Potential Role for Traditional Muslim Leaders to Counter Boko Haram

by Guest Blogger for John Campbell Counsel on Foreign Relations

This is a guest post by Jacob Zenn, an analyst of African Affairs for the Washington D.C. based think tank, The Jamestown Foundation, and a contributor for the West Point CTC Sentinel.

Traditional Muslim leaders, the sultan of Sokoto in particular, may have an important role to play in countering the extremist views that attract recruits to Boko Haram, Ansaru, and other radical Islamist groups. The sultan may still command the respect of a majority of Muslims in Nigeria. Even though Boko Haram and Ansaru reject the sultan’s authority and have tried to assassinate a number of traditional Muslim leaders, the sultan’s moderate message may make the operational environment less conducive for groups such as Boko Haram and Ansaru. The sultan and other traditional leaders could serve as a bulwark against Boko Haram and other extremists by reducing the potential Boko Haram recruiting pool. But, they are less likely to influence Boko Haram directly.

Every effort should be made to prevent vulnerable groups from crossing the fine line between grievances–such as those about corruption (which in my visit to Borno was just called “government stealing”)–and participation in Boko Haram’s violence. I believe the sultan and traditional leaders can connect with some of these key vulnerable groups before they’re lost.

As for “vulnerable groups” who already joined Boko Haram, the sultan believes that an amnesty would be one way to incentivize them to rejoin society and abandon terrorism. The sultan has been criticized for this by southerners, who point out that the Niger Delta insurgents who received an amnesty in 2009 never targeted civilians as Boko Haram has done. I would highlight that the sultan has a lot to lose if Boko Haram becomes more powerful, and that he has likely been the leading voice calling on Muslims to bring “peace and stability” to Nigeria—in contrast to other imams who have even blamed the United States for Boko Haram’s violence. Moreover, there have been factions that have broken away from Boko Haram for its killing of civilians, so the sultan may have those members in mind when he speaks of an amnesty.

As indicated in this chart, originally from the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, there is a “contested space” between the sultan and his ideology, and radical imams and their ideologies. The more the sultan’s influence increases among mainstream Muslims, the smaller the pool of potential recruits for Boko Haram will be. It becomes less likely that “vulnerable groups” will cross the line between being sympathetic, or even in contact, with Boko Haram to actual membership and participation in attacks. From this perspective, the crucial question is the extent to which the sultan retains the loyalty of his traditional followers in the aftermath of his support of President Goodluck Jonathan in the elections of 2011.

The new Sultan of Sokoto, Saad Abubakar,(C) the spiritual leader of Nigeria’s Muslims, receives a copy of the Qura’an from Sokoto state governor Atahiru Bafarawa, during a coronation ceremony in Sokoto March 3, 2007. (Afolabi Sotunde/Courtesy Reuters)

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