Boko Haram - Mike Smith

This is the first ever full length (233 pages) book study of Boko Haram. If only for this reason it needs to be noticed. But it is a worthy introduction to his subject. For those who are familiar with the phenomenon of Boko Haram, there are two major issues to understand: the first is Boko Haram and all its antecedent movements in Northern Nigeria; and second there is the management of Boko Haram under the presidency of Dr. Goodluck Jonathan from 2010 to 2015. As usual in these matters, it is the second issue that baffles understanding and confuses analysis. If Boko Haram is seen as “an awful symptom of severe poverty, neglect and the absence of faith in government in Northern Nigeria” (107) you would think that the recommendation of the government white paper that came out of the panel set up in 2013 headed by then Interior Minister Abba Moro that “the federal and state governments should immediately address the issue of unemployment in the face of the large number of jobless youths in the northeast zone” would have done the job. But if Boko Haram was seen as “a conspiracy by the northern political elite” to make Nigeria ungovernable for a southern president from the Niger Delta then we are faced with a never-never situation. Unfortunately for Nigeria Boko Haram is both.

On a personal note, my academic work makes me a member of the taarabiyya – the arabised ones of Africa, without being Muslim. Twice in my academic career I had possibilities of going to teach and do research in Northern Nigeria. The first time was to have been in Zaria in 1976 and the second time would have been in Maiduguri in 1988. Both times the process was aborted. If as a non-Muslim teacher of Arabic I was catching ‘molest’ in Southern Yorubaland, my home ground, what welcome could I expect in the foreign countries of the Northern Hausa/Fulani/Kanuri? All the same the fate of Islam and of Arabic in Africa would always be important in my academic life. Hence my own in Boko Haram.

Mike Smith’s book divides into two unequal parts – the distant past background of the double conquest of Northern Nigeria, first by Uthman dan Fodio and then by Frederick Lugard. The first conquest led to the creation of the Sokoto Caliphate while the second led to the creation of the British Protectorate of Northern Nigeria. The link between the two conquests is the amalgamation of the southern protectorate and the northern protectorate in January 1914 leading to the creation of Nigeria. British colonial policy made the south open to the Christian missionary’s rampant activities while the northern protectorate was protected from any Christian missionary activity. As in all religious enclaves, Christian and Islamic, movements and sects arise criticising the orthodoxy of each faith. Added to this for the northern muslim clerics was the general criticism of modern education as purely westernisation. All Islamic protest movements that have evolved in Northern Nigeria have been against westernisation, including Boko Haram. This background material takes the greater part of the book.

The second part of the book deals with the activities of Boko Haram since 2009 until 2015. There are descriptions of the bombing of the UN offices in Abuja in January 2012. In fact the book starts with this. Then there is a detailed description of the uprising of the followers of Muhammad Yusuf against the Nigerian police and army, leading to his death. There are other descriptions of Boko Haram atrocities including the kidnapping of the Chibok girls. These descriptions make grim reading. There are mentions of individuals in the government of Borno State, including the former governor Ali Modu Sheriff and his commissioner for religious affairs. The involvement in and sponsorship of Boko Haram activities need far more detailed research and evaluation than provided so far in this book.

On the matter of the leadership and membership of Boko Haram, Mike Smith does not seem to know more than is generally available in the media. Shekau succeeds Yusuf and the members are initially political thugs abandoned by their politician bosses, as well as unemployed youths and the ever present almajiris. The fate of Muhammad Yusuf’s father-in-law, Baba Fugu Mohammad and brother-in-law, Babakura Fugu needs to be further investigated. There is need for more information here.

Mike Smith deals with the relationship of Yusuf with the more erudite and better educated Northern muslim clerics, particularly in their attempt to set Yusuf right in terms of his mis-interpretation of the Qur’an. These men include Sheikh Muhammad Awwal Adam Albani, Ja’far Mahmud Adam and Abubakar Gumi.

Mike Smith also touches on the issue of the financing of the activities of Boko Haram. These are the robbing of local banks in the north eastern states. There is also the mention of Bin Laden and a charity based in London. Again more needs to be done in this area to understand the spread and depth of Boko Haram, especially in terms of Niger, Chad and Cameroon. Boko Haram: Inside Nigeria’s Unholy War by Mike Smith indicates that academics need to take this menace more seriously.

Kole Omotoso writes from Akure.

This is a review of Boko Haram: Inside Nigeria’s Unholy War by Mike Smith of Agence France-Presse.