On the night of 14-15 April 2014, Boko Haram terrorists kidnapped 276 girls from a boarding school in Chibok in Borno State in the far north-east of Nigeria. The girls weren’t meant to be there. The school was closed, but they had returned from various parts of the state to sit a physics exam. It later turned out that the terrorists hadn’t intended to abduct them either. They had left their hideout in Sambisa Forest, a national park long since fallen into neglect, in search of food and fuel. When they met no resistance from the soldiers stationed nearby they broke into the school, then rounded up the girls, forced them into their trucks and drove away. Some managed to escape by jumping off the trucks and running into the bush, where they were taken in by small farming communities; the rest ended up at the Boko Haram camp in the forest, where they were distributed among the terrorists.
Boko Haram, whose objective is the imposition of strict sharia law in the Muslim-majority northern states of Nigeria, launched its first armed operation in 2003 and is said to have anything between 6000 and 15,000 militants. This was not the first time its fighters had abducted girls, nor would it be the last, but the numbers, the brutality and the fact that the girls were Christians roused the international community. Oby Ezekwesili, a former education minister and World Bank vice-president for Africa, organised a sit-in at a national park in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, with the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, which was taken up by celebrities around the world. Michelle Obama was photographed holding up a placard. Some of the girls have since been released in exchange for imprisoned terrorists – 21 in 2016 and 82 the following year – but most remain in captivity.
It is difficult to see a strategy in Boko Haram’s activities, or to know whether strategy is involved at all, especially since Abubakar Shekau, the movement’s leader, appears to be unbalanced. Shekau once boasted on social media that he enjoyed ‘killing anyone that God commands me to kill the way I enjoy killing chickens and rams’. Virginia Comolli writes in her study of the organisation that the death in childbirth of one of Shekau’s wives ‘triggered some existing but hitherto repressed psychiatric problem: he became so violent that it was necessary to put him in chains.’ At the time of the kidnappings, he claimed that the girls were slaves and would be sold in the market because ‘Islam permits slavery.’
The evolution of Islam in Nigeria, along with resource rivalry between the northern and (predominantly Christian) southern states, has much to answer for in this story. If Shekau is beyond the pale, what are we to say about some of the tenured Muslim politicians in the north? Ahmed Sani Yerima was governor of Zamfara State, to the west of Borno, until 2007, and is now enjoying his third term in the Senate. It was Yerima who led the call for sharia on the return of democracy in 1999, after 16 years of military rule, and turned Zamfara into a sharia-law state, in defiance of the secular provisions in Nigeria’s constitution. He said at the time that he followed the Quran and not the constitution he had sworn to uphold. In 2010 he courted controversy by marrying the 13-year-old daughter of his Egyptian chauffeur with a bride price of 100,000 US dollars. When it was pointed out that the Senate had passed the Child Rights Act, prohibiting child marriage, he shrugged it off: ‘History tells us that the Prophet Muhammad did marry a young girl as well. I have not contravened any law.’ The Zamfara State legislature, under his governorship, refused to ratify the act.
Sharia law in Nigeria was nothing new. It was in place in the north well before 1914, when Nigeria was forged as a single colony – and an unsustainable polyglot fiction – from two British protectorates. Sharia continued to regulate people’s lives throughout the relatively short colonial period, but only in matters of personal law – marriage, divorce, succession and so on – and only among Muslims who opted for it. This remained the case after independence in 1960, in a country with roughly equal numbers of Muslims and Christians, despite occasional agitation in favour of full implementation. But matters were complicated by the fact that British decolonisation entailed a handover of power not to Nigerians as a people – they weren’t a ‘people’ – but to the so-called Hausa-Fulani aristocracy, who represented the interests of the north and would shortly take charge of a ‘federal republic’ four times the size of the UK. This was achieved by massaging the figures to give the north more inhabitants, making Nigeria the only country in West Africa where the population actually increases as you get closer to the Sahel.
As a consequence, proceeds from the oil-rich Niger Delta could flow away from their source in a formal arrangement designed to spread petroleum revenue across the country. This precarious status quo was challenged in 1967, when one of the regions in the south – what was then called the Eastern Region – attempted to secede as Biafra, resulting in a war that lasted two and a half years, in which two million people are thought to have died. The Eastern Region was rich in oil deposits. After Biafra it was business as usual, but over the years, as Nigeria’s wealth was hollowed out by kleptocratic rule and skewed by regional disparities, calls for greater local autonomy grew louder. In the Niger Delta, paradoxically, no one had benefited from oil money: extraction had destroyed the local ecology, and livelihoods with it, but there were no rewards for farming or fishing communities. Delta activists were in favour of full decentralisation, calling the government in Abuja a ‘fraudulent contraption’. Their anger was compounded by the judicial murder of their spokesperson Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995: he’d asked for a fair share of oil revenue for the inhabitants of the delta.
Southern demands for autonomy didn’t play well in the north. Coming to an equitable federal arrangement with the ‘sons of pagan infidels whose fathers walked the earth naked’ – as one prominent mullah put it – was not an option. Billions of naira in oil revenue were at stake. Northern leaders and influential clerics fell back on religion. After Olusegun Obasanjo, a southern Christian, was elected president in 1999, 11 northern governors took up Yerima’s communal initiative, and sharia became the basis of civil and criminal law in the north. In 2000 Yerima signed off on an amputation for the theft of a cow. In Abuja the attorney general (also minister of justice), a Christian and a southerner, called it ‘a punishment more severe than would be imposed on other Nigerians for the same offence’, but this was just ‘so much English’, as we say here. The thief’s right hand was removed by a surgeon specially flown in from Pakistan at the state house clinic in Zamfara while an excited crowd waited outside. The amputee was led back to his impoverished village by state government officials in what was described as a festive atmosphere. Not long afterwards, two women found guilty of adultery were sentenced to death by stoning. The sentences were not carried out, but the point had been made: demands for autonomy in the south would be met by assertions of overarching Muslim authority in the north.
The scene was now set for the rise of an extreme sectarian movement. There would be no shortage of foot soldiers: Comolli points out that with a population approaching 200 million, Nigeria has ‘the highest number of non-attending schoolchildren in the world’: 10.5 million in 2010, the last year for which figures are available. Most are concentrated in the north, where ‘70 per cent of the population is illiterate.’ All that was needed was an eloquent figure who could applaud the governors’ embrace of sharia while pointing out that they fell far short of the code of conduct they favoured. At about the time sharia was coming into force, an obscure preacher by the name of Mohammed Yusuf, born in 1970 and based in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, was calling on ‘the Muslim community to correct its creed and its behaviours and its morals … to give children a correct Islamic education’, and ‘to undertake jihad in the name of Allah’. Yusuf was the leader of an Islamist sect that no one had heard of, founded in 2002, and known as Boko Haram.
‘Boko Haram’, everyone knows now, translates roughly as ‘Western education is forbidden’. As the sect explained in a pamphlet published in 2009, education leads to ‘Western Ways of Life’, including ‘the rights and privileges of women, the idea of homosexuality, lesbianism … rape of infants, multi-party democracy … drinking beer and alcohol and many other things that are opposed to Islamic civilisation’. This kind of thinking was a challenge to the pro-sharia governors, including Yerima, who had an economics degree. But Yerima’s selective application of sharia was also under attack, even though he had shown his approval of forced marriage for underage girls, amputation and death by stoning, and advocated a ‘correct Islamic education’, including learning the Quran by rote in Arabic. But not for his own children. Falling standards in local universities, as Alexander Thurston explains, were driving the elites in the north to educate their children elsewhere, sometimes in the heartland of the infidel: the sultan of Sokoto, the spiritual leader of Nigeria’s Muslims, was recently photographed at his daughter’s graduation ceremony in the UK.
Yusuf, himself a university graduate (he studied theology in Medina), was a rhetorician rather than a warrior. His calls for jihad were vague and adapted for the occasion: Thurston describes him as ‘a dynamic, even chameleon-like preacher’ who ‘presented his ideas in different ways to different audiences’. He cited the Quran in the local vernacular languages ordinary Muslims understood, rather than ‘the specialised Kanembu language that many of Borno’s exegetes used’, as Thurston puts it. Thurston also quotes an eyewitness – the report isn’t dated – who was on hand to cheer Yusuf’s return to Maiduguri after one of the many occasions when he had been briefly detained: ‘People came all the way from Kaduna, Bauchi and Kano to welcome him. There was a long motorcade from the airport as thousands of his members trooped out to lead him to his house. He came back like a hero.’ Unlike Shekau, Yusuf confined his violent attacks to police stations and government property.
Before fleeing to Saudi Arabia in 2003, when the first call was put out for his arrest, Yusuf appeared to have wealthy sponsors. Whenever he preached in his large compound in Railway Quarters, Maiduguri ‘the whole area would be lined with exotic cars as very powerful individuals came to see [him]. They went in cars with tinted glass.’ Among the visitors was the then Borno State governor, Ali Modu Sheriff. Sheriff, the son of a wealthy businessman, had studied at the London School of Business and later joined his father’s construction company. He was widely rumoured to be the founder of Boko Haram, a charge he vehemently denies. True or not, in the run-up to his bid for the state governorship in 2003, he was obliged to woo Yusuf, whose following was on the rise. In 2007, he appointed Yusuf to a state government committee selecting Muslims to take part in the annual Hajj to Saudi Arabia. The arrangement didn’t last long. Yusuf came to believe that, like Yerima and the other state governors, Sheriff wasn’t taking sharia as seriously as he should. But by then, preoccupied with party political issues playing out in Abuja, Sheriff had no need of him. In fact, Yusuf’s extremism was becoming an embarrassment. Citing his lack of proper credentials, senior clerics who were alarmed at his popularity banned him from preaching at the Indimi Mosque in Maiduguri.
Many – Yusuf included – believed that Sheriff had turned so drastically against Boko Haram that he was intent on killing its members. In late 2008, he unleashed Operation Flush in Borno State, a military sweep whose official raison d’être was to curb banditry in the hinterlands. Yusuf assumed the worst and put his followers on alert for a pre-emptive uprising. Then, in June 2009, security forces opened fire on a procession of unarmed Boko Haram members on their way to a funeral in a town outside Maiduguri. According to the military, the mourners, who were travelling on motorbikes, weren’t wearing helmets, as required by law. Yusuf decided to launch his jihadist insurrection: ‘We are ready to die together with our brothers,’ he announced.
The uprising was initially slated for August but two events brought it forward. On 23 July, the authorities discovered a ‘training camp’ in Biu in Borno State, and arrested nine sect members. The following day, Boko Haram members accidentally detonated a bomb in a safe house in Maiduguri. With the authorities hot on their heels, Yusuf gave the go-ahead. Thurston takes up the story:
On 26 July, around seventy Boko Haram members ‘armed with guns and hand grenades’ attacked a police station in Bauchi. Police repulsed them, killing several dozen and arresting an estimated two hundred sect members; arrests went well beyond just the fighters and extended to the sect’s wider membership in the city. In Potiskum, Yobe state, a ‘gun battle raged for hours’ around a police station; police arrested 23 people. A small clash occurred between Boko Haram and police in Wudil, Kano State. On 27 July, several battles paralysed Maiduguri. Boko Haram staged a co-ordinated late-night assault on the state’s police headquarters, police training facilities, Maiduguri prison, and two other police stations. Further battles happened in Gamboru-Ngala in Borno, near the border with Cameroon – a town that would become a flashpoint later. ‘Heavily armed members of the sect stormed the town and went on the rampage, burning a police headquarters, a church and a customs post.’
On 28 July the military shelled Yusuf’s home at Railway Quarters, where some sect members had ‘barricaded themselves in and around the house after heavy fighting’. Yusuf was found the next day, ‘hiding in a goat pen at his parents-in-law’s house’. He was interrogated by soldiers – it’s recorded on YouTube – and then handed over to the police, who executed him in public. An ecstatic crowd looked on. They later executed his father-in-law.
Thurston and Comolli agree that the Nigerian state and its security apparatus have never put their faith in negotiation. Threats posed by full-on secession, banditry and sectarianism have generally been met with maximum force, but the results are invariably counterproductive. Once Abubakar Shekau took over from his martyred predecessor, churches, mosques, banks, markets and schools became fair game, in what Thurston describes as ‘total war’ in north-eastern Nigeria. The first, shocking incident was the suicide bombing of the Nigeria Police headquarters in Abuja in June 2011 (the first such suicide attack in Nigerian history) which was followed, six months later, by the Christmas Day suicide bombings of three churches, one of them across the border in Niger. The insurgency peaked between 2009 and 2015, with the loss of 12,000 lives (20,000 have been killed to date). In 2014, Boko Haram announced its ‘capital’ in Gwoza, Borno State – it lasted just seven months – and affiliated with IS, rebranding as ‘Islamic State in West Africa’ or ‘Islamic State West Africa Province’. It expanded its use of suicide bombers. Most of them were young women and girls, including a ten-year-old.
The year 2015, when a presidential election was held, proved to be a turning point. The incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan, was widely seen as clueless: the previous year, it had taken him more than two weeks to admit that the Chibok kidnappings had happened. As the election campaign got underway, he stirred into action, agreeing that Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Benin could deploy their own troops inside Nigeria as the insurgency began to spread beyond the country’s borders. Jonathan also engaged a firm of mercenaries run by a former South African Defence Force officer, Eeben Barlow. Between them, they started to rack up some notable successes, exposing problems within the Nigerian army as they did so. ‘We’ve been on the terrain for two months,’ Idriss Déby, the president of Chad, complained, ‘and we haven’t seen a single Nigerian soldier. There is a definite deficit of co-ordination and a lack of common action.’ Barlow let slip that he thought the Nigerian army was incompetent: ‘Foreign armies … have spent considerable time in Nigeria where “window-dressing training” has been the order of the day. But look through the window and the room is empty.’ A ‘senior Western diplomat’ (are there any senior non-Western diplomats?) told the New York Times that the mercenaries were playing ‘a major operational role’ carrying out night attacks on Boko Haram and that ‘the next morning the Nigerian army rolls in and claims success’.
It later transpired that money intended for the military was being embezzled: Jonathan’s chief security adviser, Sambo Dasuki, is currently in detention, accused of stealing $2.1 billion. At the height of the conflict, according to Transparency International, ‘corrupt senior officers withheld ammunition and fuel from frontline soldiers, leaving them with no alternative other than to flee when attacked.’ When it did venture out, the army’s reputation was further tarnished by its behaviour towards villagers, in combined operations with the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF is a dubious initiative started by local youths in 2013 to identify Boko Haram suspects and get them to ‘confess’. One 14-year-old boy who refused was whipped to death by a soldier in front of his parents). A report by Amnesty International alleged ‘compelling evidence of widespread and systematic violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by the military, leading to more than seven thousand mainly young Nigerian men and boys dying in military detention and more than 1200 people killed in extrajudicial executions’. According to AI, ‘no one was brought to justice.’ Civilians might have felt that they were caught between two competing reigns of terror.
In the event, Jonathan lost the election to Muhammadu Buhari, a retired general and former military dictator with a reputation for probity. Buhari immediately moved the centre of operations against Boko Haram north from Abuja to Maiduguri and allocated more resources. But by then the tide had already turned. There were schisms within Boko Haram dating back to 2012. Like Yusuf before him, Shekau belonged to an extremist Salafi sect, the Society for the Removal of Heretical Innovation and the Establishment of the Prophet’s Model, which held that Muslims who strayed from the path were fair game. Many of Shekau’s senior officers baulked at this development. Others were simply fed up with his lack of discipline and focus. According to Thurston, he had a reputation for killing civilians ‘on the basis of whim and/or personal benefit’, for ‘handing down punishments with weak scriptural justifications’, killing sect members and then lying about it, and marrying women ‘whose husbands were still alive’.
There are thought to be at least three factions currently operating under the banner of Boko Haram. Shekau has been reliably pronounced dead at the hands of the military on at least three occasions – one for each of the rival factions. The first pronouncement was in 2009 but no evidence was produced. Shekau – or a double, nobody is sure – tends to pop up on YouTube after announcements of his death, although he was absent from a Boko Haram video posted last year. The military appears to believe that he is still alive: last year, the chief of army staff, Lt Gen Tukur Yusufu Buratai, issued an ‘ultimatum’ to his troops to bring him in ‘dead or alive’.
With or without Shekau, Boko Haram has largely been contained, contrary to Thurston’s claim in his introduction that it is at present ‘one of the deadliest jihadist groups in the world, and the crisis surrounding it one of the globe’s worst’. Buhari was not wrong to declare that Nigeria had ‘technically won the war’ against the sect in 2015, or to announce its ‘final crushing’ one year later. Even so, it wasn’t the whole truth. The military has confined its members to the countryside, mainly the inaccessible mountainous areas on the border with Cameroon, where they continue to rampage with diminishing results. The recent attack on a girls’ secondary school in Dapchi, in Yobe State, where 110 pupils were kidnapped, draws inevitable comparisons with Chibok, but it doesn’t suggest a resurgence in Boko Haram’s activities. As Jama’atu Nasril Islam, the umbrella body of Nigeria’s Muslim community, has said, there is good reason to suspect that the security forces have been colluding with the remains of the movement in order to keep counterinsurgency funds from Abuja flowing their way. As I write, a row is blazing between the police and the army over who is responsible for ‘security’ in Dapchi. Both, you’d have thought – or just possibly neither.
When I travelled to Maiduguri last November, a journey I wouldn’t have contemplated two years earlier, I couldn’t get to Gwoza, Boko Haram’s former capital – a five-hour drive south-east from Maiduguri: Boko Haram may have been in retreat, but there had been no ‘final crushing’ and the roads were still unsafe. I couldn’t do the three-hour drive south to Chibok either: some lecturers from a local university had recently been abducted. But I did make a 14-hour roundabout journey to the town, with many military checkpoints along the way. It turned out that the story wasn’t in Chibok any longer. But if I hadn’t made the trip I might never have understood that the kidnapping of the schoolgirls in 2014 is now a slow-burn revenue source, not just for the military, but for numerous NGOs: this once insignificant town is full of white four-by-fours, driven by aid workers.
The kidnapping has also generated a steady stream of publications. Both these books tell us a good deal about Boko Haram. They are worthy enough in their way, but fatally even-handed: Comolli and Thurston write as if Nigeria were a functioning country that simply required a tweak here and there. I feel bound to set them straight, but where to begin? Perhaps with our famous abundance of crude oil, and the anomalous situation in which we find ourselves, importing refined petroleum. Nigeria has the richest fields in Africa – generating around 2.4 million barrels a day – well ahead of the runner-up, Angola (around 1.8 million) – but our three largely obsolete refineries are unable to cope with the volume of crude. The annual renewable contracts from government that would make them viable are looted at source, and the elites that take the money have invested in refineries abroad. Even so, we have enough refined oil to run an efficient national grid. But the electricity supply remains stubbornly at around 4000 megawatts; South Africa generates about 34,000 megawatts for a population one-third the size of ours. Between 1999 and 2007, in the early years of our emergence from military dictatorship, contracts worth 16 billion US dollars were awarded by the finance ministry to the energy ministry (and a growing number of private providers) with much fanfare. These disbursements sank without trace. The government renamed the National Electric Power Authority (‘Never Expect Power Always’) as the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (‘Problem Has Changed Name’). Today we have more power outages than most people in this young country can recall.
At the top, graft is a family duty. Take Nigeria Airways. Given Nigerians’ dedication to travel – confirmed by the number of foreign carriers that fly in and out daily – a national airline operating in a regulated industry, as it did for roughly thirty years, should have been an exception to the rule that state airlines run at a loss. And so it was, but the revenues were retained by those appointed to run the airline. A commission of inquiry, set up on the return to democracy, reported in 2002 that most of Nigeria Airline’s accounts at the end of the 1990s were fraudulent. Between 1999 and 2002, when the company was liquidated, 31 million US dollars were ‘misappropriated’ as one clique in the ministry of finance awarded another in the transport ministry contracts worth millions of dollars to both parties. Nobody has been prosecuted, and even if they had, where were they supposed to serve their sentences? To our shame, the UK is building an extension to the Kiri Kiri prison in Lagos to repatriate Nigerians currently doing time in British jails. We allowed this initiative because our own prisons are even more deplorable and overcrowded than those in Britain, where inmates do not die of treatable diseases such as malaria.
Would education have kept the Nigerian prison population down? With 40 per cent illiteracy among Nigerians over the age of 15, we’re no longer able to test this hypothesis. According to a 2015 Unicef report, ‘investment in basic education is still low compared to other sub-Saharan countries’: most primary schools ‘lack water, electricity and toilet facilities [with] only one toilet for 600 pupils in the primary school system’. My guess is that the ratio of textbooks to pupils is no better. Unicef points out in another report that mother and infant mortality figures are worse in Nigeria than in Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. ‘Nigeria,’ Bill Gates remarked on a recent visit, ‘is one of the most dangerous places in the world to give birth.’
It’s hardly surprising that Nigerians are restive. Large deployments of armed men in uniform are part of the harsh, piecemeal solution to our unruliness, but as Comolli remarks, the use of the military can be ‘problematic’: soldiers, she writes, ‘are not trained to deal directly with the civilian population’. This hardly goes far enough. Soldiers in most countries are unfamiliar with police work, but in a crisis the Nigerian police are quickly sidelined by the army. With our long memory of military dictatorship, we see the army as the bodyguards of the corrupt elite. Comolli’s book – like Thurston’s – is intended for an international readership, for Western ‘policymakers … still struggling to get to grips with this phenomenon’. Nigerians have it off by heart.
Whatever becomes of Boko Haram, a greater threat to stability in the country as a whole, not just the north, has begun to emerge: a group known to Nigerians as ‘Fulani herdsmen’. This large, ill-defined body ‘undertook more attacks and were responsible for more deaths than Boko Haram in 2016’, according to the Global Terrorism Index. Unlike Boko Haram, this assortment of Muslim people categorised by ethnicity and livelihood – and increasingly by religion – are out in the open: families and clans drive their cattle south with the onset of the dry season, and are prepared to fight for pasture. Clashes in the past two years between Fulani and settled farmers or other pastoralists are fuelling fears that the army is reluctant to mediate this incursion, and that the sense of entitlement among the Fulani is growing. It’s easier, as the death toll rises, to typecast the Fulani as latter-day jihadists, even though some have fled south from Boko Haram.
The armed forces, criticised by Amnesty International’s Nigeria office for failing to keep order, have not been entirely passive, but their reactions have been ill-judged. Last December, during Fulani attacks on five villages in Adamawa State, the air force levelled the villages and created the kind of confusion that encourages defiant Fulani exceptionalism. During my journey in Borno State, we were held up for an hour while a party of Fulani crossed the road to a muddy watering hole, the men in wide-brimmed straw hats, loose trousers and plastic sandals, the women in bright dresses, with tightly braided hair and bangles on their arms, the boys and girls tall, dark and thin, driving their entire worldly wealth before them. My fellow passengers were uncharacteristically silent.
Fulani herdsmen are the nomadic descendants of Uthman Dan Fodio’s followers. A century before the British arrived, Dan Fodio, an itinerant Fulani preacher in what is now Senegal, launched a jihad against backsliders in an immense area to the south-east that was later incorporated into northern Nigeria. ‘They practise polytheistic rituals,’ Dan Fodio wrote, ‘and turn people away from the path of God and raise the flag of a worldly kingdom above the banner of Islam.’ In 1804 he established the Sokoto Caliphate, the largest Islamic state south of the Sahara, and pressed towards the coast in his eccentric quest to dip the Holy Book in the Atlantic Ocean. Like the British after him, he left the decadent administration of the Hausa royalty intact but appointed emirs to oversee their spiritual well-being. As his people settled, they adopted the Hausa language, the lingua franca of this vast, semi-arid region.
These herdsmen and their families were once confined to the areas around the northern Sahel. Creeping desertification has driven them further south. Numbering about 18 million, they are now to be found in 21 of the 36 states, and as far south as the Niger Delta. From the mid-1990s until 2005 disputes involving Fulani pastoralists on the move accounted for about 120 deaths in the north and so-called Middle Belt of Nigeria, but the figures have risen steeply. In January alone, they accounted for about 170 deaths. The symbolic Fulani weapon (the bow and arrow) has been replaced on these migrations by the AK47. Many southerners, far from the confrontation, worry that Fulani assertiveness is not driven simply by the search for marginal pasture. They fear a renaissance of Dan Fodio’s legacy and another step towards Nigeria’s becoming an Islamic state. The country has had twelve heads of state since the mid-1960s, five Christians, one of whom – Obasanjo – ruled twice, once in uniform and once as a civilian, and seven Muslims, one of whom, Buhari, has also ruled twice. Currently around fifty or sixty million Nigerians, roughly a third of the population, live under sharia law: that figure was unthinkable at the turn of the century.
Suspicions in the south, embedded in cultural anxiety, are not always parochial or communitarian. Just as the sharia-friendly attitude of the northern governors fired up Boko Haram, Buhari’s discourse, past and present, encourages the Fulani. Buhari has been clear in his support of the sharia governors in the north and, as it happens, he is a Fulani. ‘I will continue to show openly and inside me the total commitment to the sharia movement that is sweeping all over Nigeria,’ he said in 2001, as he called for ‘the total implementation of the sharia in the country’. In a subsequent interview, he announced that he was willing to ‘die for the cause of Islam’; in another that ‘we are more than the Christians if you add our Muslim brothers in the west.’ He was referring to the Yoruba ethnic group, forty million strong, that predominates in western Nigeria and is equally divided between Islam and Christianity (often within the same extended families). Religious tolerance in this part of Nigeria is a point of principle, reinforced by good sense: Yoruba Muslims have no interest in sharia.
Recently Bello Abdullahi Bodejo, the head of an influential Fulani cultural association, came out in support of Buhari’s re-election in next year’s presidential race. ‘All the Fulani in Nigeria today, our eyes are open. All of us are behind Buhari; we have seen that they’ – ‘they’ are not specified – ‘want to destroy the Fulani because of Buhari. We would not allow anybody … to take Buhari’s mandate; we would be ready to follow him and fight [for] it.’ Bodejo warned that if Fulani pastoralists ‘decide to … start any insurgency now or any resistance, you can imagine what will happen and they are … people who know everywhere in the jungles and the bushes’. This is a chilling threat to many who have long feared domination by the Hausa-Fulani.
The dilemma raised by our catastrophic civil war in the 1960s – is regional autonomy possible without secession? – has never been resolved. Biafra seems a remote event because history is no longer taught in our schools. As long as Nigeria is framed as a single, coherent entity – all or nothing, Abuja or the bush – the wish for autonomy can only express itself as a ‘national’ programme. For militant communitarian groups in the north this means that sharia is the objective, both for their own states and the country as a whole, which will have to fall into line if they are to enjoy the fruits of their efforts. Today it might be Boko Haram; tomorrow the Fulani herdsmen and their families, driven by climate change and faith. We are stumbling from crisis to crisis, as more and more illiterate young men and women pour into the streets with nothing to do but follow the next messiah or dream of escaping to Europe.