Events this week underlined two difficulties the Nigerian government faces in solving the problem of Boko Haram, the rebellion whose violence continues to disrupt life in the northern part of the country. First, there are the limitations of the military approach: the military’s Joint Task Force (JTF) fought an apparently massive battle with Boko Haram fighters on Tuesday and Wednesday in Maiduguri, the epicenter of the movement (Boko Haram reportedly attacked JTF). The fighting follows clashes over the weekend. Military authorities claim that soldiers killed over a dozen militants, but a number of civilians reportedly died as well. JTF has fought Boko Haram again and again in Maiduguri throughout the spring, but has not been able to end the violence. Many inside and outside Nigeria feel that military means alone will not end the conflict.
But then there are the problems with attempts at dialogue. The Federal Government has evinced some willingness to talk with Boko Haram, and there have been hints that the sect might be willing to talk as well – along with indications that it would not be willing, creating some confusion about their position on the issue. One attempt at mediation fell apart in March, when mediator Dr. Datti Ahmed withdrew, complaining that the government was leaking information to the press. It has proven extremely difficult to find someone that both the government and Boko Haram trust.
Another attempt at mediation seems to have fallen apart this week. Sheikh Dahiru Bauchi of the Tijaniyya, one of the two most widespread Sufi brotherhoods in Northern Nigeria, told the press that he had been working to set up and mediate talks between the government and Boko Haram for several months. Sheikh Dahiru stated that the mediation would have taken place in the context of a cease-fire, and was being managed partly by the Bauchi State government.
Assuming these claims are true, part of the problem may once again have been the involvement of the press: within hours of the reports of mediation, Boko Haram issued a denial:
The statement written in Hausa and signed by the spokesman of the group, Abul Qaqa last night reads in full: “This is a response to the story we read in the media that our group, the Jama’atu Ahlis Sunnah Lidda awati wal Jihad, would commence, or rather had commenced dialogue with the federal government of Nigeria through Sheikh Dahiru Bauchi.
“We want to inform the general public that there is no iota of truth in all what was said. We also want to appeal to the learned Sheikh to steer clear because he is highly revered in the society and must remain as such.
“He should preserve and protect his integrity. He must also desist from giving room to some misguided elements to mislead and drag his name in the mud.
“We want to reiterate that there were no talks or dialogue between us and anybody or group since the time that Dr. Ibrahim Datti’s mediation moves collapsed.”
So there will be no talks, it seems. Not only that, Boko Haram reiterated its threats against media outlets, particularly if they do not offer the sect “right of reply.” Boko Haram seems concerned not to have the media promoting the idea that they are willing to talk; perhaps the sect fears that reports of mediation would make the group look weak or sow confusion among its followers. The problems that have accompanied this attempt at mediation, of course, point to underlying problems that will plague any attempt at dialogue: lack of trust, media involvement, difficulty in coordinating all of the relevant parties, etc.
One interesting thing that emerges from this exchange, though, is a little bit of insight into Boko Haram’s attitudes toward major Muslim leaders in Northern Nigeria. Boko Haram is often said to fit within a “Salafi-jihadi” mold (this is one of my least favorite buzz phrases), i.e. it is said to look toward the Prophet Muhammad and his Companions as a transhistorical, universal model for Muslim life, and moreover is said to want to actualize that program through armed struggle. I have argued that the relationship between Boko Haram and Salafism is complex and even ambivalent. The sect, after all, has drawn criticism from Salafi leaders for its understanding of Islam, and Boko Haram has assassinated several Salafi leaders. Its reference to Sheikh Dahiru, a Sufi, as being “highly revered in the society” is also striking: many of the most prominent Salafi leaders in Northern Nigeria, from Sheikh Abubakar Gumi’s writings in the 1970s to the present, have been strongly critical of Sufism. Boko Haram on the other hand praises – and was potentially willing to work with – a Sufi leader. Given that, I think we should be careful about how we attempt to classify them theologically; in some ways they seem highly idiosyncratic.
I found what appears to be Sheikh Dahiru Bauchi’s Facebook page; it is here. Sheikh Dahiru has been a major Tijani leader in Northern Nigeria for decades; for a historical account of struggles and polemics between Sufis and Salafis in Northern Nigeria, see Roman Loimeier’s Islamic Reform and Political Change in Northern Nigeria.