The first time many people outside Nigeria heard of Boko Haram was in April last year, when the militant group abducted 276 girls from a secondary school in the small town of Chibok, sparking a Twitter frenzy under the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. Michelle Obama posted a sad-faced photo of herself holding a sign emblazoned with the slogan and world leaders rushed to offer assistance in tracing the abductees. It wasn’t just the scale of the kidnapping that fuelled the outrage: Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram’s gun-toting leader, had pledged in a video message to sell his new captives as slaves.
That the social media storm only broke several weeks after Shekau’s henchmen had spirited the teenagers away in pick-up trucks was testament to the scant attention paid by the rest of the world to the insurgency escalating in the savannah of northeastern Nigeria, where attacks by Boko Haram had claimed many hundreds of lives well before the pupils vanished. As is often the case with conflicts in Africa, it took a villain–victim narrative of almost fairy-tale simplicity for the story to go viral.
Mike Smith, a correspondent for Agence France-Presse, has built on his time in Nigeria to bring some badly needed context to the Boko Haram phenomenon, while also exploring the wider malaise gripping what must rank as the continent’s most under-reported country, relative to its significance and size.
The saga begins with an earlier jihad – albeit one of a very different character. In the early 19th century, a revered Islamic scholar named Usman Dan Fodio inspired an uprising that led to the establishment of what came to be known as the Sokoto Caliphate in what is now northern Nigeria. Although slavery was an integral part of society, Smith points out that Dan Fodio’s emphasis on literacy (his daughter became a renowned scholar and poet) led to the flowering of a unique Islamic civilisation, in stark contrast to the nihilistic violence of Boko Haram.
The shape of modern Nigeria was decided at the start of the 20th century when the swashbuckling British explorer Frederick Lugard brought Sokoto and its satellites into Britain’s sphere of influence. The porous divide between the Arab-influenced north and the Christian-dominated south was just one of innumerable fault lines that made Nigeria at times seem like an almost impossible project and would provide fertile ground for the coups, civil strife and titanic corruption that defined the decades after independence.
Populist forerunners to Boko Haram emerged in northern Nigeria in the 1970s and 1980s, but the present movement took shape in 2003, when a crudely educated preacher named Mohammed Yusuf began to gather followers at a mosque in the city of Maiduguri. Yusuf, who maintained that the world is not spherical, frequently preached against the evils of Enlightenment values – hence the label Boko Haram, which loosely translates as ‘Western education is forbidden’. As Smith makes clear, the group refers to itself by the somewhat grander title of Jama’atu Ahlus Sunnah Lid Da’awati Wal Jihad (‘People Committed to the Prophet’s Teachings for Propagation and Jihad’). Yusuf’s followers formed the nucleus of a low-intensity uprising. In 2009 security forces razed his complex, interrogated him, then summarily shot him dead in full view of onlookers.
Boko Haram re-emerged in 2010 under Shekau, Yusuf’s former deputy, and subsequently staged a series of spectacular attacks – including a suicide car-bombing at the United Nations headquarters in the capital, Abuja, that killed 23 people in 2011 and a day of carefully coordinated carnage in the northern city of Kano that killed at least 185 the following year. Even before abducting the Chibok students, Boko Haram had massacred dozens of male pupils in raids on other schools, atrocities that passed largely unremarked in the West.
Although Boko Haram wants to establish a new caliphate, Smith’s fluid blend of history and reportage shows that the group’s ascent has much more to do with Nigeria’s failure to turn its vast oil revenues into job opportunities for growing ranks of futureless youths than it does with the spread of global jihad. While its members are suspected of forging some links with al-Qaeda-inspired jihadists in the Sahel and Somalia, Smith persuasively argues that this is primarily a local insurgency, fuelled by the acute poverty, neglect and state failure festering on Nigeria’s northern fringes. While he is unsparing in his account of the militants’ outrages, Smith is admirably thorough in his investigation of the way brutal tactics employed by Nigeria’s military and police seem to have done as much to enflame the rebellion as to snuff it out. Indeed, some of the most striking passages document the neglect and apathy that all too often define officialdom in Nigeria, a reality movingly captured in the story of Wellington Asiayei, a policeman who faced a desperate struggle to find treatment after being shot and paralysed by a Boko Haram gunman.
By turns beguiling and infuriating, Nigeria hovers continually on the brink of disaster, yet somehow always manages to survive. It is a measure of the country’s fragility that, in searching for rays of hope, Smith points to the rise of anti-Boko Haram vigilantes, who have succeeded in restoring a measure of security, despite the obvious potential for abuses. He also provides a deft account of a far more momentous development: presidential elections in March that led to Nigeria’s first democratic transfer of power, for once giving the doomsayers pause. Authoritative, elegantly written and deeply researched, Smith’s account offers a rare glimpse inside a movement that may yet have worse terror in store.