As Boko Haram continues its fight in northern Nigeria, Atta Barkindo examines the cultural and ethnic ties of the insurgency. He argues that the group's ideology is ultimately religiously focused, but draws on deep ethnic and cultural roots to recruit members and sustain its momentum.
Conflicting narratives have been applied to explain the rise and transformation of Boko Haram in northern Nigeria. Particularly baffling is its ability to maintain the momentum of its Islamic insurgency for more than a decade. It is important to realise that Africans today still keenly feel the legacy of colonial interference by European countries. These memories are refreshed by neo-colonial alliances and loyalties, as countries try to adjust to the reality of nation-state and multi-party democracy. These adjustments have left in their wake accumulated and unaddressed grievances against individuals, modern institutions and state.
For thousands of years before colonialist policies were implemented in Africa, empires and chiefdoms rose and fell. The colonial boundaries established by Europeans, that have been perpetuated by modern African nation-states, bear little to no resemblance to pre-colonial empires, ethnic or cultural territories. In this context, we have seen different kinds of resistance across the African continent. Many reach back to pre-colonial shared identity markers as rallying points for post-colonial conflicts. North-eastern Nigeria for example, which is historically linked to the Kanem-Borno Empire but divided between the British and French, has seen the emergence of Boko Haram.
Boko Haram manipulated the historical narrative of the Kanem-Borno Empire in its fight against the Nigerian state.
Evidence suggests that Boko Haram has been very effective in using Islamic ideology to recruit, organise and sustain its battle against the Nigerian state. Boko Haram ideology is a spill over from the Sunni-Salafi doctrine that the "temporal proximity to Prophet Mohammad is associated with the truest form of Islam''. On the other hand, contrasting approaches to returning to this original way of practicing Islam has given rise to Salafi jihadis that believe in the use of violence, even against other Muslims. Victims of this approach include Salafi purists and activists who denounce violence and advocate participating in political processes. Boko Haram appears to associate with to the Sunni-Salafi jihadis who call for the use of violence to ensure a return to the original form of Islam, and the rejection of everything deemed un-Islamic. Thus Boko Haram's ideological propaganda for recruitment and structural and strategic organisation has hinged on the principle of rejecting western civilization – characterized by the modern Nigerian government – building a society based on Islamic values and structured around the immediate establishment of an Islamic state.
To accomplish this, Boko Haram also manipulated the memory and historical narrative of the Kanem-Borno Empire in its fight against the Nigerian state. Historically, the Kanem-Borno Empire conquered other kingdoms, controlled sub-Saharan trade routes and entered into diplomatic relations with kings from Cairo to Turkey. Furthermore, the consolidation of Islam as a state religion enabled the expansionist policy of the empire to succeed. Islamic scholars from Sudan and North Africa came to study at the then famous Birnin Gazargamo Islamic Centre. Birnin Gazargamo was the capital of the Kanem-Borno Empire from 1460 to 1809, situated 150 km west of Lake Chad in Yobe state, Nigeria.
The impressive remains of the Islamic Centre and some parts of the town are still visible to date. Outside the empire, a poet from Borno was renowned in the court of al-Mansur (1190-1214) in Seville, Spain, for his praise songs of the Sultan. Mai Dunama Dabalemi (1221–1259) built a Maliki madrasa-hostel called Ibn Rashiq in Cairo for Borno pilgrims and students. Since more than 70 percent of the inhabitants of this empire were of the Kanem/Kanuri descent, by the time of the el-Kanemi of Borno, Kanuri identity had permeated the social, religious and political fabric of the society.
The el-Kanemi dynasty, from which the current ruler of Borno is drawn, was the ruling family that emerged around 1751 after the Tuareg of Air revolt against the first rulers of the Kanem-Borno Empire, the Sayfawa. More importantly, the Kanuri and Islamic identities merged, so that to be Kanuri was synonymous with being Muslim. In their recruitment and organisational drive, leaders of Boko Haram alluded to the Islamic historical dominance of the Kanem-Borno Empire, arguing passionately about why Islam has to reclaim the land. According to former-leader Mohammad Yusuf, "our land was an Islamic state before it (sic) was turned into a land of kafir (infidel), the current system is contrary to true Muslim beliefs". The current colonial-era political boundaries ''that cut off Niger and Chad and amalgamated Borno with infidels'' should not be recognised by true Muslims, claimed Yusuf.
The manipulation of the memory and historical narrative of the Kanem-Borno Empire and the use of Kanuri identity resonated with the communities Boko Haram preached to, enabling them to recruit thousands of young people. However, this very narrative also contributed to the factions that later emerged within the sect. In recent times, factions within Boko Haram have emerged fundamentally due to differences in religious ideology, conflict strategy and ethnic identity. Abu Qaqa who led one of such faction was captured in 2013. He revealed during interrogation that Shekau's selection of non-Kanuris for suicide missions – the refusal to agree to which resulted in the ''death penalty'' – had served to alienate Boko Haram members from other ethnic groups which led to the formation of Abu Qaqa's faction. It is fair to say that Islamic ideology, Kanuri identity and the memory and historical narrative of the Kanem-Borno Empire all played a part in the establishment and expansion of Boko Haram. However, it is difficult to separate the three aspects as independent factors in understanding the Boko Haram phenomenon.
Ultimately, while Boko Haram's inception may have been in the ashes of the Kanem-Borno Empire's heritage, the expansion of the sect was inspired by the radical Islamic ideology of its leaders Muhammad Yusuf and Abubakar Shekau. With the alleged death of Shekau, Boko Haram may be in a new phase of its history.