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Stirrings of Islamic Militancy in Nigeria: An Ambassador’s Recollections

When Thomas Pickering was Ambassador to Nigeria in 1980-83, he witnessed the stirrings of Islamic militancy and other transformations of the centuries-old practice of Islam in that country.  Fringe fractions were emerging in some regions. The “Maitatsine,” loyal to Mohammed Marwa, whose followers believed him to be prophet, brought major rioting to Kano. Marwa was killed. The Maitatsine and various syncretic groups had a strong hold on social and individual life in some parts of the countryside.  Where they held power, the Maitatsine and other groups strictly enforced their beliefs, taking militant action against those who disagreed.

Following the 1980 events in Kano, riots continued sporadically until 1985 at various locations in northern Nigeria, with the death toll reportedly exceeding 4,000.  Pickering speculates that these developments may have helped lay the groundwork for militant Muslim opposition to anti-polio campaigns and the emergence of the terrorist group Boko Haram.

Pickering also witnessed the early days of the movement in parts of northern Nigeria to adopt Sharia law.  By the end of the 1980s, some form of Sharia law had been adopted in a dozen Nigerian states. Many domestic and international groups objected to these developments, with particular tension arising over the potential application of Sharia law to non-Muslims.  

Thomas Pickering joined the State Department in 1959. Among the most accomplished diplomats of his generation, Pickering was U.S. Ambassador to Jordan, Nigeria, El Salvador, Israel, India, and Russia. While serving as the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations The New York Times described him as “arguably the best-ever U.S. representative to that body.” He was Assistant Secretary for the Bureau for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs and ended his federal government career as the Under Secretary for Political Affairs (1997-2001). He retired from the Foreign Service in 2001, and has remained active in the international affairs community–including as a frequent commentator on various broadcast networks.

Thomas Pickering’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning March 16, 2005.

Read Thomas Pickering’s full oral history HERE.

Drafted by:  Christina Krisberg

“The Maitatsine . . .  entered into pitched battles with other Muslims.”

Stirrings of More Militant Forms of Islam:  The minister for labor in the Kano State government when I was there was a woman. I was quite surprised to walk into her office and find a picture of Ayatollah Khomeini. — They are not Shia in Kano. The women in the north weren’t widely veiled then or subservient; they were not widely observant. I think that this represented for her, a Muslim, a sense of revolutionary independence for Muslims in Iran and around the world. That was something obviously that she seemed to admire.

. . . There were [also] in Nigeria syncretic offshoots of Islam. The Maitatsine, for example, who were gathered around a local prophet who was if anything more than a mild heretic. They entered into pitched battles with other Muslims over promoting their heresy. That could have been one of the root causes of the northern concerns about polio vaccinations as being an anti-Islamic plot. They were powerful. (Later Boko Haram emerged from the same region and it is interesting to speculate how one of these movements may have antedated and engendered perhaps the emergence of the other?)

In the later years we have seen two other such phenomena: one an old one with Christians and Muslims battling in the northern part of the Middle Belt and the southern part of the north–particularly around Kaduna.  And there were in fact some very bloody riots that took place two or three years ago. Christian-Muslim tension has been present there for a significant time. Some but not many Hausa and Fulani who were Muslim were converted. Many of the Middle Belt tribes, which were not Muslim, were heavily influenced by British Christian missionaries and then by Nigerian Christian missionaries.

At the same time you saw another phenomenon, movements in the interest of Sharia law. Nigeria in the last ten years had gone through the period of gradual “Sharia-ization” with some really difficult problems because of the requirement, among others, to stone women to death for the crime of adultery. That has caused a lot of international and domestic concern, particularly among non-Muslims.

A president “attempting to draw his line in the sand.”

Resisting Shaira:  I talked to [Olusegun] Obasanjo [former president of Nigeria] about this a few years ago. He made it clear that he didn’t think he could block the movement; he is not a Muslim but a Christian. But he did say that he could block the more outrageous applications of the law and its application to non-Muslims. That is where he was attempting to draw his line in the sand.

The final point is that Islam was also growing in the coastal regions, among the Yoruba at least. It was not true that the north was exclusively Muslim and the south exclusively Christian, and there would be no intermixture.  Quite the contrary. You found in the southern part of the north, where people tended to be less strict in their adherence to Islam, some Christian penetration. And you found Muslim penetration in the southwest, certainly in Yorubaland. . . .

We didn’t see the national leaders who were Muslim, or the military leaders who were Muslim, as in any way anti-modern. Education and new opportunities all seemed to have kept them from becoming rigorous fundamentalists. We saw in the countryside that the syncretic groups like the Maitatsine had a much stronger hold on social life and individual practices, not fundamentalist in the Middle Eastern sense of wanting to observe life as it was observed among Muslims in the 8th century. Rather, they blended traditional and Islamic ideas and then became rather strict in enforcing those blends. They were militant against others.

I think you also have to understand in Nigeria the presence and influence of the Muslim of brotherhoods, traditionally, historically having come down from North Africa, particularly Morocco. They were indeed very significant organizations that over time also developed political influence.




     Bowdoin College                                                                                                                          1949 – 1953

     Fletcher School of International Affairs                                                                                 1953 – 1954

     Navy: Australia, Morocco, Spain, and Eastern Europe                                                       1956 – 1959

Entered the Foreign Service:                                                                                            1959

     Washington, D.C.—Bureau of Intelligence and Research                                                   1959 – 1961

     Washington, D.C.—Special Assistant to Secretaries William P. Rogers                           1973 – 1974

            and Henry A. Kissinger

     Amman, Jordan—Ambassador                                                                                                  1974 – 1978

     Abuja, Nigeria—Ambassador                                                                                                     1980 – 1983

     Retirement                                                                                                                                     2001