Over five and a half years after Boko Haram launched its insurrection, many questions concerning the Salafi-jihadi movement persist. Boko Haram’s center of activity, northeastern Nigeria’s Borno State, continues to be largely inaccessible to outsiders, making it difficult for researchers to gather detailed data. It still remains unclear exactly how many fighters Boko Haram possesses or the degree of autonomy individual militant commanders enjoy.
Nevertheless, available information does provide an understanding of Boko Haram’s ethnic composition, which appears to consist primarily of Kanuri and Kanurized groups. That an ethnicity that makes up approximately just 8 percent of Nigeria’s Muslim population dominates Boko Haram’s membership is noteworthy and helps to explain the uprising’s geographical distribution, as well as highlighting local drivers behind the violence.
Yet to suggest, as some observers have, that Boko Haram represents a “tribal insurgency” articulating Kanuri grievances toward the Nigerian state and a northern establishment supposedly controlled by ethno-cultural Hausa-Fulani exaggerates the importance of the Kanuri factor. Indeed, such an argument ignores key facets of Boko Haram’s millenarian ideology and its incompatibility with large segments of Kanuri society.
The prominence of Kanuri within Boko Haram dates to the movement’s founding in the early 2000s. Based in Kanuri-majority Maiduguri, Borno State’s capital and largest city, Boko Haram’s demographics reflected its surroundings. The rapid growth Boko Haram experienced during its first years of existence seems to have stemmed from multiple factors, in particular support it allegedly received from then Borno governor (2003-2011) Ali Modu Sheriff, the relative weakness of local traditional institutions, and the charisma of early Boko Haram leader Mohammed Yusuf.
The use of existing adherents’ social networks to facilitate recruitment efforts predictably reinforced Boko Haram’s Kanuri character. When Nigerian security forces reportedly killed hundreds of Boko Haram members, including Yusuf, in July 2009, those most adversely affected by the deaths (e.g. family and friends of the slain) were Kanuri. This embittered population served as a pool of new fighters for Boko Haram as it reconstituted itself under Abubakar Shekau.
Despite the prevalence of Kanuri among its ranks, Boko Haram exhibits little evidence of being ethnocentric, let alone chauvinistic. The often-cited 2012 claim by reputed Boko Haram spokesman Abu Qaqa that Shekua, a Kanuri, favored selecting non-Kanuri members to carry out suicide bombings lacks sufficient corroborating evidence and could have been fabricated by Abuja’s State Security Service to sow internal discord within Boko Haram. Given that the majority of Boko Haram’s victims to date have probably been Kanuri, it does not appear Shekau and his inner circle regard Kanuri lives as sacrosanct.
Nor do they seem opposed to promoting supporters from non-Kanuri ethnicities; following the seizure of the town Dikwa, Boko Haram appointed one such individual as the new shehu, a position of traditional authority previously held by a Kanuri.
In reality, Boko Haram seems intent on constructing a pan-ethnic Islamist movement. Its heavy use of Hausa – a language widely spoken in the Sahel and the lingua franca of northern Nigeria – in communiqués indicates that Shekau desires an audience far beyond his Kanuri kinsmen. Further, the Boko Haram chieftain has lavished praise on historical figures revered in Hausa-Fulani territories, most notably Usman dan Fodio, the founder of the Sokoto Caliphate (1804-1903).
While Boko Haram’s failure thus far to develop a more diverse coalition might stem, at least in part, from ethnolinguistic tensions in Nigeria’s north, a more prosaic explanation could be that the Salafi-jihadi group simply lacks the social networks to successfully recruit large numbers of non-Kanuri.
The assertion that Boko Haram seeks to recreate the historical Kanuri kingdom of Borno (c. 1380-1893) also conflicts with reports coming out of northeastern Nigeria. Boko Haram fighters have relentlessly targeted for assassination traditional authority figures descended from the defunct Borno kingdom’s aristocracy, including members of the royal al-Kanemi dynasty. By reportedly declaring the territory under its possession a “caliphate,” Boko Haram has made a sharp break with the past. The previous Muslim polities that controlled modern-day northeastern Nigeria never used the term; Boko Haram’s core leadership clearly has aspirations to extend its rule well outside of Borno’s old boundaries.
Far from being reactionary, Boko Haram’s leaders appear to aspire to forge a new political and socioeconomic reality. Their ideology is, after all, partly a violent offshoot of the sharia movement that swept northern Nigeria following the return of civilian rule in 1999. Many northerners hoped the application of sharia law would usher in a more equitable society through a partial redistribution of wealth and the vigorous prosecution of corrupt political elites.
Boko Haram’s relentless attacks against individuals tied to the Kanuri establishment demonstrate its antipathy toward the northeast’s existing hierarchy. In areas it has captured, Boko Haram has allegedly seized the property of local notables and allocated it among its followers. The contours of a vicious class struggle within Kanuri society are readily evident.
In addition to the northeastern elites, Boko Haram’s worldview is at odds with rural Kanuri communities. Salafism – both its peaceful and violent varieties – remains primarily an urban phenomenon in Nigeria’s northeast. Cities tend to have a higher concentration of youths bereft of established kinship networks and therefore attracted to the universalist message espoused by Islamic revivalists. Conversely, the countryside serves as a bastion of traditionalism, with many Muslims practicing syncretic forms of Islam that incorporate elements of indigenous religions.
Boko Haram’s transition to a largely rural-based insurgency has placed the Salafi-jihadi movement in an operational environment where the majority of inhabitants regard it as an alien interloper. Rather than adjust its messaging to appeal toward the wary peasantry, Boko Haram appears to have elected to pursue a strategy of armed coercion in order to secure local compliance. This approach helps account for the surge in civilian fatalities as well as Boko Haram’s seemingly growing reliance on conscription and monetary compensation to replenish its ranks.
Local tensions and vendettas animate much of the violence engulfing Borno State and its environs. Furthermore, Boko Haram’s emergence from Maiduguri’s Kanuri underclass still shapes the composition of its membership. However, neither Shekau nor his lieutenants regard themselves as Kanuri nationalists tasked with championing the parochial interests of their ethnicity. Instead, they likely seek to spearhead a multi-ethnic revolution that will transform Nigerian society. To realize this goal, Boko Haram will continue to wage a bloody campaign against those who oppose its agenda, including the overwhelming majority of Kanuri. Those interested in vanquishing Boko Haram should regard the Kanuri as potential allies, rather than jihadi collaborators.
Michael W. Baca is an Africa analyst. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.