Article written

  • on 16.02.2015
  • at 04:31 PM
  • by Kevin

Boko Haram and the Kanuri Factor 0

Over five and a half years after Boko Haram launched its insurrection, many questions concerning the Salafi-jihadi movement persist. Boko Haram’s center of activity, northeastern Nigeria’s Borno State, continues to be largely inaccessible to outsiders, making it difficult for researchers to gather detailed data.

It still remains unclear exactly how many fighters Boko Haram possesses or the degree of autonomy individual militant commanders enjoy. Nevertheless, available information does provide an understanding of Boko Haram’s ethnic composition, which appears to consist primarily of Kanuri and Kanurized groups. That an ethnicity that makes up approximately just 8 percent of Nigeria’s Muslim population dominates Boko Haram’s membership is noteworthy and helps to explain the uprising’s geographical distribution, as well as highlighting local drivers behind the violence.

Yet to suggest, as some observers have, that Boko Haram represents a “tribal insurgency” articulating Kanuri grievances toward the Nigerian state and a northern establishment supposedly controlled by ethno-cultural Hausa-Fulani exaggerates the importance of the Kanuri factor. Indeed, such an argument ignores key facets of Boko Haram’s millenarian ideology and its incompatibility with large segments of Kanuri society.

The prominence of Kanuri within Boko Haram dates to the movement’s founding in the early 2000s. Based in Kanuri-majority Maiduguri, Borno State’s capital and largest city, Boko Haram’s demographics reflected its surroundings. The rapid growth Boko Haram experienced during its first years of existence seems to have stemmed from multiple factors, in particular support it allegedly received from then Borno governor (2003-2011) Ali Modu Sheriff, the relative weakness of local traditional institutions, and the charisma of early Boko Haram leader Mohammed Yusuf.

The use of existing adherents’ social networks to facilitate recruitment efforts predictably reinforced Boko Haram’s Kanuri character. When Nigerian security forces reportedly killed hundreds of Boko Haram members, including Yusuf, in July 2009, those most adversely affected by the deaths (e.g. family and friends of the slain) were Kanuri. This embittered population served as a pool of new fighters for Boko Haram as it reconstituted itself under Abubakar Shekau.

Despite the prevalence of Kanuri among its ranks, Boko Haram exhibits little evidence of being ethnocentric, let alone chauvinistic. The often-cited 2012 claim by reputed Boko Haram spokesman Abu Qaqa that Shekua, a Kanuri, favored selecting non-Kanuri members to carry out suicide bombings lacks sufficient corroborating evidence and could have been fabricated by Abuja’s State Security Service to sow internal discord within Boko Haram. Given that the majority of Boko Haram’s victims to date have probably been Kanuri, it does not appear Shekau and his inner circle regard Kanuri lives as sacrosanct.

Nor do they seem opposed to promoting supporters from non-Kanuri ethnicities; following the seizure of the town Dikwa, Boko Haram appointed one such individual as the new shehu, a position of traditional authority previously held by a Kanuri.

Continue reading on: African Arguments

By Michael Baca

Photo Credit: African Arguments

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