Last Updated: Tue Jun 19, 2012 23:30 pm (KSA) 20:30 pm (GMT)

Nigeria: From the Sharia movement to Boko Haram

Ali A. Mazrui

In the politics of Nigeria, religion, ethnicity and regionalism are intermingled. Almost all Hausa are Muslim and overwhelmingly located in the North. Almost all Igbos are Christian and are geographically concentrated in the East. The Yoruba, on the other hand, are half Christian and half Muslim and are concentrated mainly in Western Nigeria. Since its 1960 independence, Nigeria’s national politics have been bedeviled by Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba ethnicity tensions, Christian vs. Muslim sectarianism violence and North vs. South regionalism.

The militant Islamic movement, Boko Haram, consists mainly of young Hausa in the north of the country. The movement signifies a different kind of radicalization and precipitated from the 1990s Sharia movement in the north.

The Sharia movement was a cultural assertion by Northern elites at the state level to compensate for their political decline at the federal level. Although Nigeria as a country was supposed to be a secular state, one Northern state after another established Sharia Islamic law within their state boundaries. Of the 36 Nigerian states, about one-third opted to adopt Islamic law and governance.

The world woke up to its implications when Amina Lawal, an unmarried pregnant woman, was sentenced to death for adultery by a Sharia court. The sentence was never carried out mainly because of national and global outcry, not least among fellow Muslims worldwide. However, Islamic law remained theoretically operational in most northern Nigerian states, but the militancy declined among the elite.

While the Sharia movement was ultimately an assertion of pride in Islam, Boko Haram’s ideology is adversarial toward other religions. The Sharia movement in Nigeria was a declaration of loyalty and adherence to Islam, while Boko Haram is substantially a declaration of hostility towards Christianity and aspects of Western civilization.

The Sharia movement was basically non-violent except under the legal sanctions of the more stringent aspects of Islamic law. Boko Haram, on the other hand, is more directly violent as an ideology of terror. Boko Haram has targeted federal officials, churches, law-enforcement buildings, liquor stores and some military and educational institutions associated with promoting Western culture. Almost all the casualties have been fellow Nigerians, but occasionally the group has attacked international representatives such as United Nations members within the country. Boko Haram has been the militant denunciation of Western education and disapproves of learned modernity.

Ironically, the Muslim uprising in Nigeria began through the relative denial that young Muslims are able to receive a good Western education. Far less Muslims are seen studying abroad in prestigious Western universities than Christians. This is in spite of the fact that the Nigerian Muslim population is larger than the population of Christians. In Nigeria, Muslims are educationally an underprivileged majority.

Part of this is a cultural explanation. The Hausa put tremendous value in the attainment of Nigeria’s independence, and are still suspicious of Western education while being disproportionately attached to Qur’anic schools and basic Islamic education.

Nigeria’s fifty years of independence has created more rich Christians than Muslims. Petro-wealth has created a Nigerian plutocracy with economic inequalities between social classes and among regions, ethnic groups and religious denominations.

The wake of these postcolonial changes has created a lack of communal morale and collective self-worth in some groups. Some ethnic and religious groups suffer from insecurities and high levels of victim-psychology. Nigeria needs to embark on confidence-building measures to restore the morale of and give support to the underprivileged.

Finally, there is the distinction between cultural genocide and ethnic cleansing. Sharia critics accused the movement of cultural genocide. The Sharia champions, in fact, were not guilty of killing their adversaries. They were hostile to Nigerian values that contradicted Islam. This was perceived as a version of cultural genocide.

On the other hand, Boko Haram’s program includes expelling Nigerian Christians out of the North. If fulfilled, this program would be a kind of sectarian displacement, otherwise known as ethnic cleansing.

Neither the Sharia movement nor Boko Haram has attempted a full implementation of their exclusion programs. There is still time for religious, political and educational leaders of Nigeria to seek solutions to some of the political and sectarian grievances that have recurrently plunged the country into ethnic and religious conflicts.

There is a need to widen opportunities for disadvantaged young people in Nigeria. This would be the best antidote to political and religious extremism in the unfolding decades of Nigeria’s history.

Ali A. Mazrui is a Professor and Director of the Center for Global Cultural Studies, State University of New York at Binghamton. Dr. Mazrui is also Senior Scholar in Africana Studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and a Senior Fellow of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. Currently, he is also President of the Association of Muslim Social Scientists of North America.


Copyright © 2012 Global Experts, a project of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations.

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