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Boko Haram: Nigeria's Islamist Insurgency
Boko Haram: Nigeria's Islamist Insurgency
Virginia Comolli
Hurst, 2015
208 pp., $27.95

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Philip Jenkins


The Nigerian Jihad

Boko Haram.

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Now look at this transformation from the standpoint of northern Muslims. A hundred years ago, it seemed obvious that the whole region was naturally destined to be Muslim, and little attention needed to be paid to the uncivilized and illiterate animists of the south and east. History was clearly moving in an Islamic direction. By the end of the 20th century, though, growth, progress, and wealth were badges of the emerging Christian Nigeria, and aggressive evangelism even threatened to make inroads into the Islamic heartland. Muslims still dominated the government and especially the armed forces—another legacy of the British colonial preference for that faith. But how long could that political dominance continue?

From 1979 through 1999, Nigeria was ruled by a series of spectacularly corrupt federal regimes, in which military influence was always key. With one brief exception, all these regimes were headed by Muslims. From 1999 through 2007, however, the president was Olusegun Obasanjo, a Yoruba Christian who claimed to have experienced a life-transforming evangelical rebirth. Particularly at a time of intense Christian evangelism, Obasanjo's ascendancy stirred fears among Muslim authorities, and it was between 2000 and 2002 that the states of the northern Islamic "Qur'an Belt" formally adopted Shari'ah law. Twelve of Nigeria's 36 states imposed Shari'ah, in whole or in part, and those today are the main settings for Boko Haram activism.

The spread of Shari'ah owed something to growing religious zeal but can also be seen as a symbolic reassertion of Muslim identity, and of Hausa ethnic pride. Throughout the debate over Islamic law, we repeatedly see the perceived need to reassert gender roles and family structures, which are so threatened by economic and religious change. In this context, Christianity provides an ideal symbol at once of Westernization, globalization, and sexual upheaval, which together constitute the "Western Education" that Boko Haram regards as its ultimate foe. Boko Haram emerged precisely at this moment of crisis. This does not mean that the movement exclusively regards Christians as its foes, and some of its deadliest attacks have been directed against conservative Muslims. But Boko Haram cannot be understood except in the light of a Western/Christian cultural challenge.

It would be attractive to imagine the current Nigerian crisis in terms of savage Islamists challenging a heroic democratic regime. Yes, Boko Haram commit ghastly atrocities, but the armed forces are so often guilty of wanton massacres, rape, murder, and theft that they too come to resemble another militia force, and by no means an efficient one. In fact, some of the greatest victories over Boko Haram have come at the hands of the forces of neighboring states such as Chad, who freely cross borders to strike at the rebels whom the Nigerians cannot or will not suppress.

In her introduction, Comolli makes the telling point that the social contract on which government is based is thoroughly broken in Nigeria. People give up certain rights to governments in exchange for protection and security, gifts that have been so obviously lacking for decades. Among many crying grievances, she highlights the weaknesses of education and agricultural policy, the catastrophic inefficiency of utilities, especially water and electricity, and a general sense that anything good or valuable is automatically given to the south rather than the north. Even before Boko Haram emerged, the north felt like an exploited internal colony under military rule. What the Islamists did was to channel those resentments into religious forms.

That concept of state collapse is crucial because it points to the extreme difficulty of defeating the movement and pacifying dissident regions. This is no mere case of re-establishing government credibility, but of creating such a notion in the first place.

The frailty of the state mechanism raises questions about Nigeria's future as a nation. In the Middle East, Islamists easily persecute and massacre Christians because these alleged enemies represent such a tiny minority. Boko Haram can commit similar atrocities in northern Nigeria, where churches are often bombed and congregations slaughtered, but projecting such behavior on the national scale would be a very different enterprise. Christians today account for almost half of Nigerians, and ordinary Christians have by no means been passive during times of ethnic and religious rioting. Yes, Christians could in theory be ejected from much of the north, but somewhere, lines will be drawn, and regional secession becomes an option.

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