This brief history covers the history of Nigeria that set the background and the rise of Boko Haram. From the Sokoto Caliphate to the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria and Herbert Macaulay to Mohammad Marwa. You can learn more about Boko Haram with full fact sheets, timelines, backgrounders and history here.


The trans-Saharan trade routes of northern Africa helped link much of the region now known as Nigeria to the cultural and economic impact of Europe and the Middle East throughout ancient history. It was these same trade routes that led Islam into the continent after the 9th century.


History of Nigeria: The Islamic Empires

sokoto caliphate

Islam arrived to Nigeria early in its history but not in force until the rise of the Sultunate of Borno. Based in the north east corner of the modern state of Nigeria the Sultunate of Borno, or the Borno Empire, operated as the hub of Islam’s spread to the surrounding lands until the 19th century. In a unique twist to history the lands of Nigeria which today rank as the least developed along educational and prosperity standards were the center of both during the era of the Sultunate of Borno.


European imperialism arrived to west Africa and the area which is today Nigeria in the mid 17th century drawn primarily by the slave trade. In the final decade of the 17h century and the first of the 18th the British alone were purchasing almost 2,000 slaves a year through Lagos. From the mid 18th century to the 20th the British would take the lead in relations with the tribes and local rulers of this region and become notorious for periodic massacres and brutality. In 1807 Britain outlawed the slave trade within its empire and sought to eliminate the trade throughout west Africa by other European powers. These actions had significant repercussions within the governing and economic order of Nigeria.


The Sokoto Caliphate

sokoto caliphate

In the shadow of these downturns within the traditional and ruling orders of the region an Islamic reformer, Shehu Usuman dan Fodio, rose to prominence. Dan Fodio was a well educated and charismatic leader who promoted a holy war for Islam against the corruption and unfaithfulness of the local rulers. By the time of his death in 1817 Dan Fodio had established the largest state south of the Sahara in Africa known as the Sokoto Caliphate.


As influential as Dan Fodio was militarily and politically, his legacy is most pronounced in what he provided to future generations of Nigerian Muslims. Dan Fodio and the resulting Sokoto Caliphate provided a historical basis which groups such as Boko Haram would look to as a golden Islamic age rooted directly to the lands of Nigeria and pre-dating the influence of western colonial powers.


The Sokoto Caliphate was renowned for its Islamic purity, determining that a ruler who called himself Muslim yet did not behave as a Muslim was not a true Muslim and therefore an unbeliever. The caliphate enjoyed great economic success for several decades throughout the 19th century as one of the most powerful states in Africa in spite of increasing European expansion into the region. More than a million non-believers (non-Muslims) were captured as slaves within the caliphate and worked the agricultural plantations of their masters with the opportunity to convert to Islam themselves over this period.


The Sokoto Caliphate stood until the end of the 19th century when British and French imperialism set their sights upon western Africa and objectives of greater dominance.


As the British looked to the Sokoto Caliphate another force from the east began to wreck havoc on this region.


Rabih Fadi Allah was a Sundanese warlord and slave trader who gained his reputation as a warrior when fighting as a lieutenant in the Khartoum conquest of 1874. In the early 1890s he had his first encounters with French forces then made his way toward the seat of the former Borno empire, now part of the Sokoto Caliphate.


Rabih and his Islamic fighters swept into the region on horseback beheading, looting and enslaving, as well as providing a late 19th century romanticized model that Boko Haram emulates today. After defeating the local rulers Rabih set up his power base there and began a seven year period of rule that was as notorious for its brutality as it was for its efforts to revive the Borno Empire.


In 1900 Rabih Fadih Allah was killed in a battle with the French.


The former lands once known as the Borno Empire then as the Sokoto Caliphate was finally and permanently ended.  The territories were divided among the leading imperial powers of Europe. The legacy of Islam’s final hours of strength in Nigeria before falling to the powers of European colonialism was a strength distinctly marked by extremism, violence, and ideological purity.

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History of Nigeria – Imperialism

The end of the slave trade did not limit British interests in Nigeria. In the mid 19th century British Christian missionaries initiated more aggressive movements into the area. They found relative success in the south but stiff resistance to the north, the heart of Nigeria’s Islamic religion and traditions since the Sultunate of Borno.

The missionaries’ activities were situated upon the spread of a western education system into Nigeria and thus a dividing line between Islam and western education can be directly traced to this period in the country’s history.


No source better captures the situation on the ground during this time period than the critically acclaimed novel Things Fall Apart by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. The story follows the life of Igbo tribe member Okonkwo as his world changes and ultimately crumbles through the rising influence of British imperialism and specifically western Christian thinking.


The British managed their influence and effectiveness in the former Borno Empire by indirect rule at first, supporting local rulers in the different regions of the future Nigeria on the condition that those local rulers remained loyal to the growing influence of the British.


In the north the British found reasonable success through this system because so much of the Sokoto Caliphate had a strong system of governance already well established. Once this system was obligated to British demands it was an easy fit for both. Because the north was well ordered and well governed the British went to great lengths to ward off any interference that might disrupt their systems of indirect rule there. Christian missionaries and western education for example were limited in their spread to the north so as to not cause unrest among the Muslim rulers, traditions and populations.


It was not only that the British wanted the well administered Muslim populations to be left alone. The British were concerned that liberal thinking would corrupt and enflame northern Nigerians with anti-imperialist demands for freedom.


In the west the British found a strong system of governance already in place but not one amenable to British taxation. Here liberal thinking and a unique Nigerian struggle for independence from the British was already beginning, much to the displeasure of the imperialists.  In the east it was the opposite so that low levels of organization and government power required more direct British involvement.


The west and east would ultimately feel more direct influence from the British as a result of these policies, while the north would be left to their own cultures and traditions for a time. The unintended consequences of these policies over the long term however would be to establish very different ways of life and cultures within Nigeria.


The north was experiencing the greatest freedom and self rule in the beginning but being left behind for the coming century that would thrive upon western education. The east and west were being hammered into line to the British way of life. Although contentious and painful in the early years, the stage was being set for greater prosperity and development for these British oriented regions in the new century.


Protectorate of Northern Nigeria


In 1900 the British and Fulani emirs of the north began working to establish the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria. British consolidation of the regions into its protectorate would be completed by 1907.  Included within these agreements were assurances that the British would forbid Christian missionary activities within Nigeria except to “pagans” (i.e. non Muslims). Cutting off the spread of Christian missionary activity to these Muslim areas effectively cut off the spread of western education as well.


The difference between northern and southern Nigeria is like that of two very different countries. It should be remembered that Nigeria, like many other colonial holdings of the Europeans during this time period, was an artificial construction. The consolidation of different lands, cultures, tribes, religions and people into one entity known as Nigeria or the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria could be compared to what the Europeans were doing in many other parts of Africa and Asia.

Boko Haram and Nigeria Demographics

The design was not conceived to benefit the people of Nigeria but the imperial powers. The policies which maintained and emphasized these differences and disparities may have had unintended consequences but the nature of the colonial state in its origin was destined to breed conflict.


History of Nigeria: Nationalism and Fundamentalism


Nigerian nationalism developed in the south over the following decades while various strains of Islamic fundamentalism and revival developed in the north. In spite of British efforts and agreements, the encroachment of the 20th century and modernism could not be fully abated in the north and with it came the erosion of traditionalism. The Islamic north grew increasingly more insecure in its inability to stop western education and culture as well as its inability to cope with these infringements.


Two figures of the interwar period, from the south and north respectively, demonstrate the two different worlds that were evolving within the protectorate’s borders and making a collision between the two inevitable.


Herbert Macaulay

Herbert Macaulay

Herbert Macaulay is considered the founder of Nigerian nationalism and his life reflected the changing landscape of the south. Born in 1864 his father was the founder of the first secondary school in Nigeria. Herbert Macaulay studied at a Christian missionary school, took a job with the public works department in Lagos and studied civil engineering in England. The list of occupations and talents associated with his legacy include architect, engineer, musician, journalist and politician.


After returning from England Herbert Macaulay became increasingly dissatisfied with the imperial hands of the British in his homeland. He recognized the hypocrisy of their claim to represent the best interests of the native population of Nigeria only went as far as their own personal profits that could be squeezed from the natives.


Herbert Macaulay gained notoriety early on by exposing several cases of corruption on the part of the British in Nigeria. As his reputation as a nationalist increased he was jailed twice by the British. He founded the Nigerian National Democratic Party, Nigeria’s first political party, and his party was victorious in the elections held throughout the interwar period.


The journey and biography of Herbert Macaulay resembles that of other significant nationalists during this time period from other parts of the world and demonstrates the assimilation of southern Nigeria into the western system as a key driver for its own nationalist ambitions. To the north it was a different story.


Mohammad Marwa


Around the time Herbert Macaulay was forming political parties in 1927 Mohammad Marwa was born in Cameroon. After his education he moved to Kano, Nigeria where he began his career as an eccentric Islamic preacher.


He would become known as Maitatsine meaning “the one who damns.” He damned the influence and doctrines of western education that had invaded and corrupted the Islamic influence in Nigeria. He declared that reading any book except the Koran was a sign of paganism and this included other Islamic text.


His full influence on the history of Nigeria and the rise of Boko Haram would be felt after Nigerian independence but the stark contrast between Marwa and Herbert Macaulay demonstrates the diverging paths and cultures developing between the northern and southern parts of the country near the end of the colonial era.


One was strongly nationalistic in its worldview and the other strongly and fundamentally religious.

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History of Nigeria: Independence and Instability


In 1960 Nigeria became an independent nation within the British Commonwealth system. The organization and administration of the new nation was built atop the weaknesses cultivated over the course of the protectorate period with the British.


Tribal and religious divisions dominated the political landscape even in the founding documents of the new state. The differences in outlook between the various tribes of Nigeria could at last be defined along specific geographical lines. The Hausa in the north, the Igbo in the east, and Yoruba in the west represented the dominant outlooks with the most extreme being that of the north which had been well isolated during the colonial period.


The new national constitution was supported by local regional constitutions to account for the variance of interests and perspectives within Nigeria. Most of these regional constitutions followed the model established by the national constitution with the notable and deliberate exception of the north.


Islamic law had been the law of the land in the north but as part of the independence settlement of 1960 that brought about the new state the north was allowed to utilize sharia law only in personal and family matters. Although this was a successful compromise necessary to bring about the 1960 settlement it still demonstrated how alien the north was from the other regions of the country. The pattern would be continued all the way to the present.


Even today almost half of all Nigerians are Muslim and the large majority of them live in the northern region of the country.


Even apart from the internal issues of the new Nigerian state there was much to contend with externally and survival was by no means assured in the early years. Circumstances resulting from the independence of surrounding states such as Cameroon and their impact upon Nigeria’s population and electorate balance contributed to a destabilized regime that was also perceived as corrupt.


Back to back coups occurred in 1966 resulting in the death of many of Nigeria’s political elite. Then in 1967 the eastern Igbo region seceded from Nigeria to form the Republic of Biafra. This launched the Nigerian Civil War, a two and a half year campaign, that included the death of around three million Nigerians and significant entanglement with outside powers including the Soviet Union and Great Britain.


Following the Nigerian Civil War and the reintegration of Biafra into the nation of Nigeria, the rise in oil prices appeared to be the brightest event on the new nation’s historical horizon during the 1970s. The global surge in oil demand and prices only served to emphasize the problems facing the Nigerian people and government.


Corruption under the military leadership of the 1970s and democratically elected leaders in more recent decades has seen to it that few Nigerians experience the benefits of their nation’s oil supplies. Nigeria is the world’s fifth largest producer of oil but nearly two thirds of its population live in absolute poverty or on “just enough to not die.”


Oil is the most lucrative commodity in Nigeria and since its discovery in the 1950s it has been utilized by the nation’s political leadership to secure positions founded upon corruption and lacking any democratic accountability.


The Return of Mohammad Marwa


In this environment of corruption and instability Mohammad Marwa (“the one who damns”) returned from exile to Nigeria shortly after independence.


By the 1970s he had developed a following known as the Y’antatsine. Mohammad Marwa was no less radical than before and this added to his appeal among many northern Nigerians who felt the mainstream Islamic preachers of Nigeria were proving ineffective to counter the continued problems experienced by the nation’s Muslims.


As Mohammad Marwa drew larger crowds of followers mainly from the ranks of Muslim youth and the unemployed the frequency of conflict between the Y’antatsine and the police intensified.


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The Y’antatsine


In 1980 the Y’antatsine began attacking religious leaders who questioned or countered Mohammad Marwa and armed riots broke out in the city of Kano.


The Nigerian military intervened bringing about the death of more than 4,000 people including Mohammad Marwa himself but this was only the beginning.


Even without the charismatic and somewhat bizarre leader, the fuel of frustration among Nigeria’s Muslim population in the north was enough to keep the Y’antatsine movement going strong. In 1982 riots flared again in Bulumutu where over 3,300 people were killed and again in Gongola State and Bauichi State.

The Y’antatsine movement of 1980-85 is significant as a precursor to Boko Horam. It was a movement of dissent within the Muslim community of Nigeria receiving both support and resistance from that same community and eventually striking out against Muslims whom the Y’antatsine deemed pagan and unbelievers. When it grew out of control the secular military government was relied upon to reign in the movement and its violence.


The Y’antatsine movement seemed to awaken a resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism in line with what was transpiring in many other parts of the world during the early 1980s. From Palestine to Saudi Arabia to Iran to Afghanistan an increasing number of Muslims who had believed politics and independence would be the solution to their community’s problems at the end of the era of imperialism found themselves frustrated and hopeless yet again.


For many the solution to their personal and social frustrations was obvious. Nationalism and democracy were not the answer. The answer was a return to the basic and pure tenants of the faith. Thus the rise of fundamentalist Islam occurred almost in unison across much of the formerly colonized Muslim world.


The end of the Y’antatsine presented a period of reprieve from violence but the Muslims of northern Nigeria were awakening to the belief that perhaps their drive toward statehood in 1960 had been misguided. Many believed that the compromises they had made at that time were now proving a terrible mistake, including the exclusion of sharia law from their regional constitution.


An effort toward national reform in 1999 opened the door for the disenfranchised Muslims in the north with a new national constitution that allowed for local and regional constitutions based upon sharia law.


Today 9 out of 12 of the northern states of Nigeria are under full Sharia law while the remaining three operate under sharia for civil but not for criminal law. Suddenly the situation had changed.


The stage was now set for the rise of Boko Haram.

JB Shreve and the End of History

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You can continue reading and learn about the history of Boko Haram.  This history and more are covered in explainers and backgrounders through my in depth look at Everything You Need to Know About Boko Haram.