Nigeria’s organised Islamic terrorism problem did not start in 2009. It’s a lot more insidious than you think. In May 2021, a 96 year-old businessman died in Rome, Italy. In his lifetime, Ahmed Idris Nasreddin might have amassed a personal fortune of close to half a billion dollars, but the death of NASCO Group’s multimillionaire founder barely made the news. At first glance, the only extraordinary thing about his life story was that it embodied the African entrepreneurship dream.
Nasreddin was an Eritrean who moved to Jos in Nigeria’s Plateau State, and grew his father’s small manufacturing business into a $460 million conglomerate involved in everything from breakfast cereal and confectionery to pharmaceuticals, real estate and energy. After many years of growth and success, he eventually handed his sprawling business empire over to his son Attia Nasreddin, and retired at an old, satisfied age.
In an official statement released after Nasreddin’s death in May, Plateau State governor Simon Lalong said:
“NASCO has over the years remained a major employer of labour in Plateau and continues to contribute to the economic prosperity of the State and Nigeria at large through tax revenue and corporate social responsibility.”
Well that was the cover story, anyway.
In reality, as is so often the case in Nigeria, the gap between the facts and the information released to the public is so wide as to be scarcely believable. What on earth could this shrewd, respectable businessman who looked like he could not hurt a fly have done, to put him in the same article as a story about the world’s deadliest terrorist organisation? Why would the brand he built, which to many Nigerians evokes memories of a beloved childhood breakfast staple, appear in the same sentence as Boko Haram?
To answer these questions, our story begins on another continent in 1955, some 8 years before his father would move to Nigeria and establish NASCO Group.
A Scholar From Zamfara
The year is 1955, and a 33 year-old Islamic scholar from Gummi in modern day Zamfara State has made his way to Mecca for his first Hajj pilgrimage. Alongside him is a certain Ahmadu Bello, who is the Premier of Northern Nigeria. During this trip, the scholar impresses both Ahmadu Bello and the Saudi King Sa’ud with his Arabic translation skills. He rapidly makes a big impression on many locals and clerics in Mecca.
These relationships will later become his most valuable asset following the events that take place after his subsequent return to Nigeria. Upon returning to Nigeria, he takes up positions teaching Arabic Studies at Islamic schools in Kano and Kaduna. His style of teaching focuses on educating his students about the differences between Islamic religious doctrine and local customs. Based on his strict Sunni understanding of the Qur’an, he teaches his students to adopt a ‘pure’ Islamic identity at the expense of practises that he considered bid’ah (roughly translated as ‘innovation’ or ‘corruption’).
He also becomes the first Islamic scholar to translate the Qur’an from Arabic into Hausa, which puts him in a uniquely influential position comparable to that of Ajayi Crowther in 19th century southwestern Nigeria. Using this leverage, he becomes an increasingly powerful figure in Northern Nigeria, with his essentialist views on Islamic doctrine gaining popularity.
To him, the existing Sufi orders of Northern Nigeria are polluted with bid’ah and unfit for purpose. He becomes well known for attacking the Tijaniya and Qadriyya brotherhoods during his appearances on Radio Kaduna, while advocating for a ‘return’ to ‘Islamic purity.’
Following the death of his friend and benefactor Ahmadu Bello, the scholar finds himself in a precarious situation. The new Nigerian federal government led by soldiers has a motive to crack down on anyone who is outspoken and influential. He may be a giant in Northern Nigeria, but he is a giant with feet of clay. His solution is to seek financial, doctrinal and political help from his friends in Mecca. The Saudis, as always, are ready to help.
His Saudi backers are keen to use him to espouse the Saudi Arabian state’s official interpretation of Islam, which is based on the work of 18th century Islamic scholar Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab. This fundamentalist doctrine, often known as Wahabbism fits very closely with the teachings of our hero in Northern Nigeria, and he enthusiastically sets about gathering support for this new Saudi-funded project. In the 2009 book ‘The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia,’ historian David Commins says:
“The [Saudi-funded Muslim World] League also sent missionaries to West Africa, where it funded schools, distributed religious literature and gave scholarships to attend Saudi religious universities. These efforts bore fruit in Nigeria’s Muslim northern region with the creation of a movement (the Izala Society) dedicated to wiping out ritual innovations. Essential texts for members of the Izala Society are Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s treatise of God’s unity and commentaries by his grandsons.
Reaching out to his erstwhile students across Kaduna and Kano over the course of the 1970s, the scholar-turned-politician slowly builds a coalition of strategically-aligned individuals who will someday become very powerful people in Northern Nigeria. In 1978, one of his prominent students, Sheikh Ismaila Idris takes charge of this increasingly powerful but somewhat unofficial movement, and calls it Jama’atu Izalatil Bid’ah Wa Iqamatus Sunnah (Society of Removal of Innovation and Re-establishment of the Sunnah), also known as JIBWIS.
Based in Jos and known colloquially as the Izala Movement, this organisation will go on to become the most influential Islamic body in Nigeria over the next few decades. Its members will become some of Nigeria’s most revered Imams and clerics. They will achieve high ranks in the Nigerian Armed Forces.
They will sit on the Federal Executive Council.
JIBWIS will come to exert a level of influence over Nigeria’s national politics and governance that is unprecedented for a religious body in Nigeria. Soon, it will become almost impossible to achieve power in many parts of Northern Nigeria without identifying with the Izala Movement.
Among other things, the scholar states that Muslims should never accept a non-Muslim as ruler, which can be interpreted as a call for insurrection against a Christian Nigerian president. He is never held to account for this statement. In any case, he no longer believes that writing books or teaching people about Islam will on their own, lead to an Islamic renaissance in Northern Nigeria. Now he is all about partnership and politicking. He maintains his membership in Northern Nigeria’s legacy Islamic group, Jama’atu Nasril Islam (“Group for the Victory of Islam”), but he is unmistakably the beating heart of the new Izala Movement. To all intents and purposes, this is the birth of modern Salafist Islam in Nigeria.
Without firing a shot or winning an election, this Islamic scholar has become one of the most powerful men in Northern Nigeria
EDITOR’S NOTE: Sheikh Ahmad Abubakar Gumi is the son of Abubakar Mahmud Gumi.
The Clerics, The Saudis and What Happened in Algeria
Fast forward 33 years. It is Christmas Day in 2011 and Abubakar Gumi has been dead for over 19 years. A bomb suddenly goes off at St. Theresa Catholic Church, Madalla, on the outskirts of Abuja, killing 35 people and wounding a further 52. Almost simultaneously, a series of coordinated bomb attacks and shootings take place at churches in Jos, Gadaka and Damaturu. An obscure Islamist group calling itself Boko Haram claims responsibility for the attacks.
During the trial of the main suspect Kabiru Umar A.K.A Kabiru Sokoto 2 years later, a masked witness claims that an Algerian Islamist group provided funding and support worth N40,000,000 ($250,000 at the time) to carry out the attacks. To the general public, it is unclear what the link is between Islamists in Northern Nigeria and well-funded terror groups in North Africa.
To those in the know however, the incidents of December 25, 2011 are not only expected, but are likely to intensify and become more regular. This is because while the Nigerian public up to this point has been fed with what amounts to a tiny percentage of the actual story behind the Boko Haram group, this group has in fact been incubating and nurtured at the highest levels of the theological, economic and political spaces in Northern Nigeria. Boko Haram in reality, is so much bigger than Mohammed Yusuf and Abubakar Shekau that reducing it to those 2 men serves to miss the actual story spectacularly.
To start to get some of the picture of what Boko Haram is and where it came from, let us retreat from 2011 to 2006 to read an excerpt from a letter written by the Permanent Representative of Nigeria to the United Nations, Aminu B. Wali, addressed to the Chairman of the Counter-Terrorism Committee. This letter is available in full here from the official repository for UN documents. Written by the Nigerian government to the UN, it lays out the measures it has taken to fight terrorism in Nigeria. Take special note of the names mentioned in bold.
A Wikileaks cable from 2002 confirms that this arrest actually did take place, only for the suspect to be released inexplicably after 27 days in detention.
For those who are not aware, Yakubu Musa Kafanchan, also known as Sheikh Yakubu Musa Katsina and Yakubu Musa Hassan is a founding member of the Izala Movement (JIBWIS), and is in fact, the current Chairman of its board of trustees and the Chairman of the Katsina State JIBWIS chapter. He is a widely respected Islamic cleric and a very close personal friend and public associate of – no prizes for guessing – Isa Ali Pantami. Yes, that Isa Pantami.
Official Visit to Elder Statesman, Sheikh Yakubu Musa Hassan Katsina, shortly before proceeding for the formal launch of the National Emergency Toll-Free Number (112) and the Commissioning of the Katsina State Emergency Communications Center.
Mr. Kafanchan was even recently named as one of the 500 Most Influential Muslims in the World by The Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre, a Jordanian government-affiliated NGO. More on that later.