In Nigeria, a civil war within Islam

Assassins tried to take out Muhammadu Buhari, probably the most popular politician with the 'street.' He was a presidential candidate in 2003, 2007, and 2011, and may be so again in 2015.

Kaduna State Police Commissioner Alhaji Umar Shehu (center, in blue uniform) speaks next to Kaduna State Governor Mukhtar Yero (center, in tan) at the point of impact of a suicide bomb along Alkali Road in Kaduna, July 24, 2014. At least 82 people were killed on Wednesday in two suicide bombings in the north Nigerian city of Kaduna, one aimed at opposition leader and ex-president Muhammadu Buhari and another at a moderate Muslim cleric about to lead a crowd in prayer.

A version of this post appeared on Africa in Transition. The views expressed are the author's own. 

On July 23, there was an effort to murder two of Nigeria’s prominent Muslim leaders, Sheikh Dahiru Bauchi, a cleric with a large personal following, and Muhammadu Buhari, former head of state.

The attempts were two separate operations, though they appear to have been timed close together, in the former northern regional capital of Kaduna. 

The attempt against Sheikh Bauchi occurred when a bomb exploded near the square where he was scheduled to give an end-of-Ramadan sermon. Less than two hours later, a suicide bomber drove a vehicle into former head of state Buhari’s convoy as he was passing through Kaduna.

Though Boko Haram has not claimed responsibility, both targets had been publicly critical of the group. Bauchi declared Boko Haram to be “non-Islamic,” and there have been earlier attempts on his life. Mr. Buhari, too, has published writing opposing Boko Haram, which has issued death threats against him.

On the other hand, the two also have other enemies. Both Bauchi and Buhari survived the attempted murder, but the media estimates at least 82 others were killed, mostly bystanders and small traders.

Presuming Boko Haram was the perpetrator, the attack highlights an important aspect of the Boko Haram conflict. Among other things, it is a civil war within northern Nigerian Islam. Bauchi and Buhari are part of the Sufi-influenced, broadly tolerant Islam that has been traditional in northern Nigeria and includes most of the Islamic establishment. It fully embraces modernity (if not secularism), western education, and the Nigerian nation-state. It cultivates positive relations with Christians.

Boko Haram, on the other hand, is fundamentalist and advocates a literalist reading of sacred texts. It is broadly part of the Salafist tradition of Islam. (To state the obvious, most Salafists do not embrace the violence of Boko Haram.)

For Boko Haram, Muslims who embrace the secular state and western education are false Muslims who should be killed. Christians should be killed or driven out. Nevertheless, Muslims have supplied the largest percentage of Boko Haram’s victims.

Buhari will be well known to Americans who watch Nigeria. He was military head of state from 1984 to 1985. Alone among Nigeria’s chiefs of state, both military and civilian, he attempted to address Nigeria’s corruption root and branch, and his methods could be rough and extra-legal.

Accordingly, he was deposed by Ibrahim Babangida in 1985. Buhari’s current lifestyle is austere and uncorrupt. He is probably the most popular politician with the “street” in the North. He was a presidential candidate in 2003, 2007, and 2011, and may be so again in 2015.

Ironically, this potential victim of radical Islam is himself often viewed with suspicion in the Christian south as a Muslim fanatic, which is far from the truth.

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