Contrasting Notions of Jihad in Nigeria: Boko Haram vs the Fulani War

It is has been another trying week in Nigeria. On Tuesday, fifty-five people will killed in the northeast of the country after coordinated attacks by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram. Today, at least thirty police officers were murdered by a militia affiliated with a local cult in Nasarawa state.

Boko Haram, in particular, has terrorised Nigeria over the past couple of years. Both Christian and Muslim communities have been targeted by a wave of indiscriminate violence perpetrated by a group determined to eradicate any vestiges of modernity from Nigeria and plunge the country into a repressed society dominated by sharia law. Anybody that gets in their way, regardless of religion, becomes a target of their anger, as the bombings of both churches and mosques attests to.

Five Muslims were gunned down by Boko Haram gunmen at this Kano mosque in Feb 2012
Five Muslims were gunned down by Boko Haram gunmen at this Kano mosque in Feb 2012

Boko Haram professes to wage a “jihadist” war against its enemies. The term has become commonplace in today’s media yet its true meaning and expression of “struggle” is widely debated. The differing concepts of jihad can be seen in Nigeria’s recent history.

In 1804, an Islamic scholar, Usman dan Fodio, called for a jihad against the loosely-affiliated Hausa kingdoms of northern Nigeria. The Hausas were themselves predominantly Muslim, so this was no jihad against a religious entity (be it Christian or Animist). Frustrated by the harsh taxation and land controls held by the Hausa over the Fulani people, Fodio began to agitate for reform and attracted a prominent following. After being exiled from the Hausa kingdoms he initiated what would come to be known as the Fulani War (1804-1808) as a way of righting the wrongs of a corrupt system.

The success of this jihad resulted in the creation of the Sokoto Caliphate which would become a powerful territory during the 19th century. Only the arrival of British colonists, and their manipulation of the former Hausa rulers, curtailed the Sokoto experiment. Having said that, in the independence era, the caliphate has been reformed in northern Nigeria, as a spiritual entity rather than a territorial one, and it remains an important bastion of Islamic and educational life for many Nigerians.

At its height, the Sokoto Caliphate stretched beyond Nigeria's current borders
At its height, the Sokoto Caliphate stretched beyond Nigeria’s current borders

It is difficult to reconcile the Fulani War and the jihad that started it with the jihadist experiment of Boko Haram. Terrorism, as most Muslims would tell you, is not a true expression of the term jihad as formulated in the Koran. Rather, it is a deliberate reinterpretation of the Koran which seeks to justify acts of horrific violence and attract sceptics with claims of religious sanctity.

Boko Haram will not succeed like the Fulani because their concept of jihad is false. Sadly, they will continue to pose a disruptive and fatal influence on one of Africa’s most important and economically-powerful states. Their actions, and the occasional brutal retaliation by Christian police officers and the army, has helped create a religious void in Nigeria that can is being filled by dangerous cults like ‘Ombatse’, those responsible for today’s murders.

There is struggle enough for Africa’s population without warped terrorist movements espousing jihad as a means of salvation. But as with religion in general, the selective reading and deliberate corruption of holy texts and central tenets leaves the way open for feeble, yet oft-believed, justifications of horrific acts.

Religious militancy thrives in Nigeria
Religious militancy thrives in Nigeria