The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant announced that they are declaring a caliphate, one that was to originate from the territories that they have seized. This news infuriated the international community. Boko Haram, the insurgency group in Nigeria, followed suite, and announced that they to had formed an Islamic caliphate. Some might argue that the formation of the caliphate by ISIS provides the necessary backdrop against which one must understand the formation of the caliphate by Boko Haram. However, I will like to argue that this is not the case. It is true that the formation of the caliphate by ISIS could have empowered the Boko Haram insurgency group to form their own caliphate. However, if one is to understand said action of Boko Haram, one must understand a desperate part of Nigerian history that better illuminates the origin of ethnic and religious violence in the country.
During colonial times, the British decided that the most politically and economically efficient means to govern Nigeria was through indirect rule. Indirect rule is a system of governance wherein the people are governed through existing indigenous structures. Within this system, even though the traditional leaders are the heads of their community, they had to report back to the British, instill their laws, and pay them taxes. Indirect rule was a success in the North because the Northerners already had a traditional leadership structure with their aristocracy at the top. It is because of this that the North was well liked and thus, protected by the British administration. The system of indirect rule was strained in the West because, although there was a powerful leadership structure, the collection of taxes did not strike a chord with the people. However, the system of indirect rule met its greatest resistance in the East, where no organized state or leadership structure existed.
So, during the colonial times, Northern Nigeria consolidated a lot of political power because of the British administration's protection. But, in 1953, a riot ensued in Kano State. During the Post World War II era, Nigeria began to grasp at greater political independence and self-government. But, before we understand how the riot ensued, we have to understand the propagation of education in Nigeria. Islam came to Northern Nigeria during the 14th century, and as such, an Islamic educational system was established. When the British came to Nigeria during the 19th century, Christian missionaries tried to establish and spread the Western educational system. This worked out well in the South, but they were met with steep opposition in the North because the Northerners did not want to let go of their Islamic educational system.
So, by 1953, the South was more educated than the North in a society structured around Western rather than Islamic education. So, the North always felt vulnerable in relation to the South, and it was the protection they received from the British admiration that enabled them not to feel weakened by their perceived vulnerability. So, by the time Nigeria sought self-government in 1953, the North resisted as they gained a greater understanding of their vulnerability and hypothesized that only the British could protect them. This, compounded with steep opposition by the Northern Elements Progressive Union directed at the traditional Northern authorities, led to the protests in Kano State in 1953, which produced many causalities and deaths.
It was in this moment, several military coups, two military juntas, and four Republics later that the North began to understand that they had greatly lost and are still loosing much of the political power they consolidated during colonial times. It was this realization in 1980, against the backdrop of much political corruption within the Nigerian government by the Nigerian elites and the Western educated scholars that pushed Maitatsine to lead a following of people called "Yan Tatsine," which many believe to be predecessors of the insurgent group Boko Haram. The increasing political alienation, political corruption within the Nigerian government, and the culminating ethnic and religious tensions created the ideological gap that was filled by Yan Tatsine, and is now filled by Boko Haram.
Coupled with this perception of political alienation felt by the North, was an economic catastrophe for Northerners. In 1995, according to an article published by the Los Angeles Times, Nigerian joined the World Trade Organization. Before that, the textile, food, plastic, and other industries were booming in the North. But, with the liberalization of trade came a loosening of the regulations that protected the local markets. In short, Northern Nigeria did not have a shot because they could not compete fairly in the same market as China and other industrialized countries. This saw a collapse of the economic industry in Northern Nigeria, which saw an increase in their poverty rate. Political alienation, political corruption, poverty, and illiteracy, these are the makings of an environment so hostile, that it could breed a group as radical as Boko Haram.
So, when one is trying to understand why Boko Haram is declaring a caliphate in Nigeria, and declaring themselves as politically and territorially separate from the Nigerian society, one must not forget the history that bred them and the choices that define them. It is true that understanding ISIS might help us understand Boko Haram's actions, but we must not ignore their origins lest we loose hope on how to quell an ideology that has managed to survive since the 1980s. This is not the first time that a group in Nigeria is declaring themselves separate from the country. Due to ethnic and tribal tensions that have always existed in Nigeria, the Igbos seceded from the country in 1967 to form the Biafra State. Brutal military tactics, severe starvations, several failed treaties, and one million civilian deaths later, the Igbos are now a part of the country again. Although a declaration of the caliphate is radically different from the three-year civil war that ensued in the country, it does prove that there is a history of some form of secession, be it on ethnic grounds, religious grounds, or both, in Nigeria.
So, how do we understand Boko Haram and deal with their increasingly brutal domination and their formation of caliphates? We must understand them through the ideologies that define them. We must address political alienation, illiteracy, political corruption, and the poverty and unemployment that is so rampant, both in the North and in the rest of Nigeria, to finally begin to put to bed an ideology that was birthed more than a century ago, and realized over three decades ago. Boko Haram believes that by declaring themselves and their caliphate independent of Nigeria, they can regain that political power once strongly possessed by the North. They believe that they can rid their territory of extreme poverty and social alienation. They believe that they can once again create a society centered on Islamic education rather than Western education, since to them, the later is a source of their problems and vulnerabilities, while the former is a source of their strength, as it has been, since the 14th century.
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