Most people if asked which country was placed third last year in the world ranking for terrorist activity would guess Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s Nigeria. The Global Terrorism Index (GBI) uses a broad definition of terrorism: “threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence” by non-state actors not only for religious or political ends but also for “economic or social goals”. Killings by Northern Fulani Muslim cattle herders in conflict over land use with non-Fulani growing crops who may be Christians, and the agriculturalists’ violent retaliation, can end up being reported as terrorism, “ethnic violence” or “religious conflict”. Such violent conflicts become lumped together with the very differently motivated killings of Boko Haram (western education forbidden) – incidentally mainly Kanuri and neighbouring groups not Fulani. This is confusing, a symptom of varying degrees of ignorance about Africa’s most populous country.
The BBC World Service website covered in Pidgin English the GBI 2018 Report; it “blame di “increase of ‘terrorist deaths’ (in Nigeria) unto Fulani extremists”. Note the BBC’s cautionary inverted commas and the use of that catch-all ‘extremist’. The Times on 10 August also cited GBI in a book review focussing on Christian persecution and Boko Haram (BH), condemning “ethnic Fulani cattle herders, who are linked to Islamists”. The Fulani had become “the fourth deadliest terrorist group in the world”. Inverted commas were notably missing as was detailed knowledge of Nigeria. Newspaper reports on Africa, even about such a potentially important country as Nigeria, rarely dig deep beneath stereotypes and into detail.
Nigeria is such a large country that very different political conditions exist in its different geographical areas. Violence in the disorderly world of Central-North Nigeria is a different story from that in the North-East. Through terror Boko Haram has dominated the life of the states in the north-east. It was so extreme BH split off a breakaway group in 2015-2016 which sought to prioritise recruitment rather than attacks on local Muslims. Both factions pledge allegiance to Daesh, but only the faction led by Umar al-Barnawi, known as ISIS-West Africa, is actually recognised by Daesh. BH’s other faction, led by the infamous Abubakar Shekau, is known for its capture of the Chibok girls, as well as its massacres. Its multiple abductions, mass killings, and house burnings over the last ten years have caused the displacement of some two million people. The religious motivation for the worst violence in Central Nigeria is negligible.
Another mistake when looking at Nigeria is only to see tensions between the north and south of the country in religious terms. Picturing a “Muslim North” distinct from a “Christian South”, with a mixed and ill defined “Middle Belt” in-between, is simplistic. In reality large Muslim Yoruba-speaking populations live in the south-west and, owing to the great third missionary wave of Pentecostals dating from the 1960s, significant numbers of Christians live in the northern states. In the Middle Belt, religion is not the principal cause of clashes. It is the population movement and age-old conflict between cattle-herders and farmers. So-called indigenous – settled - communities, mixed ethnically, compete with pastoralists and other settler incomers for scarce resources. The “indigenous” often have different religions - mainly Christian – to incoming pastoralists - mainly Muslim - but land-use is the big problem.
Nor do the two dominant religions in Nigeria form simple blocks. There is much intermarriage between Muslims and Christians in the south, where Islamic practice has a distinctly African flavour. The political dimension of Islam is still evident in the reformist North with emirates and important religious leaders, such as the Sultan of Sokoto, in the north-west, and the Shehu of Borno, a rival in the north-east. But BH’s terrorism has undermined such traditional figures’ leadership and sharpened the existing Christian-Muslim divide with growing distrust. The danger is that religious differences might, in some parts of the country, become coterminous with political ones. When this happens conflicts become non-negotiable.
BH is a recognisable relative of Daesh/ISIS but has its own Nigerian character and history. It grew from the bitter observation that both Muslim and Christian elites’ were utterly indifferent to people’s poverty. This social perception found explanation in conservative salafi thinking that importantly sees only its own cohorts as true Muslims and a takfiri approach – ( ‘excommunication’ and death for apostasy) - to all who do not pledge allegiance, bayat, to increasingly well - equipped war bands and their leaders. An Islamic account of injustice mutated into calls for jihad – though BH violence was in practice more akin to the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda, and equally contrary to Muslim precepts for war. Extra-judicial killing of the BH founder, Imam Yusuf, in the north-eastern city of Maiduguri and associated killings of their members by armed police in 2009, accelerated descent into terrorism.
Nigeria’s military incompetence and corruption under former President Goodluck Jonathan allowed BH war bands led by Imam Abubakar Shekau to gain in strength and barbarity after 2012. In April 2014, the world woke up to the danger posed by Shekau and his followers after the Chibok abductions in Borno State. But girls and women had been abducted before and, indeed, continue to be captured. What is clear is that for young recruits whose poverty condemns them to a single life - because they cannot afford bride-price - the promise of wives is an important recruitment tool. So are a fighter’s pay, one meal a day and the power coming from the barrel of an AK-47.
President Muhammadu Buhari has tried to eradicate BH from the north-east. But the claim that Boko Haram is defeated is false. Christians and Muslims continue to live lives of frightening insecurity in the states bordering Cameroons to the East and Niger in the North-East. BH proclaimed itself as a caliphate and an affiliate of ISIS in March 2015; its spread into Chad, Cameroons and Niger, with raids in Nigeria beyond the north-east, provoked a more concerted and multi-national military counter-insurgency effort with as yet limited results.
When the high quality of reporting of the Middle East and Russia is considered, a post-colonial condescension at work in the way Africa is generally reported becomes detectable. Nigeria has a population of probably 185 million. Jihadists have taken note of its importance. Perhaps we should.
Where did these tensions, and array of potential and real conflicts, religious, ethnic, economic and political, all so easily misinterpreted, come from? There are many reasons. My on-line book Emirs, Evangelicals & Empire may shed some light. It is about the beginnings of British imperial rule in the North, the emirates, and the origins of the Christian community in Hausaland. Here are two ways of reading it: (1) On this Microsoft website. Go to Home or Blogs and click on online book (top right). Or: (2) You need an Apple laptop or i-phone then google https://apple.com/us/books/id473753122 It’s next to Ian Rankin…
See TheArticle “Terrorists have taken time to understand Nigeria. We should too”.