Dr. Aliyu U. Tilde
We are Boko Haram:
A search into the cultural origins of Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria
So many readers have sent text messages asking me to write on Boko haram. I was afraid that a Chaji would pick his pen and compel me to divulge my view on the crisis which started from Bauchi and which is the more reason why Chaji would grill me. Chaji and his likes have constituted a terror to regular writers. They deny us the privacy of opinion; everything we know or think of is a public property which we must render regularly. We have no right to silence. Chaji? May good fortunes save me from the wrath of his pen! Well, to escape that, today, I have decided to say something about the phenomenon. The reader must be ready to wear armour because the piece is written with a very sharp knife.
It is futile to speak on the halal or haram of boko. I rather intend to discuss the cultrual roots of the movement. But first let us settle the issue of nomenclature which some writers got wrong. On the authority of Professor Mahdi Adamu Ngaski, a celebrated historian, author of The Hausa Factor in the History of West Africa, and former Vice Chancellor, Usmanu Danfodio University, in Hausa, ‘boko’ simply means ‘fake’. Before it was largely consigned to western education, boko was often used to connote the “fake bride’, amaryar boko, who rode the horse in place of the real bride as the convoy of celebrants escorted her to her new home. The real bride would secretly be carried earlier by two or three women to her home. So when western education came to Hausaland, the learned rejected it and gave it a derogatory connotation, ilimin boko, ‘fake education.’ Sadly, this name has remained the standard translation of ‘western education’ among all Hausa speaking people of West Africa and I have never heard of any effort to change it, except the ilimin zamani that is sparsely applied. To date, there is no alternative nomenclature for makarantar boko, 'fake school' that connotes modern schools for western education. My discussion with the Professor on boko took place in December 1984 in Sokoto.
One would wonder how much has changed in our perception of western education during the last century. (By ‘our’, or the third person plural throughout this article means Muslims living in Northern Nigeria.) Though we have schools and universities, governments and companies, all founded on the western models, there are still problems in varying degrees among different groups with the assimilation of western education as an acceptable cultural medium or its recognition as body of knowledge which is indisputably necessary for our survival today.
To many, the perception is like that of our ancestors: boko is haram – forbidden – so it must be rejected or, if acquired, abandoned, as we have seen in the case of the present boko haram group. An extreme variety of this thought was represented by the maitatsine movement, which in the early 1980s rejected even the use of western technological products like watches, bicycles, radio and television, unlike the new boko haram who allow the use of even cameras, handsets and computers, as explained by its leader in his final moments.
Akin to this belief is the notion among some learned traditional Islamic scholars that ‘government’ is haram and public property and finances belong to nobody, so they can looted whenever possible. I came across this idea in Sokoto in the aftermath of 1983 coup. The mighty who lived fat on public funds were arrested. It was then I heard someone justifying stealing public funds in a private discussion: to, malammai sun ce halal ne cin dukiyar gwamnati tunda bat a kowa ba ce. My effort to present the contrary was futile.
Mainstream Muslims in this country view western education as useful, but they still hold the West with a lot of suspicion due to the existing hostile relations between the Muslim World and the West. Though this group recognizes western education as a body of knowledge to which Islamic culture has significantly contributed for centuries in the past, the lingering suspicion has continuously hampered the domestication of the knowledge and its internalization in the region. So we go to school only obtain a certificate that will earn us a job without imbibing the principles and fundamentals that enabled the West to excel in such knowledge and technology; those principles and fundamentals are seen as alien, never to be imbibed.
We deride whoever embodies western practices like keeping to time, pubic accountability, banking, gender equality, family planning, etc. Early scholars, like the late Egyptian, Muhammad Abduh, who visited Europe and returned to say “they have seen Islam where there are no Muslims” are castigated as ‘westernized,’ while those who called for wholesale adoption of western values and culture, like the late Taha Husein, are condemned as westerners; some even would not hesitate to call them infidels.
Here is Hausaland, a bature is not only a European, but anyone who adopts western practice like keeping to time, monogamy, family planning, games, leisure, tourism, reading, western dress, etc, though only few of such practices contravene Islamic injunctions. Though Islam is still revered as the reference point of culture and the ultimate arbiter of cultural conflicts, we readily mock anyone who attempts to practice it as the Arabs do. For example, we reject the honest public servant by suggesting that he relocates to Saudi Arabia where Islam is practiced: “Wai shi gaskiya. To in gaskiya yake so, ya koma Madina da zama”. Even the Qur’an is not spared. When one recites the Qur’an as it should be recited, following the rules of tajweed, we deride him as a balarabe – Arab: Mhm. kakale, wai shi balarabe. It took centuries and a national competition on Qur’anic recitation that started in the mid 1980s before northerners finally accepted the practice.
More dangerous, perhaps, is our reluctance to use our faculties to simplify our lives and improve our productivity. We have not invented anything in agriculture beyond the basic tools which our ancestors used for millions of years: the same hoe (fartanya), and plough (garma). Governments had a Herculean task selling the idea of fertilizers to farmers. Now that they have accepted it, corruption, which some malams justify, has prevented them from accessing it. Also, the dress has been the same since we borrowed the babbar riga from Mali and kaftans from the Arabs. The bante (which the kanuri call afuno) was very much prevalent in the region as late as the early 20th Century. We wear them both the riga and the kaftan during the Harmattan cold and during the hot summer. Any attempt to borrow other wears to suit the weather as shown by the Qur’an is repulsed, unlike in the Arab world where they have different dresses for different situations. In fact, if you do not wear these ‘uniforms’, many of us do not consider you as fully Muslim. Simple. The hijab, on the other hand, is now imposed even on babies!
Research and extension personnel in agriculture are daily frustrated with the strong repulsion to any new idea, variety or practice. Foreign breeds of cows were imported forty years ago by the Sardauna but we still look at Murtala Nyako with admiration because he alone was the first to defy the odds and maintain a modern dairy farm for many years. For over four decades, we condemn the high milk yielding Frisian or the high meat yielding varieties of cows as foreign, shanun turawa. This inertia also contributed to the ‘death’ of the tractor and other instruments of mechanization such that governments’ focus on boosting agricultural production is now limited to supply of inorganic fertilizer for the additional reasons of fat contracts and lucrative middlemanship. So glaring is our boko haram attitude that many state governments recently preferred to import farmers from Southern Africa and support them with free land, huge capital and heavy subsidies. They argue that if we are given agricultural loan, which hardly reach us anyway, we prefer to invest it in human, instead of crop, propagation. How true they are!
Our general contempt for knowledge is outstanding, making us to prefer ignorance as a companion. The more knowledgeable you are or try to use that knowledge, the lesser are your chances of survival. Our entire political ethos is built on ignorance such that hardly would anyone succeed except if he is ready to put aside the correct thing he knows and behave as, or obey, the ordinary or ignorant who has never been to the four walls of high school. In interviews, a good performing candidate is rejected for a mediocre that will play the game of his sponsors.
The overwhelming majority of our political representatives and appointees are not the best from their constituencies, some cannot even write their names properly; that is why they hardly contribute to debates in the National Assembly. In our conferment of traditional titles, there has never been an occasion where the educational contribution or the honesty of anyone was celebrated with a traditional title; it is simply sycophancy and money, no matter how dirty.
An illustration of our contempt for knowledge lies in the way we tackle problems when they arise. How else can we explain the cold blooded massacre of boko haram members in Bauchi and Maiduguri, much of which is now correctly loaded on President Yar’adua, the foremost proponent of the rule of law? Where is the rule of law when the President ordered the Police and the army to crush them or deal with them ‘siquayale’? In fact, so ruthless was this Malam B that just before embarking on his Brazil trip, he told the world that the group will be crushed by that evening. He succeeded in crushing them but at the expense of justice, earning the country another medal of shame as an uncivilized nation, and attracting sympathy for the sect. Well, we are hardly visited by justice anyway. In-group hostility has always been our identity. That is why the same President who ordered the immediate massacre of boko haram members readily offered amnesty and money to Niger Delta rebels who are a thousand times more armed, who have killed, maimed, kidnapped lives, destroyed property and crippled the economy.
From the foregoing, it appears that we are culturally repulsive to any thing modern, from whatever direction it comes. Simply put, we are boko haram. Otherwise, what could explain our backwardness in every national endeavour – economic, social and political? Why do we have, for example, the lowest per capita income in the country, the lowest life expectancy, the lowest academic achievements as exemplified in our having the least number of academic institutions, fewer numbers of graduates and higher education applicants despite our high population? Why do we have, on the other hand, highest poverty and highest maternal and infant mortality rates? Why do we fail to see the disjoint between our collective repulsive attitude to common sense and modernity, our boko haram attitude precisely, on the one hand, and modernity on the other? Why do we choose to be blind? Why can’t we come out of self-imposed boko haram prison that our ancestors built over a century before?
Unfortunately, we are today paying a very high price for this negative attitude. It has led to the shrinkage of our social sphere. We are increasingly isolating ourselves by our escalating intolerance for the attitude and cultures of other Nigerians. Honestly, that is why we lost the ground in the so called Middle Belt. Politically, our preference for mediocrity has heavily reduced our significance from where it was, say, during the Second Republic. Also as a result, those of us from northern north have even considerably lost the sympathy of Muslims from the Middle Belt because we have built notoriety for ethnic self-preference and unfounded superiority complex which is based on nothing but ignorance.
The future is even bleaker if we consider the attitude of our youths. On campuses today, for example, we allow our students to grow with this isolationist attitude: in almost every faculty or department they now form societies of Muslim students, something unheard of in the 1970s and early 1980s when we were undergraduates. Of course, Muslim Student’s Society, like Fellowship of Christian Students, was there as an umbrella for all Muslims on the school and campus, but never was such a religious grouping formed at the departmental level where we freely socialized and exchanged ideas with Christians and even pagans. It is in our interest to actively discourage this new segregationist trend.
Also, as we graduate, we sort of come across a barrier that socially separates us from other Nigerians. We have thousands of avenues to socialize in addition to our places of work. But we hardly do so. Christians will socially associate with Christians only, and Muslims with Muslims. How can we have peace then? Let me quickly affirm that the Qur’an has permitted such associations between us and the People of the Book (Christians and Jews) even to the extent marriage and nutrition. Oh. I have forgotten that the Qur’an is a body of knowledge, and knowledge is the last thing we will subscribe to.
The boko haram group of late Malam Muhammed Yusuf was therefore a natural offshoot of our culture. We must admit this much because we have actively done very little to prove otherwise. And to be candid, Muhammed Yusuf was never the first to propagate such ideas and be accepted by our elites. The anti-western books of Abdulkadir as-Sufi, an English convert to Islam, were popular among many Muslims on our campuses in the early 1980s. That too led to many dropping from universities and abandoning public appointments, though not on a large scale or in a confrontational way like boko haram. What is more interesting here is the concord against modernity between two opposing sects of Islam: Sufism, as represented by as-Sufi, and Salafiyya, as represented by Mohammed Yusuf. This is no coincidence, though, but a fact that shows there is something inherently and universally wrong in how many of us conceive the role of Islam in this modern age.
Boko haram ideas will remain with us for quite some time unless we consciously change our attitudes and actively campaign against them. What is sad is the danger of how the group will leave behind the technology of making bombs among a population that is characterized by conflict, poverty and ignorance. This will certainly affect the future of peace in the region. The people who those bombs will hit will not be the masses but the leaders who have financed and exploited such groups to achieve their political ends.
I wish we Muslims in this part of the country will adopt the attitudes of the first generation of Muslims, the sahabah and those that followed them in righteousness (may God be pleased with them all) who, in pursuit of the teachings of the Holy Prophet (SAW) opened their hearts to various forms of knowledge and technology and from all sources: Chinese, Indian, Persian, Roman, European, African, etc. They revived the writings of Aristotle and bequeathed them to medieval Europe. They partook in technological development just as any other society, leaving behind a legacy of discoveries that were ironically the foundations of the very boko we ignorantly reject. They freely associated with everyone and were so liberal that their domains served as sanctuaries even to Jews when they were twice expelled from Europe. Many of them and partnered with them in trade and war and married Christian wives. I wish we will liberate our minds and give scholarship its due regard because with ignorance as our anchor we will have little to achieve and everything to lose.
In conclusion I must say that Yar’adua would need more guns to silence the anti-modern boko haram attitude in us. If he cannot, the burden then rests with us. We must shoulder the task of giving our society a new inspiration that will integrate it into the world of knowledge, society and culture. We must come out of our boko haram enclave to embrace civilization in all its ramifications and make meaningful contributions to the future of this country and the world at large. This is my opinion on boko haram hoping that mighty Chaji will spare me an interrogation and that my reader has not sustained a deep cut from my bold assertions.
11 August 2009