Much about the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram is shrouded in mystery. Last week the President of Chad, Idriss Deby, claimed Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, was no longer the group’s leader and the man now in command was open to talks. Then day’s later Shekau released a recording saying he has not been replaced, helping further build the mystery.
Around 15,000 people have been killed in Boko Haram’s campaign of armed attacks, bombings, and kidnappings launched in 2003.
Virginia Comolli, a Research Fellow of the International Institute of Security Studies in London, gives a sound account of the rise of militant Islam in West Africa. Boko Haram is part of a long history of violent radical Islam in northern Nigeria that dates back to the jihad of Usman Dan Fodio. He began his holy war in 1804 and five years later established the Sokoto Caliphate, the most powerful West African state at the time. This is a considerable legacy on which jihadi groups can build inspiration.
The British governed through traditional rulers and permitted Sharia law, thereby helping defuse jihadi inspiration. But the seeds for jihadi mobilisation remained, and the Maitatsine uprising of the late 1970s and early 1980s was the first sizeable post-colonial confrontation of the Nigerian state with radical Islam.
Ideology and inspiration from the past combine with the splintering of Islamic groups, often driven by sheer charisma and the desire to gain political influence, to keep the strong jihadi tradition alive. Comolli casts doubt on the role of Islamic schools as an overwhelming driver, but does see the region’s rapid population growth rate and high youth unemployment, as well as the popular feeling that the North has been undermined by the South as key factors behind Boko Haram’s growth.
Comolli also points out that the delayed campaign of the Nigerian security forces, which has often heavily relied on detention and torture, has contributed to the loss of hearts and minds.
Founded in 1995 at the University of Maiduguri, Boko Haram was initially a peaceful group, but new leadership seized control and put it onto a violent path in 2003. There are signs of splintering, with Ansaru, another jihadi group, being one known breakaway from Boko Haram.
Comolli admits she faced challenges in researching her topic. She was barred from talking to Boko Haram prisoners by the Nigerian authorities and had to rely heavily on government officials, NGOs, and academic research as sources. Interviews with present or past Boko Haram supporters, rather than relying so heavily on officials and heaps of academic research, would have made the book a gem.
Her book came out before a Northerner, General Muhammadu Buhari, was elected President, and promised to deal with the Boko Haram threat. Nevertheless she sees the campaign, as a long and difficult one, requiring a more subtle approach and close cooperation between Nigeria and its neighbours that share the threat – Cameroon, Chad, and Niger.
Her conclusion may well be sadly realistic – even if Boko Haram is crushed, a new version will rise to feed on grievances and inequality.
Hardcover: 208 pages
Publisher: Hurst; 1 edition (June 1, 2015)