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[This is an excerpt from a book review in The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs].

The two most important parts of this book are the macro, and the micro. The macro chapters look at issues such as the role of the ulama, the Islamic learned ones, in both radicalisation and de-radicalisation; at the specific nature of Borno, the Nigerian state which has suffered worst from the militants, and which is the modern remnant of a one-time empire; a counter-example, from the southern part of the republic of Niger, where BH has not acquired such a hold in spite of some ethnic and Islamic commonalities with adjoining Nigeria; and the effects of militarised security measures in radicalising under-employed youth.

The micro chapters are equally interesting. They examine the life histories of BH militants, to see what brought them into the sect; gender norms and female participation; radicalising aspects from childhood; and how the informal economy of northern Nigeria, and the precarious lives of its many participants, is interwoven with the attraction of BH.

What the reader gets is a feast of complexity. The authors describe the variations and changes in Islamic opinion in northern Nigeria, where traditional spiritual leadership has faced several challenges. Salafism may be unaccommodating, but is not necessarily violent. The sharia movement in the Northern states, beginning in Zamfara in 1999 and extending to 12 Muslim-majority states, resulted from a split in the northern elites and a bidding war for religious support. But it helped to open the door to the BH zealots, and the ‘othering’ of different strains of Islam.

The authors emphasise the underlying role of poverty, and that BH should not just be addressed as a millenarian or anti-western religious movement, but something grounded in the hunger and hardship of large families. And they show that it has become a self-sustaining business, with monies purloined, millions expelled from their homes, and President Buhari’s promise to quell the insurrection by the end of 2015, his first year in office, sadly disappointed. While BH does not hold large tracts of land any longer, its hit-and-run guerrilla operations have continued, murderous and disruptive.

Human rights abuses are still an issue, alongside a lack of professionalism and ‘hearts and minds’ strategies among the security forces. Femi Falana, one of Nigeria’s most prominent lawyers, has complained that over 3,000 suspects were held in Giwa barracks without trial and in terrible conditions. In 2018, a year after the Buhari government set up a presidential investigation to review compliance of the armed forces with human rights obligations and rules of engagement, Falana stated that ‘the panel confirmed grave human rights abuses by the military. Unfortunately, the government has not been able to release the report. Furthermore, the government has not released the White Paper on the panel’s findings’ (p 144, quoting Vanguard newspaper).

One aspect that is less considered in this collection is the effect of the long-running insurgency on the politics of northeast Nigeria, and how that has played back into the experience of electors. The special issue of The Round Table of August 2020 focused on the 2019 general elections, which saw Buhari re-elected as president. Dele Babalola, joint editor of this issue, argued that, as in 2015, one of the main issues in the campaign, apart from the slow moving economy, was ‘how to end the insurgency in the north-east’ (p 382).

Nonetheless Buhari, a Muslim, recorded his second highest regional score with 71.78% of the votes in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa, and in all over 4.4 M in the region voted in the presidential election, out of the 26.5 M throughout the country. Babalola commented that President Jonathan’s poor handling of the BH crisis, which included negative global publicity for the capture of the Chibok girls, had contributed to his defeat by Buhari. ‘Likewise, one would expect the administration’s lack of outright success in the war against the Boko Haram insurgency ravaging the northeast to do damage to his aspiration in the region but this was not the case.’

Overcoming Boko Haram: faith, society & Islamic radicalization in Northern Nigeria is edited by Abdul Raufu Mustapha & Kate Meagher, Woodbridge, James Currey, 2020.