Moses Ochonu: Sexual repression in Northern Nigeria – A provocation

(A short excerpt from my recent lecture on Boko Haram at the University of Pittsburgh)
by Moses Ochonu

Muslim-majority Northern Nigeria houses a sexual economy in which access to sex and the female body, whether mediated by marriage or concubinage, is almost exclusively reserved for older, mostly Western educated, well off men. There is no cultural or theological permission for young men without wealth and power to express their sexuality, hence the prevalence of sexual repression.

The region, moreover, is home to a culture of sexual repression in which the expression and pursuit of desire is constrained by status and financial resources. The result is that sexual frustration coexists with and is exacerbated by the inability of young, uneducated and thus unemployable Muslim youth to access sexual resources and other benefits of heterosexual relationships. Even Western educated youths lacking viable footholds in Nigeria’s secular economy have found themselves unable to fulfill this cardinal Northern Nigerian ritual of masculine accomplishment.

In other words, the masculine and patriarchal honor associated with marriage and the ability to cater for a family is elusive for many youths lacking access to the secular economy as a result of either their own lack of Western education or the dearth of employment opportunities. In a conservative, patriarchal Muslim culture in which male honor is defined by the ability to control and manage women and children in licit marital and paternal relationships, the frustration of not having the means to marry, licitly satisfy your libidinal urge, and raise a family, causes disillusionment with society as it exists and encourages a yearning for the kind of caliphal and paradisiacal Utopia advertised by Boko Haram.

This rejection of Nigerian secular society and the concomitant allure of a terrestrial caliphate or an extraterrestrial paradise is intensified when the indoctrinated Muslim youth sees Western educated coreligionists and Christians engage in both licit and illicit sexual relationships with women. This is one of the silent but rarely acknowledged drivers of youth vulnerability to extremist indoctrination in Northern Nigeria. This frustration catalyzes a jealous rage directed at those who are perceived to have monopolized the sexual and marital resources that are the markers of healthy Muslim masculinity in this society.

It is no coincidence that rapes, the kidnap of young girls, and other sexual crimes have been rife within the ranks Boko Haram. Raids on the camps of Boko Haram have consistently turned up viagra and other sexual enhancement drugs as well as condoms in large quantities.

Many youths flocked to Boko Haram partly because they were promised wives on the free as well as female captive concubines that could be sexually enslaved lawfully in the warped doctrine of the sect, in addition, of course, to power, honor, and the masculine dignity that eluded them in Nigeria’s secular, materialistic, and modern (infidel) economy.

Several decades earlier, young Northern Nigerian Muslim men desiring marriage and licit sexual relationships in a more liberal and affordable framework, had flocked to the Izala Salafi movement, which denounced expensive marital rituals and ceremonies as Bi’dah or even shirk and democratized the marital and sexual space for its adherents.

The entwinement of extremism, sexual repression, and a patriarchal economy of honor is one of the keys to understanding extremism in Northern Nigeria but this nexus is rarely broached let alone discussed.


Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija

Moses E. Ochonu is Professor of African History at Vanderbilt University, USA. He is the author of three books, the most recent of which is Africa in Fragments: Essays on Nigeria, Africa, and Global Africanity (New York: Diasporic Africa Press, 2014).

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