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The Intrigues of Naming: A Dissection Response to the ‘Boko Haram’ Butchery

August 11, 2009

In the last few days, precisely since 30th July, 2009, Nigeria has been in the eyes of the news, for what best qualifies as the conundrum of a failed state. This was not as result of the villainous activities of the Niger-Delta Militia, but a bizarre incident which took place in Maiduguri. This wacky and squalid incident was consequent upon a gory squabble that broke out between a group of people and men of the Nigeria police. It was peculiar for its religious undertone, governmental and media response and the stance of the northern ‘ulama.

This group has been christened the ‘Boko Haram Sect,’ by the mainstream media and the Nigeria government. This piece therefore set-out to beam historical binoculars into the appropriateness of the discrete naming of the group as ‘Boko Haram Sect.’ Against this backdrop, our discourse will be situated within the wider gamut of the local media response, the ideology of the group in question cum its historiographical sketch and the specifics of the leadership harm-fistedness in the northern part of our country.

To set the ball rolling within our outlined specifics, it is critical to ask, is ‘Boko Haram’ the actual name of this group?; what qualifies it to be a SECT as so pronounced by the mainstream media and the Nigeria government? A vivid and factual response to these leading questions will therefore necessitate a sojourn into the history of this group. Hence, another set of questions, who formed the group and what was or were his/their motivations? A reliable insider’s report has it that the group was founded in 2002 by the slain Muhammad Yusuf. Yusuf was once a follower of Mallam Ibrahim Zak-Zaky, the paramount leader of a Shia religious sect that is based in Zaria. He left the latter for his avowed Shiism since he, Yusuf, was of the Sunni mainstream. This dusked his romance with Shiism and marked the beginning of his journey as a self-certificated independent da’iyah (i.e. caller or preacher). It suffices to emphasize that Yusuf lacked the credential to take up such responsibilities because evidence abound suggests he was a self-certificated Islamic scholar. He was neither well fed with the fundamentals of the faith nor was he certified by any scholar of note to lead a group or assume the rostrum of religious leadership. Trailing this aside, the most probable attraction that propelled him into the orbit of Zak-Zaky’s brand of religious advocacy was perhaps the outspokenness of the latter as opposed to the doctrinal somnambulism cum ill-disposition of the majority of the northerner ‘ulama to the insensitivity and stark abandonment of state onerous responsibilities by the northern political elites. In other words, degenerate ‘ulama and deprave political elites were his immediate drive.  

Agitated by the aforesaid, more so, the lessening religiousity of the Northern Muslims, particularly, the Youths, Yusuf began the ultimate search for the root of the menace. In spirit and deed, Yusuf was merely practicalizing what Arnold Toynbee, a renowned historian, theorized as ‘Challenge and Response.’ He spotted secularism as the focal problem, hence, his long search for how to de-establish the northern Nigeria of its secular politico-cultural configuration by re-establishing the Caliphate. It was within this praxis that he began his de-establishment campaign by raising grave, yet germane questions about the horrendous corollaries of secularism vis-à-vis wanton sexual indulgence, divisive nationalistic leaning, the banishment of God from the public to the private domain, survival of the powerless at the altar of the merciless consumerist mightful and etcetera. It was only natural that western education comes into the fringe of his ideological purview as did blind westernism. To press home his message to his immediate audience, it behooves that he contextualizes it in the light of the medium and the message, with the source and audience as determinant of how the message is to be placed within the medium. It was within this brace that he deplored the word Boko, a catchphrase in the Northern lexicon, particularly among the rural dwellers. As observed by one Mr Abolore in his incisive but loosely pieced article on the Boko turmoil, there are various usages of Boko which include Boko Yana Hana AlBarka, (western education prevents blessing) and Boko ‘Owulo, (useless). Interestingly, Abolore, a Yoruba resident of Maiduguri, now a student in Malaysia, informs that Boko is further used to depict the debacle faced by university or college graduates who upon bagging a degree, sadly end up in the farm due to the lack of job.  This leaves us with two-nodal stream of usages and perhaps interpretation. One, disillusionment with western education owning to its secularist outlook and the other, northern leadership failure. It was within this perspective that Yusuf was addressing the question of western education and its continuous relevance to the people of the Northern Nigeria. He went as far as condemning it as Haram, (forbidden), hence his call for its rejection. Thus, the big question, how appropriate is the phrase ‘Boko Haram’ as the discrete shorthand/naming of his group.  A terse response to this query may require a masterly understanding of the science of periodization.

Periodization is a tool mostly deployed by social scientists, particularly historian to lurk historical events within the diversity of its aura and theme into a condensed discrete name. It is so done as to objectify the metaphor which underlies the events being historiograhically depicted. For instance, the Odi Mascare is one of such shorthands impregnated with implicit historiographical meanings of an event which transpired during the wasted 8-years of Obasanjo’s brutish and corrupt reign in office. Same is the September 9-11 attacks on the twin tower and some other places in the United State of America. Note be taken of September 9-11 as discrete naming and Al-Qaeda, the name of the group, which allegedly masterminded the real but most debatable ‘attack.’ Using these two words or better still naming interchangeably will be historically undeserving and scientifically untenable. This will be misleading and defective of the intellectual crust which underpins the science of periodization. When such error is committed, the immediate and most probable reason may be a deliberate or an unconscious attempt to leave readers with a prejudiced construct of what transpired or so constitute such historical event. Technically, this is referred to as “Designed Intent.” Doing this will blur the line between history and fiction. For this reason, the historical significance inputted into the Maiduguri imbroglio suffers from prejudice and deliberate attempt to recast and reconstruct the actual event being depicted. One can decipher this in the rhetoric which trailed the naming of late Muhammad Yusuf’s led group as ‘Boko Haram Sect’ by the mainstream media and the government of a stuttering state, called Nigeria. Establishing this claim thus requires a review of how some leading Nigeria newspapers reported the saga and the rhymes which dotted the response of the government and the northern ‘ulama.

The most riveting report that took the lead was the one written by Reuben Abati of the Guardian Newspaper. ‘Entitled, Boko Haram and the Evil of Ignorance,’ Abati framed his analysis of the mayhem within the broader picture of the fissures in the Nigerian polity and politics and the travails of the nation and its hapless masses; albeit some religious undercurrents.  His was the most exhaustive of what can be best considered as the story which offered the direction for further rendition. Reeling in his usual Islamophobism, Abati launched polemical attack against Muhammad Yusuf’s rant against western education and wasted no time to place shari’ah within the same milieu. Quoting his words will bring to the fore some of his ulterior undercurrents. He avers, “we seem to be paying the price for the failure of the Federal Government to deal decisively with the Sharia mischief under the Obasanjo administration.” It was this mentality that possibly made him locate the Maiduguri bedlam within the background of a sectarian crisis. This thesis suffered in depth because Muhammad Yusuf’s group was not a sect but merely a religious association or society. Not to bore readers with what makes a group to be so called a sect, I beg readers’ attention to study why Ahmadiya, Shiites and Mahdiya are Islamic sects. Attributively, this owns to complete or partial deviation(s) in their ideological and religious orientation from that of the Sunni mainstream. Also, our erudite friend failed in this article and the subsequent ones to trace the root of the mêlée which led to the skirmishes which saw Yusuf’s group sadistically burn down a police station. This fell short of investigative journalism and seems unpardonable.

Wallowing in Abati’s sectarian rhetoric, the Nation newspaper supplied the conspiracy theory which added a new torch and perhaps opened a new vista through which the event was regurgitated. They were more interested in the internal dynamics of the group’s operations and the possibility of establishing external linkages. They went as far as claiming that the group had the support of Jamatu Salafia, an Algeria based Islamist movement. Also, was the grave allegation that they imported ammunitions from Afghanistan. A good student of Mid-Eastern Studies will never for a second takes such a reckless claim so serious. This is for the simple fact that Afghanistan neither produces weapon nor is it strategic for Taliban to supply a sister-group weapons, when they are in dire need of it the most. The Algeria claim falls into the same realm of within the news- room mental re-creation and phantasm. Force fitting themselves into the opinionated mindset, which in the first instance provoked the tagging of the group as ‘Boko Haram Sect,’ offers insight into such naive and thoughtless journalistic adventurism.  Other newspaper’s reports can either be assimilated within these two that have been so far reviewed, hence sharing in their deficiencies.

The response of the government and of the northern ‘ulama followed same typology. One will expect nothing less because birds of a feather flock together. No right thinking Nigerian will expect a sick president to issue a healthy order because he is simply, bodily and mentally handicapped to do just that. So, there is no need for further comment on that. However, of the Northern governors, particularly, Ali Modu Sheriff, the Governor of Maiduguri, that was about the best response they can also muster. Their refusal to provide their people good education and dividends of good governance was what Muhammad Yusuf capitulated and capitalized on. No sane person would in the least be moved by such type of call being propagated by Yusuf if only these ‘leaders,’ have provided their people with the right ambiance of life. As regards the northern ‘ulama, particularly, those who are on the state pay roll, they glutton in self-aggrandizing desires and reckless abandon of doctrinal obligations. They eat from the state treasury as do their political cohorts, thus, leaving a void, which was to be filled by Muhammad Yusuf and co. The power of the minbar was used in servicing and oiling the inept tendencies of the northern political leaders, thereby providing corruption and ham-fistedness a repugnant religious legitimacy. This was too bitter a bitter for Yusuf to swallow. So naïve and forgetful they were as to put the record straight that Yusuf’s group was not a religious sect. Corruption and protecting the interest of their ‘Friends in Power,’ as Abati will graciously pronounce, was their major preoccupation. Accordingly, Yusuf was only trying to take up the roles which the ‘ulama has deserted. With this in mind, one can easily comprehend why the response of the government and the degenerate ‘ulama provided the catalyst for the conspiracy theory and sectarian thesis to thrive.

At this juncture, while in the attempt to link the Maiduguri anarchy with the ‘Boko Haram’ shorthand, one may end up heedlessly wandering, if cognizance is not taken of this alternative stream of thought. On the one hand, there is no relationship between Boko (western education) and police station which was the object of attack. Also, the event which was being addressed and covered by the media was not western education, but the very one which led to the razing of the police station. So, from all perspectives, the phrase ‘Boko Haram,’ is totally uncalled for and can best serve a pre-meditated line of thought than depict the actual historical occurrence.

To fill the void in the Maiduguri news reporting, we may also need to remind our friends in the media and concerned Nigerians that effort be exhausted to unearth the particular incident which orchestrated the outbreak of this unfortunate crisis. Some alleged that it began when the police prevented the group from burying one of its members.  Others have it that the origin was the 2004 Yusufari Yobe incidence. It was also acclaimed in some quarters that Sheik Jafar’s death is strongly connected to what gave birth to this uprising. Another version contends that Muhammad Yusuf is just a leader of the group which has since split into two factions. Exponents of this view contend that Yusuf’s faction was averse to a forceful engagement with the state, hence his isolation from the desert based group. Before we can make affirmative statements on this incident, there is the need to penetrate into the heart of the various versions of what orchestrated this grubby imbroglio. There is also the need to also beam our investigate radar on the political thesis used by some individuals to demystify the hurriedness with which the alleged sponsor of the group was killed. This herculean task will help in righting what seems to be masquerading as fact and perhaps halt it from spreading and spiraling like a wild fire.

Mr Adebiyi Jelili Abudugana was a former Student Union President in UNILAG. He can be reached through [email protected]


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