Who Shall Overcome?: Islamic Extremism in Northern Nigeria

The rise of violent Islamic extremism in West Africa over the past decade took everyone by surprise.  The eruption of Islamic terrorism in north-eastern Nigeria in 2009, and in northern Mali in 2012, compounded by worrying extremist attacks in central Niger and northern Burkina Faso in recent years, has alarmed policy makers as well as local populations, and questioned pervasive assumptions about the peaceful nature of West African Islam.  Scholars as well as officials have highlighted the tolerance and non-violence of Sufi forms of Islam prevalent in West Africa (Diouf 2013; Soares and Otayek 2007), and some even view Sufism as a secret weapon against extremism (Hill 2010). Yet neither Sufi ideologies nor numerous international initiatives and military missions have been able to contain the surge of Islamic extremism across the region. 

Ten years on, a recent OECD report (2019) declared that little is known about what is driving the spread of Islamist violence in the Sahel. Some commentators have called attention to the rise of Salafism, a more fundamentalist form of Islam coming in from Saudi Arabia that is disrupting the hold of traditional Sufi Islam (Hill 2010; Lubeck 2011). Others have blamed the rise of extremism on bad governance and corruption within West African societies (Thurston 2018). The menu of solutions continues to focus heavily on securitization, anti-corruption measures, and promoting ‘safe sects’ in West African Islam.  What is most surprising in all this is the remarkable lack of focus on crippling levels of poverty and inequality in what is recognized as one of the poorest parts of the world. There is a pressing need to confront not only poverty and environmental stress, but the damaging role of market reforms in a region where unfamiliar cultural values and low levels of education have made the bulk of society unattractive to market-based forms of inclusion.  

A new book, Overcoming Boko Haram:  Faith, Society and Islamic Radicalization in northern Nigeria looks beyond the conventional approaches.  It is the third book in a trilogy on religious conflict in northern Nigeria, based on in-depth research coordinated by the lead editor of all three books, the late Abdul Raufu Mustapha.  While the first two books focus on violence between Muslim groups before Boko Haram, and Muslim Christian violence in key parts of northern Nigeria, Overcoming Boko Haram digs into the underlying causes of violent Islamic radicalization so as to chart a more effective path through the crisis. The northern Nigerian Islamist sect, widely known as Boko Haram, has led to the death of more than 27,000 people, and displaced more than 2 million.  It was identified by the Global Terrorism Index in 2015 as the world’s most deadly terrorist group. But there is a need to look beyond the shock factors to examine the actual drivers of Islamic extremism in northern Nigeria, and to identify counterforces with a potential to reign in the insurgency.

It is widely recognized that Boko Haram is a home-grown terrorist group. Occasional connections with Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) or ISIS were largely to enhance their terrorist credentials rather than fundamental organizational linkages. Yet there is no support for violent extremism among the bulk of northern Nigerian Muslims, where 94% express a negative view of Boko Haram (Pew Foundation 2016). In fact, many of the most effective counterforces to Boko Haram have emerged from within civil society, including the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) who drove Boko Haram out of Maiduguri in 2013 and have kept the group in check across the North East of the country, the Bring Back Our Girls campaign which has an active northern Nigerian membership, and numerous local civil society groups and NGOs that promote youth education, foster local enterprise, and support widows and orphans to keep the poor and disaffected out of the grasp of Boko Haram.  There is a broad tendency to assume that Islamic radicalization reflects a problem with Muslim societies, linked to oppressive attitudes to women and violent religious ideologies. While these essentialist narratives represent Muslim societies as the problem, this book shows that northern Nigerian society can be part of the solution.

Sects & Social Disorder and Creed & Grievance are part of the trilogy on religious conflict in northern Nigeria, based on in-depth research coordinated by the lead editor of all three books, the late Abdul Raufu Mustapha.

Overcoming Boko Haram makes three broad arguments. The first is that Islamic extremism in Nigeria is not primarily about global terrorism or fundamentalist religious ideologies. Boko Haram is a home-grown insurgency catalysed by more conventional political and economic forces rather than religious beliefs or global terrorist networks. Secondly, the book argues that understanding Boko Haram requires that we look beyond the activities of jihadis to the wider social processes and pressures that led to the rise of Boko Haram when and where it emerged. Why did Boko Haram emerge in the comparatively quiet and remote area of Borno State in the Nigerian North East, rather than in the Muslim majority areas of south-western Nigeria, or in the much poorer Muslim society of Niger, just across the border from northern Nigeria? Why in Borno State where Islamic practice is known for a wealth of traditional innovations, rather than in the epicentre of Salafist revivalism in the north-western Nigerian city of Kano? This cannot be explained by stereotypes about Muslim societies. It requires a focus on the factors shaping disaffection in specific regions and social groups within Nigerian Muslim society. Closer attention to what is going on in Nigeria also draws attention to societal counterforces that have emerged within northern Nigerian society to combat radicalization, rather than simply operating as incubators of extremism.

Thirdly, the book challenges the contention that poverty is not an important factor in the rise of Boko Haram. International scholars, public personalities and even the previous Nigerian president have persistently dismissed the idea that Boko Haram is a response to poverty. Some argue that the membership of Boko Haram is not restricted to the poor, while others contend that many who are poor did not join Boko Haram. But poverty is not just about individual deprivation. It involves a sense of group marginalization and economic inequality that is as much about macro-economic disparities as about individual experiences of want. Attention to regional macro-economic indicators puts the realities of poverty and inequality in stark relief.  While the Human Development Index (HDI) in southwestern Nigeria is similar to that of India, the HDI in northern Nigeria is lower than that of Afghanistan, and the North East shows particularly high levels of economic and infrastructural deprivation. An entire chapter is devoted to tracing how regional deprivation has transmuted into specific patterns of extremist violence in Borno State, and another shows why it has not done so in the neighbouring Republic of Niger.

Drawing on extensive fieldwork in various parts of northern Nigeria and beyond, the contributors to Overcoming Boko Haram look for the real causes of violent radicalization, many of which are hiding in plain sight. The loss of livelihoods created by the drying up of Lake Chad in the northern part of Borno State is a potent factor, as are the cycles of political and military corruption that, as some have noted, have turned the insurgency into a cash machine for the military and the regime in power, undermining incentives to end the conflict. The book’s contributors offer a more nuanced analysis of the role of Salafism, which has introduced a more modernist, pro-education, gender-friendly form of Islam, while stirring up religious confrontation and disaffection in the competition for followers and eroding traditional linkages of social support. Faced with the dangerous dynamics of dysfunctional religious fragmentation, attention is refocused on the doctrines of tolerance and moderation that course through Islamic teaching and practice, and the potentially moderating role of the bulk of northern Nigerian clerics, both Sufi and Salafi. The question is not whether such moderating values and ideologies exist, but how to restore their ability to put the breaks on violent mobilization. Other contributors focus on the radicalizing and counter-radicalizing dynamics of northern Nigerian youth, women and the informal economy, exploring the paths to radicalization and the possible endgames for the resolution of the insurgency.  

The objective of the book is to join the call for ‘whole of society’ solutions to the insurgency, based on a ‘whole of society’ understanding of the conflict. Overcoming Boko Haram is first and foremost about getting Nigerian and international policy makers to face their demons:  corruption, counter-terrorism protocols that are inappropriate to the realities of Muslim majority societies, and the broken promises of liberal modernity and market reforms. While conventional approaches have failed to end the conflict, more socially-grounded policy thinking offers a new way forward based on evidence rather than Islam-averse ideology. Socially-informed policy alternatives centre on religious regulation rather than repression, on enhancing strategic capacity rather than military might, on job creation suitable for poor northerners rather than large-scale skill-intensive schemes for investors, and on engagement with culturally appropriate paths of gender empowerment rather than imposing Western gender norms. While appropriate military measures are required to end the insurgency, the importance of more inclusive statecraft and economic policy cannot be over-emphasized. It is not Islamic ideologies that have produced the tinderbox of extremism, but narrow market ideologies that have pushed the poor and disaffected to seek dignity and economic justice in more desperate ways. In Nigeria and across the globe, the rising tide of right wing populism and violent social protest is revealing the cost of political and economic systems that leave too many behind. The time has come to address the real issues.


This guest post was written by Kate Meagher, Associate Professor in Development Studies, London School of Economics. Her books include Identity Economics: Social Networks and the Informal Economy in Nigeria (2010), and, edited with Laura Mann and Maxim Bolt Globalisation, Economic Inclusion and African Workers: Making the Right Connections (2018).

Overcoming Boko Haram
Edited by Abdul Raufu Mustapha and Kate Meagher
9781847012395, Hardback, £42.25 or $74.75