By Aminu Nuru
“The most dangerous untruths are truths moderately distorted”. – George Lichtenberg
It is not uncommon that some public commentators and analysts could be mischievously deceptive in their narratives and analyses of history to accomplish an end. They could quote historical facts, mix them with fiction, and frame narratives to promote a single story. In some cases, they deliberately relegate and ignore some significant events or points to suit the writer’s bias. Recent writings on the origin and rise of Boko Haram demonstrate how some writers distort facts to frame narrative and promote bigotry.
For instance, if one can closely study the framing of Boko Haram and how it is brazenly becoming one-sided, then one can say that the whole history is rewritten to massage and satisfy the ego of some group’s bigotry. It is not farfetched to say that some of these bigots will soon claim that the generality of the Muslim North endorsed and supported Boko Haram and Nigerian Christians were the only targets and victims of the group’s deadly attacks. Why would I make such a sweeping projection with every sense of finality? To respond to this question, let’s go back to 2013.
While speaking at the 14th meeting of the Honorary International Investor Council (HIIC) held at the Banquet Hall of the Presidential Villa on June 22, 2013, former Nigeria’s President, Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian, disclosed that the Boko Haram sect had killed more Muslims than Christians in Nigeria. This is not just hearsay but a verifiable fact that is naked in vision to people that are not be-clothed with hatred, ethnic and religious jingoism.
However, the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) couldn’t swallow this fact and, therefore, issued a statement to disagree with him vehemently. In a press statement credited to the Northern chapter spokesperson, Elder Sunday Oibe, CAN said that Jonathan’s assertion was “misleading and unacceptable”. They further stated that,
“We want to believe that the president was misquoted; we don’t want to believe that with the security apparatus and report from security intelligence network at his disposal, he made this assertion. If it is true that Mr President actually made this assertion, then, we are highly disappointed and sad at this veiled attempt to distort the fact as it concerns the activities of the Boko Haram sect. The purported statement by the President is highly disappointing considering the facts that Christians, churches and their businesses have been the major targets of Boko Haram” (Sahara Reporters, June 23, 2013. http://saharareporters.com/2013/06/23/northern-can-disagrees-jonathan-says-boko-haram-has-killed-more-christians-muslims)
For CAN, the Boko Haram crisis was/is “religious by nature” – the familiar we-versus-them religious clashes and conflicts in Nigeria, although in different outlooks and techniques; it is a plot by some Muslims to reduce the populations of Christians in Nigeria and crackdown their businesses. Since then, CAN sympathisers subsequently frame their narrative of Boko Haram from this angle. An article titled “Cornflakes for Jihad: The Boko Haram Origin Story” by David Hundeyin, widely shared on social media in the last few days, aimed to promote this kind of narrative. Unfortunately, the author skillfully filled the article with half-truths and a mixture of facts and fiction to push the CAN’s sentiment. Hundeyin is practically siding with his former religion.
Firstly, Hundeyin makes an effort to link Sheikh Abubakar Mahmoud Gumi with the origin of Boko Haram. Many people think that Hundeyin’s “Cornflakes for Jihad” is the first futile effort by an “investigative” journalist, analyst, historian or whatever to make this manipulative effort. However, Andrew Walker’s thesis, “Eat the Heart of the Infidels: The Harrowing of Nigeria and the Rise of Boko Haram” (Oxford University Press, 2016), preceded it in that exercise. Therefore, it is not likely to be a false accusation if it is argued that Hundeyin copied the idea of featuring Gumi in discussing Boko Haram, almost verbatim, from Walker. From the arguments of Sheikh Gumi’s “influence” in the “political” realm of Nigeria to his “friendship with Ahmadu Bello”, to pioneering the “propagation of Wahabism” in post-independent Nigeria, to his contribution in the creation of Izala and his “Saudi connection” are equally and loudly echoed in Walker’s thesis.
For both Walker and Hundeyin, Sheikh Abubakar Mahmoud Gumi championed the Sunni/Salafi/Izala movement in Nigeria. Therefore, any account of the origin and rise of Boko Haram – a so-called Sunni/Salafi-fundamentalist terrorist group – must be traced back to him. Albeit impliedly, their submissions suggest that there would be no Boko Haram if Gumi did not “disrupt” the Sufi order and influence of Qadiriyya and Tijjaniya in Northern Nigeria. They claim that Gumi’s campaign of a corrupt-free practice of Islam inevitably gave birth to the radical movements in Northern Nigeria. This is to say, although without explicitly stating it in their works, every Sunni/Salafi-based movement in Nigeria, whether moderate or violent, must have had their inspirational source from Gumi. On the link between Boko Haram founder, Muhammed Yusuf, and Sheikh Gumi, Walker writes: “The title of Yusuf’s book deliberately echoes the titles of similar treatises by Sunni preachers, like Sheikh Gumi’s “The Right Faith According to the Sharia”, perhaps in order to lend his ideas credence…the two clerics share a revulsion for secularism..” (Walker, 2016:144).
This line of argument is even less faulty in logic and spirit of “balanced story” than what Hundeyin further orchestrated in his article. According to Hundeyin, Sheikh Gumi admonished Muslims, particularly his Sunni/Salafi followers, to reject a non-Muslim as a leader and advocated “for insurrection against a Christian Nigerian President” and, of course, his Christian followers. In the successive paragraphs that supported this claim, Hundeyin apprises his readers on the “consequence” of Gumi’s propagation; he states that after Gumi’s death, a Sunni/Salafi-indoctrinated group, which bears the name “Boko Haram”, toed to the path of his admonishment to carry weapons against Nigerian Christians, killing and bombing them in their churches. He wittingly makes reference to the bomb blast at “St. Theresa Catholic Church”, Madalla that “killed 37 people”, and other subsequent “killings of Christians” in Jos and Damaturu.
The implication of this narrative on an outsider, who does not know the context of Boko Haram terrorism in Nigeria, is that s/he would begin to see Sheikh Gumi as “problematic” and a source of Boko Haram’s inspiration and violent extremism. Secondly, a non-pragmatic reader may also assume that the group only targets Nigerian Christians in their series of attacks in the country. Hundeyin’s article aims to peddle that twisted narrative for no reason other than the writer’s hatred for the Muslim North (Arewa) and their Islamic culture. In one of his previous tweets, he heedlessly says that: “The world will be a significantly better place when Arewa culture completely dies off and is replaced with something fit for human civilisation” (David Hundeyin/Twitter, November 29, 2020).
In the spirit of fair analysis, it is expected that an impartial analyst would compare the socio-religious ideas Gumi propagated in his lifetime and the ideologies of Boko Haram. But this would not sell out Hundeyin’s bigotry, and so he ignored that vital aspect. The core centre of Boko Haram dogmatic tenets is a war against “western-styled” education, democracy and civil service. On the other hand, Sheikh Gumi was both a product and proponent of western-styled education; he worked with the government as a civil servant and received salaries from the state resources. As he proudly opined in his autobiography, “among [his] children were army officers, civil servants, medical doctors, an engineer…lawyers, teachers and workers in finance houses and private businesses. There was hardly any profession in which [he] did not have representation from [his] family” (Gumi with Tsiga, 1991:202).
Gumi was also pro-democrat, as evidence from his recorded preaching suggested so. He is famously quoted to have said, “siyasa tafi sallah”, which could loosely mean “politics is more significant than prayers”. This was the extent Gumi had gone to support democracy in Nigeria, and believe me, Shekau would not hesitate to call him “taghut” – an idolatrous tyrant. He had also worked closely with the Christian Head of States. They had a cordial relationship and respect for each other: Ironsi invited him to lead a delegation to North Africa and the Middle East to carry goodwill messages of his new regime; Gowon appointed him Chairman of the Nigerian Pilgrims Board and gave him “all the necessary support, although he himself was a Christian”; with Obasanjo, he could “freely talk” and express his mind on relevant socio-political issues (Gumi with Tsiga, 1991:203). However, Hundeyin willfully refuses to draw this analogy to give a sense of what Achebe called “a balanced story”. Instead, he purposely portrays Sheikh Gumi on the wrong page in the book of terrorist origin in Nigeria.
Contrary to the insinuation of Hundeyin moreover, the truth of the story is that Boko Haram did/do not target Christians only. In fact. Nigerian Muslims suffer(ed) more causalities than Christians in the Boko Haram conflict. Hundeyin refuses to mention the main enclaves of Boko Haram activities and the population ratio of Muslims and Christians there. Stating this factual data will indeed not favour his intended, warped story. The reality is that Muslims have the predominant population in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa States. Arguably, the cumulative of all Boko Haram killings of innocent people would show nothing less than 70% of Muslim casualties.
On a specific, direct attack on religions, Hundeyin only mentions the bomb blast at St. Theresa Catholic Church, ignoring similar incidents on August 11, 2013, at a mosque in Konduga where 44 people were killed and on November 28, 2014, at the central mosque in Kano where 120 people were killed (BBC Hausa, 2013, 2014). It is understandable if Hundeyin re-echoes the bomb blast at St. Theresa Catholic Church in his article; it is a show of solidarity to his ex-religion. However, what is faulty and even worrisome is the selective exemplification of the direct attacks on religions by the Boko Haram insurgents. A reader who is unacquainted with the details of Boko Haram attacks on places of public worship would feel that churches and Christians were the only victims.
To further promote this half-truth, Hundeyin moves on to tell us how a Salafi/Sunni preacher was directly linked with the funding of Boko Haram. I will neither attempt to exonerate Sheikh Yakubu Musa nor believe those serious allegations in toto without reading or hearing the Sheikh’s version of the story. However, my problem here is with Hundeyin’s failure, which is intentional, to mention the Salafi/Sunni preachers that fought Boko Haram vehemently and even paid the ultimate price with their lives. It is on record that at the early stage of the Boko Haram crusade, Salafi scholars debated Mohammed Yusuf. In Bauchi, for instance, Ustaz Idris Abdulaziz Dutsen-Tanshi, a Salafist to the core, invited and challenged Muhammed Yusuf at his mosque and in the presence of his followers; so also a young Isa Ali Pantami – the then Imam of ATBU Juma’at mosque.
These Salafists continued to be critical of Muhammed Yusuf and his sect. They consistently delivered lectures to denounce his fatwa. Sheikh Ja’afar Mahmoud Adam, an unapologetic Salafist, was particularly vocal in his public censure and condemnation of Boko Haram. Unlike Hundeyin, Walker states this fact in his book:
“In 2007, Yusuf ’s former teacher, Sheikh Ja’afar Mahmud Adam, himself an ardent Salafist, had gone on record to denounce the group and warn that these ideologues were heading for a violent confrontation with the state” (Walker, 2016:148).
For many, Sheikh Ja’afar was the spiritual successor of Sheikh Abubakar Mahmoud Gumi. Some influential people requested and later attempted to transfer his annual Ramadan Tafseer to Gumi’s preaching base, Sultan Bello Mosque, Kaduna. He conducted his annual Ramadan Tafseer in Maiduguri, the early and central territory of Boko Haram terrorism. During his Tafseer sessions, Sheikh Ja’afar was not reluctant to criticise Yusuf and his new sect. On April 13, 2007, a day to general elections in Nigeria, and barely 48 hours after delivering a talk in Bauchi on Islamic views on thuggery, violence and widespread killing of innocent souls, Sheikh Ja’afar was murdered in Kano while observing Subh prayer and “it is thought to be members of Yusuf’s sect” (Walker, 2016:148).
Another prominent voice among Salafists in the fight against Boko Haram was Sheikh Muhammad Auwal Albani, Zaria. But, unfortunately, he was also killed in cold blood. In a video released to the public, Muhammed Yusuf successor, Abubakar Shekau, took responsibility for the assassination (Sahara Reporters, February 20, 2014, http://saharareporters.com/2014/02/20/bo-haram-leader-claims-responsibity-killing-kaduna-cleric-sheikh-albani-threatens).
Hundeyin has ignored all these facts about Salafi preachers in Northern Nigeria but brought a single dubious claim to frame a narrative that would deceive an uncritical, vulnerable audience. His motive is clear: he wants to rebrand the entire population of Salaaf and the Muslim North as pro-terrorist, supporting the killings of Christians in Nigeria. It is rather unfortunate that this is where the discussion is heading, and it is a wake-up call to those of us that witnessed and had a first-hand experience of the Boko Haram crisis to begin to write our counter-narrative. If we don’t write it, others will write for us. And before we retrieve our consciousness, we will be afloat in a sea of half-truths and stereotypes on Boko Haram, Islam and the North.
Aminu Nuru wrote from Bauchi. He can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.