Beyond Maiduguri: Understanding Boko Haram’s rule in rural communities of northeastern Nigeria

Olabanji Akinola, University of Guelph

From a relatively obscure Salafi-jihadi group whose activities were mainly based in Maiduguri, the sprawling urban capital of the Borno state in northeastern Nigeria, Boko Haram evolved in less than a decade into a major insurgency. How and why was the group able to rapidly expand its reach beyond Maiduguri into many rural communities in northeastern Nigeria? This paper provides an analysis on the emergence and existence of Boko Haram in rural communities in three northeast states of the Nigerian federation: Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa. It examines how and why Boko Haram became a formidable group with a large followership in some rural communities, but little or no support in others. The paper mainly focuses on the post 2009 activities of the group after the group’s former leader and founder, Mohammed Yusuf, was killed by Nigerian security agents during a crackdown on the group’s base in Maiduguri. It examines the differences in how Boko Haram resurfaced in some rural areas after it was dislodged from Maiduguri.

While Boko Haram’s emergence was initially driven by its ability to mobilize support in Maiduguri, the group’s subsequent rise to prominence in Nigeria and abroad has been bolstered by its presence in rural communities such as Gwoza, where it declared its caliphate in 2014. Understanding what kinds of governance institutions and processes it created, and/or whether it adapted or completely abolished pre-existing social, political, and economic governance institutions, helps to explain its differing levels of success.

 Boko Haram: A brief contextual overview

Boko Haram was created in the early 2000s by Mohammed Yusuf, a Salafi Islamist from the Kanuri ethnic group born in Yobe state (Reinert and Garcon 2014). Although his diatribes against western education and civilization attracted followers to his mosque in Maiduguri, his fiery sermons against the misrule and corruption of political and religious elites endeared him to many more (Oriola and Akinola 2017). Like many Salafi extremists, Yusuf and his followers abhorred forms of governments not based on Islamic rule, and he condemned Muslims working in government institutions that are not based on the Sharia (Oyeniyi 2014).

In the early 2000s, the group was primarily engaged with local politics in Borno state. As it worked to influence the application of Sharia law to civil and criminal affairs, the group interacted with prominent politicians who promised to implement Sharia law in exchange for the group’s support. Some elected politicians moved to deliver on their electoral promises between 2000 and 2004 (Kendhammer 2003). Twelve Muslim majority states in northern extended the jurisdiction of Sharia law to criminal matters, albeit depending on the nature of pre-existing judicial institutions in each state (Suberu 2010). But the politicians’ failure to strictly abide by the tenets of Sharia law once it was adopted on one hand, and the increasing violent clashes between members of Boko Haram and the security agencies and other civilians over the former’s refusal to obey state laws on the other hand, created an atmosphere that culminated in the 2009 crackdown that led to the capture and extrajudicial murder of Yusuf (Akinola 2015).

Yusuf’s death, alongside the death of more than 700 suspected Boko Haram members during the July 2009 crackdown, forced many other members into exile in rural communities. While this relocation marked a watershed in the group’s evolution, it also ended the group’s attempt to influence the application of Sharia law through institutional politics. Avenging the murder of Yusuf and the promise of implementing a more puritanical version of Sharia under a Caliphate system became part of Boko Haram’s priorities post 2009. It is the pursuit of these priorities that has encouraged the group to engage in political violence that has so far claimed more than 20,000 lives, displaced over 2 million people, and destroyed properties totalling millions of dollars.

Engaging the grassroots: Tracing Boko Haram’s foray into rural communities in Northeastern Nigeria

Following Yusuf’s death, one of his former lieutenants, Abubakar Shekau, assumed leadership of the group. Shekau promised to avenge Yusuf’s death and to ensure the Islamization of Nigeria under a caliphate system. With their former base destroyed, Boko Haram members fled into other parts of Nigeria and neighbouring states, including rural communities in Yobe, Adamawa, and Borno states. Given the weak presence, and in many cases the complete absence, of security agencies and personnel in most rural communities in northeastern Nigeria, Boko Haram began coordinating and attacking the pockets of scattered police outposts, military formations, and prisons where some of its members were held after the 2009 crackdown. Some of the initial post 2009 attacks occurred in and around rural communities where Boko Haram members had resettled.

How did Boko Haram spread its Salafi Islamist ideology in rural communities in northeastern Nigeria? Two main factors contributed to the group’s ability to spread its ideology among rural communities in northeastern Nigeria.

First, it is necessary to recognize the connections between the Kanuri ethnicity of most Boko Haram members and the role that rural-urban migration plays in the Nigerian context. Although northern Nigeria contains several ethnicities, the largest include the Hausa/Fulani and the Kanuri. However, while many people in northern Nigerian mainly speak the dominant Hausa language, most of the people in northeastern Nigeria and border areas of neighbouring countries belong to the Kanuri ethnic group and speak the Kanuri language.

During the farming season, many urban dwellers in the region periodically return to the rural areas where they are from. These seasonal rural-urban migrations are further facilitated by the frequent movement of young Quranic students to and from urban centres like Maiduguri, Damaturu, and Yola, the capital cities of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states, respectively. This blurring of the urban-rural divide enabled some Boko Haram members to flee back to their communities in the rural areas following the 2009 crackdown. These returning members understood the terrain, and could draw on their ethnic roots and the narratives of victimhood to mobilize support among rural communities in the immediate aftermath of the crackdown (Pieri and Zenn 2016).

As Boko Haram members began to successfully overrun Nigerian security agencies, acquiring arms and ammunitions in the process, the group’s ability to takeover rural communities with the use of violence became increasingly common. As such, a second factor that facilitated Boko Haram’s ability to impose its Salafi ideology was the use of forced rule. Boko Haram members began imposing strict Islamic rules purportedly based on the Sharia. Once a rural community is overrun and taken over by Boko Haram, a leader known as the Amir is appointed to oversee the affairs of the community (Voice of America 2017). Community members are then asked to convert to Boko Haram’s version of Islam or face execution, and community members who are accused of being traitors or having committed any crime that is punishable by execution, amputation, or corporal punishment, are publicly paraded and the (appropriate) punishment is applied in the full glare of all the community members. In addition, while young women and girls are sometimes forced to marry Boko Haram commanders, community members, particularly young men, are conscripted to join the ranks of Boko Haram fighters (Voice of America 2017).

As the ranks of Boko Haram members swelled as a result of the annexations of many rural communities, not least because of the conscription of young men, the group became even more emboldened to carry out daring attacks against heavily fortified military bases. Consequently, with a larger following and the massive abduction of many individuals, including the much publicized abduction of the 276 Chibok school girls, the use of force gradually became the norm for establishing and expanding Boko Haram’s annexation of many rural communities in northeastern Nigeria. The declaration of a caliphate in Gwoza in August 2014 marked a “formal” declaration of Boko Haram’s attempt to establish a governance structure in northeastern Nigeria. Boko Haram’s Gwoza declaration followed the Islamic State’s declaration of its capture of Mosul in Iraq two months before. However, by the time it declared its caliphate in Gwoza, Boko Haram had also begun facing resistance in many rural communities that it once controlled and in some others where the people were determined to resist its advance into their communities. Why some communities seem to tolerate or embrace Boko Haram’s ideology and others resisted it is examined below.

Mixed responses to Boko Haram

Many rural communities in northeastern Nigeria are predominantly Muslim, but many do not subscribe to the extremist Salafi ideology espoused by Boko Haram. Like most other Muslims in Nigeria, many Muslims in northeastern Nigeria identify with one of the two main Sufi orders; the Tijanniyah and the Qadiriyyah. Although Salafism has gradually gained ground amongst some Nigerian Muslims, Salafists remain a minority group, and not all Salafists support Boko Haram’s extreme approaches. Indeed, it is worth emphasizing that not all Salafists hold extreme views, and not all Sufis hold tolerant/moderate views (Kane 2008; Woodward, Umar, Rohmaniyah, and Yahya 2013). Nonetheless, the rise of Salafists in Nigeria in recent years has mainly been in response to what many Salafists maintain are the un-Islamic practices of the two dominant Sufi orders. Hence, in their attempt to discredit other Muslims in Nigeria, Boko Haram members anchor their putatively pristine Salafi interpretations of the Quran on puritanical grounds, including calling for other Muslims to convert to their version of Islam or be treated as unbelievers/infidels. The group’s turn to terrorism, including attacks on Muslims in mosques, distinguishes it from other Islamists in post-colonial Nigeria.

As the atrocities of life under Boko Haram are detailed by fleeing survivors, rural communities have employed a number of responses. These range from fear-based compliance to full blown resistance. The latter in particular began to be expressed in the form of vigilante groups that comprise community members who had come together to defend their communities from Boko Haram attacks. Indeed, such vigilante groups have evolved into what are now referred to as the Civilian Joint Task Forces (CJTF). These groups have combined efforts with the Nigerian security agencies to reclaim territories that were once controlled by Boko Haram (Akinola 2015.

Among many potential factors that can explain the resistance to Boko Haram in many rural communities, a key aspect is the violence perpetuated by the group (Oduah 2017). Some of the communities that were seemingly receptive or even supportive of its rule at some point might have done so out of fear. However, where much of its rule was not based on violent executions, beatings, and amputations, particularly in the immediate aftermath of its re-emergence in rural communities, some people were at least willing to give it a chance to try its alternate form of rule. Before it was displaced from Maiduguri in 2009, Boko Haram had set up a functional micro-finance program, provided some support to the needy, and had plans to establish other social welfare services (Hansen and Musa 2013). While these social services represent a key recruitment strategy for the group where the state had severely failed to provide social protection for the poor and the vulnerable (Akinola 2014), they also served as methods of winning the support of local residents, some of whom became loyal followers of the group.


Due to improved coordination of security responses by Nigerian security agencies and those of neighbouring countries, Boko Haram has lost control of many territories that it once controlled in northeastern Nigeria. However, using mostly children and women, the group continues to carry out suicide bombings, and has increased its deployment of guerrilla style ambush attacks across the region (UNICEF 2016). Despite claims by the Nigerian government to have technically defeated and dislodged it from all the territories it once controlled, the group continues to operate in some rural areas (Akinola 2017). Even if Boko Haram is increasingly less visible, the massive destruction of livelihoods remains, highlighting the importance of local level studies of how the group controlled and governed these rural communities of northeastern Nigeria.


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