ETHNICITY AND RADICALISATION: UNDERSTANDING THE KANURI FACTOR IN BOKO HARAM INSURGENCY

The Lake Chad Basin area has historically been a diverse and complex region, presently home to over 30 million inhabitants across Chad, Cameroun, Central Africa, Niger and Nigeria. It is seen as a meeting point of several groups, drawing their livelihoods from the vast resources of the Basin for thousands of years. The Basin produced one of the longest ruling dynasties in the world — the Kanem Borno Empire lasting over a millennium of recorded history. The Lake Chad Basin consists of several Chadic and Nilo-Saharan speaking groups such as the Kanembu, Kanuri, Shuwa-Arab, Ngizim, Karekare, Bolewa, Kotoko etc. While Kanem-Borno existed as a state before colonial rule, the scramble and partition of Africa in the 19th Century by western powers led to a new wave of state formation consequently splitting of some ethnic groups into different countries as they exist today. One ethnic group affected by this phenomenon is Kanuri, mostly found in Nigeria but also living in sizeable numbers as minorities in Chad, Cameroun and Niger Republics. These are the principal members of the Lake Chad Basin Commission.
There is no doubt that violent extremism as preached by the insurgent group Boko Haram is traced to Nigeria. Within Nigeria, Borno State is reputed to be the birthplace of such extremism which has prolonged for over a decade now. Arising from a complicated network of factors, issues and processes that have yet to be properly discerned, the Kanuri have become the single most significant ethnic group in the rank and file of Boko Haram’s over a decade long insurgency. This is at least as exemplified by the popular ethnic identity of its founder Mohammed Yusuf and subsequent leaders including Abubakar Shekau and Mamman Nur and numerous others either arrested as alleged fighters or killed in the battle field. Without exception to either their sex or other demographic profile, most of these insurgents are Kanuri speaking whether in Chad, Cameroun, Niger or Nigeria. The closest ethnic group often mentioned suffering a similar fate as Kanuri is Dugherde, found on the Mandara Mountain in Gwoza Local Government Area of Borno State. Unlike Dugherde, the Kanuri see themselves as Muslims never converted into Islam since the latter became the state religion nearly a thousand years ago. Many perceive this fact as being the underlying factor in the current violent extremism playing out. Violent extremism is today perceived to be the backlash of distortion of Islam faced by western powers.
Nevertheless, contrary to local perceptions and feelings, academic discourse and media representations are laden with ethnic portrayal in violent extremism. For instance, Kanuri identity in whatever forms whether name, speech mannerism or facial marks became tantamount to being labeled as insurgents. Responses by security forces to the conflict assumed the Kanuri as insurgents and were treated with military high handedness. Kanuri youths in particular suffered gross molestations and violations of their rights in all the Chad Basin countries where Kanuri are minority including Nigeria. Many have been killed; many have been tortured and unduly locked up without trial. Today, many families continue to talk about missing members for over five years. Could such high Kanuri representation in Boko Haram be a response to treatment by security forces? What are the socioeconomic, political and environmental circumstances that surround the Kanuri ethnic group? These largely remain undocumented or are glossed over by scholars. There is a compelling need to explain such a weighty Kanuri involvement in the Boko Haram insurgency and as well the extent of their involvement. What are the implications of such labeling and stereotyping along ethnic lines on countering violent extremism framework? Ethnic stereotyping of this nature without a proper understanding of the underlying issues may lead to blindfolded responses to extremism by the governments of Chad Basin countries. In countering violent extremism these need to be properly investigated and situated. For instance, given that Kanuri involvement in violent extremism is high as popularly discussed there is a strong need to properly diagnose socioeconomic, environmental and political dynamics facing the Kanuri nation especially in Nigeria where the largest population is found.
Yet, at the other end of the argument is that governments of the Chad Basin countries and especially Nigeria seem to have downplayed the contributions of Kanuri youths who played leading and heroic role in the countering violent extremism or at least counter insurgency efforts currently underway. Scholars are yet to focus on the contributions of thousands of Kanuri youths from the communities who volunteered to fight Boko Haram. While the rise of the Civilian Joint Task Force cannot easily be ‘ethicized’, its success and strength and role of its constituent actors requires to be properly understood at least on the basis of ethnicity so that wholeness of violent extremism can be understood as the sum of its parts.

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Lecturer, Researcher, Fellow USAID/NERI @neieffellows Countering Violent Extremism in the Northeast, Empowering Youths to achieve the SDG’s

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