Boko Haram: Nigeria's Islamist Insurgency
208 pp., $27.95
The Nigerian Jihad
Over the past year, we have heard many wrenching stories about ancient Middle Eastern Christian communities confronting violent assaults from isis and the Islamic State. Such coverage is necessary and appropriate, but it distracts attention from the quite comparable violence occurring in very different regions, especially in West Africa. The most important single battlefront is Nigeria, a country of vast importance for the future of Africa and for the fate of Christianity on the continent. Nigeria is presently home to 85 million Christians, and that number may exceed 200 million by 2050. Nor does that figure take account of the vast global presence of Nigerian migrant communities and their churches.
The Nigerian counterpart to isis is Boko Haram, a term that signifies an absolute rejection of Western education and culture. (Its official title proclaims it the "Group of the People of Sunnah for Preaching and Jihad.") Formed in 2002, the movement developed an increasing commitment to active jihad warfare, and since 2009 its militants have turned northeastern Nigeria into a war zone. Thousands have perished in its ruthless campaigns, which have expelled and displaced literally millions of civilians. Boko Haram seeks a rigidly Islamic state in Nigeria, and it has developed ever-closer ties with the Islamic State itself. It also allies with Islamists and Qaeda-related groups in other nations, including Niger, Chad, and Mali. To put this in context, those four countries have a combined land area equivalent to about 60 percent of the US's lower 48 states.
For many reasons, then, Boko Haram is a significant and threatening phenomenon, which demands explanation. It is valuable to have Virginia Comolli's thoughtful and wide-ranging account of the movement, which draws on extensive conversations with Nigerians of many backgrounds, apart from archival work. As with any study of a current topic, her book runs the risk of becoming obsolete the moment it appears in print, but it is nevertheless a very useful overview. Surprisingly, many aspects of this strictly contemporary movement are fiercely debated and poorly understood, and Comolli is a sure-footed guide through the scholarly battlegrounds.
She roots the insurgency in some very old-established traditions within North African Islam. Long before the arrival of British colonialism, the lands that became northern Nigeria were ruled by proud sultanates and emirates, of which Kano was the most celebrated. One of the great events in that history was the sweeping jihad movement undertaken at the start of the 19th century by the visionary Fulani reformer Usman dan Fodio. Islamic memories survived powerfully under the British, who worked closely with local political and religious authorities.
That historical legacy is cherished up to the present day, providing an ideological vehicle for popular disenchantment and resistance. Comolli rightly points out that Boko Haram did not spring from nowhere in 2002, but grew out of a series of Islamist, Wahhabi, and fundamentalist sects and student movements that had been flourishing from the 1970s onward. Islamic insurgencies are nothing new to Nigeria, and neither are charismatic and prophetic leaders.
I offer one criticism of an excellent book, namely that Comolli is so focused on tracing the tangled origins of Boko Haram that she underplays the larger political, ethnic, and religious picture, and specifically the role of Christianity. Undoubtedly, she knows that story very well, but most non-specialist readers will not, and they need to be told. A case can be made that Boko Haram is the most aggressive and acute form of a sweeping anti-Christian protest movement.
We are in fact dealing with a religious revolution among Christians as well as Muslims. Back in 1900, the lands that became Nigeria had a population of some 15 million, of whom 25 to 30 percent were Muslim. Christians at that point scarcely existed, representing perhaps one percent of the whole, but they grew explosively over the following decades. By 1970, Muslims had grown to perhaps 45 percent of Nigeria's population, roughly the same proportion as Christians, and that rough parity continues today in a country with over 180 million people. Complicating this picture is that the religious groups are not equally distributed: the north of the country is chiefly Muslim, the east largely Christian, so each group can aspire to impose its standards in its respective area. Religious allegiances coincide with ethnic, tribal, and geographical loyalties. Of the three major ethnic groupings, the northern Hausa are solidly Muslim, the eastern Igbo are Christian, and the Yoruba are equally divided between the two faiths.