By Sanusi Muhammad
A lot of literature and reports have been written on the dreaded insurgents known as Boko Haram, since violence erupted between them and security agencies. Some of those reports were merely concocted and spiced with bogus claims tailored to extort funds from government, which retarded genuine progress. The saddest part of the on-going drama is that government and most people are still ignorant, or have scanty knowledge of the sect known as Jama’atu Ahlis Sunnah Liddawa’ati Wal Jihad (Boko Haram). Most people erroneously believe that Boko Haram starts and ends with Abubakar Shekau; others believe that those who have been arrested by security agents while carrying out attacks and other deadly actions, can add any value to information collation. Those are wrong perceptions and far from the reality. First, most of those in detention were recruited and trained for what they were arrested doing or suspected of doing, not that they were close to or even knew their superior leaders. Some of them had never set eyes on any of the Shura Council members that pilot the affairs of Boko Haram, not to talk of Shekau.
A typical southern Nigerian believed Boko Haram was a Hausa/Fulani conspiracy against the administration of Jonathan, while a typical northern Christian believed Boko Haram was created to wipe out Christians from the north. All these perceptions were wrong and are fast changing with time.
Past interactions which this author had with few members of Boko Haram’s Shura Council (highest policy decision body) and field commanders sharpened my knowledge of the sect. I severally tried to reach out to the authorities concerned to share my experience and possibly proffer suggestions on the best way to end the insurgency. But my efforts were always thwarted by the powers that be, with the exception of the late National Security Adviser (NSA), General Andrew Azazi who had a listening ear that encouraged further assignments. His death ended the assignment as a war was declared and Sambo Dasuki replaced Azazi.
Historical Antecedents of Borno
Borno remains a centre of Islam with one of the longest political dynasties in Africa, the Saifawa Dynasty (1080 – 1846). Borno was not and has never been part of the Sokoto Caliphate founded by Sheikh Othman Bn Fodio. Borno Empire was founded according to historians, by Sheikh Muhammad El-Kanemi, a popular Kanembu scholar.
The Empire is not exactly an Islamic autocracy. The Kanuri, Shuwa, Babur and Fulani are mainly Muslims; but there are other indigenous nationalities like the Marghi, Chibok and Madagali that have large Christian populations. There are also migrants from neighbouring Cameroun, Chad, Mali and Niger Republics who have been residing in the area for centuries.
How Boko Haram Started
Boko Haram began as a group of harmless young Muslims with radical inclinations. They used to converge at the popular Muhammadu Indimi Mosque in Maiduguri to worship and hold meetings. In 2002, leader of the group, Muhammad Ali publicly declared Borno State corrupt and irredeemable under Senator Ali Modu Sheriff. Sheriff was declared an enemy and targeted with an attack which caused the death of his cousin.
Having declared the society decadent and hopelessly corrupt, Muhammad Ali and his followers embarked on the Muslim traditional Hijra, which is a withdrawal from a cursed location to another before declaration of Jihad, to copy the Hijra of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) from Makka to Madina. Ali withdrew from Maiduguri to Kanama in Yobe state.
Kanama is a small town close to the border with Niger republic where Ali used as his base to invite other Muslims to join him for the planned Jihad. What he wanted was to lead an organization for the revival of Islam, with Borno and Yobe as the first targets for governance according to strict Islamic principles; not what he dismissed as “political Shari’ah” introduced in most northern states by the governors. His invitation was honoured by a fairly large number of very poor and impoverished people who were disenchanted with life. Ali also had members from neighbouring Niger Republic who joined him through the porous borders.
Beginning of Hostilities and the Death of Muhammad Ali
In December 2003, the group had its first bitter brush with the Nigeria Police with many of its members killed. The trouble started at a local fishing pond where Ali’s followers were refused a right to fish by the local community on the allegation of being trouble makers. The group overpowered the few police that came for settlement and seized their riffles. The police got re-enforcement and trailed Ali and his group to their mosque. In a shootout that lasted from late December to early January, 2004, Muhammad Ali and an estimated 200 of his members were killed. It is important to note that Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, a retired army general was then the President of Nigeria who treated the issue as a matter of national security, without apportioning blame to any segment of the federation or religion.
At that time, Muhammed Ali and his group were not called Boko Haram but ‘Nigerian Taliban’ and their base in Kanama as Afghanistan. Before his death, the locals in Kanama alleged that Muhammed Ali had said that his group would bounce back stronger as a scourge to Nigeria. As usual with our society, security agencies never took him serious and Nigeria is now painfully passing through what he meant.
Boko Haram under the Leadership of Muhammed Yusuf
Those members who escaped unhurt quietly went back to Maiduguri to meet their new leader, Muhammed Yusuf who began a process of rebuilding the group. Muhammed Yusuf was a more organized and western educated personality than Muhammed Ali. He moved the group to a new location at the railway area (Gwange ward) of Maiduguri metropolis where they built their mosque called Ibn Tiamiyyah Masjid. It was not just a normal mosque, but more of a village. The plot of land was donated to the group by the father-in-law to Muhammed Yusuf. The group was known as Yusufiyya Islamic Movement. Muhammed Yusuf later changed the name of the group from Yusufiyya to Jama’atul Ahlus- Sunnah Lidda’Awati Wal Jihad.
The group began to grow in leaps and bounds but was considered harmless, with majority of its members poor and wretched. As time went on, few educated people that shared the same ideology joined the group. A few who had university degrees and diplomas destroyed their certificates because they were ‘haram’ and therefore anathema to the ideals of Boko Haram.
To those of us that knew Muhammed Yusuf, he was a very colourful character and an eloquent speaker. He really knew what he was talking about. He loved publicity and maintained a habit of granting press interviews to send messages. He expressed several disagreements with modern day scientific researches and faulted the mixing of male and female students in western schools. In his opinion it was “Haram”. As a result of repeating that “Boko” is “Haram”, people in Maiduguri that were not his followers nicknamed the group Boko Haram.
(To be continued in the next edition).