Boko Haram: Inside Nigeria’s Unholy War – By Mike Smith. Reviewed by Abdullahi Tasiu Abubakar
“I’m not scared because I think the worst has happened,” says a 14-year-old girl who defied Boko Haram’s burning of her school by continuing to take lessons at the premises of the damaged building. “There’s nothing left for them to attack”. At the time she was speaking, in May 2012, she and her colleagues believed that Boko Haram’s depravity could not get any worse.
Two years later they were proved wrong. The Nigerian militant group went to another school in Chibok and abducted 276 girls. They took them to Sambisa Forest with the stated purpose of enslaving them into forced marriages. A few managed to escape but 219 remain unaccounted for. The kidnapping of the “˜Chibok Girls’ in 2014 drew global attention to Boko Haram and exposed the failings of the Nigerian state. The world, however, remains largely ill-informed on the nature and functioning of both.
Mike Smith’s Boko Haram: Inside Nigeria’s Unholy War is a brilliant attempt to fill this void. It is the first comprehensive book to be written about Boko Haram and offers an excellent anatomy of the group, its emergence, its activities and the havoc it has wrought on the lives of Nigerians. The book also unpacks the dysfunctional nature of President Goodluck Jonathan’s regime. The current president’s predecessors are not spared either – nor is the country’s colonial past, the legacy of which is, in part, to blame for the fractured society from which Boko Haram emerged.
Smith’s book largely functions as a factual reporting of events rather than a critical study. The story is told by the actors themselves; the victims and witnesses, with the author mainly serving as a detached conveyor of what happened.
The book is divided into six chapters, sandwiched by a prologue and an epilogue to provide context and aid comprehension with copious footnotes to clarify and enrich its sources.
Chapter one opens with the report of the militants’ bombing of the United Nations building in Abuja, giving a chilling account of the attack from the perspective of the surviving victims themselves. It then switches perspective, providing an overview of the country’s pre-colonial history.
The second chapter focuses on the Boko Haram founder Muhammad Yusuf, detailing his life, his brand of preaching, how he differed from his successor Abubakar Shekau and the socio-economic conditions that shaped their lives. It then x-rays Nigeria’s post-independence leaders, sometimes lurching into understandable polemic – this is hard to avoid when analysing Nigeria’s selfish elites and endemic corruption.
Chapter three brings President Jonathan into the story, narrating his “remarkably accidental political career” (p.103), his lack of experience and his indecisiveness. It also covers the country’s first suicide bombing: the attack on the police headquarters in June 2011 by a 35-year-old father of five, Mohammed Manga.
The story of another suicide bombing, this time outside Madalla church, near Abuja, opens the fourth chapter, which also deals with the activities of Ansaru, a Boko Haram faction that has been primarily focused on the abduction of foreigners. The group was blamed for the kidnapping of British engineer Chris McManus and his Italian colleague Franco Lamolinara, who were later killed by the militants during a botched rescue mission involving members of the British Special Boat Service.
Chapter five touches on the government’s response to the insurgency, including the declaration of the state of emergency in May 2013 on three north-eastern states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa. It also describes the military’s failed PR strategy.
The last chapter gives the frightening account of Chibok girls’ abduction, its politicisation and the campaigns to rescue them.
The epilogue provides a link with the prologue, which first introduced the story of an assistant police superintendent, Wellington Asiayei, who was shot and left paralysed by a Boko Haram fighter in the group’s worst attack on Kano, northern Nigeria’s commercial centre. It is here that we are told of his years of suffering, his neglect by the government, the collapse of his marriage and his eventual death. Wellington’s case illustrates how the security operatives themselves can be as much victims of a failing state as ordinary civilians.
Throughout the book, Smith’s attention to detail is excellent and he creates a vivid and accurate description of current and historical events. One error does, however, stand out: the suggestion that President Jonathan’s former boss Diepreye Alamieyeseigha was removed from office after “fleeing to Britain” (p.104) is wrong. Alamieyeseigha was impeached after returning to Nigeria, having allegedly jumped bail in Britain where he was arrested over money laundering allegations – which he denied.
Also, an apparent attempt to compare the Mahdists behind the Satiru uprising of 1906 with Boko Haram insurgents seems unfair. Given the book’s critical description of colonialism, it is surprising that it gives one-sided account of the uprising and its brutal suppression. This is possibly due to inadequate sourcing. Smith apparently sourced this part from Lord Lugard’s and a few colonial officials’ records. They wrote their reports allegedly to cover up the atrocities committed there, which even Winston Churchill, then Undersecretary of State for the Colonies, described as the “”˜extermination’ of an “˜almost unarmed rabble’ numbering 2000″ (Minute to Conference of 14 March 1906, No. 13475, CO 446/53, PRO, see Hogendorn and Lovejoy’s Revolutionary Mahdism 1979: 31).
A more balanced sourcing shows that the Satiru uprising was part of a wider movement of revolutionary Mahdism that was opposed to the subjugation of people by the colonial regime and their local agents – something quite different from Boko Haram’s murderous insurgency.
The above points do not, however, greatly diminish Smith’s excellent work. He provides extraordinary insight into the crisis and tells the story in a most compelling manner. Smith worked as Bureau Chief for West Africa for AFP from 2010- 13, which shows in his detailed mastery of the subject. AFP covers the Boko Haram insurgency more than any other newswire thanks largely to the brilliant efforts of its northern Nigerian correspondent, Aminu Abubakar, whose input in the book is duly acknowledged by the author.
This book should to be compulsory reading for anyone interested in Nigerian affairs and particularly for those who want to have a good grasp of one of Africa’s most brutal insurgencies.
Abdullahi Tasiu is a lecturer at City University London. He was a research fellow at University of Westminster and has worked for both the BBC World Service as a producer and Nigeria’s Media Trust as editor-at-large.