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boko haram
Boko Haram

Nigeria stands on the border between the Islamic influence, whose expansion came from the continent's north and east, and the Christian one, that moved its first steps in Africa along with those of the European colonizers landing on its shores. And just like any other African country, Nigeria's map at independence reflected the interests of the colonizers, but not the characteristics of the people comprised within its boundaries.

In a context of widespread poverty and inequality affecting a large portion of the population, religious, tribal and social discontent collide to trigger uprisings and fights. In Nigeria's case, upheavals are extremely violent. Religious fueled clashes have been historically recurrent and what we witness today with Boko Haram is deeply rooted in history.

A long history

Islam came to Nigeria between the 9th and 13th century, it was carried along with the merchandise of the Arabic merchants coming from Palestine and the Arabian peninsula who crossed the Sahara desert from coast to coast.

In the 11th century, the empire of Kanem-Borno (north-east of present Nigeria) was the first to convert. The reign was the junction point between the north African berbers and the Bantu people. Its flourishing commercial centers stood for almost 600 years. From Kanem-Borno, Islam spread to other Hausa states in the north-west of Nigeria, the principal ones being Kano and Katsina.

By the time the first European colonizers arrived in the 16th century, the Islamic religion had already conquered the major cities in the north of the country and the highlands. Merchants were the first to convert, but were soon followed by the monarchies and their courts.

Only two centuries later will the Christian missionaries, who until then had been blocked on the coast by malaria and the tsetse flies, venture inland and make the first contact with the Muslim populations of Nigeria. The Ibo tribes living on the coast were the first ones to be evangelized by the Catholics, while the Yoruba were converted by the Anglicans.

It is around that time that the divide between Christians in the south and Muslims in the north first appeared in Nigeria. In between stood a buffer zone of animist and syncretic religious beliefs that are part of Africa anywhere you go.

nigeria ethnic
Nigeria's ethnic groups

Ethnic groups and their religion

There are over 200 ethnic groups or clans (but some sources estimate twice as much) in Nigeria; they, in turn, are divided into subgroups. Each of these groups, besides from its peculiar culture and tribal characteristics, also has its specific religion.

The main groups are the Hausa and the Fulani in the north (mainly muslim), the Ibo in the south-east (majority Christian and/or animist), the Yoruba in the south-west and central Nigeria (equally split between Muslims, Christians and animists) and the Kanuri from Borno (predominantly muslims). The traditional Nigerian religious beliefs are pantheistic, meaning they worship a supreme God and other deities, including elements from their environment, animals and objects.

Numerically speaking, Christians and Muslims are equally represented, even though the Islamic portion of the population accounts for 50 percent of Nigerians against the 40 percent of Christians. Some data claims the exact opposite. The reader should bear in mind that all these figures refer to the last census carried out in Nigeria and which dates back to 1963. The central government has avoided releasing any recent data to restrain from fueling further unrest.

Nigerian muslims are predominantly Sunni, the Shiites are a minority of 4 to 6 million people and also embed some syncretic rituals. All major Sufi confraternities, such as the Qadiryah, Mouridyah and Tijanyah, are also present in Nigeria. They historically competed against one another to prevail over their opponents. Salafist radical groups, such as Boko Haram, are limited. Currently, out of 36 Nigerian States, nine fully apply the Islamic Sharia law, while three of them use it only partially.

The Christians, on the other hand, are mainly Protestants (and 75 percent of them are Anglicans), while the Catholics are a 25 percent minority, concentrated among the Yoruba and the Ibo.

The distinction between a Muslim north and a Christian south, or the labeling of an ethnic group with a specific creed, are not as rigid as they might seem. For instance, five percent of the Hausa are Christians, while several Yoruba are Muslims.

The spreading of radical Islam

Boko Haram were not the first ones to wage a war against the central government, but are just the last on a long list. Every time there was an upheaval, it carried along a mixture of religious, social and inter-ethnic elements. Since independence on October 1st 1960, Nigeria has witnessed brief periods of democracy, interspersed with long years of military rule and, in between, the Biafra civil war at the end of the 60s.

The history of radical Islam in the north of the country dates back to the deeds of Osman Dan Fodio at the beginning of the 19th century. In his fight against the British colonizers and the local monarchies, Fodio waved the flag of pure Islam and refused all Western habits.

Two centuries later, in 1977, the reformist movement known as Yan Izala (Jama‘at izalat al-bidd‘a wal iqamat al sunna, i.e. community for the elimination of the heresies and the affirmation of the Sunna) fought against the Sufis and their moderate vision of Islam. The followers of this movement attacked and occupied the mosques founded by the different confraternities.

This first radical movement was soon followed by the anti-modernists from Maitatsine (Yan Tatsine, or 'refusal of the status quo' in Hausa), who waged an armed combat. The movement refused and labeled as "non-Islamic innovations" the use of watches, bicycles and Western clothing. Covertly financed by Nigerians living in Saudi Arabia, the group was erased by a series of military operations that caused over four thousand deaths.

Then Boko Haram came about (whose full name is "Jamāʿat Ahl al-Sunna li-daʿwa wal Jihād", i.e. Association for the Sunna, the religious message and the jihad, whose abbreviation in Hausa is Boko Haram, meaning 'Western education is a sin') together with the theories proposed by its leader, Mohamed Yusuf. Yusuf continued the fight against Western influence carried out by the Maitatsine and, at the same time, refused the reformist and innovatory approach of the Yan Izala. Since 2009, Yusuf's theories have sparked a series of terrorist attacks not only against Christians, but also against fellow moderate Muslims.

Besides from Boko Haram, a myriad of other radical Islamic sects have proliferated in Nigeria during the last few years. Groups like "Atadjit" (of anti-US inspiration), financed by the Wahabis and linked to another extremist organization as the "Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs", the "Al Sunna Wal Jamma" ("The followers of the Sunna"), better known as the Nigerian talebans, and the "Hijra" aka "Muhajirun" ("Migration"), tied to similar groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Lately another sect has surfaced in north-eastern Nigeria, the 'Vanguard for the protection of the Muslims in the lands of the blacks', also known with the acronym of Ansaru (from the name of its founder, Abu Osmatul Ansari); the group is none other that a splinter faction of Boko Haram and is allegedly in contact with AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb).

Along the Islamic sects, there are also a number of Nigerian political parties that seek consensus and votes on religious grounds (not forcibly only from radical stances) such as the All People's Salvation Party, the Islamic Democratic Progressive Party, the National Party of Nigeria and the Arewa People's Congress.

On the opposite front of the Christians, there are also a series of sects or, better defined, African churches assimilated to local cultural aspects (such as the Cherubim and the Serafin), while other groups simply pop up when an alleged prophet comes to town. Some of these churches are also radical.

mohamed yusuf
Mohamed Yusuf

The outcome of a war

Since the start of the 80s, it is estimated that inter-religious clashes have caused more than 25 thousand deaths in Nigeria. The fact that there was a conspicuous external funding for these groups, mainly from the Saudis and the Libyans (when Khadafi was still alive), added an additional economic motivation to the activities of the radical groups. A factor one necessarily has to account for in a country with a disastrous economy as Nigeria is.

According to data from the UN, Boko Haram are responsible for 550 deaths in 2011, 750 in 2012, 1300 since May 2013 and until the end of that year. Over 50 churches have been set on fire or attacked. At the same time, around 60 moderate Islamic preachers have also been assassinated.

The Nigerian army has tried to intervene to eliminate the menace coming from Boko Haram. Following the killing of Mohamed Yusuf (2009), his successor, Abubakr Shekau, was also allegedly wounded and killed together with his right hand man, Momodu Bama (aka Abu Saad). Nevertheless, the decapitation of the group's leaders did not stop the killings, nor Boko Haram's activities, as the recent kidnapping of about 200 girls in north-eastern Nigeria proves.

Whether the attempts to eliminate the radical sect will succeed or not, there is an underlying fact that has emerged: the fracture between Nigerian Christians and Muslims and the ethnic clashes that followed between Hausa and Fulani on one side and Ibo and Yoruba on the other. And it will be extremely difficult to overcome this spiral of hatred.