By Mike Smith.

Book Review.

Boko Haram’s pledge of allegiance to Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has seized attention for an insurgency that has killed thousands and threatens the security of Nigeria’s northeastern neighbours. But, as Boko Haram: Inside Nigeria’s Unholy War makes clear, the Islamist group’s caliphate also mirrors the existential troubles gripping Africa’s most populous country as it stands on the brink of its most open elections for almost two generations.

The March 28 presidential and parliamentary polls were postponed from February 14 to give a new multinational military force time to drive Boko Haram from areas where 1.5m people have fled their homes. The election pits President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the oil-rich south, against Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim northerner and former military dictator. The contest reflects divisions long associated with deadly conflict in Nigeria, a country confected by the British a century ago — and yet the rise of Boko Haram has more complex roots than that.

Mike Smith, the Agence France-Presse news agency’s Lagos bureau chief between 2010 and 2013, traces the history behind today’s northern killings and the #bringbackourgirls meme that swept the media last year after more than 200 female students were kidnapped from the town of Chibok. Corruption and mismanagement have denied the majority of Nigeria’s estimated 170m people a fair share of the oil wealth, but the north has mostly missed out on even the limited development that underpins southern-based industries, such as, telecoms and the emergence of Lagos as an ambitious quasi city-state. Smith highlights the modern resonance of the 19th century northern caliphate centred on the city of Sokoto. One academic calls it a “truly remarkable” example of state-building, almost free of “rebellions or schisms, famines or epidemics, and . . . economically successful as well”. The contrast with today’s poverty, illiteracy and ill-health is stark.

These are the arid fields in which a militant Islamist movement emerged more than a decade ago, prompting the first of many counterproductive official crackdowns. Smith quotes a Nigerian security official telling him last year that up to 3,000 suspected Boko Haram detainees might be quietly radicalising further as they suffered abuses in the “ratholes” where they were held. The author recounts how Abubakar Shekau, the “bloodthirsty” architect of Boko Haram’s suicide bombings and kidnaps of the past few years, took power only after his predecessor was shot in police custody in 2009. The book examines possible reasons why the security forces and their civilian masters have — despite recent claims of progress — failed to quell the threat since, including an ill-equipped military, graft and lack of political will.

Smith is sceptical of Mr Jonathan’s strategy of branding Boko Haram as “al-Qaeda in west and central Africa”, in an effort to win more global support. While some experts suspect links between individuals associated with Boko Haram and al-Qaeda in the Islamist Maghreb, the Nigerian group seems so far to have remained focused on its heartland and the porous border region around it. The author’s take is that the debate over Boko Haram’s cross-frontier connections and jihadi goals is in any case “almost beside the point”; the underlying problem is the way Nigeria is being “robbed daily” of its riches and dignity.


The best bits of Inside Nigeria’s Unholy War are focused reportage such as the moving tale of Wellington Asiayei, an assistant police superintendent shot in a 2012 attack in the northern city of Kano. The writing, however, could have done with a tougher edit.


Smith’s achievement is in diligently marshalling the available information rather than in offering striking new facts or insights. What shines through is his measured anger, shared by many Nigerians, about a country battered by empire builders, the curse of oil, the military and a devastating 1967-70 civil war. Since becoming nationals of a country they neither desired nor designed, Nigerians have had to be resourceful and durable. The Boko Haram war, and the election it looms over, are as stern a test as they have faced in a long time.