John Campbell

Africa in Transition

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

Print Print Cite Cite
Style: MLA APA Chicago Close


Civil War within Islam in Nigeria

by John Campbell
July 24, 2014

National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) staff carry a body bag at the scene of a bombing at Alkali Road in Kaduna, July 23, 2014. (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters)


On July 23, there was an effort to murder two of Nigeria’s prominent Muslim leaders, Sheikh Dahiru Bauchi, a cleric with a large personal following, and Muhammadu Buhari, former head of state. The attempts were two separate operations, though they appear to have been timed close together, in the former northern regional capital of Kaduna.

The attempt against Sheikh Bauchi occurred when a bomb exploded near the square where he was scheduled to give an end-of-Ramadan sermon. Less than two hours later, a suicide bomber drove a vehicle into former head of state Buhari’s convoy as he was passing through Kaduna. Though Boko Haram has not claimed responsibility, both targets had been publicly critical of the group. Bauchi declared Boko Haram to be “non-Islamic,” and there have been earlier attempts on his life. Buhari, too, has published writing opposing Boko Haram, which has issued death threats against him. On the other hand, the two also have other enemies. Both Bauchi and Buhari survived the attempted murder, but the media estimates at least eighty-two others were killed, mostly bystanders and small traders.

Presuming Boko Haram was the perpetrator, the attack highlights an important aspect of the Boko Haram conflict. Among other things, it is a civil war within northern Nigerian Islam. Bauchi and Buhari are part of the Sufi-influenced, broadly tolerant Islam that has been traditional in northern Nigeria and includes most of the Islamic establishment. It fully embraces modernity (if not secularism), western education, and the Nigerian nation-state. It cultivates positive relations with Christians. Boko Haram, on the other hand, is fundamentalist and advocates a literalist reading of sacred texts. It is broadly part of the Salafist tradition of Islam. (To state the obvious, most Salafists do not embrace the violence of Boko Haram.) For Boko Haram, Muslims who embrace the secular state and western education are false Muslims who should be killed. Christians should be killed or driven out. Nevertheless, Muslims have supplied the largest percentage of Boko Haram’s victims.

Buhari will be well known to Americans who watch Nigeria. He was military head of state from 1984 to 1985. Alone among Nigeria’s chiefs of state, both military and civilian, he attempted to address Nigeria’s corruption root and branch, and his methods could be rough and extra-legal. Accordingly, he was deposed by Ibrahim Babangida in 1985. Buhari’s current lifestyle is austere and uncorrupt. He is probably the most popular politician with the “street” in the North. He was a presidential candidate in 2003, 2007, and 2011, and may be so again in 2015. Ironically, this potential victim of radical Islam is himself often viewed with suspicion in the Christian south as a Muslim fanatic, which is far from the truth.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Kanayo

    Buhari is “viewed with suspicion in the South” (& among Northern Christians) for his statements on sharia – which are easily available.

    I don’t agree that Islam practiced in the North is “broadly tolerant” – it might have been in the past, but not today. It includes “arrest of gossips & drinkers during Ramadan” & last decade, the impact of “political sharia” on the Christian minority was devastating.

    In fact, it created the conditions for intolerant Islamist cults like Boko Haram – which don’t exist in the religiously tolerant South West.

  • Posted by Wasila Mohammed

    Very good piece. Boko Haram is not an Islamic group, whatever it is they are doing is most certainly not Islam. Buhari is not a fanatic, thank you for pointing it out. On the whole, you captured and wrote an interesting and true piece. Well done!!!

Post a Comment

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR's guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.

* Required