Boko Haram is Not Maitatsine

As the Boko Haram insurgency has intensified over the last few years, it has risen to the top of the priority list of problems most Nigerians expect the government to address. And in this election season, the Boko Haram terrorism problem has dominated conversations between the campaigns and among Nigerians.

President Jonathan’s supporters acknowledge that the insurgency has escalated under his watch despite his declaration of a state of emergency in several Northeastern states. But they argue that Boko Haram is being propped up by several forces and that the group’s murderous campaign is founded on multiple, intractable factors that are beyond a military solution.

If President Jonathan’s supporters have been defensive and even cynical in regard to Boko Haram, Muhammadu Buhari’s supporters have been bullish. They have seized on the issue to underscore the claim that their candidate would be a much stronger president than the incumbent. They have gone on the offensive and have declared with a certitude bordering on political hubris that their man will deal decisively with Boko Haram if he wins next month’s presidential election. To substantiate this boast, they point repeatedly to the way that Buhari, both as a divisional military commander and as military head of state, dealt with the Maitatsine uprising, which sporadically affected at least four cities in the North between 1980 and 1985. The argument, often advanced with gusto and simplistic comparative framing, is that Buhari would deal with Boko Haram the same way that he dealt with Maitatsine, implying that the Maitatsine strategy would be recycled to combat Boko Haram.

But is the comparison between Boko Haram and Maitatsine valid? Will the strategy that worked against Maitatsine be effective against Boko Haram? And is the world in which Boko Haram exists and flourishes the same as the one in which Maitatsine emerged and thrived?

Personally, I am eager to listen to reasonable arguments about what Buhari would do specifically to combat Boko Haram if he wins next month’s election, not rhetorical claims and decontextualized nostalgia. Like most Nigerians, I would like to know what he would do differently than what is already being implemented in the counter-insurgency effort of our armed forces. I would like to know what strategies, outside of what is already in practice, a president Buhari would deploy to deal with Boko Haram.

So far, we are getting few substantive and specific answers to these questions. Instead, we are getting naïve declarations about Buhari’s almost magical ability to end Boko Haram. What I find disingenuous and ahistorical is the argument that because he successfully combatted the Maitatsine religious uprising, Buhari would do the same to Boko Haram, and that the methods he used to combat Maitatsine would be effective against Boko Haram — that the lessons learned would transfer seamlessly and that the strategy from the 1980s can simply be dusted up and implemented in 2015.

Boko Haram is not Maitastine and the 1980s are not the second decade of the twenty first century. These are two distinct eras, two different worlds.

For those of us who have spent considerable amount of time living in the Northern theaters of both the Maitatsine and Boko Haram insurgencies and, in addition, are deeply acquainted with the vast formal and informal literature on Maitatsine, the comparison between the two insurgencies is very problematic to say the least. Maitatsine was a localized religious movement with no inspirational and ideological ties, as far as we know, to external/foreign groups. Boko Haram, on the other hand, derives inspiration and ideological nourishment from global jihadist groups like Al-Qaida and ISIS and models itself after the Afghan Taliban and ISIS.

Maitatsine was a largely urban movement and their quarters/neighborhoods (such as Yan Awaki in Kano, Bulunkutu in Maiduguri, etc) could easily be identified and attacked. Conversely, Boko Haram is now largely a rural insurgency, although it has a presence in both rural and urban areas. This makes the task of identifying and crushing its fighters and infrastructures more complicated. Maitatsine’s followers fought with bows and arrows and perhaps a few locally made guns. These were no match for the firearms of the Nigerian security services. Boko Haram on the other hand boasts of an arsenal of weapons that is as deadly if not more deadly and modern than that of the Nigerian armed forces.

Maitatsine was numerically much smaller than Boko Haram. Maitatsine’s presence was confined to four urban areas, Kano, Maiduguri, Yola, and Gombe. Boko Haram is everywhere in the entire Northeast and Northwest zones of the country and has staged attacks all over those areas and even in Abuja and Lagos. Maitatsine had no capacity for bomb making; Boko Haram does. Maitatsine members and their families largely ran from soldiers sent to combat them because of the asymmetry of weaponry; Boko Haram brazenly takes on the army, confident in their ability to match and even surpass the weapons of Nigerian troops.

Maitatsine lasted for about five years and was sporadic in its manifestation, with months and sometimes years separating the uprisings and military engagements. This is the sixth year of Boko Haram’s terrorist campaign, and it is showing no signs of abating. This, moreover, has been a consistently ferocious insurgency, with almost daily attacks in the Northeast, the most spectacularly recent and murderous one being the sack of Baga.

Maitatsine was not a radical territorial movement intent on capturing, holding, and governing territory as part of an imagined theocratic state or caliphate; Boko Haram is. The sheer scale and intensity of Boko Haram’s brutality make Maitatsine a primitive, mildly destructive uprising. Although the leader of Maitatsine, Mohamed Marwa was from Cameroon, the Maitatsine uprisings were confined to Nigeria, unlike Boko Haram, which now threatens Cameroon and Niger and has emerged as a regional insurgency.

There are other important distinctions between Maitatsine and Boko Haram.

Most Nigerians agree that President Jonathan bungled the initial response to Boko Haram and allowed the menace to get out of control. In fairness to him, when he did realize the evil the country was dealing with and unleashed the full wrath of the army on Boko Haram, the elders of Borno State and other prominent Northern leaders, including General Muhammadu Buhari, accused the president of waging war on the North, with the Borno elders even going so far as to demand the withdrawal of the anti-terrorism military joint task force (JTF) from Borno State. In addition, members of the JTF came under increased domestic and international criticism for human rights abuses, with many local observers helping to bolster and substantiate the international human rights outcry.

Even so, President Jonathan was all too willing to give in to these pressures and to scale back the military offensive against Boko Haram at a crucial moment in which the terrorists were in retreat and the army was on the offensive. This attitude of impulsive surrender stems from the president’s politicized understanding of Boko Haram as a Northern problem and as a fight among his enemies. It is an attitude whose best known marker was the constant refrain of the president’s aides and spokespeople that Boko Haram had been confined to or contained in the Northeast, as though the Northeast and its humanity were not part of Nigeria, as though containment and confinement signified a victory. A courageous leader does whatever is necessary to solve a problem that threatens the sovereignty of the state and damns domestic and international nitpickers. Afterwards, once the problem is solved, he can respond to and seek to address the criticisms.


Nigerians are already familiar with President Jonathan’s anti-insurgency strategy or lack of one. The president and his national security team seem to have reached the limit of their problem solving creativity on this issue. And yet the insurgency surges and poses new dangers to the country. This is why Nigerians are hungry for a new approach. This is why Nigerians must demand a new, detailed approach from Buhari and his campaign.

I for one would like to know exactly how Buhari would combat and defeat the current insurgency beyond the simplistic and erroneous invocation of his experience with Maitatsine. His command of troops who took on and defeated Maitatsine means little in the present circumstances and does not constitute adequate preparation for handling Boko Haram. The forces he commanded fought against religious insurgents who had no modern weaponry, no training, and no ideology that authorized the killing of everyone, Christian, Muslim, and traditionalist, who did not subscribe to their theology.

Moreover, this engagement occurred in an age in which global sensibilities about human rights abuses were not as heightened as they are today. In that context, the operational strategy deployed by Buhari was essentially to level the neighborhoods where the Maitstine sect members were known to shelter and congregate, killing thousands of members and non-members including women, children, and the elderly. This strategy would not be tolerated in today’s world, where the rules of military engagement have been refined, humanized, and globalized, and where instantaneous information dissemination and communication technologies would transmit images of the gory aftermaths of such a scorched earth military approach.

Boko Haram is a different animal, a deadlier, more ambitious, more extreme, and more globally inspired movement than Maitatsine was. The earlier Nigerians got away from this hackneyed analogy between Maitatsine and Boko Haram the better for the effort to understand and effectively combat this existential threat

Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/

3 thoughts on “Boko Haram is Not Maitatsine

  1. Moses
    in all friendliness I must say you are not realistic. To state right no how on would deal with such a problem is to signal in advance to the enemy and given they have supporters int he system this would be disastrous. Surprise and swiftness are key military and political assets.This is not a mere academic issue. In the end one has to make a judgment about Buhari’s likelihood of success. It is well now statement that in war no plan survives contact with the enemy ..so revision and amendment and adaptation to circumstances are required.

    While we should challenge politicians , academics should show some humility about the actual problem (not deference to the politicians) or we end up in the world where academics posture implying if they were in power everything would be sorted!

    Lots of professors have wandered through Nigeria’s halls of power with no impact whatsoever.

    • Dapo, thanks again for your engagement, but I strongly disagree with you on all points. There is nothing unrealistic about asking for a general outline of what Buhari would do DIFFERENTLY with respect to Boko Haram. We are not asking for battle plans and deployment plans for crying out loud! You live in the United Kingdom. I live in the United States. When these two countries are at war and have elections, the war usually tops or is at least one of the top issues on the list of questions posed to candidates. Candidates, especially opposition candidates, are asked what they would do differently, how their strategy would be different from the present (failed) path and how the strategy would be effective. Why should we lower this standard of questions and scrutiny for Nigerian elections? We seem to have very low expectations of our politics and politicians and as a result hesitate to pose questions that are a staple of electoral politics in our places of abode.

      Mr. Buhari in particular needs to tell us what his strategy is so that we can juxtapose it against the current strategy or lack thereof and come to our own conclusions as citizens about the likelihood of success, the likelihood of a change in direction in the counter-insurgency. So far, most of what one hears from Buhari’s supporters (in fairness to the General, not from he himself) is that he tackled Maitatsine so he will tackle Boko Haram. That tells me nothing and is neither reassuring nor substantive. I lived in the Northeast during the latter end of the Maitatsine problem and no one who witnessed Maitasine will equate that sect with Boko Haram, or argue that the strategy used in combating them is transferable to the fight against Boko Haram. Jonathan’s strategy, if it can be called that, has so far failed to curb the insurgency. On that we can agree. But Mr. Buhari needs to provide a blueprint (not reveal the nuts and bolts of his plan) beyond empty slogans about the effort against Maitatsine thirty years ago. We need substance, not slogans. Speaking of slogans and substance, that is precisely the point of my intervention in this essay–to move the debate beyond nostalgic slogans into the realm of substance, where each candidate, especially that of the opposition, lays out in broad terms, without giving away specific plans, a comprehensive strategy for dealing with Boko Haram. To move us away from the unhelpful slogans of Mr. Buhari’s supporters and inaccurate comparisons to Maitatsine, I needed to show that the two sects are different in many respects and that their threats to Nigeria and modus operandi are radically different. If candidates in countries at war elsewhere are subjected to scrutiny regarding their understanding of and strategy for winning the war, there is no reason why the candidates in the Nigerian election should not.

      On a final, lighter note, what do you have against academics? Academics probe issues and supply profundity and depth to issues that are usually understood superficially. The greater depth of understanding you bring to an issue, the better the policy prescriptions and solutions. So while we academics do not do solutions as well as others, those whose job is problem-solving can use our analytical skills and our power to dissect and explain a problem beyond slogans and popular conjectures. Please take it easy on academics. We have a role to play in all debates, and if policymakers and leaders listen more to us, they would be better at what they do.

      I salute you!

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