The slave holders on the border

Why do people on the border between Nigeria and northern Cameroon refer to Boko Haram as slave holders?

Child refugees in Madagali, northern Nigeria, near where Boko Haram displaced people. Image by Immanuel Afolabi via Conflict & Development at Texas A&M Flickr.

The Mandara Mountains, on the border between Nigeria and northern Cameroon, are among the regions that have most suffered from attacks by Boko Haram. However, for the inhabitants of this area, this situation is not new; they instantly recognize in the Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, another dreaded enemy from the past—Hamman Yaji. Yaji was an early 20th-century Fulani chief and slave trader in the same areas of northern Cameroon and north-eastern Nigeria where Boko Haram operates today. For twenty years, he raided throughout the area, capturing slaves and killing those who resisted him.

Today, non-Muslims living along the border between Cameroon and Nigeria refer to Boko Haram as hamaji, a term derived from their memory of Yaji’s depredations. We will not detail here the story of Boko Haram, which has been the subject of many publications. Rather, we seek to understand why people today refer to Boko Haram in terms reminiscent of the period of slavery: why do they use the term hamaji to describe Boko Haram, and why do they compare Shekau to Yaji?

Hamman Yaji and Aboubakar Shekau

The colonial presence in northern Cameroon and north-eastern Nigeria was marked by the persistence of systems of enslavement, which lasted until at least the 1940s and in diluted forms until even more recently. The primary sources shedding light on this reality are, first, oral traditions collected by anthropologists, and second the German, French and English colonial archives.

The third source for our understanding of 20th century slave-trading is atypical: a diary dictated between 1912 and 1927 by the most important slave-raider in the southern Lake Chad Basin, Hamman Yaji. His main base was in Madagali, a settlement west of the Mandara Mountains and now in Nigeria, near the international border with Cameroon. In his autobiographical journal, Yaji mentions about a hundred raids directed against settlements in the Mandara Mountains, in which 1600 slaves were captured and more than 150 people killed.

People in Mandara communities still remember Yaji as a monster who committed enormous crimes. The Dutch anthropologist Walter van Beek reports, for example, in the words of Vandu Zra Té, a local historian whom he interviewed in 1989:

Hamman Yaji used people as money. He asked a Fulbe woman for a pounding stick and paid with a slave. He bought a mat, and paid with a slave. To buy a calabash, or a stick, he paid with people. Even a jar with shikwedi (a crop for the sauce [for food—SM/MC]) he paid with a slave. That is what he did.

Extraordinary characters may often generate significant myths. This seems to be the case with Yaji, who for Mandara people became a symbol of war and atrocities. Today, the Boko Haram leader Shekau is developing a similar mythology. In almost every local commentary on Boko Haram and Shekau, Yaji’s name emerges: “Shekau is no different from Hamman Yaji. Both love women; both kill without mercy; both drink water from men’s skulls.

For locals, the Fulani leader was the epitome of danger, absolute evil, and brutal slavery, and it is this pillager who they perceive has returned in the person of the Boko Haram’s Shekau: “For me, Shekau, he is the same as the chief in Madagali who used to send his troops to capture girls.”

Time does not really seem to have changed the memory of the ravages of the Fulani raiders, constantly evoked in local conversations about Boko Haram: “Slavery is now back, and it is everywhere, even in the mountains,” laments one informant.

At the same time, the differences between the situations of Yaji and Shekau are obvious: modern life, with much wider networks of relations within and beyond Nigeria, rooted in state functions and beyond; the presence of the internet and a global radical Islam; the use of video and news technologies by Boko Haramthe use of motorcycles as a means of mobility… all this provides context that distinguishes these two figures and the processes that they embody, slavery and Boko Haram.

Despite all this, the analogies between Yaji and Shekau remain striking, especially for the inhabitants of the Mandara Mountains: extreme violence, the evocation of the slave market, the idea of ​​being invested with a divine mission, the production of quasi-apocalyptic discourses, the division of the world into “believers” and “unbelievers,” and the inspiration drawn from Islam are as easily recognizable in the earlier historical moment as they are today.

I will sell (the Chibok girls) in the market

Perhaps the most striking analogy between these two actors is the fact that girls and women are the main targets of kidnapping. Yaji’s targeting of young women permeates his diary. For example, he reports the following attacks during a short period in mid-1913:

May 21: … I sent soldiers to Hudgudur and they captured 20 girl slaves.

June 11:  … I sent Barde to Wula, and they captured six girl slaves and ten cattle, and killed three men.

June 25: … I sent my people to the pagans of Midiri and Bula and they captured 48 slave girls and 26 cattle and we killed five people.

July 6: … I sent my people to Sina and they captured 30 cattle and six slave girls.

Enslaved young women were taken in other ways as well: On August 26, 1917, Yaji writes “…I fixed the penalty for each slave who leaves me without cause at four slave girls and, if he is a poor man 200 lashes.”

What did Yaji do with the many hundreds of slaves captured between 1902 and 1920? This question is particularly pertinent since, by that time, the pre-colonial slave markets in the region had already been abolished by the British. It seems likely that Yaji never made any significant monetary profit on his slaves. However, his diary indicates that he used young enslaved women as a kind of human currency in themselves, trading them for horses and other goods. His diary also states that he gave them as gifts to his supporters in recognition of their allegiance.

The parallels here with Boko Haram are striking. Madagali, capital of Hamman Yaji, is only 80 kilometres from Chibok, where, in April 2014, Boko Haram kidnapped 276 girls in a government secondary school. The Chibok girls were probably of about the same age as the girls who were the target of the Yaji raids. Shekau did not keep a diary, but in 2014, he boasted of selling the girls from Chibok: “I will sell them on the market, in the name of Allah. There is a market where they sell human beings […]. A 12-year-old girl, I would give her in marriage, even a 9-year-old girl, I would do it.”

What slave market was Shekau talking about? Such markets do not exist today, just as they did not in the days of Yaji. What, then, is the motivation behind these kidnappings of girls? We need to remember that the Chibok kidnapping is not the only such kidnapping of young women undertaken by Boko Haram; it is merely the most famous. Young women have very frequently been the target of kidnappings.

While some women have voluntarily joined Boko Haram, the fates of women who were kidnapped and forcibly married, and of those who voluntarily joined Boko Haram, were very different. While the latter benefited from better treatment within the organization—some of those women described their husbands as well-off and generous—the former were subjected to sexual and non-sexual violence by the kidnappers. Women who joined Boko Haram voluntarily and married members of the group often remained in purdah, sheltered from public contacts, where they take care of domestic tasks. Kidnapped women, on the other hand, were used as sources of forced labor—they were, in fact, enslaved.

A number of the Chibok girls who were released reported rape and other forms of inhuman and degrading treatment. In particular, they were subjected to forced marriages (sexual slavery, in other words) to lower-ranked members of Boko Haram, as a reward and incitement to fidelity for Shekau’s followers.

This instrumental use of women precisely parallels the actions of Yaji at the beginning of the 20th century: while girls and women captured by force suffered all kinds of sexual and non-sexual violence, those who voluntarily joined the ranks of slavers were treated with more moderation. They had rights and privileges that other categories of slaves did not have access to: right to food, clothing, and sometimes to education.

These advantages led some of these women to value their new lives as concubines, as illustrated by the words of this former concubine one of us met in Madagali in 2007: “I will not go back to the mountains, because I do not want to eat dog meat and drink sorghum beer any more.”

Even given the absence of slave markets, the servitude of young women would be very useful for warlords like Yaji and Shekau. Such young women were an extremely effective recruitment mechanism for young men, if they were to be given out as sexual partners. Such young men would normally have difficulty accumulating the wealth necessary to pay the dowry of their wives and thus becoming a baaba sare—in Fulani, head of the household. In that case, without the possibility of marriage, they would be trapped in a perpetual adolescence, because they could not be accepted as adults even as grown men.

Why is this important?

Now back to our original question: why do local people refer to Boko Haram as hamaji? Is this merely a repetition of older stories?

The European colonies of a century ago are not the same as today’s postcolonial states of Cameroon and Nigeria, the reports of kidnaping by Yaji are now done through social media and video by Shekau and his followers. This means that the context is undoubtedly different. But Boko Haram’s banditry is still a means of existence, a way of life, as were Yaji’s raids. In both cases, women constitute an extremely important spoil of war, evoking the sale of enslaved women in markets that exist in the imaginaries of modern jihadists. This is not a replication of history but rather its continuity, because violence—and perhaps especially gendered violence—has never ceased to be a reality in this border zone of the Lake Chad Basin.

This conclusion has something to teach us in our search for a sustainable solution to Boko Haram. Instead of treating the symptoms, why should we not determine the origin and nature of the disease? In other words, why not take into account the historical context of Boko Haram, in order to think effectively about how to combat forms of violence that have never really disappeared in this area?

Local interpretations are informative: they indicate that the actions of Boko Haram are not a mysterious and unprecedented eruption of violence and savagery. Certainly, important elements of Boko Haram’s ideology are imported from beyond the Lake Chad Basin. At the same time, their speeches and actions derive their legitimacy from endogenous doctrinal and historical resources—even if their media productions frequently borrow elements from those of the jihadist groups of the Middle East.

Further Reading

How do we talk about rebel groups?

Talking about rebel groups is especially the conundrum for journalists and researchers who follow the fates of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) – which has been operational for almost 30 years across northern Uganda, southern …

Who are Boko Haram, and how did they come to be?

Nigeria has a long history of communal conflicts, many of which were only suppressed under military rule. Despite the heavy handed tactics of the dictators, some of these conflicts came to the fore, the best example being the Maitatsine conflict which was eventually wiped out in the early 1990s. A lot of these conflicts and the groups that aid them found more freedom after the return to civilian rule. One of these groups is Jama’atu Ahlus-Sunnah Lidda’Awati Wal Jihad, which became the Boko Haram sect.