British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by John Hare (Administrative Officer, Northern Nigeria 1957-64)
Historical Background to Boko Haram
Kanem-Bornu Warriors
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.

Historical Background to Boko Haram
Rabih FadI Allah
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 Rabih.

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.

map of Uganda
1955 Map of North-Eastern Nigeria
Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 109: April 2015
Publications by the Author
Last Man In: The End Of Empire In Northern Nigeria
Mandara Mountains Homepage
John Hare Homepage


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