Boko Haram Uprising: Not Seeing the Wood for the Trees


Aliyu A. Ammani


The point of departure in this write-up is that Boko Haram is a movement not an Islamic sect. The late Muhammad Yusuf , or his Boko Haram movement,  was not the first northern Nigerian Muslim, or Islamic movement, to see, view, regard or consider boko (western education) as haram (unlawful). My grand father and his contemporary members of the then Ulama of what is today known as northern Nigeria said so more than a hundred years ago, when the white Christian missionaries first came with ilmin boko. However, there is a world of difference between their reasons for considering boko as kafirci or haram and the reasons that informed Muhammad Yusuf’s verdict.


From the very beginning, in this part of the world, literary knowledge has always been associated with religions. Islam brought Arabic/Islamic literary education. Christian missionaries brought boko alongside the Christian religion. The Malams then saw, and justifiably so, boko in light of the divide between Islam and kafirci: as an avenue through which the missionaries seek to convert Muslim boys and girls to the Christian faith. Thus, their then conclusion that boko was haram as it leads to kafirci.


More than a hundred years and counting, despite series of policy and curriculum reviews, this belief in the kafirci of boko is still popular among some northern Muslims, particularly among the Gardawa:  Tsangaya or Madrasas graduate students of the Qur’an. Interestingly, Muhammad Yusuf was a Gardi, a product of the Madrasas school system. He never received any form of western education, this much he admitted in his debate with Ustaz Isa Aliyu Fantami in Bauchi some three years ago. Never mind baseless newspaper reports describing him as “educated and proficient in the English language”.


The chief argument of the group that boko is haram is predicated on the view that the content of some subjects of instructions in our schools contradicts the tenets of the Islamic religion, notably, the Big Bang Theory, Darwinism, the Law of Conservation of matter and energy; and the views of some free thinkers and philosophers that question the existence of God or divine religions. Granted that there are aspects of the contents of our educational curriculum that appeared to be in conflict with the code of belief of the Islamic faith, is the curriculum process not a continuous one: subject to both evaluation and review? But how do you expect an illiterate, in the boko sense, to appreciate this? To Muhammad Yusuf and his followers, we must take up arms to purge our curriculum of heresy.


It is mystifying that someone who has never seen the four walls of a primary school hinges the chief argument of his movement on the content matter of academic subjects he knew next to nothing about. Even more perplexing is the question: how was it possible for an illiterate, in the boko sense, to mobilized tens of thousand of men and women, including students, university graduates, civil servants (including even a retired permanent secretary), politicians (including a former Hon. Commissioner), academics, etc. to such a bleak cause? Perhaps the people have lost confidence in both the system and the powers that be, and their support for such anti-establishment movement is a manifestation of their blind desire for a change, overhaul or even a total destruction of the system.


Muhammad Yusuf was not the first leader of an Islamic movement in Nigeria to declare the government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria a dagut: not worthy of allegiance to by good and upright Muslims. Neither was he the first to urge his members to drop from school, nor was he the first to declare working in any form of government employment unlawful. In all three cases, the Islam Only movement of Ibrahim El-Zazzaky set the precedence in the late 1970s and the 80s. Again, interestingly, Muhammad Yusuf was a principal officer in that movement, 1985-1990, according to his ‘teacher’ Auwal Albany of Zaria.


Even in the area of attacking police posts and personnel, Muhammad Yusuf’s movement was following in the steps of the Maitatsine’s movement of the 1980s.


Many social commentators and analysts implicated poverty and massive youth unemployment in the country for the incessant sectarian crises in the North. No doubt, there is a widespread feeling of despondency as a result of the blatant failure of both the democratic system, particularly the highly distorted electoral process’s inability to entrench good leadership; and the woeful state of the economy: overcrowded cities, poor social infrastructure, high unemployment rate, corruption in high places and the ever increasing gap between the rich and the poor. While these negatives are not the preserve of the North, I make haste to add the following three paragraphs from my 2007 essay, Nigeria: Washing our Dirty Linen in Public, which in my opinion is the catalyst of the phenomenon of religious crises in the North:


“In Nigeria, Islamic religious authority or power has been diffused at a local level among countless scholars or Mallams, who lack a clearly defined hierarchy, organization, minimum standards for entry, or even a curriculum for doctrine training. While every serious member of the Ulama has a right to use all the knowledge and experience he posses in the service of Islam and the community he belongs; he must not, however, be allowed to mix-up his own prejudice, conjecture and conclusion with the interpretation of Islamic texts, particularly the Qur’an, which is perfectly perspicacious. Yet, the absence of a body which has the authority and legal muscle to screen and licensed all Islamic preachers in such a way that only those found worthy, both in character and learning, will be licensed to preach; make Islamic preaching in particular, and all other forms of religious preaching in general, an all comers affair along with its attendant consequences.

”In a typical northern setting, particularly within the Hausaland, any person vocal enough to stand in the mosque or in a public place to voice his views on issues, no matter how misinformed, quoting Qur’anic verses, no matter how out of place, is instantly regarded as a mallam or even a sheikh. And if he happens to be antagonistic towards the powers that be, he quickly win large following as a fearless and God fearing Mallam. Thus, the vocal mallams held their followers spellbound and dogmatized. Majority of the followers accept whatever comes out of the mouth of the Mallam as the Qur’anic truth. To argue with Mallam is to blaspheme. Giving the impression of a form of totalitarian arrangement, that demand and get complete obedience from people with no independent mind.

”This brand of mallams is fatwa happy. Fatwa is open for all. Yet, one will make bold to say, without the fear of contradiction that the bulk of these mallams are ignorant of the logic, philosophy and workings of the socio-economic and political systems they were falling over themselves to give fatwa on. The fatwa are supported by distortions of facts and by appeals to passion and prejudice, often deliberately false and misleading, all in an attempt to persuade through emotional appeal…”




The thrust of this essay is that neither the ideology nor the methodology of the Boko Haram movement is new to northern Nigeria; it is the dysfunctional socio-economic, particularly the cultural and religious environment that encourages the emergence and growth of groups such as the boko haram movement. It is the constitutional responsibility of the government to protect life and property of its citizens. Government must establish a competent body that will have the authority and legal muscle to screen and license all religious preachers in such a way that only those found worthy, in character and learning, will be licensed to preach. This in my view is the only way out of the woods.