The Tragedy of Borno State: Local Dimensions of Boko Haram’s Insurgency – By Michael Baca
Boko Haram has yet again made international media headlines, this time through its alleged kidnapping of nearly 200 civilians from the village of Gumsuri in Borno State. Much of the current commentary on the Salafi-jihadi group frames its insurgency as a violent contest against the Nigerian state. This depiction agrees with the narrative put forth by Boko Haram chieftain Abubakar Shekau in his video communiqués, which identify Boko Haram’s ultimate goal as being the establishment of an Islamic polity on the ruins of secular Nigeria. Boko Haram has purportedly carried out terrorist attacks in cities throughout the country, including Lagos and Abuja, while its members continue to target Abuja’s agents.
However, as with politics, all insurgencies are local. If Boko Haram’s violent defiance of Abuja represents a national-level struggle, the Nigerian extremist movement is also engaged in a more provincial conflict concentrated in Borno State and seemingly driven by parochial rivalries fueled by class, generational, and, to a lesser extent, ethno-religious tensions. The Kanuri, Borno’s most populous ethnicity, serve as the chief protagonist of this internecine war, dominating both Boko Haram as well as the regional political establishment that largely opposes it. Non-Kanuri communities in southeastern Borno also feature prominently, especially since Nigeria’s 2013 military offensive reportedly ejected many Boko Haram militants from the state’s urban centers. It is this local violence that has thus far claimed the majority of the lives lost to the Boko Haram insurgency.
Borno State consists of two distinct cultural zones. The northern and central territories contain a Kanuri majority, with communities of ethnic Shuwa Arabs and Fulani scattered throughout the area. Overwhelmingly Muslim, these sub-regions have in recent decades received a sizable number of Christian southerners, who prior to the Boko Haram insurgency made up a key component of the commercial class. Meanwhile, the southern third of Borno features a collection of minority ethnicities. Although some follow Islam, many, including those in the vicinity of the now infamous town of Chibok, practice Christianity and/or indigenous religions.
Nestled in the foothills of the Mandara Mountains that straddle the Nigeria-Cameroon frontier, these populations retained their autonomy prior to the colonial era, fiercely resisting incursions by Muslim Kanuri and Fulani slavers. Reverberations of these clashes continue to shape ethno-religious relations in Borno, with southerners bemoaning what they perceive as their political marginalization at the hands of the Kanuri.
Despite their ethnicity’s dominance of the Borno government, most Kanuri also find themselves largely disenfranchised. At the apex of Kanuri society sits an oligarchy whose members trace their families’ initial wealth to lucrative commercial ventures during the colonial period. Slightly less prominent are Borno’s traditional rulers, descendants of the aristocracy that controlled the old Borno Empire (c. 1380-1893) that once held sway over much of modern-day northeastern Nigeria. Below these two groups lie the Kanuri commoners (tala’a or talakawa). The vast majority of tala’a resided in the countryside as peasants until the 1970s oil boom, when many streamed to Borno’s capital, Maiduguri, and smaller towns in search of employment opportunities, in part due to the stagnation of northeastern Nigeria’s agricultural sector. Some succeeded, but many more did not, forming instead a burgeoning, disaffected urban underclass.
Borno’s economic dislocations threw the existing social system into turmoil. Once revered traditional authority figures saw much of their influence diminish while Islamic revivalist movements such as Salafism started to gain adherents, particularly among younger generations. Although most Salafis in Borno abstained from violence and acknowledged the Nigerian state’s legitimacy, a substantial subset gravitated toward the radical teachings of Mohammad Yusuf (1970-2009), Boko Haram’s late spiritual leader. Much of Yusuf’s appeal stemmed from his relentless criticism of a sociopolitical system that had, from all appearances, abandoned large swathes of Borno society to their own devices.
This revolutionary worldview placed Boko Haram on a collision course with the Borno establishment. Tensions already existed during Boko Haram’s nascent years in the early 2000s, when Yusuf reportedly received support from former Borno governor (2003-2011) Ali Modu Sheriff. Sheriff, who denies ever having links to Boko Haram, seems to have hoped to burnish his reputation on the Kanuri street by providing patronage to Yusuf but had no inclination to implement any of the social reforms advocated by Boko Haram. And while Yusuf directed most of his ire toward the Nigerian government and its northern allies, his thinly veiled calls for economic redistribution ran counter to the interests of the local elites. Such a dissonance strained Yusuf’s relations with the Sheriff administration, ultimately contributing to the July 2009 eruption in violence that left Yusuf and hundreds of Boko Haram adherents dead.
Once Boko Haram regrouped under Shekau, Borno’s ruling class became one of its primary targets. Boko Haram’s reputed victims include Sheriff’s cousin and anointed political heir, the brother of Borno’s preeminent traditional leader, and rural district heads. Some observers still speculate that prominent Bornoan politicians played a role in Boko Haram’s revival. While certain factions, perhaps to weaken Sheriff, could have cynically sought to use the Salafi-jihadis, Boko Haram’s relentless attacks on individuals tied to the establishment suggest that what influence they might once have held over Shekau and his followers has largely crumbled. In a region where authority historically rested almost entirely in the hands of aged males with considerable material wealth, the spectacle of armed Boko Haram youths drawn primarily from the local masses overrunning hamlets and violently dispatching members of the elite must surely have shaken Borno’s social order to its foundation.
Of course, Borno’s political class has not stood idly by; current governor Kashim Shettima enthusiastically backs the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), an anti-Boko Haram group that gained prominence in the late spring-early summer of 2013. Reportedly instrumental in curbing Boko Haram activities in Maiduguri, the CJTF stands accused of carrying out many of the same heavy-handed tactics allegedly employed by Nigerian security forces, including extrajudicial killings of Boko Haram suspects. The CJTF’s campaign touched off a spike in intra-Kanuri violence, as vengeful Boko Haram fighters slaughtered villagers accused of backing the CJTF and clashed with vigilante groups.
Boko Haram has concurrently entrenched itself in the areas of southern Borno adjacent to the Cameroon border, the aforementioned heartland of Borno’s Christian and polytheist populations. Predictably, this development has led to a series of massacres and large-scale abductions, with Salafi militants’ depredations echoing the bloody 19th century incursions by Muslim raiders on Borno’s hill communities. These attacks have been so devastating that, according to one anthropologist familiar with the troubled territory, a mass exodus of non-Muslims has already occurred. The sub-region, long a redoubt of resistance to Islamic expansionism, now ironically forms one of the centers of Boko Haram’s self-proclaimed caliphate.
While characterized by many as a national challenge, Boko Haram’s uprising remains first and foremost a Bornoan tragedy. Beyond inflicting a staggering level of economic damage since 2009, the insurgency has torn the local social structure asunder; any successful reconstruction effort would need to treat Borno as a post-civil war environment. Boko Haram’s relentless attacks on local traditional authorities have probably dealt an irreparable blow to the old hierarchy, leaving behind no obvious successor around which Bornoan society could revive itself. In addition, the violence meted out by predominantly Muslim Kanuri militants against minority populations could translate into enduring ethno-religious animosities.
Then there is the fate of the Borno youths who have fought for either Boko Haram or elite-sponsored vigilante groups. Even if Nigerian security forces succeeded in vanquishing Boko Haram’s leadership tomorrow, Abuja would still have to contend with these militarized young men, many of whom have in all likelihood become socially alienated due to their wartime affiliations. Bereft of their kinship networks and with few employment prospects, they would almost inevitably form a recruitment pool for future violent non-state actors. Unfortunately for the inhabitants of Borno, such grim prospects suggest that their state will remain wracked by strife well into the future.
Michael W. Baca is an Africa analyst. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.