POINT OF VIEW – Boko Haram: Islamic terrorism or tribal insurgence?

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Islamic terrorism is not a unified international front, its analysis has to include the history of the various lands where they’re flying the black flag.


Today Borno is a mere state, one of the 36 that make up Nigeria — the richest nation in africa as well as one of the most tormented countries on the continent.

Two hundred years ago, by contrast, Borno was an empire that extended well beyond its current borders, incorporating territories which are nowadays a part of Niger, chad and cameroon, along with a large portion of the sahel region in the Northeast.

In the 12th century, borno endorsed sunni Islam and its most privileged and devoted citizens, at least once in their lifetime, got the chance to undertake the haji, the sacred pilgrimage to Mecca.

They travelled across chad along the traditional caravan routes which ran north through Darfur and from there went on to Egypt, joining the waves of pilgrims from the coastal areas as well as preserving the routes that had always connected the arab world with trans-saharan Africa.

The inhabitants of the Borno region at the time were the Kanuris, a close-knit and bellicose ethnic group that was constantly involved in border skirmishes with the fulan and Hausa people, themselves rulers of empires which extended over vast territories now divided among various countries. Nobody knows how numerous the Kanuri people were at the time when their empire reached its maximum extension.

Today, they are more than six million. While the majority live in the state of Borno, substantial minorities have settled in neighbouring regions in Niger, Chad, and Cameroon.
In the 19th Century, during the age of rampant colonialism, the British, the French, and the Germans attacked Borno and the Kanuri people. The empire was rapidly dismembered. The British gained control over most of the land and population and annexed them to Nigeria. The French conquered a smaller portion of the empire and partitioned it between Niger and Chad, while another section came under German rule and became a part of Cameroon.
In Nigeria, thanks to the British custom of governing colonies through local élites, some of the Kanuri people’s traditional institutions survived. Thus, to this day, Borno has its very own sultan, a descendant of the ancient ruling family, who still carries considerable prestige though very little real power. That aside, Borno is currently being governed in the same way as the other 36 Nigerian states, so poorly that the army is currently having to deal with uprisings in 34 of them.
Boko Haram, the terrorist movement known for its extremism and its dramatic and bloody deeds, has gradually taken control over a swath of territory large enough to suggest that it’s moving into another gear (along the lines of what ISIS has done in other countries). It’s main centre of influence is still the Borno region, and its members are almost exclusively Kanuri. Only recently has the movement begun to advance beyond Nigerian borders into parts of Chad, Niger, and Cameroon—occupying areas which as it happens have large Kanuri minorities.
Boko Haram’s close connection with the Kanuri people was publicly confirmed a short while ago by a Christian Evangelist Bishop who, in the course of a religious celebration and with the President of Nigeria Goodluck Jonathan in attendance, accused this ethnic group of being in cahoots with the terrorist movement. His words did not warrant any kind of official disclaimer.
What is Boko Haram, then? A liberation movement set on establishing a new ethnic based nation? Or an Islamist terrorist group influenced by the extremist ideology that calls for a return to Islam in its purest form? The answer to these questions is very important, as it could affect the courses of action taken to counter the movement’s goals.
In all likelihood both tendencies coexist within the same organisation. The movement certainly has a strong tribal identity, if not a national one. Not only are non-kanuri affiliates prevented from holding top positions in the Boko Haram hierarchy, even potential suicide bombers are selected among personnel that is never Kanuri, but belongs to other ethnic groups. This being said, the organization still retains an extremist Islamist slant, which at the moment holds sway over all other considerations. Incidentally, this enables Boko Haram to access the major strands of financial support that the fundamentalist fringes of the Islamic world, and the Arab world in particular, grant with myopic generosity even to those who attempt to justify their atrocities by waving the flag of Islam. It is worth noting that if Boko Haram had professed the intention of founding a new nation, this would have sounded like an attempt to “call into question the national borders established during decolonisation” and thus a violation of one of the most powerful African taboos. And donors would promptly tie knots in their purse strings.
The movement, however, does embody both tendencies and therefore must be opposed on both counts. Let’s hope the future President of Nigeria will understand this and act accordingly when and if he is elected. Given the success of Boko Haram’s actions in recent years, it would seem that little can be expected of its current President in this regard!


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