Boko Haram: Nigeria's Islamist Insurgency

Issue section: 

A number of people have written recently trying to explain the growth of the Islamist group known as Boko Haram in northern Nigeria. Many over-simplify the issues involved.

Virginia Comolli goes out of her way to avoid making wild generalisations, but that sometimes leads to equivocating about events.

Nonetheless, the book is rich in facts, background information and details of earlier writing on the crisis.

Comolli starts by examining the origins and development of Islam in the lands that would become Nigeria. She writes that the armed struggle is “arguably directed just as much against the state, and even the Islamic establishment to some degree, as it is against other faiths”.

Under British colonial rule sharia remained the legal code in the north until independence. Indeed the British system of indirect rule entrenched a conservative Muslim ruling group among the Fulani. This institutionalised the inferior status of non-Muslims.

She reminds us that groups like Boko Haram are modernising. They are not traditional even though they look back to an idealised period in Islamic history.

In opposing Western learning they are not rejecting all modern technology and indeed Boko Haram has been very adept at using social media to spread its message. It is also an organisation that has been prepared to shift and modify its tactics very flexibly.

In its early years Boko Haram managed both to denounce the “Westernised” Islamic elite who were wealthy while most starved, and to cultivate a relationship with politicians such as the governor of Borno state, Ali Modu Sherrif.

This situation changed after the organisation declared all-out war on the state, but it still maintains connections with people high up in various arms of the Nigerian state.

Boko Haram have made a point of saying that they are not opposed to education, even education from the West, only that that diverges from their interpretation of Islam.

The group as an independent entity was founded in 2002. Boko Haram were not initially insurrectionary. They felt persecuted and turned to violence after what they saw as an attempt to crush them by the state and the extra-judicial killing of their founder, Mohammed Yusuf in 2009.

It took 18 months for Boko Haram to re-emerge as a guerrilla force.

Comolli shows in some detail how the behaviour of government forces in trying to put down the insurgency has done much to make matters worse.

In the town of Baga in Borno the military destroyed more than 2,000 houses during a hunt for Boko Haram.

Nigeria has its own Prevent strategy which seems no better at stopping the radicalisation of young Muslims than its British counterpart.

In the end this book shows that Boko Haram is not a crude organisation that can be crushed but a symptom of a society in crisis.

Comolli is not arguing from a radical point of view, but the many valuable facts and arguments she presents show the utter inadequacy of the way that the Nigerian state has dealt with the issues so far. It leaves space open for a far more radical solution.