#BookClub: Debating Democracy – Nigerian Salafis and Boko Haram Twenty Years On

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In the latest in our popular #BookClub feature, Jacob Zenn discusses the most important findings of his important new book, Unmasking Boko Haram, Exploring Global Jihad in Nigeria. Go to our #BookClub page for more.

In May 1999, Nigeria became Africa’s largest democracy when it returned to civilian rule for the first time since 1979. This presented challenges for Nigeria’s Salafi community that had expanded rapidly over this period with Saudi financial and theological backing. Leading Nigerian Salafis considered themselves “products of the Saudi religious educational system” and praised Saudi Arabia’s role in “spreading Islam,” referring to the Kingdom affectionately as “our qibla.” However, some world-renowned Saudi Salafi scholars regarded democracy as shirk (polytheism) because it places legislative authority in humans, not God. This created a disconnect between Nigerian Salafis’ theological reference points and Nigeria’s new political system.

Another challenge came from the twelve northern Nigerian governors who adopted sharia under post-1999 constitutional arrangements: they were generally not theologians, but Western-educated politicians, including in Boko Haram’s future epicenter, Borno. These governors also welcomed Sufis’ lenient sharia guidance. To the consternation of some Salafi preachers, “Western”-influenced NGOs and women lawyers also “diluted” sharia by opposing corporal punishments like stoning that singled out women “adulterers.”

Sharia is among the most widely studied topics in Nigeria. However, Boko Haram’s response to sharia implementation’s failure to meet Salafis’ initial expectations has been overlooked. Notably, Boko Haram formed just after sharia implementation as well as 9/11, which itself had significant localized ramifications. In my new book, Unmasking Boko Haram: Exploring Global Jihad in Nigeria, I argue mainstream Nigerian Salafis ultimately embraced democracy, but Boko Haram accused them of compromising sharia—and made them pay for it.

Politics and Prayers Vendettas

Boko Haram’s violence since leader Abubakar Shekau declared a “jihad” in 2010 would have been unfathomable when sharia was first implemented. The group has conducted hundreds of suicide bombings, around half by women; “enslaved” Christian women; executed aid workers and soldiers; and released Hollywood-style videos of battles, sharia tribunals, and loyalty pledges to ISIS’s first and second “caliphs” in Syria. As fighting endures and Boko Haram’s tactics, targets, and allegiances evolve, it is often forgotten why the group’s original nemeses were actually Nigerian Salafis and their perceived political allies.

As early as 2007, Shekau, as deputy of Boko Haram leader Muhammed Yusuf, delivered a sermon while playing an old recording of prominent Saudi-educated Salafi scholar Jaafar Mahmud Adam preaching about Islam’s incompatibility with democracy. This was a typical theological position. Another Salafi scholar, who is presently national-secretary of Nigeria’s largest Salafi movement, Izala, preached similar messages to Ghanaian Salafis.

Shekau argued Boko Haram never deviated from Salafi creed and that Nigerian Salafis who began calling Boko Haram khawarij backtracked by embracing democracy. Once Shekau declared “jihad” in Nigeria, Boko Haram began releasing nasheeds reflecting the group’s creed, which I compiled for my book. One nasheed lionized Shekau and called his followers “al-Qaeda” and “haters of America,” while another nasheed praised the 2009 “martyrdom” of Muhammed Yusuf, who was killed by Nigerian security forces. It further condemned Nigerian “father of Salafism” Abubakar Gumi’s 1980s claim that “politics is better than prayers.” This advised Nigerians to remain home to vote for Muslim leaders when elections conflicted with pilgrimage to Mecca.

Gumi’s claim became an obsession for Boko Haram once Salafis heeded it in the mid-2000s. In 2013, the group beheaded an Izala member because he “worshipped the state” by believing “politics is better than prayers.” Another nasheed in the group’s 2013 proof-of-life video of seven kidnapped French citizens included lyrics about Izala scholars’ being “false Muslims…preaching politics is better than prayers.”

Sources of Animosity

Despite some Salafi theological precedent that democracy and Islam are incompatible, Salafis around the world have influenced or participated in politics, especially after their countries democratized, such as in 1999 in Nigeria or during the Arab Spring elsehwere. Muhammed Yusuf’s famous 2006 debate with Saudi-educated Salafi scholar and current Nigerian minister of communications, Isa Ali Pantami, epitomized opposing viewpoints. Pantami asserted democracy and Western-style universities were not “Islamic,” but neither were they “un-Islamic”: what did not contradict Islam and benefited Muslims was permissible.

Yusuf, however, insisted if a political or educational system was “un-Islamic,” it was forbidden. This led to Yusuf’s followers earning the nickname “Boko Haram”—meaning “Western education is sinful” in Hausa. However, the group was unnamed until Shekau formally called it Jamaat Ahlussunnah lid-Dawa wal-Jihad ([Salafi] Muslim Group for Preaching and Jihad) in 2010.

The Pantami-Yusuf debate divided Nigerian Salafis. Pantami’s former mentee sided with Yusuf and in 2012 led the Boko Haram breakaway faction, “Ansaru.” Nigerian journalist Ahmed Salkida, who knew Yusuf, further asserted Yusuf had one-million Muslim followers before his death. Yet Izala scholars agreed with Pantami, including Adam, who Boko Haram regarded as Yusuf’s former teacher.

What made Yusuf different than his peers? One theory is Yusuf’s brief co-leadership of the  “Nigerian Taliban” in 2002-2003 with Muhammed Ali, who studied under Usama bin Laden’s deputies in Sudan in the mid-1990s. This suggests Yusuf was uniquely predisposed to Salafi-jihadist theologians’ anti-democracy positions.

However, another theory is Salafis like Pantami saw jihadist violence abroad as counter-productive for Muslims and realized Yusuf’s preaching would cause harm for Nigeria’s Muslims—as has occurred since 2010. They, therefore, opposed Yusuf and even pioneered Nigeria’s first “deradicalization program” in 2006. However, some of Yusuf’s followers in the program later joined Ansaru.

Lost Opportunities

My book observes one omission in the pivotal Pantami-Yusuf debate. Yusuf’s followers, including his son, who led Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) from 2016-2019, asserted Yusuf’s preaching was about jihad, which is “not peaceful.” However, Pantami never discussed jihad in the debate, meaning his challenge to Yusuf’s “doctrinal veracity…did not go deep enough.”

Also, although Pantami and Adam still praised al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders as late as 2006, this did not reflect approval for jihad in Nigeria. Pantami argued jihad should be “postponed” until Nigerian Muslims became more religiously educated, albeit still recommending they emulate Taliban leader Mullah Umar.  It was not until early 2009 that leading Salafis finally challenged Yusuf’s “doctrinal veracity” about jihad, arguing Iraq and Afghanistan—unlike Nigeria—were under “foreign occupation.”

By that time, it was too late, and the cataclysmic clashes leading to Yusuf’s death and Shekau’s declaration of “jihad” became history.

Lessons Learned

Since 2010, Nigerian jihadists have not been monolithic: Shekau has lauded assassinating ‘apostate’ Salafi scholars, including Adam and Muhammed Auwal “Albani,” and he recently threatened Pantami. According to Shekau, anyone just “doubting” democracy is infidelity deserves to be killed. Conversely, Ansaru, whose commanders trained with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), accepted AQIM’s advice to avoid harming Islamic scholars and instead targeted Westerners. ISWAP, which incorporated some Ansaru defectors, has also avoided targeting Islamic scholars or Muslim civilians, focusing on security forces, aid worker “collaborators,” and Christians.

Since the mid-2000s, Nigerian Salafis and these jihadist factions have grown increasingly divided on jihad and democracy. Though some argue Salafis are better positioned than Sufis to “de-radicalize” Boko Haram, the jihadists’ ire has been reserved most for Salafis who accepted “the religion of democracy.” Ansaru’s former media liaison has also criticized Izala for embracing Saudi Arabia’s newly promoted “moderate Islam,” which entails Izala’s—and Saudi Arabia’s—departure from previous anti-democracy positions. Bridging these divides may involve not accusing Boko Haram of its theology being ‘wrong,’ but that “extreme violence” does more harm (mafsada) than good (maslaha) for Muslims.

Another possibility is establishing preliminary ‘truth and reconciliation committees,’ which have precedent in Africa. Nigerian Salafis who regret certain post-9/11 extreme positions, including condoning suicide bombings, might more publicly pronounce this. Furthermore, former Boko Haram commanders who acknowledge the group’s excessive violence can—perhaps anonymously—disseminate that message.

Nigerian Salafis and former jihadists might also explore how “Muslim dissent” espoused by not only Boko Haram, but also Nigerian Shia groups, can be tolerated in Nigeria’s democracy rather than met with state force. This would not ‘cure’ the “Boko Haram phenomenon,” but could well represent a step forward.


Jacob Zenn is an adjunct professor on Violent Non-State Actors in World Politics at the Georgetown University Security Studies Program (SSP) and fellow on African and Eurasian Affairs for The Jamestown Foundation in Washington DC. 

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