earlier news of its secret meetings with these same “ghosts.” More importantly, within two weeks, the government turned around to constitute a high-profile 26-member “Presidential Committee on Dialogue and Peaceful Resolution of Security Challenges in the North,” headed by a serving Minister, Alhaji Kabiru Tanimu Turaki, as its chairman. Amnesty for the insurgents, if they could be repentant, is central to the committee’s agenda.

Two of the members appointed to the committee who are believed to wield some influence with the group withdrew before it was inaugurated. Dr Datti Ahmed, President of the Supreme Council of Shari’a in Nigeria pointed out the “bitter experience he had had in the past over the bid to dialogue with the sect,” while Mallam Shehu Sani, a rights activist and President of the northern-based Civil Rights Congress of Nigeria (CRCN) opined that the government knew people that were more in contact with the group (Msue 2013).

The government however had more up its sleeves than the carrot of dialogue. Nine days before the inauguration of the presidential committee, the army bombed the sleepy border town of Baga in Borno state for several days, as retaliatory action after Boko Haram militants killed a soldier. There was mass outcry against the ensuing brutal massacre of up to 187 persons and the burning of over 2,000 houses. Baga was not to be an isolated case. It represents the baring of the fangs of government repression, as subsequent events would show. On May 14, the Federal Government declared a state of emergency in the three north-eastern states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe, which have been strongholds of Boko Haram.  A week later, it enacted a law proscribing both Boko Haram and Ansaru, which were never legal entities in the first place. Mobile networks have been jammed, curfews imposed, and a general sense of siege now prevails at the instance of the military in the affected states.

There have been mixed reactions to the crackdown within the three states (Parker 2013). In the country as a whole, there appears to be more support for the state of emergency as representing commitment by the president to decisively deal with the problem. The leading opposition parties and a few activists have condemned the state of emergency, but have not been able to do anything concrete to resist it.

 The government’s onslaught may have dislodged Boko Haram from some of its bases in the mountains and forests of Borno and Yobe states, but it has not been able to stop radical fundamentalist violence, within the region and in other northern zones. Insurgents battled the army for hours in Yobe state while not less than 32 persons were killed by armed gunmen in the north-western state of Zamfara.

The contradictory tactics of seeking a negotiated settlement of the insurgency on one hand and trying to crush it on the other reflect the contending agendas of different (ethnic) fractions of the elite class. It is not surprising that the northern elite are now more in support of placating the group as a step towards incorporating it. Those who are more physically removed from the immediate dangers of the sect’s activities, particularly those for President Jonathan’s 2015 re-election bid, are keen to erase the “clueless president” image of the President. Crushing the insurgency would lionize him.

But neither tactic is likely to be successful. Possible incorporation, which is the main goal of the amnesty tactic, would not at all be a new thing in the politics of Islamisms. As extreme sects gain more relevance, there is a strong likelihood that their politics becomes watered down. This could be because they come to power and the profane material conditions of governance make nonsense of their puritanical idealism. It could also be, as is the case here, that while they are not strong enough to win state power, they can cause enough commotion to create severe instability and the ruling elite are ready to reach some compromise which benefits the leaders of such sects, and splits them away from the base they have within sections of the working masses.

The extreme mission of militant Islamism does not disappear with such incorporation. It gets filled by yet another group. This was why I argued elsewhere that the Islamist “phenomenon is one that might, quite unfortunately, be with us for a while” (Aye 2012: 134). A pointer in this direction is the emergence and development of the Ansaru group (Adepegba & Olokor 2013: 4), which has targeted foreign interests, concentrating on high-profile kidnappings.

Conclusion

I have tried to situate the Boko Haram insurgency as a new militant form of Islamism, echoing an international upsurge of Salafi Jihadism, within the background of changing ethno-religious relations in Nigeria. There have been three waves of political mobilisation along Islamist religious lines in the northern parts of the country. The first in the 1960s was quite benign and its relations to the political elite were less tenuous. Its representative expression was the Jama’at Nasr al-Islam (JNI). The second wave of Islamism was militant, but with an orthodox core that was pro-establishment despite its rhetoric. The Yan Izala movement was its representative expression. Anti-establishment Islamism such as the Maitaistine sects and the Shi’ite groups remained largely marginal. Both sides of the second wave’s coin emerged as religion was becoming a more important element of the mask of elite manipulation precisely because it was becoming more and more the heart of a heartless world for the immense majority of the population, thus increasingly serving as a pole of attraction for their mobilisation .

“Religion did not replace ethnicity as the driving force of Nigerian [elite] politics; it merely reinforced the prevalent ethnic antagonisms in the country” (Gambari 1991: 221). It has been used to further the interests of different sections of the elite in several ways, including the riotous, with the aim of limiting the access of elites from other groups to state power, or winning such access by those relatively excluded,  in much the same way that Okwudiba Nnoli (1978: 5-9) identifies the use of ethnicity in general. Of course, beyond the fact that access to power is based more on pecuniary considerations of the spoils of power than on any thought of service, an unstable partnership of the entire elite across ethno-religious divides subsists at virtually all points in time, with senior and junior partners.

The main flashpoints for ethno-regional strife have been in the urban centres. “It should be pointed out that the most destructive religious riots and even class-based social and religious antagonisms have occurred in the Northern region” (Gambari 1991: 217). The worsening of economic conditions in the country has definitely been a major source of discontent which militant Islamists tap into. As Isichei (1987) puts it, rising unemployment provides a broad array of possible recruits along with the street urchins known as al-majiris.

But the political and ideological weaknesses of the working class might be critical for understanding the sustained nature of the current Islamic insurgency of Boko Haram and its emerging offshoots.

It is instructive for example that, during the rise of the Islamist insurgency in Kano and Kaduna, in the early 1980s, the working class stood aloof from the rioters, with its militants being more active as members of the Peoples Redemption Party21 and in the trade unions (Lubcek 1986: 308).22 The sect however recruited thousands of déclassé poor people, on the fringes of productive social life, who as its militants took up the gauntlet of mayhem as the group’s convoluted challenge to the system moved from curses to riots. These could be considered as “the disinherited,” whose revolt, in a sense, it was, beyond the religious garbs of these riots that spread across several other cities in northern Nigeria, even after the death of Mai Tatsine.23

On one hand, there are no such ideologically-based parties with the kind of following the PRP then had in the north. On the other hand, with the expanding informalisation of production, de-industrialisation, and absence of a social security system, the tribe of the déclassés and disillusioned has risen astronomically. The Nigerian trade union movement has grown in relevance over the last decade and a half. It suffered immensely during the years of military dictatorship, and has arisen to be the voice of the common person in the country, organising about a dozen general strikes which were supported by working-class Nigerians with mass protests in the streets. But these have not led to any lasting political sense of direction for the poor, and working masses.

During the general strikes that working people have foisted on the trade union bureaucracy, the leadership that the working class could bring to bear against the ruling elite has been made crystal clear. This was particularly so with the general strikes and mass protests that shook the country in January 2012. The demand was for reversal of a sharp increase in the price of petrol. Just days before the three weeks of revolts, Boko Haram issued an ultimatum for southerners living in the north to leave the region within two weeks. But the events of the uprising made the sect irrelevant. More importantly, members of different religions united against it in ways not seen before in the country, some of these inspired by the Arab Spring. Working-class residents in some states within the region constituted themselves into vigilante groups. These guarded churches during services. During the Muslims’ prayer times as well, non-Muslim protesters formed a ring around them.

Boko Haram threatened to bomb the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) headquarters for accepting only a reduction instead of a full reversal of the petrol price increase.24 This was an attempt to regain relevance as there was mass disappointment with the NLC. But subsequently, the NLC and the other trade union centre, the Trade Union Congress, have shown concern for the state of insecurity and instability in the country. NLC organised a peace summit rally on September 20, 2012, aimed at, amongst other things “facilitat[ing] a people driven re-engineering of the polity for peace, unity and security and good governance” (Omar 2012). It is a good thing that organized labour has come to recognize a need to join the fray in the country’s search for peace, which is being made the more elusive by Boko Haram. However, concerted mass action against austerity and rising prices, across the country, would be more effective at undercutting the support for Boko Haram and ethnic divisions than even the best well-meaning talks.

It is not enough to better understand Salafi-Jihadism in Nigeria or to grasp the trajectory of its development. While it could be with us for a while in that gray Gramscian penumbra of morbidity between the old and the new, it could alternatively be made into no more than a living fossil. But a critical element for achieving this outcome would be the systematic intervention of the labour movement. The trade unions of course are central to this, but it equally calls forth the need for a renaissance of revolutionary socialist work, publicly, within the working masses to provide an alternative pole of attraction for the mass anger which the Salafi-Jihadists of Boko Haram feed on.

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Notes

1. Nigerian Tribune 2012, cited in Ojo 2010: 182.

2. “Imagine, their leader is about 32 years old, he rides exotic cars including expensive jeeps, has his children in choice private schools receiving sound and quality education, has private lawyers and doctors who treat and attend to him, yet he has the powers to indoctrinate people” (Abimboye & Adzgeh 2009: 14).

3. Before the era of decolonization from the late 1940s, ethnic identity was a critical element of such self-determination movements, as in the cases of Pan-Slavism one hand and even fascist movements like Nazism on the other.

4. This is not to suggest that being a Muslim country or having a significant Muslim population is sufficient to make a country Islamist or prone to the growth radical Islamist sects (Ahmad 2008: 2-3), although it is certainly a necessary condition for such sects to find a material or ideological base.

5. Of the 374 ethnic groups in Nigeria, the three dominant nationalities make up about 60%, while the next thirteen in size make up another 33%, out of the total national population of 170 million.

6. The Kanem Bornu Empire established between the 6th and 9th centuries survived as an independent power till 1900 and still subsists as a feudal relic in the country. It is the longest lasting empire on the African continent.

7. Now comprising the Igbo South East, and the Niger Delta with a myriad of minority ethnic groups.

8. Ahmadu Bello, the leader of the NPC, who made it clear that he found being the Sadaurna (next in rank to the Sultan) more prestigious than being the first Prime Minister of Nigeria (his deputy Alhaji Tafawa Balewa was deployed to take up this post in Lagos), had the well respected technocrat, Chief Sunday Awoniyi, a Christian of Yoruba extraction from the North Central Kaba province, as his Personal Secretary.

9. The NPC did not present a single candidate for the first post-colonial parliament in any constituency outside the Northern region in the 1959 elections, but still had a plurality of seats, though not an absolute majority.

10. Hausa for “commoners,” particularly the peasantry many of whom had drifted to the growing urban centres.

11. A good example is Alhaji Alhaji who would be the next person to be turbaned as Sardauna after Alhaji Bello (twenty five years after the latter’s death). He had a blissful childhood as Her Majesty the Queen’s guest, in Buckingham palace, and was to enjoy one juicy appointment after another in the Federal Government of Nigeria as an adult.

12. Gumi had played a key role in the establishment of the first pan-Nigerian Islamic body, the Jama’at Nasr al-Islam (JNI) in 1962 (see Hunwick 1986).

13. Mai Tatsine, meaning “the one that curses,” was originally from the Kanem Bornu region of North East Nigeria. He propagated an eclectic version of Islamism which was both heretical and puritan. One of his distinguishing points was consistent raving against the ills of governments and the elite.

14. Probably the two most profound of such comparative analyses are Danjibo 2009 and Adesoli 2010.

15. This allegory is drawn from Yeats’ poem, ‘The Second Coming’ written at the end of World War I. Its subsequent phrase “things fall apart” (as the centre could no longer hold) is the title of the pathbreaking African novel by Chinua Achebe (1958).

16. An example of such blind commitment is the case of a member of one of the leading Pentecostal churches who lived in a single room but managed to steal enough money from his workplace to buy an industrial power generating plant for the church. After he was detected, the management of his workplace got him arrested. And as part of its efforts to recover at least part of the stolen monies, it requested that the church hand over the plant that had been bought. But the church refused to hand over the plant, claiming it had been dedicated to God. As for the private jets, two Pentecostal leaders make the list of those who own the ten most expensive private jets in the country. One of these (Bishop Oyedepo of Winners Chapel) actually owns three on this list, which add up to $68.3. See www.informationnigeria.org/2012/09/top-ten-private-jets-owned-by-wealthy-nigerians-and-how-much-they-costpastor-adeboye-made-the-list.html%20%20 

17. But it is not at all unusual to find exotic cars with covered number plates at military barracks “mammy markets” (one of the few places where alcohol and female sex workers could be easily procured). These more often than not belonged to officials of the Shari’a states.

18. See http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/november/23/newsid_3226000/3226740.stm

19. There was a similar scenario in the Niger delta, where arms and funds acquired by (secular) militant groups to support different political candidates in 2003 became seeds for the furtherance of insurgency in that region. The spate of insurgency in the Niger delta has however become of much less significance in the past four years.

20. See the transcript of a video released by the sect after the bombing at: http://saharareporters.com/video/updated-full-transcript-boko-haram-releases-video-thisday-bombing-threatens-attack-voa-guardia. Interestingly with regard to its name, there was a song in Hausa in the background of the video which said “Nigerians, our name is not Boko Haram, we are Muslims, Ahlis sunnah.”

21. PRP was the reincarnation, of sorts, during the Second Republic, of the First Republic NEPU.

22. Similarly, in 1980 peasants had revolted in Sokoto, the home-state of then President Shehu Shagari. This was to prevent an Italian firm from building a dam that would despoil their farmlands. The revolt was smashed, with 386 persons killed. See Odeyemi 1982: 88.

23. See Isichei 1987: 194-208.

24. See http://nigerianbulletin.com/news-headlines/boko-haram-threatens-nlc-over-n97-pump-price-punch/

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