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How Northern Nigeria's Violent History Explains Boko Haram - National Geographic - Politics - Nairaland

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How Northern Nigeria's Violent History Explains Boko Haram - National Geographic by Nobody: 8:42am On Mar 15, 2015
Former British colonial officer narrates how Islamic extremism in Northern Nigeria dates back centuries

In the northern Nigerian town of Gombe, I
became a registered alcoholic at the age of 22.
The year was 1957, and I was starting out as a
district officer (the last to be recruited by the
British government for service in northern
Nigeria) just three years before the country won
its independence.
The only way I could enjoy a "drink" in Gombe—
a sleepy mud-brick township, laid out by the
British in the 1920s, where Islamic laws were in
force—was to issue myself an "addict's license."
That document allowed me to obtain liquor from
the "pagan" city of Jos, 175 miles (280
kilometers) away.
In my administrative capacity, I also had the
authority to issue addict's licenses to the 12
other expatriate Europeans who lived in Gombe.
I doubt many other towns in the world can claim
the distinction of having their entire expatriate
community registered as alcoholics.
I lived in a circular, thatched mud house and
rode to work on my horse, which I hitched to a
rail outside my office.
Gombe was essentially a happy place, presided
over by a benign and astute Muslim emir of the
Fulani tribe and a team of enlightened
councillors. Apart from the odd dispute over a
woman or land, there was little violence.
Gambling was frowned on, but a blind eye was
turned toward the drumming and dancing that
in a pre-television age carried on throughout the
year, except during the month of Ramadan.
Kanuri men draw water at Lake Chad, in the
northeast corner of Nigeria, the heart of the old
Borno Empire. Today, the Nigerian army and
Boko Haram have been fighting intensive battles
for the town of Baga, situated by the shore of the
But today Gombe is on the front lines of the
obscene and bloody battle waged by Boko
Haram to impose an extreme interpretation of
Islam on the whole of northern Nigeria.
How has it come to pass that 55 years after
Nigeria's independence, peaceful towns are
being terrorized, attracting suicide bombers and
an invading army of fundamentalist Islamists?
The answers lie in Nigeria's northeasternmost
state, Borno—a 27,000-square-mile (70,000-
square-kilometer) territory south and west of
Lake Chad whose prominent inhabitants are the
Muslim Kanuri tribe and where radical dissent
led by brutal, fanatical men goes back well over
a century.
In one burst of violence last month, Boko Haram
attacked Gombe and Dadin Kowa, another
sleepy town in my former administrative orbit,
on the banks of the Gongola River.
Boko Haram invaded Dadin Kowa, which
translates as "tranquility for everybody," in 30-
some Toyota HiLux vehicles from Borno State to
the east, setting fire to houses and government
In Gombe, 60 miles (95 kilometers) to the south,
the Nigerian army repelled the attack and called
in the air force, which strafed and bombed the
militant Islamists. There were numerous
casualties on both sides—possibly as many as 50
—but the exact number of dead has not been
The kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in Borno State
in 2014 caught the world’s attention, yet that
horror was only one of more than 800 Boko
Haram attacks in the preceding four years.
According to Human Rights Watch, some 6,000
civilians have died at the hands of Boko Haram
since 2009, more than 2,500 of them last year
I still have a strong personal link to these
troubled areas. One town in Borno I knew,
Kukawa, was my jumping-off point in October
2001 for a trek that took me on a 1,500-mile
(2,400-kilometer), three-and-a-half-month
journey by camel across the Sahara to Tripoli, in
Libya. It's saddening to realize that this trek
would be impossible to undertake today.
The Kanuri Empire
After my time in Gombe, I was posted to Mubi
145 miles east (233 kilometers) on the border
between Nigeria and Cameroon. One of my main
tasks was to follow the old maps and confirm the
international border between Nigeria and
Cameroon just prior to independence. (See
"Geography in the News: Nigeria's Boko Haram
This involved walking 170 miles (275 kilometers)
along the top of the Mandara Mountains—great
bosses of granite sticking more than 3,000 feet
(915 meters) into the air, strewn with rounded
boulders the size of houses and stretching
between Lake Chad in the far northeast of
Nigeria to just beyond Yola in the south.
Scarification on the back of this female member
of the Fali tribe, in the Mandara Mountains, has
been done to enhance her beauty. But
scarification on the face was done to ensure that
if a person were captured, his or her tribal origin
would be clearly identifiable.
In precolonial times the mountains formed a
central backbone in the vast Kanuri tribal
empire, which extended eastward into today's
Cameroon and Chad and north to the Fezzan, in
southwestern Libya.
For centuries the Marghi, Hithe, Gwoza, Fali, and
Matakam tribes—some of the wildest in Nigeria
—had secured this mountainous fortress,
fending off raids by mounted Muslim Kanuri
slavers from Borno.
The tribesmen developed a deadly throwing
knife, which spun through the air and sliced
through the tendons of the raiders' horses.
In 1900, the British and the Fulani emirs agreed
to establish the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria.
The north was divided into provinces, one of
which, Borno, was excised from the former
Kanuri-inhabited Borno Empire. The agreement
stated that Christian missionaries would be
allowed to proselytize only among pagan tribes
—not Muslims.
When I traversed the Mandara Mountains, about
30 percent of the people I encountered were
Christians, 65 percent pagans, and 5 percent
But since independence, missionizing has
proceeded apace. Today nearly all the
inhabitants are Christians, and they—especially
the youth—are the targets of forced conversion
to Islam by the followers of Boko Haram.
But even these conversions aren't entirely new.
In 1964, the northern Nigerian government sent
"Islamic missionaries" to forcibly circumcise and
convert pagan tribesmen to the Muslim faith.
This Kanuri woman is singing the praises of a
chief or some other notable. Chiefs and wealthy
people would hire praise singers to bolster their
image with the local people.
Today Boko Haram insurgents—headquartered
in the town of Gwoza—are in complete control of
the Mandara Mountains, where they've driven
out and slaughtered tribespeople and forced
others to adopt Islam.
These new killers didn't come on horseback but
in armored cars, with ample supplies of
sophisticated modern military equipment. The
throwing knives were obsolete.
History Repeats
Boko Haram's form of violent dissent, which is
particularly horrific, has an exact historical
precedent 125 years ago in precisely the same
part of what is now Nigeria and Cameroon.
In 1893, a renegade Islamic fanatic, Rabih Fadi
Allah, invaded the region from Darfur, in
western Sudan.
Rabih had fallen out with the Islamic reformer
and self-proclaimed al-Mahdi, or holy man,
Muhammad Ahmad, whose presence on Earth
was thought to presage the end of the world and
whose troops in 1885 killed the British general
known as Gordon of Khartoum.
Rabih's horde of Islamic fighters swept in on
horseback, beheading, looting, and enslaving in
the name of Allah in a manner similar to Boko
Haram today.
Nothing has been remembered more faithfully
about Rabih than his violent temper, a passion
that could be aroused for no apparent reason
and not infrequently led to his inflicting savage
beatings with his sword or killing people either
by slitting their throats or cutting off their heads.
Rabih's favorite curse was Allah rektar rasak—
may God cut off your head.
To repel mounted Muslim raiders from the east,
the Gwoza and other fierce tribes in the
Mandara Mountains invented a throwing knife
that could slice the tendons of invaders' horses.
Abubakar Shekau, the self-proclaimed leader of
Boko Haram, is said to be a fearless loner, a
complex and paradoxical man, part-theologian,
Since he assumed the insurgency's leadership in
2009, after the death of Mohammed Yusuf, the
movement's founder, Boko Haram has become
more radical. Abubakar Shekau has carried out
even more appalling atrocities than his
He achieved savage notoriety in a video clip that
showed him laughing as he admitted having
abducted more than 200 Christian schoolgirls,
mainly of the Kibaku tribe, in April 2014.
"I abducted your girls," he jeered. "I will sell
them in the market, by Allah. I will sell them off
and marry them off."
The two men appear to be similar kinds of
fanatical, psychopathic leaders with a shared
appetite for enslavement and murder.
One habit of Rabih's has not as yet been imitated
by Abubakar Shekau: Known as "Rabih's mark,"
it was his way of defining ownership of all his
slaves, followers, and subject communities. The
marks varied—three small cuts on either cheek,
three lines at the corner of the mouth, or a
notched cross on the face forming an enormous
raised scar.
In 1893, Rabih destroyed the Kanuri shehu (emir)
of Borno's capital in Kukawa, killing more than
3,000 people and enslaving 3,800.
Rabih established his capital in Dikwa, 80 miles
southeast of Kukawa, where his arbitrary rule
was conducted in a sea of blood and horror. The
remains of his house can still be seen today.
The parallel with Boko Haram is compelling.
Kukawa is only 23 miles (37 kilometers) from
Baga and a nearby town, where this year, on
January 3, Abubakar Shekau's followers are
alleged to have killed 300 people or more and
destroyed 3,000 houses.
Abubakar Shekau established Boko Haram's
Gwoza headquarters a hundred miles (160
kilometers) south of Dikwa, killing the
incumbent emir of Gwoza in the process.
Rabih was finally killed on April 22, 1900, in a
battle with the French, and the illustrious Borno
Empire was divided among the French,
Germans, and British.
Abubakar Shekau is still at large.
After the 1960 raid by the Matakam, the British
colonial administration handed out blankets,
salt, and corn to the Hithe, whose houses had
been set on fire and livestock and corn stolen.
Hamman Yaji: A Ruthless Slaver
Malam Risku, of the Marghi tribe, was chief of
the town of Madagali and a good friend when I
was in northern Nigeria. A convert to
Christianity, as a boy he'd been carried over the
mountains to escape the depredations of an
Islamic slave raider, the notorious Fulani
tribesman Hamman Yaji.
Hamman Yaji recorded his activities in a diary in
Arabic script:
1913, May 12: I sent my soldiers to Sukur, and
they destroyed the house of the arnardo [the
pagan chieftain] and took a horse and seven slave
girls and burned the house.
1917, August 16: I sent Fad-el-Allah with his men
to raid Sukur. They captured 80 slaves, of whom I
gave away 40. We killed 27 men and women and
17 children.
This Matakam man, wearing a particularly
elaborate loincloth, is dressed for war or
hunting. The Matakam were one of the most
warlike of all the mountain tribes. When they
weren’t fighting Muslim slave raiders, they did
battle against their neighbors with the object of
stealing women, corn, or livestock.
An eyewitness account relates that "on one raid,
Hamman Yaji's soldiers cut off the heads of the
dead pagans in front of the chief of Sukur's
house, threw them into a hole in the ground, set
them alight, and cooked their food over the
The wives of dead Sukur men were reported as
being ordered to come forward and collect their
husband's heads in a calabash. Children were
said to have had wire hammered through their
ears and jaws by the soldiers.
Another witness described how when Hamman
Yaji learned of the deep significance of the burial
rights in Sukur, he ordered his soldiers to cut up
the bodies of the dead so they couldn't be given a
proper burial.
Boko Haram has ravaged Sukur, a hilltop village
I knew well. The village is deserted now, the
people's ancient tribal culture destroyed.
Rabih's and Hamman Yaji's descendants (and
there are hundreds of them) still live in the area.
I wonder how many of them are active in Boko
Haram today?
John Hare was a district officer for the British
and Nigerian governments and worked for the
United Nations Environment Programme. He then
established the Wild Camel Protection Foundation
to save the critically endangered wild double-
humped camel in Central Asia from extinction. A
Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, Hare
has received numerous awards for his
exploratory and conservation activities.


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