Nigeria’s tackling of the Boko Haram insurgency was, until recently, a serious source of embarrassment to the country, its neighbours and, in deed, the international community. The insurgency, which resurfaced five years ago after it was supposedly crushed in July 2009, attained global notoriety with the abduction of more than 250 schoolgirls in a school in Chibok, Borno State. Discussions on the emergence and metamorphosis of the sect from a band of gun-toting local criminals to a full blown internationally known terrorist cell have been had, often smeared by allegations of complicity against the current regime in the country or the opposition, particularly politicians from the north. In a series of analyses I argued from the outset that because the problem had been misdiagnosed it would be difficult to defeat it.
I posited that we needed to sufficiently understand the entire process of the sect’s incubation to appropriately respond to the challenges it poses now and may pose in the future. I warned that our strategy, politically and militarily, would have serious backlashes unless it was changed. Today, but for the intervention of Multinational Forces under Chad’s leadership, the insurgents would still be comfortably holding on to the parts of Nigeria they annexed about eight months ago. So, what was wrong with Nigeria’s handling of the crisis?
To discuss this let me, first, prepare your mind on the approach I will adopt - Epidemiology - which suggests that conflict should be treated like cancer. In treating cancer the first thing doctors do is identify the type of cancer and its stage - early, mid or advanced - and from the outcome they consider the type of therapy that is applicable. The stage also determines how much it has spread and whether it can be isolated and treated or essential advice and support to help the patient manage it until death comes be provided. In countries with well developed healthcare systems palliative chemotherapy is applied to ease pain and slightly prolong a patient’s life.
In applying Epidemiology or Epidemiological triangle in treating the Boko Haram madness or disease or terrorism I have suggested three basic factors that must be considered: (1) Agents; (2) Environment and (3) Host. If we look at Boko Haram through the Epidemiology lens then we must treat it the way doctors treat cancer; this requires a fully purposeful study (and interrogation) of the causes, both immediate and remote, the extent or level or seriousness of the insurgency in terms of the resources available to the insurgents including links with the outside world, and to, most importantly, isolate the disease like cancer is isolated and treat it by means of chemotherapy (in conflict studies understanding how sub-state conflicts spread beyond the boundaries of a nation-state due to the presence of a number of conditions is desirable).
Boko Haram and Maitatsine
I will discuss this approach further but in the meantime let me briefly address some issues that keep resonating in discourses on Boko Haram, like its link with the Maitatsine cult, against the backdrop of suggestions that they’re completely distinct because they are three decades apart. On this premise some scholars have argued that different approaches should be applied in tackling them.
I submit, fully, to the reasoning that they are situated in different historical contexts. And I also concur that they need to be tackled using different approaches because of the striking differences in their campaigns of violence. However, in spite of these dissimilarities, I belong to the school of thought that posits that they have a number of similarities, which must be understood if we hope to fully defeat the insurgency. I also, albeit sometimes, lean towards the Radical School which attempts to explain terrorism as no longer the monopoly of non-state actors. But because this theory is sometimes misunderstood as a support for unproven conspiracy theories I’ll navigate away from it in the course of this discourse.
In an academic article published in the Journal of African Media Studies (JAMS) in 2012 I argued that Boko Haram is an offshoot of Maitatsine. I came to this conclusion after a study of the backgrounds of the founders of the two sects. Matatsine’s founder Muhammadu Marwa came from Marwa in northern Cameroun to settle in Kano in 1945. His choice of the slums of Kano was deliberate, where he began anti-establishment sermons particularly targeting the Kano Emirate and political elites. He also arrogated himself the responsibility of ‘purifying’ Islam, which he claimed western culture/ideas had contaminated. The then Emir of Kano Sanusi (the grandfather of HRH Muhammadu Sanusi II) expelled him when his sermons began to instigate violent reactions. But he found his way back to Kano in 1966, after Emir Sanusi had been deposed. He was captured and killed in 1980 after inciting the December 18-19 mayhem in Kano that caused the death of more than 5000 people.
Muhammad Yusuf, who founded the Yusufiyya movement, was not the original founder of Boko Haram. Muhammad Ali, who actually returned to Nigeria with the idea, was. He was killed in the first altercation of the sect with security services in Nigeria in the early days of the sect. Muhammad Yusuf, a very charismatic and vibrant lieutenant took over as the leader of the sect, which was initially called the Yusufiyya movement but later adopted the nomenclature Jama’atu Ahlih sunnah lid-dawati wal jihad (again like Maitatsine its claim to ‘purifying’ Islam is captured in this). Yusuf was a secondary school dropout but had Arabic/Islamic education in Chad and Niger, which explains his exposure to the outside world and possible radicalisation. He chose the deprived parts of the northeast (Maiduguri) to disseminate his hate messages. At this point let me state some similarities of the two groups:
• Maitatsine’s founder had foreign influences i.e. his link with Cameroun (Marwa), where he originally migrated from; both Muhammed Ali and Muhammed Yusuf had links with the outside world, Chad, Niger and in the case of Muhammad Ali, the Middle East
• Maitatsine’s choice of the slums of Kano yielded fruits, as expected, with the economic depression of the 1980s (the first violence was between December 18 and 19, 1980; it’s believed the economic situation in the northeast made people easily succumb to Yusuf’s manipulation, triggering the violence of July 2009.
• Both sects denounce westernization/western civilization because they claim it is a tool for distorting Islamic values – Marwa prohibited the use of electronics, wristwatches and other features of western civilisation, which Boko Haram also denounced.
• After the Maitatsine violence of 1980 in which Muhammadu Marwa was killed remnants of the group went underground but resurfaced later to continue the violence e.g. the uprisings in Kaduna (1982), Bulunkutu (1982), Yola (1984) and Bauchi (1985), one Musa Makaniki (also spelt as Bakaniki) led the group in Yola; Yusuf’s death in 2009 only temporarily suppressed the group, they retreated to somewhere in northern Cameroun, where they re-congregated, rejuvenated and launched a comeback (this point will be discussed at some point later).
• Although the Maitatsine fighters had no access or ability to use firearms they were determined fighters who fought to the death; Boko Haram fighters initially had no access to sophisticated weapons but they also fought to the death, their trouncing in 2009 opened the doors for reflection, rearming and re-strategising, including connecting with other pretentious jihadists like Al Shebbab and AQIM (and now ISIL), it has been suggested that they had trainers from Afghanistan and Somalia, when they camped in Mali, who taught them how to use firearms and make and use bombs, including suicide bombings.
• These determination to fight to the death is a product of ideological dispositions but while in the days of Maitatsine it was less heard of mainly due to their early defeat and largely because technology had not advanced to the stage it is today, in the case of Boko Haram they bring close to home events in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Somalia.
• This ideology is founded on both Muhammadu Marwa and Muhammad Yusuf’s misinterpretations of Islam as contained in documents (books) bequeathed to their followers – Marwa proclaimed himself a prophet and distorted the Qur’an to suit his manipulative intents, Yusuf’s book is a major source of spiritual inspiration to Boko Haram members; both sects are also believed to have been strongly influenced by Ibn Taymiyyah’s return to source school of thought and hastiness to pronounce anyone opposed to their ideology as kufir (unbeliever).
Their similarities are not limited to the above but I will now focus on dissimilarities. Like I mentioned earlier their main difference is the time in which they occur, which incidentally impacts on all other things like sophistication, operational strategies, access to fund, endurance and impacts. Boko Haram is fortunate to have come at a time of great technological advancements, including access to and the use of media – it uses the social media effectively and uploads propaganda videos on YouTube. It has also thoroughly studied Maitatsine’s failure and reflected on its own defeat to enhance its survival. The fact that it’s violence is happening at a time of global violence linked to extremists pretending to act for Islam also helps their campaign of violence – Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau recently paid allegiance to ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Unfortunately for Maitatsine it did not have these legacies to survive on. Its connection to the outside world was limited to Marwa’s access to Cameroun and, unfortunately for it too, there were no allies to liaise with and from whom to seek financial or operational support (Al Qaeda, at the time it was suppressed, was also at that stage of incubation, after the ‘Mujahideen’ supported and funded by the US fought and drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan). Also, Maitatsine did not have the luxury of space to run around and save itself from routing. But most importantly, the responses of the governments of Shehu Shagari and later Muhammadu Buhari were swift and decisive.
I will also add here that in spite of the turbulent political landscape of the Second Republic politicians and leaders across the country were united in fighting the Maitatsine cult. It was seen as a national menace that required national disapproval and collective response. It was not dismissed as a northern problem or one only the federal government needed to address. There were no conspiracy theories alleging it was the handiwork of any section of the country (in fact attempts to create a link between Muhammadu Marwa and the then Governor of Kano State Abubakar Rimi did not survive the early stage of gestation). The lukewarm attitude of northern politicians and elites to the Boko Haram danger before the Chibok misfortune was, to say least, very nauseating. In a series of letters and commentaries I reminded them that it would boomerang, someday. I argued that it was because they have selfishly abdicated the leadership role the late Sir Ahmadu Bello (Sardauna) passed on to them that rogues like Yusuf and Shekau stepped in to dupe the region. It would therefore amount to an exercise in futility if this analysis fails to recognise the role of this political brinkmanship in fostering the Boko Haram monster, which the ruling and opposition politicians are guilty of. We are also aware of former Borno State Governor Ali Modu Sheriff’s role in creating the monster for political expediency. Until after the APC convention, where he and his preferred candidates failed to win, he was a member of the opposition party. Sheriff, who’s now a ‘highly trusted’ member of the ruling party, had a deal with Yusuf’s Boko Haram which culminated in the late Buji Foi being nominated in Sheriff’s government as commissioner for religious affairs to oversee the implementation of Yusuf’s agenda. But the pact later collapsed and Yusuf ordered Foi to quit the government. But for the manner in which Sheriff brazenly gave the sect a seal of legitimacy from the outset it probably would not have had the audacity to press on with its savage agenda. All this luxury Maitatsine did not have, which greatly contributed to its early defeat. And although it was crushed, it was not completely wiped out. So, doomsday was only procrastinated. I will explain this by going back to my Epidemiological approach. And while I agree that ‘global jihadism’ has strongly provided a source of inspiration to Boko Haram I still insist it’s not as much an influence as the local discontents that led to its emergence and its precursor, Maitatsine.
Sub-state conflict contagion
What successive governments in Nigeria (including those in the Sahel) completely missed while tackling the Maitatsine and now Boko Haram is the capacity of the conflict to spread across the region because of the similarity of situations: poor economic conditions caused by widespread misrule/maladministration; weak states that are a direct consequence of bad leadership; protracted discontents often taking religious and ethnic dimensions; and increasing exposure to radical ideologies as contacts amongst people in the region and with other parts of the world grow.
The Epidemiology explanation
Agents: Just like doctors treating cancer governments trying to resolve conflicts, especially protracted ones must, firstly, understand the type and stage of the problem and then quickly isolate it, before applying solutions. In the 1980s Maitatsine members were either exterminated or dispersed. Many of them melted into the immediate civilian population just as many others migrated to safer havens abroad, particularly Cameroun and other neighbouring countries. Many of these unrepentant extremists continued to quietly but determinedly spread the ideology (through discrete but sustained evangelization). In the mid 1990s after I was expelled from university in my final year alongside 57 colleagues for our alleged role in a riot I met a man in his late 30s or early 40s who took great interest in me. I was in my mid 20s. I had become very, very religious and it was the piousness that attracted him to me. In one of our numerous conversations about life, religion and life hereafter I unconsciously revealed a plan to enlist in the military. He had come to trust me greatly or so I imagined. But I was very shocked at his reaction as soon as I mentioned my plan. He sternly cautioned me against joining the military or paramilitary because to him ‘they are dwellers of hell’ and “were responsible for the death of their leader” (I later decoded that to mean the death of Muhammadu Marwa). He went on to tell me to mark it that no matter how long it took they would avenge the killing of their leader and that if I was in the military or paramilitary he couldn’t guarantee my safety. Although that conversation stuck to my memory I only got its full import much later. Towards the end of 1999 my colleagues and I were recalled back to complete our studies, after six years. It was around that time the man disappeared into thin air. I have since then not seen him. But I believe that I was one of many targets for radicalisation – targets with genuine grievances, young, energetic and open to new ideas, many of whom easily fall for the fraud. And with surviving extremists out there as loose cannons, it’s not surprising that Boko Haram came back forcefully, having successfully spread the ideology.
Environment: countries in regions where ideologies like Boko Haram flourish are often replete with injustice, inequalities of all sorts and sustained failures to address those. Like I earlier explained Muhammadu Marwa Maitatsine, Muhammad Ali and later Muhammad Yusuf deliberately manipulated these failures to their advantage. Looking back at my interaction with that man in the 1990s it recently occurred to me he was on a mission to radicalise me, taking advantage of my genuine grievance against a system that had failed me. If I had not been recalled back to the university and the contact had continued I probably would have ended up in one of the cells.
I have nothing against the Salafis or Salafi School of thought. In fact by my strong conviction in return to source I have sympathy for Salafism. But studies have shown that a small number of very ‘pious’ people end up in the manipulative hands of people like my friend back in the 1990s. In 2011 I interviewed a respected Sheikh who, like Yusuf, is very charismatic. He told me of the attempts made to recruit him to lead the sect that eventually became Boko Haram. And that it was only after he rejected the offer that Muhammad Ali and his colleagues turned to Muhammad Yusuf. By the Sheikh’s account, Yusuf was himself a conscript in a way, given his failure to achieve certain goals earlier in life, and that he was later sufficiently incentivized to not turn back. My point here is the process of radicalisation is much more complex than we see it. And it is even more complex because sects like Maitatsine and Boko Haram are let loose in an environment where there’re more than enough incentives to be used to sway the mind. Again, like cancer, the need to isolate the ideology and its agents is a sufficient precondition.
- Dr. Aliyu Musa