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The #BringBackOurGirls rallying point

By Isaac Terwase Sampson


The Boko Haram (BH) terrorist group, responsible for the abduction of over 200 school girls in north-eastern Nigeria, has been Nigeria’s prime security threat since 2009. Although the group has carried out innumerable acts of terror in Nigeria since 2009, its abduction of more than 200 girls at Government Girls Secondary School Chibok, on 14 April 2014, outraged the world and gave it reinforced international currency. The global and Nigerian Muslim community has since distanced itself from Boko Haram’s violent ideology. In the face of current cosmopolitan campaign to rescue the Chibok girls, which is christened #BringBackOurGirls (#BBOG, #BBG), the question that dominates public discourse in the aftermath of Chibok abduction is whether #BringBackOurGirls as an isolated phenomenon, or the increasing de-legitimisation of Boko Haram’s extremism by Muslims generally, would serve as a rallying point against violent extremism in Nigeria, or rather reinforce the historic sharia question that has threatened peaceful co-existence in the country since independence in 1960. For those unfamiliar with Nigeria’s religious politics and relations, the following cursory background would suffice as clarification.

Hudreds of people gathered at Union Square in New York City on May 3 to demand the release of some 230 schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram insurgents in Nigeria. Photo by Michael Fleshman. CC BY-NC 2.0 via fleshmanpix Flickr.
Hudreds of people gathered at Union Square in New York City on May 3 to demand the release of some 230 schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram insurgents in Nigeria. Photo by Michael Fleshman. CC BY-NC 2.0 via fleshmanpix Flickr.
Boko Haram in the Context of Nigeria’s Religious Politics


In most parts of northern Nigeria, Islam and sharia predated the post-independence Western-secular system that was bequeathed to a unified Nigerian state at independence. Uthman dan Fodio’s jihad of 1810, which captured the Hausa states of northern Nigeria, brought about the establishment of an Islamic central authority under the Sokoto caliphate. Since dan Fodio’s jihad was aimed at establishing a theocratic state, Islam inevitably became a state religion in these captured Hausa states. Although the British colonial authorities protected the theocratic political order they met in these emirates for reasons of imperial convenience, they nonetheless introduced a legal system that modulated the sharia order. Notwithstanding this interference, Islam and sharia survived colonial invasion in these states. Although the sharia legal order was relatively modulated to protect the British and other European merchants, its application on the natives remained significantly strong. This arrangement remained so until it became obvious to the British that an Islamic political/legal order would not serve the commercial interest of Western merchants, particularly after independence. With this concern in mind, the British orchestrated a reversal of the sharia order, and cajoled the Muslim north into accepting a relatively secular system at independence, an arrangement that was christened “the Settlement of 1960”.

The settlement of 1960 was a pact between the British colonialists, as arbiter, the northern and Southern Animist-Christians on the one hand, and the Muslim north on the other. It was aimed at establishing a secular legal order side by side a modulated Islamic legal regime. It is intriguing to note that whereas the Christian community initially opposed this settlement for the fear of a covert Islamization agenda, the northern Muslim community was at first supportive of it. But the respective positions of the Christian and Muslim communities were to be reversed shortly after independence. The Christian community turned around to favour the settlement of 1960 while the northern Muslim community became avidly antagonistic to this arrangement.

Although many factors account for northern Muslims’ opposition to the settlement, the most significant factor is the sharia debate that ensued during the constitution-making process of 1976-78. At the constitutional conferences, there was considerable mobilisation by northern political and religious leaders for the entrenchment of sharia in Nigeria’s legal system. Unfortunately, the Muslim north suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Christians in their quest for the establishment of sharia. This bitter defeat meant that northern Muslims had lost most of the incentives that made the Settlement of 1960 attractive to them in the first place. Among other consequences, the sharia debate marked the beginning of vigorous and sustained activism by northern Muslims for an Islamic state, or much less, an Islamic legal, economic, and social order within the Nigerian state. This activism has taken both liberal and radical approaches. Whereas the intellectual and political classes continue to pressure the state for Islamic determinism, the Islamists and rustic northern Muslim folk often express this quest in violent ways.

The Islamic revivalism that followed the sharia debate of 1976-8, inspired the emergence and proliferation of radical Islamic sects and spurred the influx of radical Islamic clerics from neighbouring states and Senegal, into northern Nigeria. Within this period, acts of religious violence were often encouraged or ignored by state authorities in northern Nigeria. Consequently, religious violence became a common feature in this part of the country, as Christians became objects of religiously-motivated attacks at the least provocation, either directly or vicariously. For instance, the US invasion of Iraq in the 1990s led to pervasive attacks on Christians and their worship centres in northern Nigeria. In 2003, a Danish newspaper cartoon, which allegedly disparaged Prophet Mohammed, led to mass killing of northern Christians and destruction of their Churches and property. In the aftermath of 9/11 bombing in 2001, Muslims celebrated in Northern Nigeria and vandalized Churches in the process. More recently, Christians in northern Nigeria were subject of attack from Muslims, when US planes attacked Libya during the Arab Spring. The Boko Haram sect emerged in the context of this continuum of Islamic activism, which endorsed violence as one of its operational tools. Its ideology was therefore weaved around the establishment of an imaginary puritanical state governed by sharia. Fortunately or unfortunately, Boko Haram’s interpretation of kafir (heathen) transcends the simplistic description of “non-Muslims” and encompasses those Muslims who don’t subscribe to its fundamentalists brand of Islam.

Would #BringBackOurGirls Reverse this Tendency?


Paradoxically, Boko Haram which emerged as an ‘Islamic sect’ has taken its defence of Islam overboard, killing in the process moderate Islamic teachers, preachers, and other Muslims who deprecate its fanatical brand of Islam. Its indiscriminate attacks over the civilian population also do not distinguish Christians from Muslims. Specifically, Boko Haram’s policy of targeting moderate Muslims has become a significant paradox of sorts, given that it is a product of the overarching sharia struggle in northern Nigeria. With the unfolding of its extreme and caustic brand of Islam, the group has not only denounced the legitimacy of the Islamic leadership in Nigeria, it has declared them and other moderate Muslims as kafir and enemies of Allah. As #BringBackOurGirls draws global attention to Boko Haram specifically, and violent extremism in Nigeria generally, the global and Nigerian Islamic community have continued to condemn their activities, describing their activities as criminal un-Islamic. Both the Secretary General of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) and the President of Nigeria’s Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs have said so. However, many questions have been asked of the recent de-legitimisation of Boko Haram by the Muslim community: Is the condemnation of Boko Haram by Muslims inspired by a genuine concern over violent extremism or borne out of its indiscriminate attacks against Muslims? Would Muslims in northern Nigeria, continue to condemn the activities of individuals or groups who express extreme and violent tendencies in the name of Islam? Would any attack on Christians and their property be condoned or ignored in the future?

In the aftermath of the #BringBackOurGirls, two schools of thought have emerged.

There are those who opine that Boko Haram insurgency is a prelude to greater religious upheavals in northern Nigeria, if northern Muslims are neither allowed the liberty of having an Islamic state nor practicing sharia in its orthodox fashion. Those who hold this viewpoint argue that the Muslim community would not have genuinely distanced itself from Boko Haram, if its targets were solely Christians. They also contend that the general discord between liberal and fundamentalist Islam in the Middle East has not deterred the support for an age-long global Islamization agenda that is funded from this region. Relating this to the Nigeria situation, the logic is that Islamism or violent extremism would not deter the historic sharia activism in northern Nigeria hence the need to revisit the sharia debate.

Persuasive as these arguments may sound, I hold a contrary view. In my estimation, the Boko Haram and Maitatsine Islamic sects have clearly demonstrated that Islamism (rigid and extreme adherence to Islamic tradition and its violent expression) is totalitarian and provides no room for liberal adherence to Islam. Secondly, due to its anti-modernisation character, no state desirous of progress tolerates violent extremism. Saudi Arabia, which is the cradle of Islam, has zero tolerance for it. Moreover, the northern elite, who supported Islamic activism in the past, has become its biggest victim. As the northern economy crumbles under Boko Haram’s campaign of violence, the elite who hold the highest stakes in the economy are equally the biggest losers. They have also realized that there is no ideological discipline for men in arms, as they are bound to resort to violent crime for economic reasons. It is in realisation of these facts that the northern Governors admitted in their meeting in February 2014, that Boko Haram has destroyed the north economically, socially, and politically.

For these and many other reasons, I hold an optimistic view that #BringBackOurGirls would not only lead to the rescue of the abducted girls, it marks the beginning of the end of Boko Haram insurgency — but most importantly, the end of religious intolerance and violent extremism in northern Nigeria. #BringBackOurGirls presents an opportunity to Christians and Muslims in northern Nigeria to rally against violent extremism by treating the indiscriminate killing and destruction of property as criminal acts and not acts of religious deference. I believe these two religious communities would embrace this opportunity as was recently demonstrated in the city of Kaduna, where they united to wade off Boko Haram attackers.

Isaac Terwase Sampson is the author of “Religion and the Nigerian State: Situating the de facto and de jure Frontiers of State–Religion Relations and its Implications for National Security” (available to read for free for a limited time) in the Oxford Journal of Law and Religion. He is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Strategic Research and Studies, National Defence College, Nigeria. He joined the Centre in 2006 from the Ministry of Justice, Kogi State, where he served as a Senior State Counsel.

The Oxford Journal of Law and Religion publishes a range of articles drawn from various sectors of the law and religion field, including: social, legal and political issues involving the relationship between law and religion in society; comparative law perspectives on the relationship between religion and state institutions; developments regarding human and constitutional rights to freedom of religion or belief; considerations of the relationship between religious and secular legal systems; empirical work on the place of religion in society; and other salient areas where law and religion interact.

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  1. Mike Linacre

    Friends, on the webpage http://blog.oup.com/2014/07/bring-back-our-girls-rallying-point-violent-extremism-sharia/ please change the misapplied word “christened” to “named” everywhere.

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