Boko Haram has yet again made international media headlines, this time through its alleged kidnapping of nearly 200 civilians from the village of Gumsuri in Borno State. Much of the current commentary on the Salafi-jihadi group frames its insurgency as a violent contest against the Nigerian state.
This depiction agrees with the narrative put forth by Boko Haram chieftain Abubakar Shekau in his video communiqués, which identify its ultimate goal as being the establishment of an Islamic polity on the ruins of secular Nigeria. Boko Haram has purportedly carried out terrorist attacks in cities throughout the country, including Lagos and Abuja, while its members continue to target Nigerian government’s agents.
However, as with politics, all insurgencies are local. If Boko Haram’s violent defiance of Abuja represents a national-level struggle, the Nigerian extremist movement is also engaged in a more provincial conflict concentrated in Borno State and seemingly driven by parochial rivalries fueled by class, generational, and, to a lesser extent, ethno-religious tensions. The Kanuri, Borno’s most populous ethnicity, serve as the chief protagonist of this internecine war, dominating both Boko Haram as well as the regional political establishment that largely opposes it. Non-Kanuri communities in southeastern Borno also feature prominently, especially since Nigeria’s 2013 military offensive reportedly ejected many Boko Haram militants from the state’s urban centres. It is this local violence that has thus far claimed the majority of the lives lost to the Boko Haram insurgency.
Borno State consists of two distinct cultural zones. The northern and central territories contain a Kanuri majority, with communities of ethnic Shuwa Arabs and Fulani scattered throughout the area. Overwhelmingly Muslim, these sub-regions have in recent decades received a sizable number of Christian southerners, who prior to the Boko Haram insurgency made up a key component of the commercial class. Meanwhile, the southern third of Borno features a collection of minority ethnicities. Although some follow Islam, many, including those in the vicinity of the now infamous town of Chibok, practice Christianity and/or indigenous religions.
Nestled in the foothills of the Mandara Mountains that straddle the Nigeria-Cameroon frontier, these populations retained their autonomy prior to the colonial era, fiercely resisting incursions by Muslim Kanuri and Fulani slavers.
Reverberations of these clashes continue to shape ethno-religious relations in Borno, with southerners bemoaning what they perceive as their political marginalisation at the hands of the Kanuri.
Despite their ethnicity’s dominance of the Borno government, most Kanuri also find themselves largely disenfranchised. At the apex of Kanuri society sits an oligarchy whose members trace their families’ initial wealth to lucrative commercial ventures during the colonial period. Slightly less prominent are Borno’s traditional rulers, descendants of the aristocracy that controlled the old Borno Empire (c. 1380-1893) that once held sway over much of modernday northeastern Nigeria. Below these two groups are the Kanuri commoners (tala’a or talakawa).
The vast majority of tala’a resided in the countryside as peasants until the 1970s oil boom, when many streamed to Borno’s capital, Maiduguri, and smaller towns in search of employment opportunities, in part due to the stagnation of northeastern Nigeria’s agricultural sector. Some succeeded, but many more did not, forming instead a burgeoning, disaffected urban underclass.
Borno’s economic dislocations threw the existing social system into turmoil. Once revered traditional authority figures saw much of their influence diminish while Islamic revivalist movements such as Salafism started to gain adherents, particularly among younger generations. Although most Salafis in Borno abstained from violence and acknowledged the Nigerian state’s legitimacy, a substantial subset gravitated toward the radical teachings of Mohammad Yusuf (1970-2009), Boko Haram’s late spiritual leader. Much of Yusuf ’s appeal stemmed from his relentless criticism of a sociopolitical system that had, from all appearances, abandoned large swathes of Borno society to their own devices.
*This was published in the Daily Times dated Wednesday, December 24, 2014