A Case of Alleged Blasphemy in Kano, Nigeria

Around May 15, a Muslim preacher named Abdul Nyass gave a controversial sermon in Kano, the most populous city in northern Nigeria. Nyass belongs to the Tijaniyya Sufi order. He allegedly stated that Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse (1900-1975), a Senegalese Muslim who revived and popularized the Tijaniyya across West Africa in the mid-twentieth century, was greater than the Prophet Muhammad. The remarks were made at a celebration of Ibrahim Niasse’s birthday. The incident set off an extended and ongoing intra-Muslim controversy in Kano.

Here is a timeline of events:

  • Circa May 15: Abdul Nyass’ alleged sermon glorifying Ibrahim Niasse over the Prophet. Conflict breaks out and Nyass, together with some of his followers, is arrested.
  • May 20: Two major Nigerian leaders of the Tijaniyya, Shaykhs Dahiru Usman Bauchi and Isyaku Rabiu, dissociate themselves and the Tijaniyya from Abdul Nyass and his statements.
  • May 22: “Thousands of youth” burn down the court in the Rijiyar Lemo neighborhood of Kano where Abdul Nyass and his followers are set to appear; other youth burn down Nyass’ house in Kano; other youths attempt to storm Government House and Emir Muhammadu Sanusi II’s palace.
  • May 29: Inauguration of Kano State’s new governor Abdullahi Umar Ganduje
  • June 25: The Upper Shari’a Court in Kano sentences Abdul Nyass and eight of his followers to death for blasphemy; four others were acquitted.
  • June 29: Governor Ganduje announces his support for the court’s verdict.

Some context and reflections:

  • Kano is a significant site of inter-religious and intra-Muslim disputes. Such incidents do not happen on a monthly or even yearly basis, but this case is not the first: one example of Muslim-Christian conflict is the October 1991 riot that occurred in response to plans for a visit to Kano by the controversial Christian preacher Reinhard Bonnke, and one example of intra-Muslim conflict is the 2007 arson at Freedom Radio station.
  • The Tijaniyya is one of the largest Sufi orders in the world and one of the most important Muslim constituencies in Nigeria as a whole and Kano in particular. Emir Ado Bayero (1930-2014, ruled 1963-2014) belonged to the Tijaniyya, as did several Emirs before him. The order as a whole is mainstream in the Nigerian context. If Abdul Nyass did utter the remarks attributed to him, that would make him a fringe voice in the order. Many of his opponents have referred to his group as “yan hakika” (people of the truth, i.e. people who aspire to reach a mystical state), a Tijaniyya offshoot with some fringe beliefs. The mainstream Tijaniyya leaders are taking the case very seriously. Shaykh Dahiru Usman Bauchi essentially called Abdul Nyass an unbeliever (Hausa), and took pains to say that Tijanis are mainstream Muslims.
  • Even though the Tijaniyya as a whole is mainstream, there is a long history in Nigeria of opposition to the order, particularly among high-placed scholars. Shaykh Abubakar Gumi (1924-1992), who was Grand Qadi of Northern Nigeria (an administrative unit at the time of colonialism and decolonization) from 1962-1967, authored a harshly anti-Tijani book in 1972. Critics of the Tijaniyya have long accused the order of elevating its own texts and leaders over the central texts and leaders of Islam. The blasphemy case this year, then, activates long-standing suspicions of the Tijaniyya among some Nigerian Muslims, particularly Salafis.
  • Given this anti-Tijani precedent, the current case may allow some public officeholders to impose their views about what constitutes Islamic orthodoxy. For example, a major figure in this case is the Salafi leader Shaykh Aminu Daurawa, head of Kano’s Hisba, a governmental law enforcement body charged with upholding public Islamic morality. Daurawa has commented frequently on the case, including in terms that go beyond Abdul Nyass himself. In one Facebook post (Hausa), Daurawa wrote, “This is the truth of the [Sufi] order. There is a need to get rid of all [Sufi] orders, because the Prophet (Peace and Blessings Upon Him) is being insulted among them.” One important question about the case, then, is whether it and its aftermath will further empower the opponents of Sufism in Kano.
  • Many analysts in the West have come to believe Sufis are good and their opponents are bad. It’s never that simple. To my mind the analyst should neither caricature Sufis nor demonize their opponents. I don’t see this case as a sign of some “creeping radicalization” in northern Nigeria: I see it as the latest incident in a long-running intra-Muslim struggle to define doctrine and practice in Kano.
  • The case is also important because it will test the limits of what punishments shari’a courts can impose. As AFP writes, since the new shari’a penal codes were implemented starting in 1999, shari’a courts have sentenced various people to death – “but to date, no executions have been carried out.” Federal authorities may pressure Kano’s authorities to overturn the sentences. However, given that both Kano’s new Governor Ganduje and Nigeria’s new President Muhammadu Buhari are very new to their offices, they may decide to either drag their feet or even let the sentences stand. The sensitivity of the questions involved (blasphemy, intra-Muslim relations, public order, etc.), combined with the overall tense atmosphere (including because of Boko Haram’s violence), puts both state and federal authorities in a tricky position. That makes this case one to watch.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Blinken in Nigeria and Niger

Washington’s map of the world still gives Africa much less importance than it is due, but U.S. policymakers do pay substantial attention to Nigeria. The Deputy Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, is in Nigeria and neighboring Niger this week. Blinken is there as part of a series of U.S. diplomatic engagements with the new Nigerian administration of President Muhammadu Buhari. In particular, Blinken is there to help prepare the ground for Buhari’s visit to the White House on July 20. You can read a brief statement about Blinken’s agenda here, and a biography of him here.

If I learned anything in the year I spent on a fellowship at the State Department, it’s that from the perspective of the U.S. government, trips abroad by senior State Department officials are a big deal. I doubt that more than one in two hundred Americans could name the Deputy Secretary of State at any given time, but inside the U.S. government, that person is a demigod. Whether the Nigerians and the Nigeriens perceive the Deputy’s visit as a big deal is, of course, up to them – but Washington is attempting to send a signal that it cares about Nigeria a lot.

The shadow of Boko Haram will hang over the trip. The sect’s violence has been horrific in recent months, including a wave of shootings and bombings in just the past week. Southeastern Niger has been suffering as well, as has Chad, though the latter is not on Blinken’s itinerary. The violence has confirmed grim predictions that neither the election of Buhari, nor the destruction of Boko Haram’s would-be Islamic state in northeastern Nigeria, would be sufficient to end the group’s violence.

Blinken is hosting a Facebook chat today at 10:45 am EST to take questions and comments on his Nigeria/Niger trip. Many people have already posted.

If I were advising Blinken, and if his trip is partly about scaling up U.S. assistance in one or more spheres, I would urge him to prioritize humanitarian relief over military aid. Hundreds of thousands of civilians are suffering in the Lake Chad region, and I believe that it would be more appropriate – and more productive – for the United States to help feed and resettle people than to offer military training and equipment. If all it took to defeat Boko Haram was a few more helicopters, a few more guns, and a few more months of training, Boko Haram would already be defeated. The Nigerian government and its military clearly face a long-term, multi-faceted struggle against Boko Haram; it will take time and sophistication on their part to unravel the Gordian knot, and no outsider can slice through this problem in one stroke. In the meantime, the U.S. government should help Nigeria’s neediest citizens. How better to show that Boko Haram is wrong about the West?

Partial List of Recent Jihadist Attacks in Southern and Central Mali

This is my effort to catalogue jihadist attacks in southern and central Mali during 2015. I’ve deliberately left off attacks by northern rebels such as the Coordination for the Movements of the Azawad, because I consider those attacks categorically different, although the lines can get blurry. Please let me know if I’ve left any jihadist attacks off the list, and I’ll update it accordingly.

[Update: Ansar al-Din has claimed responsibility for the June 27 and 28 attacks, and commenter Aurélien has listed numerous other attacks, which I’ve incorporated below.]

  • June 28, Fakola, Sikasso Region: Gunmen briefly seized the village; Malian security sources attributed the attack to Peul fighters associated with the Masina Liberation Front, but Ansar al-Din claimed the attack.
  • June 27, near Nara, Koulikoro Region: Gunmen killed three soldiers at a military camp; Malian intelligence sources attributed the attack to Peul fighters associated with Ansar al-Din, which claimed the attack.
  • June 14, Djenné, Mopti Region: Gunmen attack a gendarmerie post.
  • June 10, Misséni, Sikasso Region: An estimated thirty gunmen killed a gendarme and burned down the police station; Malian sources did not identify the attackers, but a Malian journalist (French) attributed the attack to Ansar al-Din.
  • June 2, Dogofri, Ségou Region: Four gunmen kill a gendarme; Malian security sources blame the Masina Liberation Front.
  • April 12, between Niono and Diabaly, Ségou Region: A roadside bomb kills two Malian soldiers.
  • April 3, Boni, Mopti Region: Gunmen kill two civilians.
  • April 1, Boulkessi, Mopti Region: Gunmen attacked a Malian military base.
  • March 7, Bamako: Attackers with a machine gun and grenades kill five people at a bar; later claimed by al-Murabitun.
  • January 8 and 16, Ténenkou, Mopti Region: Gunmen attacked soldiers in the village; the Malian press (French) attributed the attack to the Masina Liberation Front.
  • January 6, Dioura, Mopti Region: Gunmen attacked a military outpost.
  • January 5, Nampala, Ségou Region: Gunmen attacked Malian soldiers, killing as many as seven; the Malian press (French) attributed the attack to the Masina Liberation Front.

Snapshots of Ramadan in the Sahel



The Nigerian Supreme Council For Islamic Affairs has directed Nigerian Muslims to commence their Ramadan fast on Thursday, June 18. The Sultan of Sokoto, Sa’ad Abubakar III, who is the President-General of the Council, on Wednesday gave the directive while announcing the sighting of the new moon heralding the month of Ramadan 1436AH…Mr. Abubakar also called on Muslim faithful to use the Holy month of Ramadan to re-dedicate themselves to the teachings of Islam and continue to live peacefully with one another irrespective of religious and tribal differences.


The National Commission for the Observation of the Lunar Crescent (CONACOCC) has the task of determining the beginning of each lunar month and this week declared that Ramadan would start on Friday [June 19]. But many Senegalese Muslims began fasting on Thursday, emulating neighbouring Mauritania, Mali and the Gambia, as well as Saudi Arabia, home to the sacred pilgrimage sites of Medina and Mecca.

More here (French).

Material Conditions

Mauritania (French):

At the main food market in Nouakchott, the merchants give themselves over, apparently with complete impunity, to all sortes of speculations. The sudden rise in prices particularly affects the products that go into making the dishes most prized during the month of Ramadan; notably, vegetables and meats.

More from Mauritania: a newspaper editor on economic conditions in Nouadhibou (Arabic), including the difficult wait for a fishing agreement with the European Union.

Mali (French):

Month of pardon, pity, support, and help, [Ramadan] is also the month of high prices in Bamako…Onions have passed from 225 to 400 FCFA/kilo. Likewise, potatoes have climbed from 300 to 500 FCFA/kilo; garlic, from 1000 to 1200 FCFA.


Burkina Faso (French):

In Burkina Faso, Muslims are getting ready for the month of Ramadan in a very particular context. Since the popular insurrection and the fall of Blaise Compaoré, people’s purchasing power seems to degrade more and more. For merchants, business is turning into slow motion and people are already denouncing the prices of certain food products useful for the month of Ramadan. A month that could be difficult for many families.

From Senegal (French), a video about electricity and water cuts.


Nigerian Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs:

[T]he holy month this year coincides with a period Muslims and indeed all Nigerians,have every reason to thank Allah for His abundant blessings. The peaceful elections and the dramatic transition of power from one government to the other are a testimony to the fact that Allah answers prayers. All right-thinking Nigerians appreciate that what Nigeria witnessed this year, despite the frightening predictions and scary projections before the 2015 elections, was simply the grace of divine intervention.

The month of Ramadan as a period of forgiveness offers Nigerians an opportunity to forgive the unprecedented abuse unleashed on their collective humanity in the recent past and to forge ahead as one nation united by one destiny. It is an ample opportunity to foster the ideals of brotherhood and togetherness after some years of crude and institutionalised divide-and-rule tactics which resulted in unprecedented divisiveness, losses, of lives, property and reputation….[F[or those who Allah Has entrusted with leadership, we urge them to remember the favours of Allah on them when He answered the prayers of the oppressed, the maligned and the persecuted by granting them success. They should complement the prayers by being good and justify the expectations of Nigerians by being fair and just to all. They should be compassionate, disciplined and exemplary. They need to demonstrate competence and sense of mission.The campaign period of sloganeering has expired and only exemplary performance can retain and sustain the massive goodwill and support of the abused masses.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari:

As we make collective efforts to bring to a permanent end the menace of the Boko Haram in the Lake Chad basin countries, let me use this auspicious occasion to appeal to our misguided brothers to drop their arms, embrace peace and seek a better understanding of Islam during this Holy period and beyond.


  • Senegalese President Macky Sall (French).
  • Shaykh Aminu Ibrahim Daurawa, Commander-General of the Hisbah Board in Kano, Nigeria: “Ten Things That Break the Fast” (Hausa).
  • Ramadan information page at Mauritania’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs (French).


The Guiro Affair: Corruption, Accountability, and Questions in Burkina Faso

On June 20, the Court of Appeal (French) in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, found Ousmane Guiro guilty of corruption involving 900 million FCFA (about $1.5 million). The Court ordered the confiscation of his assets, gave him a suspended prison term of two years, and fined him 10 million FCFA (about $17,000). The “Guiro Affair” began in the final phase of ex-President Blaise Compaore’s rule, but has lasted into Burkina Faso’s post-revolutionary period.

The case is important because it touches on broader themes of corruption, accountability, and politics. Guiro, a former Director-General of Customs, was first arrested in January 2012. He was immediately fired by Compaore. Jeune Afrique (French) wrote at the time:

In Ouagadougou, the news surprised people, and for good reason: in the memory of the Burkinabe, it is the first time that such a high personality has been incarcerated. To cut rumors short, the Commandant of the Gendermarie Hubert Yaméogo had to appear on the set of Burkinabe national television and tell part of the story. 

Jeune Afrique noted that Guiro had survived earlier accusations of corruption in 2008, allegedly because his “well-placed friends” protected him. The magazine went on to imply, though, the in the aftermath of protests and mutinies that swept Burkina Faso in 2011 – a dry run of sorts for the revolution of 2014 – the presidency may have been willing to offer up a sacrificial lamb to the voices demanding accountability for corruption. Guiro, who apparently had trunks full of cash (French), may have been ideal because of the egregious nature of his theft.

Civil society reactions (French) to Guiro’s sentencing have been complex, with some prominent leaders saying that the sentence was too light. Burkinabe observers have raised questions about who else was involved in corruption under Compaore, and whether the relatively light sentence for Guiro sends a “noxious” message to officeholders. Some have even taken the verdict as evidence that “the system of Mr. Blaise Compaore is still intact” – that Burkina Faso’s governing institutions, including the judiciary, will continue to protect high-placed wrongdoers. Guiro now has time to appeal, but even if his case closes, the issues at stake in his trial will continue to resonate for some time.

Two Quotations on Selecting Cabinet Ministers in Nigeria

The administration of Nigeria’s new President Muhammadu Buhari is currently working to assemble a cabinet. It is no easy task. Many considerations are taken into account – merit, experience, intra-party politics, balance among Nigeria’s six “geo-political zones,” etc. Moreover, as in other countries (including the United States!), the process may not be entirely subject to calculation and careful planning. Here are two quotations that made me think about the messiness of the process:

1. Nasir El-Rufai (former Minister of the Federal Capital Territory and current Governor of Kaduna), The Accidental Public Servant, pp. 56-57:

There is rarely neither any merit attached nor any selection and review process, to appointing leadership particularly under military regimes. Typically, various names are contributed by the political elite, collected into a long list; someone or a small group reviews the list, prunes some out, sending the result to some committee to assign them to various ministries and the head of state makes some last minute reassignment of portfolios. In other words, Nigeria’s governance outcomes really depend on a series of accidents rather than any meritocratic or rigorous process.

2. Ahmed Joda, head of Buhari’s transition committee, chairman of the 1979 transition committee from Olusegun Obasanjo to Shehu Shagari, and vice chairman of the President Policy Advisory Group when Obasanjo returned to office as a civilian in 1999:

In 1999…[w]e had a complete office block already made, vehicles and buses and our accommodation had been booked and when you arrived everything was smooth, including all the handing over notes were prepared on the first day. We had everything. Now, this election [i.e., the 2015 election] is the first time in the history of Nigeria that an opposition party had uprooted a ruling party. It was not just changing the president or changing the members of the states or national assemblies. We were all witnesses to the election campaigns, how bitter it was. There were predictions that the country would collapse; there were also all sorts of allegations and counter-allegations and the environment was very hostile. People were expecting the worst, but God, in His infinite mercies, diffused all the tension but, perhaps, the outgone government did not expect to lose the election, I don’t know…The situation was this: we were to receive the handing over notes, study them and wherever necessary to seek clarifications from wherever, whether ministers, civil servants or chairmen of boards or chief executives of parastatals. But, like I told you, we did not receive those notes in time and our terms of reference although extended by the president limited us by the mere fact of our name ‘transition committee’.

The full interview with Joda (at the link above) is worth reading.

The Central African Republic’s “Ambitious Electoral Calendar”

When African countries suffer coups and/or civil wars, Western governments and local political elites often push for rapid elections, hoping to clarify the question of who’s in charge and to put the country on a path forward. Sometimes it works fairly well (Niger), and sometimes the results are less convincing (Libya, Mali). Looking just at those examples, I’m tempted to propose a very rough model: a coup without a civil war can set the stage for a relatively smooth electoral transition, but a messy combination of revolution and civil war is harder to repair with a vote.

That might be bad news for the Central African Republic (CAR). Last month, after CAR held the Bangui Forum on Reconciliation, I argued that “there is…a danger that domestic and international actors’ focus on swiftly holding presidential elections will distract from the more important task of promoting peace among CAR’s communities.” One purpose of the Forum was to prepare the ground for elections later this year – not necessarily a wise idea, in my view.

Now CAR’s National Elections Authority (l’Autorité nationale des élections, ANE) has laid out what RFI calls an “ambitious electoral calendar” (French)

that fixes the constitutional referendum for October 4, the first round of the legislative elections and the presidential elections simultaneously on October 18, and the second tour of the two votes on November 22. However, before that, the ANE will launch a major census of voters throughout the country, starting June 27 and lasting one month.

RFI spoke to a few politicians who voiced optimism about the timetable, saying that it can go forward if the ANE receives proper funding, and that the elections are unlikely to take place later than December 2015. The ANE’s site is here (French), though it is quite skeletal.

If Mali offers a lesson, it is that the problems of today will re-appear in a new (or old) guise after the elections, unless they are met with real solutions. For CAR, that means continuing to work to reconcile communities, disarm fighters, create jobs, resettle the displaced, and ensure people’s basic needs are met. The international funders who help pay for the elections should devote even greater resources toward those other priorities, otherwise the elections may well prove hollow.