Inheriting This History

Despite pledging its support for ISIS, Boko Haram is not really interested in a global reform or revivalist movement. Their sights and goals are local.

The goal of the movement, judged from the pronouncements of its former leader Muhammad Yusuf (below, left) and its current leader Abu bakar Shekau (below, right), is to create an Islamic state in Northern Nigeria based upon the nascent Muslim state founded by the Prophet Muhammad in 7th-century Medina. Boko Haram seeks to emulate the precedent set by Uthman Dan Fodio and unite all the Muslims of Nigeria under their Boko Haram banner.

When Boko Haram was founded in the early 2000s, the aim of its leaders was to establish a Taliban-like government independent from the Nigerian government. In 2003, emulating the Prophet’s example when he abandoned Mecca for Medina in 622, Boko Haram expanded into Yobe State, near the Nigeria-Niger border and attempted to establish a Taliban-like community in the desert.

During this time Yusuf preached a doctrine of withdrawal, and did not seek to overthrow the Nigerian government. This move was also modeled on the example of Uthman Dan Fodio, who withdrew with his followers and attempted to establish a separatist community free from the corruption of the Hausa Muslim rulers. Muhammad Yusuf upon his death was succeeded by Abu bakar Shekau who continues the movement along the same ideological path as Uthman Dan Fodio.

Boko Haram was almost successful in its campaign until government security forces cracked down in 2003-2004. Former leader Muhammad Yusuf was killed in police custody in 2009.

The Guardian newspaper obtained a transcript of his last interrogation. In it, Yusuf maintains that his goal is merely to propagate Islam and remove western influences from the religious practices of Muslims in the region. According to Yusuf, it was anathema for true Muslims to operate within a system created by secular western civilization.

While Uthman Dan Fodio conquered large swathes of territory in what is now northern Nigeria, he was unable to conquer Borno in part, according to an editorial written by Tolu Ogunllesi that appeared in the February 4, 2015 edition of the Nigerian newspaper Premium Times, the Kanuri people have always considered themselves “immune from Caliphate rulership.”

Consequently, in spite of this reverence for Uthman Dan Fodio, the Boko Haram leadership has leveled an intense vitriol on the contemporary sultan of Sokoto. They have declared the sultan of Sokoto unfit to rule the Muslims of Nigeria because of his close relationship to the secular government of Nigeria, and the continuing indulgence of the sultan and his family members in syncretic religious practices.

Thus, Boko Haram maintains that it is the legatee of Uthman Dan Fodio’s Sokoto Caliphate, but instead of creating a locus of power centered in Sokoto, Boko Haram wants the locus of power to be shifted eastwards to Borno state.

According to Jacob Zenn of the Jamestown Foundation, this shift would lead to an economic and moral empowerment of the Kanuri people, who essentially have been marginalized since Borno’s incorporation in the Nigerian Federal Government in 1967. Michael Baca, an African affairs analyst, notes that the predominance of Kanuri within the ranks of Boko Haram is primarily a result of where the movement has its ostensible origins, especially the city of Maiduguri.

Their marginalization is a point of discontentment for many Kanuri who hark back to the days when their ancestors were the most powerful ethnic group in the region. From the 11th century to the 19th century, the Kanuri exercised a great deal of influence on the surrounding peoples.

However, it would be a mistake to claim that Boko Haram’s activities amount to a Kanuri Jihad or a “tribal insurgency” against the Northern Nigerian government controlled by Hausa-Fulani politicians. The majority of Boko Haram’s victims have also been Kanuri and many supporters from non-Kanuri ethnicities have been promoted through the ranks of the movement.

Boko Haram and the Struggle for Resources

Boko Haram’s origins are historically based, but economic resources, or the lack thereof, played a role in the formation and continuing existence of the organization. Nigeria is an oil-rich country mired in a great deal of political corruption. Hence, the majority of the population has not enjoyed any of the benefits afforded by this oil wealth. Those peoples living in Northern Nigeria are experiencing many economic privations because that region in particular is arid or semi-arid, and lacks many resources.

Thus, the dire economic conditions in Northeastern Nigeria serve as fertile recruiting grounds for Boko Haram. The Nigerian government has been unsuccessful in quashing this group because of its own weak political leadership and weak security institutions.

The identity of many of the people in the region revolves around their ethnic identity, rather than their national identity. As a consequence, when government forces invade the region under the pretext of putting an end to Boko Haram, but do so in a manner that violates the human rights of many residents in the region, peoples’ loyalties become divided.

Put starkly, the people face a choice.

Should they support an insurgency that has pledged to end corruption and return the pristine Islam of the Prophet’s time? Or should they support the government bent upon liquidating the Boko Haram organization that, according to the Guardian, is responsible for 13,000 deaths since 2010, one million internally displaced persons, and the kidnapping of 300 Chibok schoolgirls?

Since the Nigerian government has failed in its military counterinsurgency, it is perhaps time to try a different approach. That approach would be to end the political corruption, end the marginalization of Northeastern Nigeria, and open up the region for economic development. The region was at one time the wealthiest region in Africa.

What’s In a Name? The Meaning of “Boko Haram”

A look at the origins of the name “Boko Haram” highlights the historical roots of the movement. The organization’s formal name is Jammat Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Dawah wal-Jihad, which means the “People who Follow the Prophet’s Tradition for Proselytization and Jihad.” However, it is the group’s popular name, Boko Haram, that has taken on global significance.

Experts agree the name is loosely translated from the Hausa language as “Western education is forbidden.” According to the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, the name “Boko Haram” is derived from a combination of the Hausa word book meaning “book” and the Arabic word haram, which means something sinful and, as a consequence, forbidden.

This consensus of opinion is founded upon two false assertions, however: first, that the organization has its origins in the 21st century, and second the etymology of the name Boko Haram.

The etymological assertion that the word ‘boko’ is derived from the Hausa variant of the English word “book” is specious. Hausa is a member of the West Chadic languages subgroup of the Chadic language group which is part of the Afro-asiatic language family. The native speakers of Hausa are the Hausa people, and they are primarily found in Niger, northern Nigeria, and Chad.

While English serves as the official language of Nigeria, there are over 500 languages spoken in the country, and many Nigerians count English as their second or even third language. The groups’ initial activities began in Borno state, and there the primary language spoken is Kanuri. Hausa is, however, the lingua franca of many Muslims throughout West Central Africa and northwestern Sudan. Hence, the Kanuri speakers of Boko Haram would employ Hausa in their communications because it would reach a widespread and linguistically diverse audience.

According to Paul Newman, who is among the foremost authorities on Hausa linguistics, the word boko is not an English loanword that has entered into the Hausa lexicon, rather it is an indigenous Hausa word, and there is no relationship between the English word book and the Hausa word boko. The word for book in the Hausa language is littafi. The word haram is an Arabic loanword which means forbidden or sinful. Boko has a multiplicity of meanings denoting things or actions having to do with fraudulence, inauthenticity, or deception.

Newman notes that the false linkage between boko and the English word book was first made in a 1934 Hausa dictionary by a Western scholar that listed 11 meanings for the word – ten of them about fraudulent things and the final one asserting the connection to “book.”

Liman Muhammad, a Hausa scholar from northern Nigeria, 45 years ago presented the correct answer concerning the etymology of the term boko. Muhammad in his study produced a list of over 200 loanwords borrowed from English into Hausa in the area of “Western Education and Culture.” The word boko is not among the words on this list.

The Hausa word boko originally meant “Something (an idea or object) that involves a fraud or any form of deception” and, by extension, the noun denoted “Any reading or writing which is not connected with Islam.” The word is usually preceded with ‘Karatun’ [literally: writing/studying of]. ‘Karatun Boko’ therefore generally means, “Western type of Education."

The important issue here is that when the British colonial government began introducing its education system into Nigeria in the early 1900s, Muslim elites saw it as devoid of any intellectual or moral value, whereas traditional Quranic education was held in great esteem. Western education was seen as a fraudulent deception imposed upon the Muslim Nigerians by the conquering British.

Instead of sending their children to Western schools, the Hausa elites would send their slaves and servants in order to protect their children from the corrupting influence of western education. Their fear was that the traditional Hausa Islamic values would be undermined by the deceptions of the West, and the children would ultimately become ‘yan boko, that is “(would-be) Westerners.”

The way the word is used is also important. The word boko is always used as a modifier and rarely as an independent noun. For example, karatun boko or “western education,” literally means sham education or education of no importance, and rubutun boko, literally means “the Hausa language written in Roman script.”

The traditional opinion is that Hausa should be written in Arabic script rather than Roman script and when the former is undertaken it is a further attempt by the European conquerors to undermine Hausa Islamic cultural values. Hence, the name of the group is a shortened version of the Hausa language sentence karatun boko haram which means that western education is forbidden. Consequently, the roots of the Boko Haram group’s very name along with its ideology extend back to the British colonial period, and even earlier.