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.

Nigeria’s State Elections Tomorrow

Tomorrow, Nigeria will hold state elections. Although the victory of Muhammadu Buhari in the presidential vote of March 28-29 has rightly attracted major attention, it is important not to forget about the state contests, which will have a significant impact on the lives of Nigerian citizens – recall that the populations of some Nigerian states (Lagos, Kano) exceed the populations of many entire African countries.

I’ll mention two pieces I’ve written that hopefully shed some light on state-level dynamics. My backgrounder (.pdf) on the elections, written for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, discusses Lagos, Kano, Plateau, and Rivers (pp. 12-15). A follow-up post for the Washington Post‘s Monkey Cage blog discusses Lagos, Kano, and Rivers. Both pieces were written before the six-week electoral delay announced in February, but I think much of the analysis still applies. At a basic level, the most important thing to highlight is that many of Nigeria’s governors are term-limited, so the races in many states are open and will produce new officeholders.

To narrow down my list of key states even further, I will be watching Lagos and Rivers the most carefully. Lagos is a stronghold of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Buhari’s party, and both the outgoing governor and his predecessor are major APC figures. I would be surprised if the APC, in the person of its nominee Akinwunmi Ambode, does not hold the state. Yet the race in Lagos recently had a moment of tension when the Oba of Lagos, a ceremonial hereditary ruler, reportedly made threatening comments regarding any Igbos who might not vote for the APC candidate (the Oba later denied the threat). Lagos is a historically Yoruba area, and Ambode (as well as many other APC leaders in southwestern Nigeria, and the Oba too for that matter) are Yoruba. Ambode distanced himself from the Oba’s comments. The Yoruba and the Igbo are, respectively, the second and third largest ethnic groups in Nigeria. The point is this: just as Buhari is now expected to negotiate a politics of inclusivity as Nigeria’s incoming president, the victor in Lagos will face pressure to show inclusivity in a mega-city populated heavily by immigrants.

Rivers currently has an APC governor, Rotimi Amaechi, who defected from the People’s Democratic Party or PDP, the party of outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan, in 2013. Amaechi is term-limited, and the gubernatorial election will in some sense represent a contest of wills and resources between Amaechi and Jonathan’s wife Patience, who is also from Rivers. There is significant potential for violence in Rivers. During the presidential vote, Rivers was the site of protests by the APC, which alleged that the PDP had committed massive fraud. Electoral authorities, however, accepted the result from Rivers, which like the rest of the South South and South East zones voted overwhelmingly for Jonathan according to official results. The APC has asked for the removal of the Resident Electoral Commissioner in Rivers, charging that she will not administer the gubernatorial election there fairly. Rivers heads into the weekend, in other words, facing considerable tension.

Which states are you watching?

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).