Militant Islam and Democracy in Nigeria: A Forum on Boko Haram and the 2015 Elections

By Rebecca Shereikis, Ibrahim Hassan, Richard Joseph, Brandon Kendhammer, and Rotimi Suberu

Nigeria is embroiled in military and political struggles in which its future as a stable, prospering, and constitutional democracy is increasingly challenged. On February 11, 2015, a group of leading scholars spoke at the Program of African Studies of Northwestern University, under the sponsorship of the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITA). Created by the esteemed Islamic scholar, John Hunwick, ISITA has conducted pioneering research on Islam in Africa since 2000.

The 2015 workshop was organized by ISITA’s Interim Director, Rebecca Shereikis, who also prepared the report on this important exchange of ideas. AfricaPlus will provide an arena for pertinent academic scholarship and incisive policy commentary as Africa’s most populous country, and one of the world’s complex pluralist democracies, goes through the twists and turns of contentious electoral politics and intensified counter-insurgency warfare. Militant Islam is now a global challenge. How well Nigeria responds to it, while strengthening its multi-religious and democratic institutions and cultures, is of profound significance to its people, the African continent, and the world community.

Panel (from left): Richard Joseph, Brandon Kendhammer, Rotimi Suberu, Ibrahim Hassan, and moderator Rachel Riedl

Forum on Militant Islam and Democracy in Nigeria: (from left) Richard Joseph, Brandon Kendhammer, Rotimi Suberu, Ibrahim Hassan, and moderator Rachel Riedl

Rebecca Shereikis

ISITA’s February 2015 workshop titled “A Review of the Boko Haram Crisis on the Eve of the Nigerian Elections” offered nuanced and multi-faceted perspectives on the origins of the Boko Haram insurgency and the implications of the crisis for Nigerian democracy. Panelists situated the emergence of the Boko Haram movement within the specific economic, social, and religious context of northeast Nigeria, while also identifying systemic features of the Nigerian federal system that have sowed the seeds of the crisis. Panelists also addressed the prospects for the March and April 2015 elections, and the need to confront openly the growing tensions between militant Islamism and democracy in Nigeria.

Rebecca Shereikis is the Interim Director of ISITA at Northwestern University. She is also affiliated with the Buffett Institute for Global Studies and the Program of African Studies (PAS).


Ibrahim Hassan

Hassan’s presentation situated the rise and development of the Boko Haram movement within the geography and history of northeastern Nigeria. He points out that “Boko” in Hausa means “fraud” or “deception,” rather than “Western education” as it is often translated. Northern Nigerian Muslims, Hassan argues, have grappled with the contradictions between Islam and “Boko” since Europeans first arrived in the territory and introduced Western education. Rather than rejecting all that is “Boko,” northern Nigerian Muslims have cultivated it—sending their children to Nigerian state schools, attending universities abroad, and participating in all aspects of the capitalist economy and the Nigerian government. Living with such contradictions, Hassan suggests, is part of being a northern Nigerian Muslim. He recounts how as a child, his mother helped him dress in his school uniform each morning while singing a Hausa song that describes how attending “Boko” school prevents children from performing salat (prayer). The message of the song was that “Boko is haram,” (forbidden) and yet, remarks Hassan, “we cultivated this [Boko] education with this shadow in our minds.”

Given this context, how has Boko Haram’s ideology of rejecting Western and secular culture and thought gained traction in the northeast and propelled its adherents to commit violence? Drawing from his research on local perspectives on the rise of the movement, Hassan argues that Boko Haram’s religious ideology has little intrinsic appeal for the population. Instead, we must look at larger processes that have created dire conditions in the northeast, where,“you have nothing going, so you must find something else.” These processes include the collapse of public education, the diminishing authority of traditional Islamic leadership, and the failure of the state to provide basic services and infrastructure that would vitalize northern Nigeria’s informal economy.

Situating the emergence of Boko Haram within the history and geography of Borno State is also important. As the heartland of the historic Kanem-Bornu empire (9th to 19th centuries), Borno State has long, porous, and un-policed borders with neighboring nations, while the state’s largest ethnic group—the Kanuri (who also dominate in Boko Haram)—have historically maintained a sense of separateness from the Nigerian state. Also worthy of closer examination, Hassan argues, are religious practices specific to Borno, especially a strong tradition of syncretism and occultism. Further investigation of the religious history of Borno could shed more light on the growth of Boko Haram among the local population.


 Ibrahim Hassan is an Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Jos, Nigeria, and a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at ISITA. His research focus on Islamic sciences as well as Islam in the modern world – with specific focus on the intersection of Islamic thought and western political, economic and social thought.


Richard Joseph

Joseph’s presentation situated the emergence of the Boko Haram movement within a global transformation of Islam from Islamist ideology – that seeks to have the Islamic faith and sharia upheld by all public institutions – to jihadism that advocates the expansion of Islam by warfare. A contemporary evolution has been the emergence of a cultist and pathological version of Islam evident in Boko Haram and the Islamic State (IS). Dire economic and political circumstances in northeast Nigeria have created the conditions in which extremist leaders like Boko Haram’s Abubakar Shekau entice or force people to embrace a cult of violence. While military and intelligence agencies lead the fight to contain and defeat cultist jihadism, Joseph emphasizes that the underlying current of Islamism and Salafism in Nigeria – well entrenched after decades of proselytizing supported especially by Saudi Arabia – cannot be ignored. Proponents of Islamism, he states, are steadily winning the conversation about the relationship of Islam to the state, at the expense of moderate and establishment Muslims. “The Islamism/Democracy debate must be confronted,” says Joseph. “It will not go away.”  

Nigeria’s accomplishments as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultural, and multi-linguistic nation, Joseph asserts, are often overshadowed by issues of corruption, infrastructure deficiencies, communal violence, and now a brutal jihadist insurgency. “But Nigeria,” he argues, “has been one of the leading countries in the world seeking to harmonize religion, including Islam, with democracy.” Nigeria’s challenge in the upcoming elections—of preserving and extending democratic aspirations in a nation wracked by Islamist terrorism—is one that concerns the entire world. Joseph contends that the relation of Islam to the state is not a question for the north alone. For example, roughly half of Yoruba Nigerians in the southwest are Muslim, so the conversation must be nationwide in scope. He expressed the hope that the resources of Northwestern and ISITA, which has cultivated an important network of expertise on Islam in Africa, can play a critical role in helping Nigerians “find their way out of the intellectual, theological and political quagmire.”

josephr_full_protrait_1x1Richard Joseph is the John Evans Professor of International History and Politics at Northwestern University. He focuses on African governance, political economy, and democratization.



Brandon Kendhammer

Kendhammer offered a fine-grained analysis of the implications of the decision of INEC (Independent National Electoral Commission) to postpone Nigeria’s presidential, gubernatorial, and legislative elections for six weeks. What difference, he asks, will the six-week postponement make? Two answers currently circulating in Nigeria are 1) the position of National Security Advisor Sambo Dasuki that postponement was a non-partisan act intended to give more time for regional military forces to defeat Boko Haram; and 2) the position represented by Nigerian human rights lawyer Clement Nwanko that, given the unlikelihood of the military significantly altering the situation in six weeks, the postponement aimed to undermine the democratic process and benefit the incumbent People’s Democratic Party. In his analysis of events leading up to the postponement, Kendhammer argues that the decline of the military’s morale and conditions beginning in winter 2014 provided the impetus for Boko Haram’s tactical shift towards taking and claiming territory. Boko Haram’s claim to have established a Caliphate in August 2014, Kendhammer contends, was misread by the Western media as an expression of allegiance or affiliation with the Islamic State. He sees it instead as an acknowledgement of the absence of Nigerian state power in the area. Moreover, it is unclear what exactly “governing” has meant for Boko Haram in recent months. There is little evidence of Boko Haram setting up structures or institutions but much evidence of mass departures from areas under their control.

Kendhammer highlights three recent developments that will impact how events unfold in the weeks prior to the elections. First is the split between the United States and Nigeria on security issues, but also the evidence that the Nigerian army is retooling and receiving new infusions of equipment and arms. Second is the mounting regional intervention including the 7,500 troops promised by the African Union and, more importantly, the joint Chadian, Cameroonian, Nigerian, and Nigerien operations underway. Third is what appears to be an important split within Boko Haram. The recent appearance of new Boko Haram media outlets employing ISIS-like techniques and imagery do not prominently feature Abubakar Shekau. Kendhammer concludes by expressing skepticism that the postponement of elections portends well for Nigerian democracy, especially since it is unlikely that the military (even with regional reinforcements) can eradicate Boko Haram in six weeks. He tempers his pessimism, however, with hopefulness about the resilience of Nigerians and the enormous capacity within civil society to resist efforts to subvert the democratic process.

KendhammerBrandon Kendhammer is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Ohio University. His research and teaching interests are in the area of Nigerian politics, political Islam, and ethnic politics.



Rotimi Suberu

Suberu shifted the focus to institutions, exploring the links between the country’s grave situation on the eve of elections and certain practices of Nigerian federalism. He identifies three flaws of the federal system that have fostered the tensions surrounding the 2015 elections and aspects of the Boko Haram insurgency. The first is the crisis of over-centralization, particularly of the police force. Regional police forces were abrogated under military rule because they had been abused by politicians.

But the current centralized police force is ill-equipped to handle security challenges in a country as large and diverse as Nigeria. It often exacerbates rather than quells violence. A consensus exists that the tipping point in Boko Haram’s turn to violent confrontation with the state occurred in July 2009 when police detachments clashed with its adherents in Maiduguri, culminating in the capture and extrajudicial killing of the movement’s leader, Mohammed Yusuf. The second flaw is the revenue allocation system in Nigeria’s oil dependent economy.

The central government distributes oil revenues to state and local governments unconditionally. No mechanisms exist to ensure that states use these allocations to provide infrastructure, schools, and clinics. Borno State, for example, receives the equivalent of 600 million U.S. dollars in oil revenues each year, the tenth largest allocation in Nigeria. But dire poverty persists because of the lack of accountability to the central government or the local population The third flaw is what Suberu terms the “imperial presidency”—an over-concentration of power in the executive branch. The argument for a strong presidency emerged in the wake of the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970). [1] It was believed that a powerful president could be the symbol of national unity and counter secessionist tendencies. In Suberu’s assessment, the presidency has instead provoked disruptive and destabilizing inter-ethnic, inter-regional, and inter-religious competition. He further contends that President Jonathan’s lackluster response to the Boko Haram crisis was influenced by protests that occurred in the north following his election in 2011. That choice was viewed by many northerners as a violation of the unwritten power-sharing agreement between north and south.  

Suberu concludes that these three flaws must be addressed if Nigeria is to overcome the tensions surrounding the 2015 elections. While there are reasons for pessimism, the serious efforts made to achieve institutional reform in Nigeria since 1999 should be recognized. These include constitutional amendments aimed at addressing the very systemic flaws he identifies. The tendency to emphasize the pathology of Nigerian institutions, Suberu argues, overshadows the real work that is taking place to enact institutional reforms.

SuberuRotimi Suberu is a Professor of Political Science at Bennington College. His main research interests are Nigerian government and politics, the management of ethnic and religious conflicts, federalism and democratization.


[1] On the often unsuccessful efforts to limit presidential power in Africa via term limits, see Rachel Beatty Riedl, “Are Efforts to Limit Presidential Power in Africa Working?”, Nigeria has preserved term limits but not curbed the “imperial presidency”. (Ed.)

Copyright © 2015 AfricaPlus

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s