Nigeria is in many ways a divided country, beginning with the primarily Christian south and the largely Muslim north. This division arose in the 19th century with British colonial rule, but continues to have a profound impact on the country today, particularly its northeastern region. The violence there has its roots in this divide.
Before British colonial rule was established, what constitutes present Nigeria was comprised of many ancient kingdoms and empires both in the south and the north. The Kanem-Borno Empire in the north was established in the 9th century and existed to the end of 19th century. Its area of influence spanned a region which includes the present countries of Niger, Cameroun, Chad, and the whole of Northern Nigeria.
Kanem-Borno’s contact with Arab/Islamic influences dates back to the 5th century through Arab traders trading slaves and horses for fire arms, facilitated by the empire’s position near important trans-Saharan trade routes. Over time, Kanam-Borno became the largest, most influential empire and the “Gateway of Islam” to West Africa. By the 9th century, the rulers greatly expanded the influence of Islam by making it the religion of the state. Kanem-Borno became the first and greatest center of Arabic and Islamic education in the region. (Even today lslamic students and scholars across the region consider a period in Borno as a necessary part of their education.)
From the 1850s Britain established its presence on the coastal area of Lagos (Southwestern Nigeria). Britain’s imperialist ambitions also brought the Christian missionaries who introduced Christianity and Western education to that area.
The Sokoto Caliphate, which had taken root in the North, was abolished when the British defeated it in 1903. The modern state originated with the merging in 1914 of the Southern Nigeria Protectorate and the Northern Nigeria Protectorate.
Direct and Indirect Rule in Colonial Nigeria
The Southern Protectorate was governed by “Direct Rule,” a system in which the central authority (British) has power over the colony, while the Northern Protectorate was governed by “Indirect Rule,” a system in which native leaders continued to rule their traditional lands so long as they collected taxes and performed other duties ensuring British prosperity.
The Indirect Rule, as developed in Northern Nigeria, was a practical means of administering a huge territory, with only limited manpower and cost. The British also provided Western education for some of Nigeria’s elite. However, in the main, Britain limited schooling as much as feasible because it did not see an obligation towards it at the risk of jeopardizing its hegemony in the North.
The Christian missionaries confined themselves to mostly to the southern region and the hilly/mountainous areas of the North, areas which neither the early Borno Kingdom or the later Sokoto Caliphate had reached to subdue and convert to Islam (because of inaccessibility due to difficult terrains). The weather and climate conditions of these hilly areas also favored the Europeans, compared to the harsh, dry winds and hot sun of most of the vast desert prone areas of the North.
Several important developments that have continued to affect Nigeria’s government and politics in the postcolonial period marked the period of colonial rule. First, British colonial rule nurtured north-south separation, which has remained the classic cleavage in the country.
In particular, after Lord Frederick Lugard, the High Commissioner of the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria from 1899 to 1906, made a pact with northern emirs to protect Islamic civilization, the North was shut off from much of the Westernizing influences to which the South was exposed. This protection gave the southern peoples a head start, especially in Western education.
During the struggle for independence, northern leaders were afflicted by a constant fear of southern domination. Many of the northern responses to national politics to this day can be attributed to this fear.
Among the people in dominant Muslim territories, who were left to their traditional Quranic education, the perception grew that Western education – introduced in mostly the “pagan” hilly areas – was not meant for them, but rather for unbelievers. After independence when the few Northern elite started to coerce people to send their wards to school, they resisted on the perception that they cannot be forced to accept the knowledge of disbelief.
Although colonizing Northern Nigeria was by conquest, “the Sokoto Caliphate’s leaders had been ‘wise’ to recognize that it was in their interests to offer little resistance during the campaigns of ‘pacification’ and place their lands under the ‘protection’ of the British.” Such a response led the British to see the highly-ordered and hierarchical societies of the Islamic North as more cultured and well-governed than the stateless societies of southern and eastern Nigeria. But paradoxically, the indirect rule model left areas like Northern Nigeria economically and educationally backward in comparison with the directly-ruled areas of Nigeria.
During the pre-colonial era, religion was integral to the state in the northern kingdoms, empires and caliphate, in that the religious leader was also a political leader, as provided by Sharia law. During the colonial period both Islam and Christianity spread, but Christianity was privileged and produced a new elite that controlled both the economy and the bureaucracy. Then the uneducated Muslim North began to see the products of “disbelief” coming to positions of supremacy. The struggle for political power then came to entail the manipulation of symbols and beliefs of both religions as stepping stones to power and political legitimacy by desperate politicians on both sides.
From the 1980s there was an upsurge of religious violence, in that Islam and Christianity were sometimes depicted as monolithic entities that confront each other in pitched battles, especially with the formal declaration of the Sharia, (Islamic legal code), providing a trigger for the violence. Riots based on religious affiliation and policies occurred.
The word Sharia, meaning “the path,” refers to a set of principles that govern the moral and religious lives of Muslims. Most of it deals with how to practice Islam. Sharia law covers things like marriage, divorce, inheritance and punishments for criminal offenses. Interpretation of Sharia is done through Islamic scholarship.
The Maitasine Riots – Precursor to Boko Haram
The riots that started in 1980 Kano – the biggest commercial hub of Northern Nigeria – spread to many major cities of the North. Leading the movement, Muhammad Marwa Maitatsine preached against the Nigerian state and Western influence, including modern technology. Many analysts see Boko Haram as an extension of the movement Maitasine started. A violent riot by his followers in Kano was responded to by the Nigeria military, resulting in the death of Marwa, several of his followers, some members of the government security forces, innocent civilians, and the destruction of public and private properties.
Despite Mohammed Marwa’s death, riots continued to spread. In October, 1982 they erupted in Bulumkuttu Ward, an outskirt settlement in Maiduguri, Borno State, and in Kaduna. In early 1984 more violent uprisings occurred, leaving thousands dead or homeless, and destroying churches, mosques, police stations, schools, and government buildings. The violence in the city of Maiduguri was the worst.
Around the same period, the then Military Head of State, General Ibrahim Babangida, enrolled Nigeria into the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC), a move of “Islamizing” the country, which aggravated religious tensions in the country, particularly among the Christian community.
The Boko Haram Violence
In 2002, the Da’awah group – also called the Nigerian Taliban – under the leadership of a young man named Muhammad Ali, migrated from Maiduguri to Kanamma, a border village in Yobe State, to preach the Quran. Disillusioned by the corruption and patrimonial system prevalent in Northeastern Nigeria, he had dropped out of the University of Maiduguri and established with other disaffected youth a commune in Yobe dedicated to following strict Sharia law.
A clash with local police over a misunderstanding concerning fishing rights in the community pond led to the arrest of several of their members. The group mobilized, attacked the police station, freed their comrades, and carted off the firearms. Muhammad Ali and several members lost their lives in a clash with authorities. Shortly after that, the survivors who had escaped regrouped and attacked police formations in Bama and Gwoza in Borno State, but were subdued by security forces.
A charismatic cleric, Muhammad Yusuf, became the new leader of the Da’awah group, which was renamed Jamā’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l-Jihād or “Group of the People of Sunnah for Preaching and Jihad.” In 2009 Muhammad Yusuf brought the group back to Maiduguri, where it became known as Boko Haram, a phrase meaning “Western Education is forbidden.”
Some of the bloodiest violence associated with Boko Haram started between 24th and 28th of July, 2009, almost simultaneously in six northern states: Borno, Bauchi, Yobe, Gombe, Kano, and Katina. After an explosion some few kilometers from Markas (residence and headquarters of the sect, behind railway quarters in Maiduguri), armed members of the group stormed, attacked and burned police stations, churches, mosques, prisons, and government buildings. Hundreds of lives were lost, in addition to property damage to schools and government buildings, including the offices of the Education Board in Maiduguri.
The press reported more than 500 members of the group were killed, but one of the governors in the Northeast, now a senator, confirmed in the senate that over 5000 people lost their lives. The sect members held government security forces in Maiduguri for ransom for three days, while their leader, Muhammad Yusuf, tried to escape, but was arrested by soldiers and handed over to the police, who later in the evening announced his death to the public.
Afterwards, the group went underground and re-emerged in mid-2010 in Maiduguri under Abubakar Shekau. It proceeded to launch targeted killing of security operatives, as well as Islamic scholars who openly opposed their ideology, and community leaders who identified them to security agents and who allegedly took their properties when they went into hiding.
At the beginning of 2012, the government called a state of emergency, yet militant attacks increased, as did security force abuses. Since 2013 more than 2 million people have been displaced by the conflict, and at least 250,000 have fled to neighboring countries. Boko Haram has carried out countless abductions, shocking the world with the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls from Chibok in April of 2014.
Corruption has hampered efforts to broker a peace and put an end to the violence. To date, Boko Haram continues to operate from its current base in the Sambisa Forest.
Section title photo: Nigerian Soldiers, serving with the UN in Darfur (Flickr).
With her book, “Scholars and Scholarship in the History of Borno”. (Open Press, Zaria, Nig. 1993, 2nd Edn.), her knowledge of Nigeria, and her M.A. in history from the University of Maiduguri, Hamsatu Allamin provided much of the information for this overview of the conflict.