Article on Salafis and Boko Haram in Nigeria

This month, the journal Islamic Africa published a special issue on Salafism in Africa. The issue includes an introductory essay by the University of Florida’s Dr. Terje Østebø, as well as articles on Tanzania, Ghana, Niger, Somalia, and Sudan. I contributed an article on Nigeria entitled “Nigeria’s Mainstream Salafis between Boko Haram and the State.” In brief, the article argues that the rise of Boko Haram on the one hand, and state suspicions of Salafis on the other hand, have made life awkward for those Salafis who oppose Boko Haram. The article deals primarily with life under President Goodluck Jonathan (served 2010-2015); at some point I may post an update here or elsewhere giving a few thoughts on how non-jihadi Salafis are faring under new President Muhammadu Buhari, but it’s early yet.

Islamic Africa is normally paywalled, but the publisher, Brill, is offering free access to those who register. Details are here.

If you read the article, please stop back by here and share your thoughts.

Pre-Transition Politics in Burkina Faso [Updated]

On October 11, Burkina Faso will hold presidential and legislative elections. Senior members of the current interim government, which took office in November 2014 following the fall of long-time ruler Blaise Compaore the previous month, are ineligible to run in the elections. For now, though, the primary political struggle in the country is not over the October vote, but over who will wield power today, and what the role of different factions of the military will be in the government.

In recent weeks, NGOs and media outlets have buzzed with discussions of tension between the Presidential Security Regiment (RSP) and Prime Minister Yacouba Isaac Zida, a conflict that could, at worst, derail the transition. Although both Zida and Compaore belonged to the RSP in the past, the elite unit has reasons to fear that it will be disbanded and punished: in December, Zida called for its dismantling, and in February, a political crisis unfolded when Zida attempted to reshuffle the RSP’s officer corps (French).

The most recent crisis (French) involves suspicions in some quarters of the government that the RSP was planning to arrest Zida upon his return from a trip to Taiwan – suspicions that were serious enough to make Zida land at a military base instead of at the airport as planned (French). On June 29, the day after Zida got home, gendarmes in the capital questioned three RSP officers, including Lieutenant Colonel Céleste Coulibaly, about their involvement in the suspected plot. That evening, shots were heard coming from the RSP’s barracks, which sits behind the presidential palace. Rumors then spread that Zida was resigning under RSP pressure, but he quickly stated that he was not stepping down.

These incidents have passed without bloodshed, but they have raised fears of an RSP-led coup. For its part, the RSP says (French) that there are no plots, but that it wants Zida and other military officers, such as Minister of Territorial Administration and Security Auguste Barry, to leave the government (French). Both sides accuse the other of seeking to undermine the planned transition. Many observers now look to interim President Michel Kafando to mediate (French) between the parties.

The International Crisis Group has urged parties in Burkina Faso to look forward:

With less than four months to go, the transition in Burkina Faso must focus all its efforts on the October elections…

The transitional government is caught in its own trap. It has made many promises without being able to satisfy them. The public is still waiting to see justice served for the economic crimes and murders committed under Compaoré. However, investigations have come up against a brick wall in the form of the RSP, some of whose members are accused of being involved in such crimes. There can be no final resolution of the question of the RSP’s future without destabilising the country. The transitional government is too weak to tackle their future role head on and seems to have decided to leave it to the new authorities.

With less than four months left before the elections, the transition has no more time to begin reforms and must focus on organising the ballot and promoting a peaceful climate.

For once, I find myself torn about Crisis Group’s recommendations (usually I agree fully with them). I wonder if postponing the question of the RSP’s future is tantamount to settling it in their favor. That does not mean I think the interim government should move to disband the unit – clearly Crisis Group is correct that such a move could prompt a crisis or even a coup. But I worry about a scenario for Burkina Faso where none of the issues that prompted the October 2014 revolution find resolution, even after the elections produce a winner. It seems to that the international community should take a strong stand not for or against the RSP’s existence, but for investigations of crimes. Supporting such investigations should involve creative thinking about how to ensure that the transition to the next government does not end up entrenching an atmosphere of impunity.

[Update July 10]: There have been two very smart responses to this post:

  • Jay Ufelder relates the case of Burkina Faso to broader questions of civilian control over security forces.
  • Michael Kevane offers concrete steps that civilian authorities and civil society activists could take to reduce the risks (or raise the costs) of a coup and to move the RSP close to “acquiescence to civilian rule.”

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.