Africa: Politics and Societies South of the Sahara

Northern Nigeria: Breaking the Silence, But to What End?

Posted in African Politics, Global Africa, Nigeria by ruben eberlein on August 7, 2009

Hundreds of alleged Islamists died during fights and an ensuing massacre of the army in the North of Nigeria last week. For a growing number of young Nigerians in the North, a rigorous dictatorship by the clergy seems more attractive than the current societal situation. Read my report translated to English here or download a pdf of the original article in German.

bokoharamarrestObviously the Nigerian military did not take a great interest in making prisoners. In course of the harsh and remorseless answer to the attacks on police stations and other public institutions by militant Islamists in the North of the country that began at 26 July and spread fast, up to 700 people were put to death, estimates say. Most of them were alleged fundamentalists. Thousands in the states of Borno, Bauchi, Kano and Yobe fled their houses.

The militias faced the well-equipped army with home-made shotguns, machetes, scimitars and bows. To talk of ‘fighting’ or ‘combats’, as many media did, does not describe correctly what happened in the middle of last week. Rather, a brutal revenge of the army has taken place as it is not unknown in Nigeria. In this case, President Umaru Yar’Adua de facto ordered it before he left for Brazil.

The group that is held responsible for the initial attacks goes by the names of Al-Sunna wal Jamma (Followers of Mohammed’s Teachings) and Boko Haram. Some Nigerian officials, most of the Western media as well as people in Nigeria – with a sneering accent – call it Taliban. Objectives of the Islamists are generally considered to be the implementation of Sharia law in the whole of the country, whose 140 million people are roughly divided between those adhering to Islam and Christianity, as well as a strict separation of men and women. They are hostile vis-à-vis ‘Western’ education and science. The Sharia adopted in twelve Northern states of Nigeria after 1999 is considered to be too lax by them.

Whether there are any connections to globally active Jihadists is very doubtful. The nutrient solution for the militias, comprised mostly of youths and students as well as some university lecturers, is prepared by the social and economic misery within the West African oil nation and by a political culture characterised by oligarchic structures, clientelism and open violence. For a growing number of Nigerians in the North, a rigorous dictatorship by Islamist clerics seems more attractive than the current societal situation.


Joining a Muslim group, says Murray Last,
gives live a meaning in light of lacking prospects.


Boko Haram, explains the historian and anthropologist Murray Last, who has studied the region for five centuries now, is only one of many such groups which emerged in course of the last five to ten years. ‘They get their recruits from the jobless, “Western-educated”, who after years of supposedly study find they are effectively unemployable’, writes Last in an email from Kano, Northern Nigeria. ‘So they turn to what does give life meaning: a Muslim group with promises of fighting to reform Nigeria, to save it from all those Western-educated elites who have corrupted the land.’ Without a perspective, most young people anticipate ‘the humiliation of being without work or the prospect of a family’. Religious fundamentalism, he comments, is a ‘very Northern Nigerian problem’.

Mohammed Yusuf, leader of the Islamist group, together with 300 followers, initially succeeded to escape on Thursday last week during a massive attack of the military in Maiduguri, capital of Borno state. At afternoon, however, he was caught. Some hours later, the police announced the death of the educated and reputably charismatic 39-year old man. On a video shown to journalist, Yusuf reportedly admitted to be responsible for the happenings of the past days and he regretted it. The next shot displayed his bullet-riddled body. During raids in the town and surroundings, an unknown number of suspected followers were arrested. In Maiduguri, Associated Press reported, men were shortening or even taking off their beards in order to evade attacks by security forces.

Since 2004, violent confrontations with the military and the police occur regularly in Northern Nigeria, and armed groups of religious fundamentalists are held responsible for it. The immediate trigger of the latest fighting and the strokes by the military is only partially clear. The New York Times gave an account of police forces attacking a funeral procession of Islamists on 11 June where 17 people are said to have been killed. Yussuf allegedly threatened revenge. On 24 July, police secured ‘combat material’ during a crackdown near Maiduguri, two days later the militia stroke back with a nightly attack on a police station.

According to some estimates, more than 10,000 people in Nigeria have been killed after 1999 in course of violent confrontations. The fights about access to land, resources and political posts adopt a religious form in some regions where Muslims and Christians are neighbours. It was only in November last year that hundreds have been killed during clashes in the city of Jos, Plateau state. As Human Rights Watch reported, police forces and the military after the riots engaged in arbitrary murders of Jos’ inhabitants. The organisation documented 118 of these homicides between 7 am and 1 pm on 29 November 2008.

The armed resistance against the state in Nigeria in course of the last five years experienced a considerable upturn, both in the North and in the South. But the lines between state institutions and insurgents are by no means clear-cut. Some factions of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), an umbrella for several militant groups in the oil-rich South, maintain close connections to political entrepreneurs on a local, regional and national level.


Silence could no longer be borne;
something ‘noisy’ had to be done.

Murray Last

One can surely assume that radical Islamist groups in the North also entertain their contacts inside the state apparatus. A Nigerian journalist working for AFP referred to the view prevalent among the populace that the state allowed the fundamentalists to operate for quite some time because some of them hail from rich families and have connections to the government. The introduction of Sharia in the North as well as the call for resource control in the Niger Delta are not least a dead pledge of local oligarchs in their conflicts with the central government about the autonomy of their regions.

In a paper presented in June at an international conference in Leipzig, Germany, Murray Last argued that the resistance against the state in the North of Nigeria by and large is ‘more long-term and patient, scarcely audible’. He thinks it ‘logical and rational’ to turn to religion given the prevailing societal conditions. The recent attacks on public institutions, Last writes, give credit to his thesis about the disengagement and decoupling from the Nigerian project, ‘albeit at an extreme level’: ‘Silence could no longer be borne; something “noisy” had to be done – but, I admit, to what end?’ he closes his response.

Once again the terrible happenings in Northern Nigeria these days show that the upswing of Islamism – notwithstanding all the international dimensions – cannot be comprehended without a consideration of the disastrous social and political situation locally. These days it might be a small minority that is ready to move against everything considered to be ‘Western’. But the crisis of established, gerontocratic rule and the continued contempt for basic human rights by an oligarchy courted by the West may soon lead to a much stronger proliferation of armed uprisings in different modes.

Original German version published by Jungle World 32/09 entitled ‘Die Stille vor dem Schuss’. Photo: Irinnews/Aminu Abubakar – Scores of suspected members of Boko Haram at Maiduguri police headquarters.

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  1. Dr. Ken Uzor said, on August 7, 2009 at 10:12 pm

    Thanks Ruben for that well articulated write-up. Like you implied in that report, poverty and social / economic and political discontent is at the root of the problem we are witnessed recently in the North and the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. The problem with Nigeria is that we always ignore the root causes of major conflicts to address only the manifest (trigger) causes. It may be good to ponder on why an average Nigerian muslim would hate western ideals. My findings reveal (and as you opined in your report), that the failure of majority of those in the muslim faith to access the benefits of western culture is at the root of the discontent and suspicion which define their world view about western ideals. They now could only relate with islam and readily link Christainity (the opposing religion) with western view points.

    Furthermore the link between the role of Americans and Britains (Champions of western ideals) and the war against islamic fundamentalist (mostly prosecuted by majority who bear the brunt of failed socio-economic and political processes and who are also denied space to effectively engaged in their countries’ ruling machinery) in far away Agfanistan and Pakistan, suggest to Nigerian (equally deprived) muslims that all is not well with western ideals. In Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Quatar and other more prosperous muslim nations, the spate of islamic fundamentalism is less pronounced. Most often islamic militants from these places, carry out anti social crusades outside the shores of their countries. In places where deprived people are many and recruitment is very very easy. Afterall how many rich and comfortable muslims can really carry out suicide bombing?

    I strongly believe that true democratization and more importantly, good governance will definitely stem the wave of militancy in Nigeria and elsewhere. Ruben you may be aware that most Nigerians no longer trust our political / electoral system to produce leaders of their choice. Ours votes no longer count. The implication therefore is that all hopes of changing cruel and anti people status quo is completely eliminated. In such an atmosphere Ruben, frustration sets in and the attendant anger inhibits sound reasoning. With time another sets of militants are unleashed. The connection between deprivation / poverty and violent conflict in parts of Nigeria will never be separated.

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