Borno State is located in the far north-eastern corner of Nigeria. It
extends to the shores of Lake Chad and covers 71,000 square
kilometres. The climate is hot, the land is dry and the people - mainly
Kanuri and Shuwa Arab - are tough. It is principally in Borno, but also in
other parts of Nigeria and the Cameroon Republic, that the Islamic
fundamentalist movement Boko Haram has committed unspeakable
atrocities in its attempt to establish a Muslim Caliphate and a system of
strict shah'a law.
The Muslim people who live in Northern Nigeria have seen dissent
against Muslim administrations turn to violence many times in the last
200 years. With Boko Haram, however, their violent dissent which is of a
particularly horrific kind has an exact historical precedent. For 125 years
ago in precisely the same part of what is now Nigeria and Cameroon
similar events occurred.
In 1893, seven years before the establishment of the Northern Nigerian
protectorate in 1900 under the British, a renegade Islamic fanatic from
the Sudan called Rabih FadI Allah invaded the then Kanuri empire of
Borno from Darfur in western Sudan with a horde of Arab and Sudanese
fighters. Rabih had fallen out with the self-proclaimed Mahdi, Muhammad
Ahmed, whose troops killed General Gordon in Khartoum in 1885. He
decided to head west with his own army and killed, beheaded, looted
and enslaved in the name of Allah.
During the colonial era, peace was established in Borno. It lasted until it
was shattered first in 1966 by the military coup and again in 2009 by the
emergence of Boko Haram in the Mandara Mountains area.
The Mandara mountain range stretches over 350 miles from Lake Chad
in the north to just beyond Yola in the south. In the pre-colonial era they
formed a central backbone of the vast Kanuri Empire. The Marghi, Higi,
Hithe, Gwoza, Fali and Matakam tribes had secured this mountainous
fortress and defied slavers' raids for centuries, including the ravages of
When I visited them in 1961 the Mandara tribes were some of the wildest
in Nigeria. They frequently fought and killed rival clansmen for sport after
the harvest. About 30% of the Mandara mountain dwellers were
Christians, 65% pagans and 5% were Muslims, but today they are nearly
all Christian and it is these missionised youth who have been forcibly
converted to Islam by the followers of Abubakar Shekau.
When Rabih devastated the same area it was many months before his
depredations were revealed but today we receive almost daily news on
Boko Haram atrocities and their military successes. The Nigerian army's
heavy-handed policies have also driven thousands of new recruits
towards the Boko Haram cause. At the moment they are in the
ascendancy. How long will it be before Abubakar Shekau joins Rabih
and can be spoken of in the past tense?
John Hare was District Officer, Mubi in 1961 and the Mandara mountains fell
under his jurisdiction.