Nigeria: African Fault Line with Islamism

When the newly elected Nigerian president Muhammad Buhari was elected in 2015, he advanced a coalition called the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) of African nation states devoted to assisting Nigeria tackle Boko Haram.  With Benin, Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Nigerian forces deep in Nigeria’s eastern flank, Buhari easily accepted a Mission Accomplished moment and receded from engagement.  This was after the 2014 kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls, many of whom remain missing.

The Salafist preaching movement that focused on parochial cultural issues in Nigeria’s Borno (eastern) state is now a transnational affiliate of the Islamic State and growing. With AFRICOM commanders commandeering resources in the African Horn & trans-Sahel; Nigeria really remains a flash point to coalesce advances against regional Islamism. This is significant because the cultural components of indigenous Islam in Africa diverges from west to east.  East African Islam runs northward emptying into Saudi Arabia while west African Islam contends easily with the French Enlightenment and its secular offshoots.

Boko Haram targets civilians deep in the Nigerian state.  Given the weakness of state formation throughout Africa, Nigeria’s Boko Haram exacerbates a state easily divided along ethnic, religious lines of identity.  A successful counter-insurgency operation would mean far more than shoring up state formation, it would mean addressing the profound cultural disparities between the Nigerian littoral and its vast eastern Islamic interior.

The key to understanding the rise of Boko Haram in Borno is Mohammed Yusef (1970-2009).  Having grasped Nigeria’s pre-colonial Islamic conquest with Koranic exegesis of prominent medieval Muslim jurists, Yusef assumed the mantle of a statesman for Borno and the drive for state sanctioned Sharia.

The recognized American specialist on west African Islamism is Alexander Thurston. His latest work Boko Haram:  The History of an African Jihadist Movement, details how best to defeat the insurgency.

For Thurston, the only way to defeat Salifist Jihadi’s deep in eastern Nigeria is the re-introduction of politics back into Nigeria.

This means negotiation and reconciliation with members of Boko Haram.  It means creating and maintaining divisions in jihadi movements.  It would mean possessing credible intelligence by means of payment or stipend, local elections and accepting local governance. Ultimately, the cultural and ethnic divisions of Nigeria will remain unresolved for the the near term; but a less liberal but more stable Nigeria is the goal.

To begin this process, Nigeria’s state formation must begin with solidifying public security.  That means immediate conflict, IF the state is to begin coalescing favorable opinion of governance among the population.  What C.O.I.N. teaches is that militants will hold out indefinitely for total victory UNLESS they are engaged and put on the defensive.  Boko Haram isn’t degraded, it operates in four countries throughout equatorial Africa, easily dominating civilian casualties. First comes the successes of counter-terror policy, then C.O.I.N.

How Nigeria arrived at its current state of affairs is a necessary reflection.  Why?  Because their are limits to the militarization of U.S. policy in Africa.  The origin of Nigeria’s weak state formation is due to political patronage, corrupt and violent state security forces.  With the erosion of traditional religious authority, unchecked urbanization and raging inflation have all eaten away state formation.  Its Jacob Zuma magnified.

To rid itself of transient victories, an emerging Nigerian political economy must begin with security the population.  It means the hunt goes on.  The underlying and converging crisis of Nigerian society is political. But it can be won.


About William Holland

Systematic Theologian/International Relations
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