Borno State, northeast Nigeria, has been the epicentre of Nigeria’s longest running war between the Islamist terror group, Jama’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l-Jihad, commonly known as Boko Haram, and the Nigerian state. Founded by Mohammed Yusuf, a radical Salafi cleric in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, around 2002, Boko Haram, a violent, anti-western civilization extremist group, has as its main objective the supplanting of Nigeria’s plural secular constitutional democratic order with an Islamic theocracy through armed struggle [jihad]. Starting with a most virulent form of preaching against western education, democracy and pluralism, while calling for a complete imposition of Sharia law over Borno State, the Boko Haram group stepped up its demand with civil disobedience of law and order and defiance of constituted authority, all which it considers as not Islamic, hence, ‘’haram’.’
For its religious disobedience of law and order and defiance of constituted authority, the government of Borno State designated the Boko Haram sect an outlaw group of extremists and, with the help of federal law enforcement agents, carried out a crackdown on its members sometime in 2010. In reaction to the crackdown, which resulted in the loss of lives of some of his members, Yusuf, the leader of the Boko Haram sect declared a ‘holy war’ [jihad] against the Nigerian state thus heralding an armed uprising by the group. The response of the Federal Government was swift and decisive.
Within days, the Boko Haram uprising was brutally crushed, leaving scores of the Boko Haram members, including its leader, Yusuf, dead. The killing of Yusuf set off a chain of reactions that transformed the radical Islamist sect into an insurgent group that has been trying to realize its objective of an Islamic theocracy through a most violent form of jihad since 2010. The Boko Haram insurgency has led to over 20,000 deaths, with millions of Nigerians displaced from their homes into camps in Nigeria and neighbouring countries like Niger and Cameroun.
Contrary to entrenched narrative by some pundits, Boko Haram was not born in 2010 just as its ideological conception was not in 2002. The Boko Haram insurgency was a long time coming and some of its ideological components predate modern Nigeria, while the physical component has softly manifested in the form of religious domination of power through the instrumentality of political Islam in the Muslim North of Nigeria since the formation of modern Nigeria. The immediate precursor of the current Boko Haram insurgency is the Sharia movement of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, which was eventually consummated in the early 2000s when a number of states adopted the full implementation of Sharia jurisprudence in Muslim North. A notable exception to this was Borno State, the earliest known site of Islam in Nigeria.
Although Islam reached Kanem-Borno Empire as early as the 11th Century under the reign of Mai Hummai from North Africa, Borno State as presently reconstituted in modern Nigeria is a religiously plural entity with a significant minority Christian population. In apparent consideration of this religious plurality, Mala Kachalla, a Muslim and governor of Borno State between 1999 and 2003, resisted pressure from religious extremists to impose Sharia law on his state.
Mala Kachalla was a devout Muslim who was also well known for his peaceful and accommodating disposition to all and sundry. But his refusal to impose Sharia law over Borno State proved to be his political albatross. Alli Modu Sheriff, his major challenger in the 2003 governorship election, took advantage of Kachalla’s commitment to a secular and plural Borno State to enter into a pact with Yusuf and his Islamist group. And in exchange for their massive political support, Modu Sheriff pledged to impose Sharia law on the state. The failure of political Islam to usher in the ideal Islamic state in Borno as espoused by Modu Sheriff led to a situation where Boko Haram insurgents began to use the force of arms to pull down and rebuild Nigeria into a Muslim theocracy, starting the North East.
Whereas the Nigerian state has been battling the Boko Haram insurgency with bullets for over a decade, the war on terror has become somewhat intractable because the ideology behind the insurgency has not been combated ideologically, collectively, by government at all levels, in collaboration with the leadership of the Muslim community in Nigeria. However, Umara Babagana Zulum, the incumbent governor of Borno State, appears to be making a lot of progress in his individual capacity in this direction.
Zulum, a professor and former commissioner in the administration of his predecessor, Kashim Shettima, has evolved a strategy to combat Boko Haram with Boko Halal in a number of ways.
First and most importantly, Zulum, unlike some other members of the political establishment of northern Nigeria, is not a purveyor of political Islam. Zulum has made the development of the land and people of Borno the focus of his politics, just as their security and welfare are his priority. In his two years as governor, Zulum has not indulged in promoting one ethnic or religious group over another but has actually been running a fairly inclusive, just and equitable governance style that has given a sense of belonging to all the people of Borno, irrespective of religious or ethnic backgrounds. Zulum has made deliberate efforts to roll back any vestiges of religious domination in Borno through an inclusive leadership style. For example, Zulum appointed Simon Malgwi, a Christian from Borno, as head of service despite stiff opposition from some quarters. Despite the raging war in his state, Zulum has given assurances to Nigerians of southern origin that are resident in Borno of their protection and safety by the state government.
This leadership style of accommodation of all Nigerians was further demonstrated when a primary school teacher of South East origins was personally reward with a promotion to the position of assistant head teacher in her school by Zulum in appreciation for her dedication to her work of educating the children of Borno State. Recently, Zulum averted what would have been a major religious controversy following the incidence of church demolition in Borno State, which left one person dead. When the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) raised concerns about the spate of demolition of churches by state authorities, Governor Zulum did not talk down on the members of the body of Christ in his state but, instead, issued a response that was full of compassion and empathy. In condemning the killing, Zulum ordered the arrest and prosecution of the security agent that fired the fatal shot, while also explaining that the church demolition was not an act of state aggression towards the Christian community in Borno but only a matter of development control, which has seen more mosques demolished during the exercise. The governor followed this up by visiting the deceased’s family to commiserate with them over the loss of their loved one.
In addition to making no excuses for the Boko Haram insurgents on the basis of religious or ethnic sentiments, Zulum is supporting the Federal Government’s security operations to defeat the Boko Haram insurgents. He is also providing additional support in the form of funding for the Civilian JTF in order to complement the war efforts, while also making policy suggestions to the Federal Government on how to effectively contain the insurgency, and he puts pressure on them to implement same.
Despite the security challenges in his state, Zulum has remained a resident governor of Borno who only visits Abuja now and then, unlike some of his colleagues that reside more in Abuja and only visit their states. As a governor who is on the ground in the most troubled part of Nigeria, Zulum has demonstrated immense capacity in governing his state with an integrity that is rare in public office in this clime. His hands-on approach to governance at the risk of his life and his prudence in managing public resources have ensured a relative government presence across the state in terms reconstruction and expansion of social amenities.
The commendable effort by the governor at providing access to safe and modern schools [some of the best in Nigeria] for the children of his state is the boldest statement so far that, in Zulum’s Borno, Boko is Halal and not Haram. Governor Zulum has reconstructed destroyed schools in his state into some of the best in the country.
His iconic school buildings that dot the landscape of Borno are a testament that Zulum knows that education is neither western nor Islamic but a universal body of knowledge that serves the purpose of human development and world advancement.
Similarly, Zulum’s inclusive leadership style clearly demonstrates his understanding that an Islamic state is not one that is dominated by Muslims but one that is plural and egalitarian where justice, equity and fairness reign.