Searching for Boko Haram: A History of Violence in Central Africa; African Border Disorders: Addressing Transnational Extremist Organizations

In This Review

Searching for Boko Haram: A History of Violence in Central Africa
By Scott MacEachern
Oxford University Press, 2018
248 pp.
African Border Disorders: Addressing Transnational Extremist Organizations
Edited by Olivier J. Walther and William F. S. Miles.
Routledge, 2017
210 pp.

These two exceptional books offer significant new insights into the rise of jihadist violence in Africa. MacEachern situates Boko Haram, the Islamic State affiliate based in Nigeria, in the history of a complex region that includes parts of four countries: southern Chad, northern Cameroon, northeastern Nigeria, and southeastern Niger. This is a borderland between the Sahara to the north, where Islam prevails, and the savanna and forest areas to the south, which are home to various animist traditions. Boko Haram’s leadership is currently thought to have retreated to the Mandara Mountains, on the Nigerian-Cameroonian border, which MacEachern demonstrates have long been a haven for smugglers, slave traders, and various militias. His book explores the interesting parallels between Boko Haram and Hamman Yaji, a notorious warlord who, in the early twentieth century, struck out from his stronghold in the Mandaras to attack local communities and enslave young women—just like Boko Haram. It comes as no surprise, then, that local residents interpret Boko Haram through the lens of the story of Hamman Yaji, as MacEachern reports.

The contributors to Walther and Miles’ strong edited volume focus on the cross-border networks in central and western Africa on which jihadist groups rely. The book reminds readers that jihadist rebellions have long been a feature of the region’s politics. During the precolonial era, Muslim extremists used violence to enforce “purer” forms of Islam and to subjugate local non-Muslim populations. Later, during the colonial period, jihadists fought against the infidel invaders. Echoes of both periods can be detected today. Groups such as Boko Haram deny the legitimacy of modern borders (even as they exploit them to great advantage), because their ideology harks back to a “golden age” before foreigners drew the lines. And just as civilians in colonial times suffered from both British and French “pacification” campaigns and jihadist violence, so, too, do Nigerians today often fear the violence of the Nigerian army as much as the brutality of Boko Haram. 

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