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Book review – Boko Haram

It was officially launched on February 28, a mere month before the scheduled date for the Nigerian general election, but Mike Smith’s Boko Haram. Inside Nigeria’s unholy war is by no means an ‘instant book’. First of all, it arises out of years of research and field work: from 2010 to 2013, Smith was the local bureau chief for AFP, one of the news agencies which followed more closely what has become known as the Boko Haram insurgency. Even if Smith himself gives his Kano-based colleague, Aminu Abubakar the fair share of credit he deserves, his own part in covering the events cannot be underestimated in any way.

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Reporting on Boko Haram, Smith states in the opening pages of the book, involved “four trips to Maiduguri and a number of visits to other parts of Northern Nigeria, including Kano, Sokoto, Kaduna and Zaria”. That is where the AFP correspondent gathered most of the materials he would later use to write Boko Haram. Inside Nigeria’s unholy war: a great part of it, in fact, relies on first-hand information and interviews with those who can be called the unwilling characters on the scene of an attack. People such as Wellington Asiayei, a policeman in Kano who was severely wounded in an attack on January 2012, or Vinod Alkari, who escaped the Boko Haram bombing of the UN headquarters in Abuja.
Far from being a sort of reportage – just quite longer – however, Smith’s book can also be regarded as a wonderful piece of almost-academic work, which indeed fills a void in the coverage of the northern Nigeria insurgency. Boko Haram. Inside Nigeria’s unholy war cannot be considered an instant book, in fact, also because its theoretical and chronological depth: it offers a broad vision of the group, its emergence, its development but also of its historical roots and an analysis of the reasons why – according to the author – it began to thrive. This is well shown by Chapter 1, which opens with the report of the already mentioned bombing of the United Nations building in Abuja but then – with a significant time shift – gives an overview of the country’s pre-colonial history, focusing in particular on the Sokoto caliphate.
Chapter 2, instead, deals with a more recent past, focusing on the man who can be considered the founder of Boko Haram (at the time a small sect in northern Nigeria), Muhammad Yusuf and on his deputy, Abubakar Shekau – the current insurgent leader – whose differences from its predecessor are often underlined. A good share of criticism is also aimed at Nigeria’s post-independence leaders, mostly described as a corrupt and selfish élite. Given this, it seems obvious that Smith does not share the labelling of Boko Haram as one of the many offshoots of would-be global jihadi groups such as al-Qaeda or the self-proclaimed Islamic State (formerly known as ISIL or ISIS). Links between Boko Haram affiliates and militiamen belonging to other fundamentalist groups (such as the so called Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM) have been suspected or reported, but Smith seems to consider them less relevant than other factors.

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The fact that Boko Haram has up to now focused on northern Nigeria’s heartland and some border areas in Cameroon, Niger and Chad, is indeed one of the elements that make the former AFP bureau chief believe that the debate on cross-border links and jihad-linked aspirations are “almost beside the point”. The fact that Nigeria is “robbed daily” of possible riches arising from the exploitation of its oil, he believes, is a far more relevant factor and the same can be said of the unequal development of the country. The north, in fact, has not enjoyed even the partial economic development of the south, centred around the busy former Nigerian capital, Lagos. However, the economic and social inequalities are not the only reasons why the small group of radical militants led by Yusuf turned into a monster-like entity using suicide bombers and claiming responsibility for mass abductions.
An important role, Smith assumes, has been played by the government response, based on the deployment of troops to the battered north-east and the declaration of a state of emergency in three states: Yobe, Borno and Adamawa. Despite considering in some cases – such as Wellington Asiayaei’s – the security forces victims of a failing state in the same way as ordinary civilians, the author blames them for the methods used in dealing with the insurgency, which in many cases amounted to harassment and abuses on common people. These points are dealt with in chapter five, while the third details Goodluck Jonathan (the incumbent president when the book was written)’s “remarkably accidental political career” and the flaws of his government, above all his lack of experience and indecisiveness. The fourth, opened by another vivid account of an attack, the one outside Madalla church, near Abuja, brings on the scene another actor, Ansaru – a splinter movement of Boko Haram itself, which was blamed for the kidnapping of British engineer Chris McManus and his Italian colleague Franco Lamolinara, later killed in a failed attempt to rescue them.

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Smith’s detailed analysis obviously includes the event which gave Boko Haram most visibility among the general public: the kidnapping of 276 female students from a secondary school in the town of Chibok, Borno State. The journalist also covers the politicization of the case and the emergence – both at a local and global level – of the “bring back our girls” campaign. Once again, the mistakes of the central government and the security forces in handling the affair are underlined, and this provides a good link with the epilogue, where the sad end of Wellington Asiayaei’s story is told: he dies after years of suffering and neglect by the government and the collapse of his marriage.
It is precisely the carefully crafted mix of personal accounts and quasi-academic research that provides the best quality of this relatively short (233 pages including notes, bibliography and indexes) book. Despite dealing with events still in the making, in fact, Boko Haram. Inside Nigeria’s unholy war provides an exhaustive account which will certainly be one of the starting points for those willing to continue writing on northern Nigeria in the future.

Mike Smith, Boko Haram. Inside Nigeria’s unholy war, I.B. Tauris London, 2014, 233 pp.

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