For well over a decade, Boko Haram has waged a campaign of terror across northeastern Nigeria. In 2014, the group shocked the world when it abducted 276 girls en masse from a school in rural Chibok, and the resulting #BringBackOurGirls movement attracted support and solidarity from around the globe. Yet as Hilary Matfess shows, Boko Haram’s campaign of violence against women and girls goes far beyond the Chibok abductions.
From its very inception, argues Matfess, Boko Haram has systematically exploited women to advance its aims, committing acts of sexual violence under the guise of religiously sanctioned marriage. Perhaps more disturbing still, many Nigerian women have chosen to become active supporters of the group, willing even to sacrifice their lives as suicide bombers. Having conducted extensive fieldwork throughout the region, Matfess provides a vivid and thought-provoking account of Boko Haram’s impact on the lives of Nigerian women, as well as exploring how both the Nigerian government and Western leaders have failed to prevent the group’s violent misogyny.
About the Author
Hilary Matfess is a research analyst based in Washington, DC, and a contributor to the Nigeria Social Violence Project at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.
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UNDERSTANDING BOKO HARAM
Should the uprooted, deprived and repressed urban masses ever unite around a charismatic leader with a coherent ideology and an organization capable of mobilizing the excluded, then the anti-institutional energy expressed by the 'Yan Tatsine may generate a radically different outcome than self-destructive millenarian protest.
Which Boko Haram?
In a video released by Boko Haram in 2014, members of the insurgency are 'seen waving Kalashnikovs in the air as a tank performs a donut in the middle of the street' in an unidentified town while crowds on the streets cheer. As towns were liberated by the Nigerian military following a renewed effort against the insurgency in 2015, more images emerged, including aerial surveillance showing 'ghost towns' and photographs showing burned-out homes and razed villages. From the footage, it is difficult to imagine that just five years earlier the group was a ragtag militia with unsophisticated weapons. The testimony of those displaced by the violence was even more disturbing; life under the insurgents was strictly regulated according to the group's idiosyncratic interpretation of the Qur'an. It is even more difficult to grasp how such a brutal insurgency, which once controlled a significant swathe of northern Nigeria, emerged out of the largely peaceful, dissident sect that had been founded by Mohammed Yusuf in 2002.
Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad (referred to as Boko Haram throughout this book) has been described in a number of ways by analysts. To some, most notably the Jamestown Foundation's Jacob Zenn, the group is deeply entwined with global Salafi-Jihadist groups. This purported relationship is thought to have started with joint training with fighters of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) in 2009-10. Others, such as scholar Murray Last and journalist Andrew Walker, consider the group a continuation of the long-standing patterns of dissent in northern Nigeria. The name 'Boko Haram', which means 'Western education is forbidden and deceitful', was given to the group by the community from which it emerged and reflects the organisation's roots in local political debates. Although each of these definitions illuminates an aspect of Boko Haram, they fail to capture the nuances and evolution of the organisation.
Fundamentally, the group 'is an Islamic sect that believes politics in northern Nigeria has been seized by a group of corrupt, false Muslims', according to Andrew Walker. Boko Haram wants to 'wage a war' against the government and these false Muslims in order 'to create a "pure" Islamic state ruled by sharia law'. This characterisation of the intent of the insurgency is largely correct. While this objective has remained a constant, the scope of Boko Haram's grievances and the tactics it has adopted to achieve these objectives have varied. The aim of this book is to discuss what prompted these changes and to illustrate the important roles that women have played throughout the course of the organisation's evolution.
In discussing such a contentious phenomenon, it is helpful to establish some of the uncontroversial aspects of the sect and to discuss the general arc of the group's evolution. Mohammed Yusuf, a Salafi preacher, founded Boko Haram in 2002. With help from his father-in-law, he established a dissident religious community near the railway station in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State in northeastern Nigeria. The centre was named Ibn Taymiyyah Masjid, in honour of the medieval Islamic scholar credited with influencing modern Wahhabi, Salafi and Jihadi movements. Ibn Taymiyyah's community engaged in a number of self-help and social organising activities, including offering assistance with building homes, providing welfare services, and arranging affordable weddings. Under Yusuf, the group not only denounced Western education, as has been widely reported in the press, but also considered working with the Nigerian government to be haram. Yusuf's condemnation of 'corrupting Western influences' and the inadequacy of the Nigerian government helped him gain support for his movement among the city's economically marginalised. Although many of its members were socially and economically marginalised, Yusuf's religious community included some of the city's elite. Andrew Walker explains the group's position relative to both modernity and the local political economy of the north-east, observing that:
Boko Haram, as a group, clearly does not utterly reject the modern world out of hand. The group's use of mobile phones, video cameras, DVDs, YouTube, chemical explosives, automatic weapons, and cars shows it is more than prepared to use the fruits of Western education when it suits them. Boko Haram is, however, against those in northern Nigeria known as 'yan boko.' Yan boko is literally translated as 'child of the book.' It refers to the elite created by the policy of indirect rule used by the British to colonize Nigeria – the people who have had their heads turned away from Allah by easy money and corrupting Western values. To be yan boko is to be spiritually and morally corrupt, lacking in religious piety, and guilty of criminally enriching oneself rather than dedicating oneself to the Muslim umma (community).
As the group gained more support, it also attracted criticism, especially from local religious leaders. The response was often targeted violence towards these critics – and in some cases their assassination. Boko Haram became increasingly isolated from the northern Islamic establishment and became a progressively more frustrating thorn in the side of the government and the security sector. The violence (which is detailed later in this chapter) escalated until it came to a breaking point in 2009, when the Nigerian police and military raided Ibn Taymiyyah and the surrounding community, killing an estimated 700 people, including Yusuf. After a brief 'regrouping' period, the insurgency re-emerged under the leadership of Abubakar Shekau, with more sophisticated tactics deployed against softer targets. Between its re-emergence at the end of 2010 and the declaration of a state of emergency in the three north-eastern states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa, the group was responsible for the deaths of more than 2,500 people. The state of emergency marked another turning point in the course of the insurgency, and the formation of the CJTF forced Boko Haram out of the city of Maiduguri and prompted the insurgents to adopt a more rural strategy, in which they abducted civilians, raided villages and held territory. The Buhari administration's more aggressive military offensive against the insurgency shifted the conflict again, resulting in an increased reliance on urban attacks. Despite regular proclamations that the insurgency has been defeated – or is at least on the back foot – Boko Haram has shown remarkable resilience.
It is worth noting that geo-political, religious and ethnic differences in Nigeria have prompted many outside the north-east of the country to write the crisis off as a 'northern problem' rather than a Nigerian issue.
The rise of Mohammed Yusuf
The 'sharia debate' that emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s, about the legality and desirability of the adoption of sharia law at the state level, was not a singular event. There was a series of debates at the state and local level, each taking on the characteristics of that area's political economy and religious landscape. These debates were largely conducted in a similar way to other sensitive domestic policy debates in Nigeria – through the mobilisation of patronage networks and the use of quasi-state-sponsored militias to promote through force any notions that failed to gain traction through logical, political or emotional appeals. In the early 2000s, the debate over sharia law in Borno State gave rise to a number of groups scrambling to benefit from patronage opportunities that came with the democratic transition. The 'Yan Izala, well represented by the Alhaji Ndimi mosque in Maiduguri, was well positioned to influence this debate over sharia. Mohammed Yusuf, a former almajiri himself, was the leader of the youth wing of the Ndimi mosque and a 'favourite student' of the popular Sheik Ja'far Adam.
Sheik Adam was a rising star within the Izala movement. He had risen to prominence in the late 1990s within the Salafi community, where his charisma, coupled with his political connections and his Islamic education at the Islamic University in Madina, lent him significant influence. Working within the system, Adam was the spokesman for 'Izala B', a Salafi subset that was mostly in line with Izala orthodoxy but that promoted the interests and inclusion of younger, well-educated members. Izala B gained traction as young preachers returned from their sophisticated overseas Islamic universities and were disappointed when they struggled to gain influence and find employment.
Yusuf and Adam first met when Yusuf was studying in Kano, in north-west Nigeria. It did not take long for Adam to take the young man under his wing. Yusuf was born in Yobe State but his family had left when the 'state was in crisis' to settle in Maiduguri; Yusuf travelled to various cities pursuing his religious education. Yusuf's father was an accomplished Tijaniyya scholar, a surprising lineage considering the enthusiasm with which Yusuf, as a Salafi preacher, would later condemn the 'innovations' of this popular and influential Sufi order.
A childhood friend, who still lives around the corner from the rubble of Yusuf's mosque in Maiduguri, recalled that 'even as a child he was very harsh. He was hot tempered and he did not tolerate nonsense'; from a young age, he focused primarily on his Qur'anic studies. At times, the young Yusuf took breaks from his studies and sold kerosene and worked his father's land as a farmer. He left these occupations behind when he found success as a preacher. His studies led him away from his father's Sufism to Shi'ism for a period of time, before he finally settled into the Izala movement under Adam's tutelage. Their partnership was mutually beneficial, as Yusuf needed a patron and Adam's profile benefited from bringing in such a charismatic young preacher as his mentee. Another former friend of Yusuf, who watched his childhood playmate turn away from Ndimi mosque, start his own community, and then be captured and killed by the Nigerian police, noted that 'he was always very brilliant in persuading people. He realised that Nigeria is oil rich but people suffer', and that Yusuf 'saw that the youth are stranded and he capitalised on it'.
Although they were close associates at Ndimi mosque, Yusuf eventually fell out with Adam. Their theological disagreements revolved around two of Yusuf's radical contentions: that 'modern Western education was religiously forbidden to Muslims, and [that] employment in the government of Nigeria was also religiously forbidden'. The former belief led to Yusuf's group being given the nickname 'Boko Haram' by locals, translating roughly as 'Western education is forbidden'. Although some have dismissed the group's anti-modernisation ethos as a religious Ludditism, Yusuf's activism against Western education and employment in the civil service served two strategic purposes. The first, detailed in Eli Berman's book Radical, Religious, and Violent,12 was that it weeded out those likely to defect. This process of sacrifice to prove commitment is common to self-help groups cum terrorist organisations around the world. Giving up Western education closed off some of the most profitable avenues of employment available (although, realistically, these positions were not particularly easy to come by – especially for those lacking a powerful patron). Rejecting employment with the government was also a clear sacrifice in a region where government employment is one of the few alternatives to farming and petty trade. Berman has written extensively on how mutual aid and membership sacrifices help leaders screen 'cheaters and shirkers out of their mutual aid operations'. Demanding public, difficult sacrifices is thus a way of making collective action easier. This heuristic for dedication is particularly valuable for terrorist groups and insurgencies.
The second strategic implication of Yusuf's ideological innovation was its more obvious populist appeal. As Johannes Harnischfeger, a professor at the University of Frankfurt notes, the Izala 'apology of appropriating secular education and accepting jobs in an un-Islamic government appeals to those who have found employment, especially if they are young and better educated. But it is less attractive to the millions of jobless youths.' Yusuf's rejection of Western education and government employment spoke to these frustrations and humiliations. Without showing photographs of the residences of 'average' citizens in Maiduguri side by side with illustrations of the opulence of government employees' homes, it is difficult to convey the gaping inequality. Suffice to say that the squat, unpainted concrete homes of the majority of the population leave much to be desired, particularly when they are flanked by gated mini-mansions with intricate wrought iron gates, generators to provide reliable light, and storage tanks brimming with clean water. Even more damningly, the government appears to care more about the houses of its civil servants than about the living conditions of its average citizens. This unfortunately continues to be the case. As of winter 2017, the Legacy Estate Housing Project in Maiduguri is a very visible example of poor government planning and the favourable treatment received by civil servants. The project, which comprises 40 blocks of six-unit, three-bedroom apartments, was supposed to house civil servants; however, they complained that the units did not meet their standards and the buildings remained empty in 2017 – neither drawing rent from private citizens renting rooms nor providing shelter to IDPs. The rejection of employment in the civil service was thus not only a means of weeding out likely defectors or those who would be insufficiently committed to the cause; it was also good politics in a highly inequitable political economy.
By 2003-04, the break between Adam and Yusuf was public and growing more contentious by the day, with Adam speaking out against his errant protege's beliefs and condemning his followers. Following his return from a trip to Saudi Arabia, described as a pilgrimage by his supporters and as an expulsion by his detractors, Yusuf started to organise a new religious community. He founded the Ibn Taymiyyah mosque near the railway station in Maiduguri, using money and land lent by his father-in-law, and established a farm in Bauchi to facilitate the group's self-help ethos. According to Andrew Walker, the central location of the mosque was instrumental in forming the group's early membership profile. Walker recalls that 'urbanization and desertification across the state had led to a population boom in Maiduguri, thus by embedding themselves in the town rather than the wilderness, the group had many more avenues for recruitment and funding'. In addition to leveraging the lack of economic opportunity for the youth demographic to recruit members, reports suggest that Boko Haram also encouraged the city's wealthy to 'atone' for their success and their sins through donations to the group. This allowed Yusuf to criticise the corruption of the system, while still benefiting from its largesse.
As well as having a strategically placed mosque, Yusuf travelled to surrounding communities and more remote villages in Borno to spread his message and cultivate his reputation as a preacher. Young people in the villages would enthusiastically record his preaching; a girl from Banki who was so convinced by Yusuf that she joined Boko Haram reported that, after he preached in her town, 'my friends would have me listen to his sermons on my phone'. Yusuf attracted crowds, according to this young woman, because 'the Islamic teaching with Yusuf was really very excellent'. For many in the rural areas, this was one of the few opportunities they had to pursue 'quality' education.
Despite Boko Haram's virulent anti-state rhetoric and violence, the growth of the sect is believed to be tied to the patronage of the Governor of Borno State at the time, Ali Modu Sheriff. Sheriff was one of the northern politicians who followed in the footsteps of the Governor of Zamfara State, Ahmad Yerima, supporting sharia law to garner political favour, despite the reservations of the state's small Christian population. He cultivated a symbiotic relationship with Yusuf, in which Boko Haram would deliver votes through endorsement, persuasion or force, in exchange for influencing the terms and implementation of sharia. Under the terms of this agreement, a Boko Haram member, Buji Foi, was given the post of Minister of Religious Affairs, and Ali Modu Sheriff became the first Governor of Borno State to serve two consecutive terms, from 2003 to 2011. As a result of the combination of high-level patronage and grassroots popularity, Walker recalls that:
By the end of 2008, the group was operating like a state within a state; it had its own institutions, including a shura council to make decisions and a religious police force to enforce discipline. It had a rudimentary welfare system, offered jobs working the land it had acquired in Bauchi and even gave microfinance loans to members to start their own projects. Many used the money to buy motorcycles and worked as [motorcycle taxi] drivers. The group also arranged marriages between members, which many of the poorest could not afford in normal life.
Excerpted from "Women and the War on Boko Haram"
Copyright © 2017 Hilary Matfess.
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Table of Contents
Glossary and list of acronyms Acknowledgements Introduction 1 Understanding Boko Haram 2 Precursors to the insurgency and the sharia debates 3 Being a girl in Nigeria and the gender politics of Boko Haram 4 Girls as symbols: the Chibok abductions and the silent majority 5 Women at war: wives and weapons in the insurgency 6 Rescued to what? Displacement, vulnerability, and the dark side of ‘heroism’ 7 The way foreword 8 Lessons learned: applying best practices to Boko Haram Conclusion: Nigeria at a crossroads Notes References Index