Notes From the Margins…


  • April 24, 2014
  • by

I was in London today, participating in a radio discussion for the Voice of Russia about Boko Haram.     I was probably the most anomalous presence there, given that I’m not – to say the least – an expert on either Nigeria or Boko Haram, so it was a really interesting and thought-provoking experience for me to discuss the subject with some people who really do know their stuff.

They included Dr Titilola Banjoko from the Nigeria Leadership Initiative,   the anthropologist Professor Murray Last from UCL and the journalist and fellow Hurst author Andrew Walker. Murray Last first went to Nigeria in 1961, where he studied the impact of Islam on Northern Nigeria as part of his Phd research at the University of Ibadan.

With guests like these, it was always going to be an informed and lively discussion, and so it turned out.     My own invitation was largely due to my more general writings about terrorism and counter-terrorism, both here on this blog and also in books and articles, and my contributions mostly revolved around the international context of Boko Haram and its parallels with similar movements.

Listening to my co-panelists tracing the history and the complex intersection of local and national power politics, religious revivalism and gangsterism, official neglect, poverty and corruption   that produced Boko Haram – whose Hausa nickname, usually translated as ‘Western Education Forbidden’, doesn’t even begin to describe what this horrendous movement is all about – could not have been further from the fatuous and fanatical generalisations that Tony Blair inflicted on the world yesterday.

For Blair, and for those who wish to reduce every political conflict with an Islamic component to a ‘totalitarian versus free society/good versus evil’ narrative whose remedy is always war, complexity of any kind is anathema.     For these moral crusaders, complexities undermine the certainty and conviction that makes Blair’s form of ‘engagement’ possible.

No one on the panel doubted that Boko Haram is a tragedy for the northeastern provinces where it holds sway, and also for Nigeria itself, but what was clear from the discussion was that its savage crimes were also a terrible symptom of official misgovernance, that could not be eradicated by military action alone – let alone the kind of brutal over-the-top violence that the Nigerian military has engaged in.

War is always bracing and – to some – appealing, whether it’s the Bush administration’s   ‘war on terror’ or   Al Qaeda’s ‘war against the Zionist Crusaders.’       It clears away ambiguities and seems to reveal who the ‘sides’ are.   It transforms the every corruptions and compromises of politics, into dramatic binary confrontations, with blood, martyrs and revenge and a heroic narrative of the eventual triumph of good over evil.

Boko Haram is just one more political conflict that will not be solved through this framework, and cannot be reduced to another battleground in ‘the war on terror.’   Such a resolution demands a radical transformation in the behavior of the Nigerian state, and a comprehensive and holistic strategy that looks at all the different tributaries that have fed the insurgency.

Something similar could be said of other 21st century ‘terrorist’ conflicts.         Today the establishment security thinktank published a report which described the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as ‘strategic failures’.   These are failures that have cost hundreds and thousands of lives and billions of pounds.

Perhaps if the politicians who had started these wars had sought the same kind of analysis that was on offer today, they might not have rushed so giddily into them, and perhaps a credulous media would not have lapped up the dangerous inanities that were served up yesterday.



  1. aj

    1st May 2014 - 1:20 pm

    Could I ask what station this discussion was on? I’d like to see if I can find a podcast or stream of it to listen to.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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