John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Boko Haram Attacks Muslim Nigeria’s Preeminent City–Why?

by John Campbell
January 23, 2012

Policemen inspect a bomb site at the police headquarters in Nigeria's northern city of Kano January 22, 2012, after a bomb attack on Friday. (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters)


The horrific Boko Haram attacks over the weekend in Kano have left over two hundred dead. The attacks were on police stations and the immigration office.

Kano is Nigeria’s second largest city, with perhaps seven million people. For more than a millennium it has been a terminus of trans-Sahara trade and a center of Islamic learning. It has a major university that is a respected center of Islamic studies. The emir of Kano is one of Nigeria’s important Islamic traditional rulers and is close to the sultan of Sokoto, who is the preeminent traditional ruler in the North. (After the April 2011 presidential elections, the sultan and the emir were seen as having “sold out” to Jonathan, and a mob burned down their private houses.) Though Kano has a Christian minority, most of the population is Muslim.

Why would a radical Islamic movement such as Boko Haram stage attacks where victims are likely to be Muslim?

An alleged Boko Haram spokesman, Abul Qaqa, provides a plausible explanation for the attack. The attack, he said, was in revenge for police murder and other abuse of Boko Haram adherents. Boko Haram had appealed without any response to the emir, the governor, and a business leader. He also said that it was only because of the intervention of “prominent scholars” that Boko Haram had not made Kano altogether ungovernable. He said that because of their appeals, Boko Haram will still “tarry.”

The police, a national—not a state or local–force are notorious for their abuse and widely hated. The policy is to avoid stationing a policeman in the area that he comes from. That way, so the theory goes, the policeman will be impartial. It also means in practice that the police often have little understanding or sympathy for the people they are supposed to protect. They are woefully underpaid, and many of them are involved in scams that prey on poor people. Hence, any attacks on the police are likely to be popular.

It is hard to know who Abul Qaqa represents. But, from his public comment with its focus on the local treatment of Boko Haram adherents, it is credible that he speaks for the individuals who carried out the weekend attacks in Kano.

Kano has a history of radicalism. Recently, it was a center of opposition to President Goodluck Jonathan’s efforts to end the fuel subsidy. This opposition united ethnicities and religions in Kano (and elsewhere) in a way that Boko Haram would not like. That might have also played a role in the weekend bombings, only a week after the Hisba (Islamic police) provided protection for Christian churches.

Post a Comment 11 Comments

  • Posted by John P. Causey, IV

    The police in this area are nothing like what the West is accustomed. Living on the border of Cameroon and Nigeria in 2002 and 2003, I speak from first hand experience.

    On several occasions, the taxis in which I rode were stopped and the passengers all ‘shaken down’. I always refused, and was not reprimanded, but only because I was a peace corps volunteer and was allowed to reject such customs/mores.

    Ask a child the job to which they aspire. Many will say to be a police officer or military man. The reason, the ability to ‘supplement’ an income. These problems may seem minor, but when you actively live in such conditions, you realize the tremendous impact such corruption has on day-to-day life. I’m not surprised that the Boko Haram attacks are being aimed as indicated.

  • Posted by Maduka

    This was a long time coming.

    The immediate cause could have been the recently declared war on state security agents and Christians by Boko Haram, but let’s take a step back and look at the history of that area.

    Kano and much of Northern Nigeria has been remarkably tolerant of extreme violence perpetuated against people classified as “outsiders” (non-Indigenes and non-Muslims). If you trace the history of the Kano riots in the fifties, to the ethnic pogroms in the sixties, to the Reinhard Bonnke crusade massacre in the nineties, to the beheading of Gideon Akaluka for “defacing the Quran”, to the Miss World riots some years back, to the Danish cartoon riots, post-election riots last year etc.

    Generation after generation of young men have grown up to believe that it is okay to take out your anger on the defenseless “other” and expect no sanction from either the elders, Muslim leaders, traditional leaders or agents of law enforcement. (Gideon Akaluka was beheaded and his head was paraded on the streets of Kano – yet no one was arrested).

    Today, the targets of the rage of misguided young men are not Christians or non-indigenes, but fellow Muslims, innocent people. Boko Haram did not only kill security agents, they also indiscriminately massacred innocent men, women and children.

    Perhaps it is time for Northern Nigeria to stop living in denial and address the enemy within. Now every one realises that Boko Haram is not just an enemy of Christians (BH ordered all Christians out of Northern Nigeria), but an enemy of ALL Nigerians.

    (You suggested that the US should set up a consulate in Kano, in the light of the present circumstances, it doesn’t seem to be a very good idea).

  • Posted by femi

    This is an attack by an Islamic sect with abiding loyalties to alqaeda on the Nigerian state. The attempt to find a motive for grand scale murder by apportioning partial blame to the Nigerian police is disappointing,
    How do you reconcile the fact that 80% of the victims of this murderous campaign were civilians to a supposed blood feud with the nigerian police.
    The police may be corrupt but to hear you say attacks on them may be popular in a country like Nigeria is alarming for a fellow of a council that guides US foreign policy.

  • Posted by Nasser

    i believe its a welcome idea for the US to have a Consulate in Kano.That way American policy(like British) will be coherent with the facts on ground

  • Posted by Maduka

    I have (and still have) major issues with this blog and its coverage of Nigerian issues. Sometimes my comments are not published (and this comment may not be published), but I am not overly concerned, I can always voice my concerns elsewhere.

    This blog has deliberately or through omission due to lack of knowledge has failed to inform its readers of the true nature of problems in Northern Nigeria.

    First, this blog makes no distinction between Hausa/Fulani/Kanuri Muslims in Nigeria’s North and Igala/Nupe/Gwari/Igala Muslims in Nigeria’s North. The first group has traditionally been intolerant of outsiders while the second group are more open and tolerant. Ambassador Campbell seems to be labeling a potent cocktail of Salafist theology and tribalism as a popular revolt against bad government – it is not.

    Secondly, this blog is very silent on the plight of Christians in Nigeria’s far North. In some states, Christians account for about 30% of the population. Yet in several states in Northern Nigeria, it is extremely difficult to obtain a certificate of occupancy to build either a Church or a brothel and Christians do not have the same rights as Muslims under Sharia law. It is surprising that a man who spent several years representing a nation that was formed on the principle of separation of Church and State either lacks the courage or sees no need to comment on this. Instead Ambassador Campbell is enthusiastically campaigning for the US Government to spend more money on research on Islamic texts.

    Thirdly, several prominent politicians from the Hausa/Fulani/Kanuri group promised “to make Nigeria ungovernable if Goodluck Jonathan wins the election”. These statements were made openly to the media, yet Ambassador Campbell would rather report on unsubstantiated claims by Jean Herskovits that “Christians masking as Muslims have been burning down Churches and Mosques”.

    Fourthly, this blog repeats the time-worn, politically correct assertion that “poverty, alienation and economic marginalization” lie at the roots of the crisis in Northern Nigeria. This may be true, but what exactly is responsible for poverty, alienation and economic marginalization? Ambassador Campbell fails to inform his readers that Nigeria has been ruled by Northern politicians for 38 out of its 51 years of independence. He never suggests that bad cultural practices like polygamy may be contributory factors and most importantly, he fails to produce concrete evidence of economic marginalization.

    He fails to inform his readers that Borno State (which has about the worst human development indices in Nigeria/Africa) has a budget of about $0.8 billion (which is significant by African standards). Where does the money go? What is it spent on? He’d rather blame Goodluck Jonathan than beam the searchlight on local administrators.

    In summary, I have always voiced my concerns about the accuracy of information on this blog and even the motives of the writer of this blog. There is a lot of important contextual information that seems to be left out. Readers of this blog tend to be left with a one-dimensional understanding of an extremely complex set of circumstances.

    As a Nigerian, it is my duty to point this out.

  • Posted by Chijioke

    I am perplexed that a former Ambassador to Nigeria thinks that boko haram is a consequence of the marginalization of nigerian northerners. I am also troubled that the former ambassador seems to think that as long as boko haram confined their terror to the “twelve (12) sharia state”, that it is ok. Nigeria is for all Nigerian and no religious ideology should prohibit other practices especially by the use of terror. Terrorism must be condemned and confronted by all well meaning people and never be excused no matter the motivation.

  • Posted by John Ojeah

    Maduka, you are right on point. Any comment that seems to present a different point of view to the sole goal of this blog will not be published. But that will not change the facts on ground. I am in support of anything that will increase the human development indices of Northern Nigeria (especially the Hausa/Fulani/Kanuri). If this is what the Honourable Ambassador wants to achieve, then I am in full support of him. But, my fear is that he prefers the status quo the British left in the 1960s or some intent that may not augur well with Nigeria.

    As a nation formed just in 1914 which the colonial masters themselves ruled the three major ethnic groups differently and even tried to prevent cultural integration, methinks Nigeria has achieved a lot in fostering unity. Before independent, only the Igbos travel and live outside their indigenous regions . In fact most prominent earry Igbo politicians and military men were born and raised in the North (Azikiwe, Ojukwu, Aguiyi-Ironsi, Kaduna Nzeogwu). Now we have a significant number of Nigerians living in regions other than their own. It is my opinion that as someone who must have traveled widely, consult, and reach out to as many regions as possible during his stay in Nigeria the owner of this blog should not be viewing Nigeria in such a narrow perspective.

    Improving human development indices and economic development in the far North and to a lesser extent, the Niger Delta, will be very beneficial to Nigeria, no doubt. It will increase Nigeria’s total consumer purchasing power significantly. But I do not believe that only having access to political power will do the magic. If not, the almost 4 decades of Northern rule would have ensure this development as is sometimes highlighted in this blog.
    Nigeria is a very complex country that cannot be reduced to Northern Christian and Southern Muslim. Maduka pointed out the large indigenous minority Christian population in the far North and the significant minority Muslim population in the Middle Belt. But we should also note that there is a significant Muslim population in the Southwest. In fact, most of the governors in the Southwest are Muslims, including Fashola and Tinubu of Lagos state. None of these Muslims go about killing people because of religion, other than the Hausa/Fulani/Kanuri. Rather than justifying the killing of members of our security forces and innocent citizens, we should be advocating on how to make the likes of Boko Haram to turn a new leaf.

  • Posted by John Ojeah

    First sentence on last paragraph should be ‘Nigeria is a very complex country that cannot be reduced to Northern Christian and Southern Muslim.’

  • Posted by Zainab

    As a northerner, the general opinion and consensus amongst most northerners is that this attack on Kano, the cultural and commercial nerve centre of the North is aimed at weakening and destroying the little that is left of the North’s economic and political base in a very dangerous zero-sum game that now characterizes Nigerian politics.

    Many are also of the opinion that this attack which has claimed more Muslim lives disputes the very flawed assertion that has been bandied about that Boko Haram is sponsored by prominent Northern politicians who have vowed to make the country “ungovernable” for President Jonathan, having lost out of the power game. The attacks particularly the SSS Headquarters, the Farm Center and Bompai Police Stations were close to the houses of many of the so-called prominent northerners & elites. The houses within that vicinity were reported to have been quite damaged from the shocks of the blasts: ceilings caved in, chandeliers fell, windows cracked and shattered, families traumatized. The attacks left indelible emotional and psychological scars in the minds of Kano residents. Would northern politicians really go that far to “destabilize” Jonathan’s government? Would they destroy their home base, kill their people, destroy the little left of the dying economy just to prove a point to Jonathan? Most northerners believe these attacks were sponsored and premeditated to undermine the north and further weaken it in a dangerous political game in the country. The general consensus is that these sustained attacks will continue and would eventually spread to Kaduna, the political center of the north until the North is destroyed. This (conveniently?) coincides with the recent vociferous separatist and irredentist agitation from other parts of the country for a balkanization of the country.

    Whether this is an accurate assessment or not is something else, but THIS IS THE GENERAL OPINION IN THE NORTH. (Not) surprisingly, this is one perspective that has been left out of the Boko Haram discourse. The media, the Nigerian media in particular prefer to downplay the Muslim victims and casualties and portray the Boko Haram carnage as targeting Christians only (especially of Igbo extraction) when this is CLEARLY NOT the case.

    We hope the Federal and respective state governments would henceforth publish the names, identities and ethnicities of all victims and casualties.

  • Posted by Maduka


    Are you suggesting that people in the North believe that Jonathan or the South have concocted a Machiavellian scheme involving self-proclaimed Islamist suicide bombers with the sole aim of destroying the economy of the North?

    Are you suggesting that the Christmas day bomb attack was part of a grand scheme by some non-Northern elements to destabilise the North?

    How can anyone believe anything like that?

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    If anyone is available to share their thoughts I would be very pleased to call you or have an email discussion.
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