Last week the Nigerian Islamic militants, Boko Haram, struck again in a small town in northern Nigeria near the Cameroonian border, killing 300 people. This is part of a series of escalating attacks such as the one they carried out last August, as the men of Konduga, a small northern Nigerian riverine Muslim community, were attending their Friday prayers. As they prayed, a group of armed Boko Haram terrorists attacked the mosque and killed 44 worshippers. The next day, as is their custom, Boko Haram released a video where they vilified and taunted the United States and Israel.

And then, just a few weeks ago, Boko Haram kidnapped 276 schoolgirls and boasted on the Internet that they were going to sell them into slavery, something that has suddenly shocked the world, for few have fully realized that this means that we are witnessing the return of the Nigerian slave trade.

Given the extreme violence and the high death toll of Islamic uprisings in places like Syria and Iraq, the Western public has become accustomed to hearing about an ebb and flow of religiously inspired massacres, but it is the proud slaving propensities of Boko Haram that are a shock to the news reading public and, the fact that they openly boast about it. There is more to this story than meets the eye.

Western readers have difficulty understanding who Boko Haram are, where they come from and what they mean in the context of Nigerian history, for Nigeria is really two distinct countries, a Muslim north and a non Muslim south. These two distinct cultural and religious entities were artificially fused by the British empire in the late 19th and early 20th century in what historians now call the “scramble for Africa,” a period of about forty years when England, France, Portugal, Belgium and Germany occupied almost all of North and Sub Saharan Africa. Most of the members of Boko Haram hail from the northern Islamic states of what later became the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

What we now call Nigeria is the result of English merchants, and later imperial civil servants contracting treaties with a host of African chiefs and then linking them into a colonial framework which set the stage for the large African independence movements that emerged after WWII, motivated by western educated African elites who had witnessed a world war where the supposedly racially “superior” Europeans fought to the death with the help of hundreds of thousands of African and Asian troups. Indeed, it was the French General De Gaulle who once said that without the assistance of the African soldiers of French West and Central Africa, they would not have prospered in their fight against the German Nazis.

When the British established their administrative and military control over Nigeria in the early 20th century, they froze a historical dynamic that had been ongoing for over a thousand years, that is the slow conversion to Islam of the sahelian dwelling northern tribes of Nigeria, such as the Hausa and Kanuri peoples who lived under a range of feuding emirs or local sultans and who then, as sincere believers in Islam, adopted a Jihad which included systematic enslavement and sale of captives from the more southern non Muslim tribes, such as the Yoruba, Ibo and many others who lived nearer to the Atlantic ocean.

This indigenous African slave trade which supplied northerners with an abundance of concubines, cheap domestic help and farm based slave labor, was then incorporated into the more widely known transatlantic slave trade where “up country” West Africans raided and sold slaves to “down country” West Africans, who in turn sold them in growing numbers to Europeans who took them across the Atlantic to the United States and to countries like Brazil, where legalized forms of slavery survived into the 1880s. The northern Nigerian slave trade never stopped, even when the British made it illegal and long before historians brought to our attention the full horror of the transatlantic slave trade that has so dramatically changed the demography of the new world, both north and south and, our perceptions of American and South American history.

One of the mothers of the missing Chibok school girls wipes her tears as she cries during a rally by civil society groups pressing for the release of the girls in Abuja on May 6, 2014 (Photo credit: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP)

One of the mothers of the missing Chibok school girls wipes her tears as she cries during a rally by civil society groups pressing for the release of the girls in Abuja on May 6, 2014 (Photo credit: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP)

During the 20th century under colonialism and a newly independent Nigeria, slavery in the south practically disappeared and slavery in the north was reduced to an illegal minimum as the country’s legal system actively forbid it. However, during the last few years some of the northern states of the Federal State of Nigeria, and who were once independent Muslim emirates states in pre-colonial times, have brought back Sharia law, which does not rule against slavery. It should then come as no surprise that young radicalized northerners, such as the members of Boko Haram, would like to take that one step further and bring back the old slave trade.

African historian John Alembillah Azumah has persuasively argued in his ground breaking book about the legacy of Islamic slavery in Africa that…

Slave raids were quite extensive in all the emirates of northern Nigeria and in Adamawa in particular the practice continued until the 1920s. Organized raids sometimes involved the coordinated efforts of several political units referred to in some sources as ‘polyglot raiding confederacies.’ Adult men were usually killed and the women, children and younger ones carried away. The Sokoto caliphate, therefore became ‘the largest slave society in Africa’ with Adamawa as the ‘major slave ‘reservoir’ of the caliphate.

The European explorer Heinrich Barth who joined one of these slave-raiding expeditions in 1852, best describes the cultural style of the slave raid carried out by members of the emirates of northern Nigeria against a non-Muslim traditional group such as the Mugu. Barth joined a group of 20,000-armed warriors from the sultanate of Bornu. He wrote:

A large number of slaves had been caught this day. Altogether they were said to have taken a thousand and there were certainly not less than five hundred. To our utmost horror not less than one hundred and seventy full-grown men were mercilessly slaughtered in cold blood, the greater part of them being allowed to bleed to death, a leg having been severed from the body.

The colonial occupation of West Africa by the English and the French put an end to such outright raiding practices and then the slaves did everything possible to use the new legal and administrative systems put in place by the incoming English and the French, to gain a modicum of freedom under the new regimes. Towards the end of the 19th century, surveys carried out by the French and the British found that much of the population of West Africa were slaves. For those who still believe that the Atlantic slave trade was somehow ethnically and geographically “sealed off” from the indigenous and trans Saharan/Sahelian slave trade, Azumah has this to say:

Muslim emirates were by far the major suppliers of slaves. Indeed, the trans-Saharan and transatlantic slave trades reached their peak between the seventeenth and the early nineteenth centuries when the Muslim tradition of military Jihad was in the ascendancy in the Western Sudan. Most of the jihad movements became the main source of slaves.

Not surprisingly Boko Haram is led by a man from northern Nigeria or perhaps from just over the border in Niger, named Abubakar Shekau. Shekau is in his late thirties or early forties. He is known to have an almost photographic memory when it comes to the sacred texts of Islam. He has a 7 million dollar price on his head and he seems to enjoy posting his Youtube rants on the Internet where he regularly threatens the Nigerian government, the US, Israel and other Western countries.

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Boko Haram Leader Abubakar Shekau claiming responsibility for the attack on a military barracks in March 2014 (Youtube screenshot)

We can assume that Shekau models himself on one of a series of 19th century Jihadist ‘reformers of Islam’ which were at that time common to northern Nigeria and the neighboring states of the Sahel such as the Jihad of the Fulani warrior, Uthman Dan Fodio. Fodio’s grandson Umaru Nagamatse (1859-76) as Emir of Kontagora, was a notorious slaver and his son Ibrahim, who became Emir in 1879, when he heard that the British were coming after him to close down his slave trade was quoted saying:

Can you stop a cat from mousing? When I die it will be with a slave in my mouth.

Anthropologists and embedded journalists occasionally get access to the oral traditions handed down from father to son about the ‘good old days’in non Western cultures. In the case of Northern Nigeria it is clear that the good old days were the precolonial days of Jihad and slavery. Terrorists such as Shekau did not emerge “out of nowhere.” He and his growing number of accomplices are a throwback to a time when he and his group and its ethnic allies were the dominant power in the region; the ‘tough’ ones, the slave traders, the ones who lived off other people’s labour in the name of Jihad and Islam.

Clearly the modern, forward looking, commercial and secular urban forms of contemporary Nigeria do not attract these young radicals. They want to turn back the clock to the time of their grandfathers and great grandfathers. It is also not suprising that Shekau and his colleagues seem to arise out of nowhere, strike hard and then disappear into the bush. This can only happen when a significant number of people in the countryside either support these brutal young men or, are too frightened to oppose them. The dynamics of this kind of guerrilla warfare was first written about by T.E.Lawrence for an article in the Encyclopedia Britannica just after WWI. It explains much about Boko Haram and its northern Nigerian environment.

The only thing new about Boko Haram is their technology. Their values and behavior are firmly routed in a history that they do not want to reject, that of the well documented, but little known slave trade that has plagued Nigeria for centuries. Boko Haram is doing everything possible to bring it back.

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