The Cycle of Revolt in Northern Nigeria

Boko Haram’s current (and perhaps former) leader — Abubakar Shekau

A recent struggle within the leadership of Boko Haram between its leader Abubakar Shekau and the new ISIS appointed leader, Abu Musab al-Barnawi, may be a sign that the group is weakening. However, Boko Haram is not the first, and will likely not be the last religiously-inspired revolt in Northern Nigeria. Although Boko Haram’s insurgency may appear to be a new phenomenon in a country that’s been called “The Giant of Africa”, the Boko Haram conflict is actually another cycle in a pattern of revolt against state authority. The same structural conditions of poverty, economic inequality and greed which caused its predecessors to arise, have also caused Boko Haram to emerge.

The first precursor to the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria was the 1804–1808 jihads of Usman dan Fodio. Starting from the 18th century, Fulani-speaking warriors charged across West Africa in a series of jihads starting in Futa Djallon (now a part of Guinea). Fulanis living in the predominantly Hausa-speaking city states were influenced by these external jihads, most notably Usman dan Fodio. Fodio, an Islamic scholar, gained a large following among Fulani, Hausa and Tuaregs by preaching against the unreligious conduct of Hausa monarchs, unfair taxation and the enslavement of Muslims. He sought to cleanse Hausaland of un-Islamic influences and purify Islam within the region.

Fodio’s influence spread as he became known for his sermons and his care for the poor. Aristocratic Hausa elites attempted to co-opted him but he rejected their gifts, demanding fairer taxes instead. This impasse between Hausa elites and Fodio’s followers culminated in a religious war which led to the establishment of the Sokoto Caliphate which conquered much of Northern Nigeria.

The Fulani States of 18th-19th century West Africa

The next major revolt in the North also tried to establish a utopian society based upon religion. In the 1970s, Northern Nigeria’s religious discourse was increasingly being shaped by foreign scholars from countries such as Saudi Arabia. These influences supplanted the traditional Sufi Islam of the region in favour of a more conservative model of the faith. In addition, socio-economic grievances similar to the conditions which led to Fodio’s jihad remained present. Although Nigeria reaped massive profits during the oil boom following the 1973 Arab embargo, most of Northern Nigeria missed out. Though public servants grew wealthy, Northern Nigeria’s poor had to deal with increased inflation caused by the oil boom, poor government-run education which incentivized the region’s young to become itinerant Quranic students and bad harvests that increased the number of migrant workers in Northern cities. The conditions were ripe for Mohammed Marwa’s group, Maitatsine, to preach against corruption, economic inequality and Western-influenced materialism amidst worsening quality of life in Nigeria’s North.

Marwa’s fame and influence spread across Nigeria as he provided for the poor and set up alternative means to provide them when the state chose not to do so. Northern elites such as the Governor of Kano State, Abubakar Rimi, attempted to co-opt Marwa for voter influence during Nigeria’s Second Republic. The failure of that co-option set the stage for the 1980 Maitatsine uprising which initially killed 5,000, including Marwa. The revolt spread across Northern Nigeria and lasted until 1985 causing a further 5,000 dead. The deaths of Marwa and thousands of his followers did not kill the idea behind religiously-inspired rebellion in Nigeria. The idea arose again, twenty or so years later with Boko Haram.

Marwa, before his extrajudicial murder by Nigerian security forces

The Boko Haram insurgency closely follows the pattern set by Usman dan Fodio and Marwa’s Maitatsine. The Iranian Revolution and Saudi Wahhabism significantly influenced Islam in Northern Nigeria outside of traditional Sufi belief systems. The originalist Islam espoused by religious figures, such as Boko Haram’s founder Mohammed Yusuf, fared well in providing an ideological justification for preaching against Northern Nigeria’s corrupt elites, Nigeria’s nominally secular Westernized political order and for the establishment of a utopian society based upon Sharia and the overthrow of Nigeria’s government.

Like Fodio and Marwa, Boko Haram set up programs to alleviate poverty and to endear itself to the talakawa (poor) of Borno State. As Yusuf’s power grew, elites in Borno State attempted to co-opt Boko Haram for votes. When the Governor of Borno State, Ali Modu Sheriff, and Yusuf fell out –it was followed by an insurrection against the Nigerian government in 2009 which killed thousands. But unlike Marwa, elements of Boko Haram’s leadership survived and vowed revenge against the Nigerian state, using Usman dan Fodio as inspiration. The fruition of that revenge has led to a transnational war between Boko Haram and the governments of Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria.

Mohammed Yusuf before his extrajudical murder by Nigerian security forces

Like many utopian endeavours, the fruition of Fodio and Marwa’s dreams fell far short of their goal of bringing justice to the North. The Sokoto Caliphate continued to enslave Muslims, replaced unjust Hausa elites with unjust Fulani elites and even waged war against the Muslim state of Kanem-Bornu, located near Lake Chad. Marwa’s religious movement grew into a personality cult that perceived him as a new prophet — in contradiction with mainstream Islamic doctrine. Boko Haram’s rebellion has displaced 4.6 million people, killed 15,000 and now may be the catalyst of mass starvation for hundreds of thousands of survivors in Yobe, Borno and Adamawa States.

Even if Boko Haram is defeated in the next five to ten years, it is likely that another group will fill the vacuum left by its destruction. The three regions of Northern Nigeria have poverty rates over 70 per cent of the total population. In Borno State where Boko Haram was founded, adolescents have a literacy rate below 50 per cent. This does not bode well if the Nigerian government that wishes to create inclusive economic growth and legitimize the state which would deter Nigerians from being swayed by millenarian cult leaders like Yusuf.

If Northern Nigeria’s structural poverty does not change, it is likely that another religiously-inspired militant group will emerge in the near future. Moreover, it is possible that someone smarter than Marwa and Yusuf will lead such a group. As the Nigerian state grows weaker because of its economic dependence on a sole commodity which will have declining value over the next several decades, it becomes less possible for Nigeria to hold off another cycle of revolt in the country’s North. In a failing state such as Nigeria’s Fourth Republic, some people will always be enticed by a new, compelling version of society.

Like what you read? Give The Fourth Republic a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.