Boko Haram’s Assassination Attempt on the Emir of Kano

The term “traditional” can be misleading. When talking about northern Nigeria, I prefer to say “hereditary Muslim rulers.” So I’ll say that hereditary Muslim rulers have substantial religious, political, economic, social, and cultural importance in many parts of northern Nigeria. These rulers, including the Sultan of Sokoto, the Shehu of Bornu, emirs, and other figures, trace the origins of their offices to two pre-colonial Islamic empires in present-day northern Nigeria and its environs: the Empire of Sokoto and the Empire of Kanem-Bornu. From the Sokoto side, in addition to the Sultan of Sokoto himself, the Emir of Kano, Al Hajj Ado Bayero, is one of the most important figures. He took office in 1963, making him one of the longest-serving rulers today (he is 82 years old). The assassination attempt against him on January 19, in which six people died, has caused considerable consternation, and has already led authorities to increase security measures in Kano State and elsewhere.

To condense a lot of history into a few quick sentences, the rulers from the Sokoto side came to power after the jihad of Shaykh Uthman dan Fodio started in 1804. Kano was under Sokoto’s control during the nineteenth century but this does not mean that Sokoto could always impose its will there – for example, Kano fought a civil war in the 1890s to resist an unpopular candidate for the Emirate installed by Sokoto (see a brief account here, p. xii). British colonial officials in northern Nigeria from approximately 1900 to 1960 left hereditary Muslim rulers in office. But the British had complicated relationships with these rulers, relationships that could involve coercion and manipulation as well as strategic cooperation. In the postcolonial period, hereditary Muslim rulers have retained significant influence in politics and society. But critics of the emirate class from the independence era to the present have accused hereditary rulers of blocking progress and drawing too close to politicians. Since at least the Boko Haram uprising of 2009, some critics have also charged that hereditary rulers have not been forceful enough in speaking and acting against radicalism and violence. Despite criticism, however, hereditary rulers retain tremendous prestige among some of their constituents; when Boko Haram attacked Kano in January 2012, many people were deeply moved by the Emir’s public grief.

The Boko Haram sect originated in northeastern Nigeria and its epicenter to some extent remains Borno State. That area was part of Kanem-Bornu before the colonial era. But Boko Haram’s westward spread has brought it into areas that were part of Sokoto, including Kano.

When Boko Haram began its campaign of guerrilla-style attacks in 2010, I initially felt that its attitude toward the hereditary rulers was ambivalent. The incident that gave me that sense was a prison break in September 2010 when Boko Haram fighters spared the life of the Emir of Bauchi, even though they had an opportunity to kill him. With various assassination attempts against emirs and their relatives from 2010 to 2013,* however, it seems that hereditary rulers are now at least tertiary targets for Boko Haram (I say tertiary because there have been many more attacks on security personnel and Christian sites). It is also possible, as with other forms of violence, that the insecurity and uncertainty created by Boko Haram’s attacks has given space to violent opportunists who are not necessarily affiliated with Boko Haram. Nigerian officials have stated, however, that they arrested Boko Haram fighters, at least one of whom who confessed to the attempt against the Emir.

Assuming Boko Haram is behind the attack, what would motivate them to kill a hereditary ruler? I can think of two main reasons. First, they may view the emirs as part of the political establishment that they seek to destroy; in the Salafi milieu from which Boko Haram emerged, harsh criticisms circulate painting the hereditary rulers as allies of politicians and opponents of Salafis. Second, they may target emirs for their symbolic importance; the attack on the Emir of Kano may have been timed to coincide with the first anniversary of last January’s mass attack in the city. If terrorism in one sense aims at spectacle, killing the Emir near the anniversary would have been a shocking piece of political symbolism.

What effects will this incident have? Already, it has spurred a ban on commercial motorbikes in Kano (the likely reasoning being that Boko Haram frequently makes use of motorbikes in its attacks). Daura Emirate in neighboring Katsina State has cancelled public celebrations connected with the Mawlud (anniversary of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday). This is not the first time such celebrations have been cancelled or abridged in recent months. Politicians, the Sultan of Sokoto, and other Muslim leaders are calling for investigations and increased security measures; the Christian Association of Nigeria also condemned the attack. I imagine we will see hereditary Muslim rulers being even more cautious than before about how and whether they appear in public.

In terms of what this incident says about the position of hereditary rulers in the north, perhaps it is possible to see this as a sign of their vulnerability and their prestige all at once, even in ways that are contradictory. In the fall, after an assassination attempt on the Emir of Fika, the commentator Shehu Salisu argued, “All over the North, the inbred respect for ward and district heads, as well as emirs, is fast diminishing and, consequently, the authority and the myths behind the traditional institutions they head. For those who feared the institutions, a new boldness is in place; for those who had high regards for them, a subtle disdain has emerged and for members of the ruling clans, the rewards of being part of the royal classes are fast ebbing.” I think is some powerful evidence for this point of view. But there is also evidence that people hold hereditary rulers in high esteem. Even Boko Haram’s choice of the Emir of Kano as a target says something about the symbolic importance of his office.

I think that neither the hereditary rulers’ decline nor the maintenance of their current prestige is inevitable. Rather it seems to me that they stand at a crossroads, and that it will be for the younger ones among them – including the Sultan of Sokoto, who is relatively young at 56, and the next Emir of Kano, whoever he may be** – to make some difficult and fateful decisions about their roles in politics and society. The challenges posed to their authority by the fragmentation of the religious landscape in the north, and by Boko Haram as one manifestation of that fragmentation, are quite formidable. But these hereditary institutions have proven highly flexible over time, and their occupants have frequently been quite adept at navigating social and political change. I would not, in other words, count the emirs and the Sultan out quite yet.

*In my list of attacks on emirs last week, I missed two alleged assassination attempts/plots against the Emir of Kano – one in 2010 and one in 2011.

**Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria and a grand-nephew of the current Emir, is often mentioned as a potential successor, but he will face rivals.

Nigeria: Major Crackdown on Boko Haram in Yobe and Adamawa States

Mosque, Damaturu

Mosque in Damaturu, by Jeremy Weate

Last week, Nigerian security forces in Kano and Maiduguri killed at least four suspected high-ranking members of the Boko Haram sect and arrested two others. That tally includes the group’s infamous spokesman Abu Qaqa, who has been reported dead before. This week, security forces have mounted crackdowns on Boko Haram in Yobe and Adamawa States. While clashes between security forces and sect members are frequent, these crackdowns have been significant for their scale.
AFP on the crackdown in Yobe:

“The Joint Task Force has succeeded in killing 35 Boko Haram terrorists in shootouts between Sunday evening through Monday,” said Lieutenant Lazarus Eli, a military spokesman in Yobe state, of which Damaturu is the capital.

A round-the-clock curfew was imposed in the city late Saturday, ahead of the operation that also led to the arrest of 60 suspected Boko Haram members.

The curfew has been relaxed and residents are now allowed out of their homes from 7:00 am to 10:00 pm (0600 GMT to 2100), Eli said. The ban on movements in Yobe’s economic capital of Potiskum has also been eased.

Military forces went door-to-door through three Damaturu neighbourhoods beginning late Sunday and engaged militants in “a fierce exchange of gunfire” through to the early hours of Monday morning, the spokesman added in a statement.

Two soldiers were injured in the fighting.


A list of weapons that Eli said were recovered from Boko Haram hideouts included dozens of guns, explosive devices and hundreds of rounds of ammunition as well 32 arrows and two swords, among other items.

PM News on the crackdown in Mubi, Adamawa:

“In the three-day operation, the town was placed under 24-hour curfew, which enabled soldiers to comb the nooks and corners,” said Lieutenant Saleh Mohammed Buba, military spokesman in Adamawa.
“A total of 156 suspects were rounded up in raids of suspected (Boko Haram) hideouts. A sect commander known as Abubakar Yola who went by the alias Abu Jihad was shot dead in a shootout while trying to flee,” he added.
The detained suspected gunmen would soon be produced in court, Buba said.
The spokesman said about 300 explosive devices were discovered in what he described as an armory used by the sect, where about two dozen AK-47 guns were also being stored.

These crackdowns follow Boko Haram’s attacks on cell phone towers earlier this month. A suicide bombing at a church in Bauchi State on Sunday is believed to be the group’s work.

The crackdowns, along with the arrests and shootings of sect commanders, certainly put pressure on Boko Haram. Their success in disrupting the group’s activities will have to be judged over time, though. For one thing, militant groups and terrorist movements are often able to replace slain commanders with relative ease – the headline “Al Qaeda No. 3 Killed” has been written so many times that it has become a joke in some quarters. Second, the massive crackdown on Boko Haram in 2009 did succeed in driving Boko Haram underground for months, but it also seems to have fueled the group’s grievances against the state, especially security forces.

Force will undoubtedly be part of the state’s response to Boko Haram. What matters is how force gets used. To the extent that security forces can target known sect members while avoiding harming and harassing civilians, and can pair forceful tactics with sophisticated strategies for answering the political challenge the sect poses, the crackdowns may help resolve the problem of Boko Haram. If not, then crackdowns risk becoming just another element of a cycle of violence.

A Wave of Boko Haram Micro-Attacks in Damaturu, Bauchi, Kaduna, Kano, Sokoto, and Elsewhere

Yesterday morning, suicide bombers suspected of being from Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect struck two police targets in the northwestern city of Sokoto (map), claiming at least four lives (more here). Police reportedly repelled a third attack Monday evening.

Assuming Boko Haram is behind these incidents, the attacks in Sokoto mark one of the largest strikes the movement has carried out west of Kano.* Their attacks in Kano since January have themselves represented a significant geographical expansion for the group; a presence in Sokoto is yet another stage in this expansion, particularly if attacks become semi-regular there as they have in Kano.

Yesterday also brought an apparent assassination attempt against Nigerian Vice President Namadi Sambo, as “gunmen on motorbikes” shot at one of Sambo’s houses in Zaria, Kaduna State.

The Sokoto bombings and the Zaria attack follow a wave of micro-attacks elsewhere in the North: raids on police stations in Borno and Bauchi States last Wednesday and Thursday, clashes in Damaturu on Friday, reported battles in Maiduguri and Damaturu on Sunday, and gun attacks in Kano on Sunday. Despite the fact that these attacks have caused relatively few casualties, their wide geographical range and their somewhat unpredictable character sends a message to ordinary people in Northern Nigeria: violence could come at any time, in any major city, and the authorities have difficulty preventing it. Most people are simply trying to carry on with their lives, of course, but the cumulative effects of these micro-attacks likely include an increase in the tension people feel and a decrease in their faith in the government and the security forces.

Calls for dialogue have continued; many elites believe there is no purely military solution to this crisis, and that resolution must come at the negotiating table. On Sunday, former Nigerian heads of state Olusegun Obasanjo and Ibrahim Babangida released a statement on the violence in the country:

Without mentioning Boko Haram by name, they called for “community involvement” in addition to security measures to resolve the crisis, urging efforts from local governments, religious leaders and grassroots organisations.

“Religious leaders, in particular, have an even greater challenge to use the immense virtues of this holy period (Ramadan) to inculcate among the millions of citizens the spirit of mutual respect, humility and forgiveness,” the statement said.

“Ample opportunities are therefore at hand to bring all armed belligerents to table for meaningful dialogue with the authorities for our future and that of our children and grandchildren.”

It is easy to be pessimistic about the prospects of successful dialogue. Obasanjo has already made personal efforts at peacemaking, without great success and even with some backlash, but if nothing else such statements show the deepening concern among Nigerian elites regarding Boko Haram and other violent actors in the country.

*Prior to these attacks, the only major incident I am aware of in Sokoto was this March, when an attempt to rescue to kidnapped Europeans resulted in gun battles (and the deaths of the hostages). The question of what role Boko Haram played in those kidnappings remains somewhat murky in my view. For more, see Andrew Walker’s discussion of the subject here (.pdf, pp. 10-11).

Africa News Roundup: Politician Assassinated in Nigeria, Protests in Mauritania, Conquest of Afgoye, and More

A party chairman for the People’s Redemption Party in Gombe State, Nigeria, was assassinated today in Maiduguri (Borno State) by gunmen suspected to be from Boko Haram.

Also in Nigeria, the case of Chinese textile traders arrested in Kano for “economic scavenging” – and now released – is interesting. Some local businessmen, long before this case, have been accusing the Chinese of destroying local industries by undercutting prices with cheap imports.

Sudan and South Sudan are scheduled to resume negotiations this Tuesday over issues like oil revenue sharing, border demarcation, and ending armed conflict.

A major anti-regime protest took place yesterday in Mauritania. Mauritanian opposition parties have condemned the “brutal repression” they say authorities used against demonstrators (Arabic).

Magharebia on religious activists’ demands for stricter rules on public and private behavior in Mauritania:

In Mauritania the demands have taken a more organised form, with the creation of the “No to Pornography” movement by young people last year. The group, aiming to promote virtue and prevent vice, has organised Friday demonstrations outside mosques and marches throughout Nouakchott. Participants in the events wave signs calling for a bans on improper dress, pornography, prostitution and liquor sales.

These requests were repeated in a ten-point statement distributed at marches last week. Additional demands include the creation of “morality police”, stiffer penalties for rape and other sex crimes, and a series of religious reforms to public education.

In Somalia, forces from the Transitional Federal Government and the African Union have taken the town of Afgoye, one of their major goals, from the rebel movement al Shabab. AP calls it “the biggest victory over al-Shabab since the pro-government forces took control of the capital last August.”

At the International Criminal Court, trials will move forward for four Kenyans accused of fomenting post-election violence in 2007-2008.

What else is going on?

Nigeria: Boko Haram’s Attacks in Kaduna

Two weeks, and two bombings in the city of Kaduna (estimated population 760,084 for the city, 6,066,562 for the state).

Kaduna, Nigeria

Last week:

A suspected suicide bomber disguised in military uniform was killed on Tuesday when his car bomb exploded under fire from soldiers outside a military base in the northern Nigerian city of Kaduna, the army said.


A Nigerian bomb disposal officer has been killed when an explosive device he was trying to defuse went off, a police spokesperson has said.

The device was wrapped in a carrier bag and hidden behind an electricity pole in the residential area of Ungwar Sarki in the northern city of Kaduna.

A BBC correspondent at the scene says the police bomb squad was called in after reports of a first explosion.

Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for last week’s bombing (Hausa), and I expect they are behind this week’s attack too.

There are a few trends I see at work in these attacks on Kaduna:

  1. Boko Haram shows a continued ability to strike targets outside of its base, the Northeast. With the bombings in Abuja last summer, the strike in Kano on January 20, and other recent activities, Boko Haram (or its franchises, if one believes the movement has a loose internal structure) seems to be waging two campaigns simultaneously: a guerrilla campaign of frequent micro-attacks (such as assassinations of individual police officers) in the Northeast, and a terrorist campaign of periodic large-scale attacks elsewhere.
  2. With that said, Boko Haram is experimenting with moving into the Northwest more seriously. Boko Haram seems interested not just in conducting periodic attacks as spectacle, but in bringing to Northwestern cities like Kano and Kaduna the kind of regular violence that has characterized its presence in Maiduguri for over a year.
  3. Boko Haram’s primary target remains the government, especially the security forces.
  4. Kaduna, like Jos, may provide an attractive target if one of Boko Haram’s goals is to increase interreligious tensions across the North and across Nigeria. Kaduna has a larger (estimated) percentage of Christians of Christians than Kano or Maiduguri. Kaduna also has a history of interreligious and inter-communal tension and violence that precedes Boko Haram’s arrival by a decade. Major riots in Kaduna occurred in 2000, 2002, and during the post-election violence of last April. Attacks by Boko Haram in Kaduna could lead to a more general climate of fear and mistrust, one that could re-activate the city (and Kaduna State’s) cycle of violence.
  5. Kaduna arguably has greater security than other cities where Boko Haram is trying to establish a foothold. Both of the recent attacks have been partly repelled by security forces.

For some background on past incidents of inter-communal violence in Kaduna State, see here (.pdf) and here (.pdf).

Five Months in Kano, and an Abrupt Return

Regular readers probably noticed a drop-off in posting around September; daily posting did not resume until last week. During the interval I was in Kano, Northern Nigeria, doing my dissertation fieldwork. My dissertation is not about Boko Haram – rather it is about Muslims from Northern Nigeria who have studied in Arab universities and returned home, and indeed none of Boko Haram’s leaders seem to fall into this category, being instead locally educated – but Boko Haram certainly cast a shadow over my time there.

Looked at in a grim way, my time in Kano was bracketed by two terrorist attacks launched by Boko Haram: the August 26 bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Abuja, which occurred a few days before I left the US for Nigeria, and the series of coordinated bombings that occurred in Kano on January 20, a few days before I left. The first of these attacks gave me a lasting sense of wariness about my safety in Kano, and I followed the advice of an older researcher not to blog about Nigeria, and especially not about Boko Haram, while I was overseas. The blackout on Nigeria coverage on the blog aimed both to avoid attracting any unwanted attention and to avoid confusing any interviewees or others in Kano about the nature of my project and my intentions; I have never blogged about my research in detail, and certainly have never written about the content of interviews, private conversations, or other encounters I’ve had with people in Kano. I am not a journalist, or a spy, even though I was occasionally suspected of being the latter. I plan now to go back to blogging frequently about events in Nigeria, but I want people in Kano to understand that I will not be quoting them, or identifying them, except in the dissertation itself.

The second attack, the bombing in Kano, has unfortunately forced an end to my fieldwork (I had originally planned to stay until June) and brought me home (my family essentially commanded me to return, and the kidnapping of a German engineer in Kano last Thursday has dispelled whatever doubts I had about my decision). I hope to go back to Nigeria and to Kano at some point, but for the medium-term I will be in the US.

Looked at in a more positive light, everything between those two attacks was incredible. I met tremendous personal as well as intellectual hospitality in Kano; not only did people welcome me as a friend and a guest, they also proved astonishingly open – even in cases where they weren’t quite sure what to make of me and my research topic – to sit for interviews, to help me find rare books and tapes, and to put me in contact with others who could help me. All of that has meant that I’ve collected enough material to write the dissertation, though of course I have a long road ahead of me and a number of holes to fill by one means or another.

I also found my time in Kano personally moving and enriching. I miss my friends there terribly, and I miss the city itself. No one should forget that, even though Northern Nigeria often makes headlines now because of violence, the land is home to millions of people who live, work, and worship peacefully. I never felt that anyone was targeting or threatening me; on the contrary, although many people disagreed with Washington’s foreign policies, the same people were often eager to learn about the United States, about its culture and its people, and about me as an American. One of my most keenly felt sorrows now is that these micro-level cultural exchanges have to be put on hold. There are not many Americans in Kano, nor many Kanawa in America, and it’s important for us to get to know one another better.

I don’t have much to say in this post about Boko Haram, or about the attacks of January 20th. I heard some of the bombs but was nowhere near the epicenters of violence, and during the days that followed I was mostly at home, especially when the city was under curfew. The attack shocked the people of Kano, a city that had previously lain outside the range of Boko Haram’s attacks. Afterwards everyone I talked to was terribly upset, not only over the loss of life but also because their sense of security had been taken from them. Everyone prays that Boko Haram will not attack again, but the movement announced its presence in Kano in a big way, and minor attacks have occurred since. Boko Haram’s demands, their sources of funding and power, and their plans seem murkier than ever, but their presence has become a reality for a vast swath of Northern Nigeria, and a threat to the rest.

On the day before I left, a Nigerian friend urged me to make an effort to point out the good aspects of Nigeria whenever possible. I hope I’ve done some of that in this post, and I intend to keep trying in the future. No matter how bad the news is coming out of that country, or how many articles we see titled “Nigeria on the Brink” or some such thing, it’s worth keeping in mind the tremendous vibrancy of Nigeria, which is one the most exciting places I’ve ever been.

Quick Guide to Nigeria’s Gubernatorial Elections This Week

This post gives an overview of what will happen in Nigeria’s state elections this week. These gubernatorial elections will conclude a three-stage electoral process that began with legislative elections on April 9 and continued with presidential elections on April 16.

Details About Dates

Today, Nigerians in 29 of the country’s 36 states will cast votes for state governors. On Thursday, voters in Kaduna and Bauchi States will do the same (the elections in these two states were postponed due to the violence that followed last week’s presidential elections). In the remaining five states – Bayelsa, Cross River, Adamawa, Kogi and Sokoto – elections will not take place this week “because the elections that brought the governors of the states in 2007 were flawed and new elections and governors were the results.” Courts and the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) are currently reviewing the situations in those five states.

Details About Candidates and Parties

According to Wikipedia’s list of Nigerian state governors, of the 31 states holding elections this week, the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) holds the governors’ seats in 21. The PDP also has governors in all five of the states not holding elections. The remaining ten governorships are held between the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), which controls Edo, Ekiti, Lagos, and Osun; the All Nigeria People’s Party (ANPP), which controls Borno, Kano, and Yobe; the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), which controls Abia and Anambra; and the Labour Party (LP), which controls Ondo.

Again according to Wikipedia, only six governors are hitting their two-term limit and are therefore ineligible to run again. That means that many incumbents are running this year. One important incumbent candidate to watch is Lagos State Governor Babatunde Fashola (ACN), who is seeking – and is likely to win – another mandate to continue his reforms in Nigeria’s largest city. One important open race to watch is the contest in Kano, home to the largest city in Northern Nigeria. Governors’ races in the North will test the strength of a new party, the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), and will help determine the fate of the ANPP, from which the CPC split. For more on Kano, including struggles within the CPC, see here. Finally, it is worth watching the ACN, which did very well in legislative elections earlier this month. Will the ACN be able to extend its victories in Nigeria’s South West?

News Coverage

News organizations are focusing on issues of electoral violence and are looking at what the elections of governors mean for ordinary people. On the topic of violence, see reports from CNN and Reuters. Violence is gaining even more attention with yesterday’s bombing in Borno State, the stronghold of the Muslim rebel group Boko Haram. AP reports on violence against poll workers.

Turning to the significance of the gubernatorial contests, the BBC highlights the proximity of governors to ordinary people: “For many Nigerians, governors – who control big budgets in the oil-producing country – represent the closest embodiment of power many ever see in African’s most populous nation of some 150 million people.”

Business Day argues that governors are symbols of both failure and hope:

The State level represents the most important sub-national level, and it is generally acknowledged that if governors had performed even at 50 percent since 1999, Nigeria would have seen some measure of economic progress. But for most States, governors come and go and the people are left wondering what is the whole purpose and essence of their office. In the same vein, the members of State assemblies have not lived up to the expectation. They are supposed to be a constructive check on the governors but in most cases, they are appendages of the executive.

Nigerians, when they go to the polls tomorrow, are hoping to elect new governors that will transform their lives through the building and repairing of infrastructure in the states, the support of agricuture and industry, provide platform for the improvement of education and health.

The hopes and frustrations that accompany these elections only increase the importance of the vote. US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson, in an interview with VOA, says how the gubernatorial elections conclude in Nigeria will help determine the success of this entire electoral season.


I expect there will be a lot of news today, so please leave a comment and let us know what you’re hearing. And definitely let me know if I’ve made any mistakes above – there are a lot of details to keep track of. Most of all, I wish Nigerians a safe and successful vote today.