This morning, detained members of the Boko Haram movement staged an unsuccessful jailbreak at a DSS detention facility close to the seat of power in Abuja. Who is Boko Haram, and how did they come to be?
Nigeria has a long history of communal conflicts, many of which were only suppressed under military rule. Despite the heavy handed tactics of the dictators, some of these conflicts came to the fore, the best example being the Maitatsine conflict which was eventually wiped out in the early 1990s .
A lot of these conflicts and the groups that aid them found more freedom after the return to civilian rule.
One of these groups is Jama’atu Ahlus-Sunnah Lidda’Awati Wal Jihad, which became the Boko Haram sect. This group started in and around Maiduguri in the early part of the last decade. Starting out as a radical group at the Ndimi Mosque in Maiduguri about 2002, they saw society, particularly the government of Mala Kachalla as irredeemably corrupt. So, in the middle of 2002, the group, under its founder, Mohammed Ali, embarked on a hijra to Kanama in Yobe state.
In Islam, a hijra is a journey from the bad world to go and be closer to God. The Prophet undertook one, from Mecca to Medina. Usman dan Fodio also undertook his own hijra, to Gudu, when Yunfa wanted to kill him. This should give us some context.
Back to topic, and this period at Kanama, is probably where they had their first foreign contact. While there, more members joined, some of these new members, the kids of influential Northerners, such as the son of Yobe’s governor at the time, Bukar Abba Ibrahim. Bukar Abba Ibrahim is now a senator, and his son’s involvement meant that the group was in a typically Nigerian style, more or less immune from punishment.
Towards the end of 2003, the group had a communal clash with the Kanama community over fishing rights which led to police involvement. In the crisis which followed, they defeated the police, which in turn led to the Army getting involved, and the group was defeated, the founder, Mohammed Ali, was killed, and the group “scattered”, a few of the survivors, including a chap called Shekau, went north to training camps in the Sahara desert.
The other survivors of the Battle of Kanama returned to Maiduguri and reintegrated into the Ndimi Mosque, where they were now led by Mohammed Yusuf, who started the process of starting a new mosque without molestation. The land on which the new mosque was built was donated by Baba Fugu Mohammed, Mohammed Yusuf’s father-in-law. Baba Fugu Mohammed, was an influential, but moderate figure, who while never a full member, was to be murdered by the group. His crime, was attempting to negotiate with former President Obasanjo after things got out of hand.
Between this time (early 2004, and 2009), Boko Haram was largely left alone, and grew as a movement. In that time, they started a farm, provided employment for their members, provided welfare for those members who could not work, gave training to those who could, in short, they provided an alternative to the government of the day, and this very viability attracted more members, and a lot of zakat donations from prominent members of the Northern elite.
The only incident which brought them to prominence was in 2007, when Sheikh Ja’afar Mahmoud Adam was murdered. Ja’afar had started criticising them, and predicted that someday, because of their extremist ideologies, they would clash with the government. It is generally believed that Mohammed Yusuf ordered his murder
For another two years after the Ja’afar assassination, they were left largely alone, growing, and attracting more followers. Then, in February 2009, the government of Ali Modu Sheriff banned riding bikes without the use of helmets. This seemingly innocuous event, is what led to the meltdown.
Five months later in July, a prominent member of Boko Haram died, and a large number of them were on the way to bury him. They were stopped by the police who quizzed them about their lack of helmets as the new law dictated. An argument began, and in the process, shots got fired. People on both sides got injured and things went out of hand. Boko Haram attacked in Bauchi, Borno and Yobe states, killing several policemen. In Maiduguri, they took over town, and controlled it for three days, doing what they pleased, until the army was called in to help. Eventually, the army regained control, and arrested a lot of Boko Haram members, including Mohammed Yusuf.
However, when Mohammed Yusuf was handed over to the police, he died. According to the police, “while trying to escape”. Boko Haram on their part, say that he was murdered extra-judicially, in cold blood.To be frank, there is evidence that Mohammed Yusuf’s arrest and an eventual trial would have exposed some prominent people. One of the Boko Haram members killed in that time was a former Borno state commissioner, Buji Foi, who was shot in the back by policemen. The video is available online till this day. Asides Yusuf and Foi, a large number of people were also killed in cold blood by the police.
After this, Abubakar Shekau, who had returned to Nigeria in the time being and had become Mohammed Yusuf’s right hand man relocated to Northern Cameroon. Shekau decided that there could be no negotiations with such a government, and set about reorganising the group. He adapted the Al-Qaeda model, and broke the group into cells which are largely independent of each other.
This is currently Boko Haram’s structure; a cellular structure, and no centralised command, and seemingly no unity of purpose. This “lack of unity” makes them particularly difficult to negotiate with, as you cannot tell who exactly represents the group. When someone attempts to negotiate on behalf of the group, think Baba Fugu Mohammed, he is quickly hunted down and killed. So, as things stand, the extremist elements within Boko Haram are the ones fully in control of the narrative.
Cheta Nwanze is a journalist and media owner. He tweets from @Chxta.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.