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  • Women and the War on Boko Haram: Wives, Weapons, Witnesses by Hilary Matfess
  • Marcel Kitissou (bio)
Hilary Matfess, Women and the War on Boko Haram: Wives, Weapons, Witnesses (Zed, 2017), ISBN 978-1-78699-1481, 270 pages.

Plutarch (c. 45 to 125 A.D.) asserted that "An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics." As if to echo the warning of the Greek philosopher, twenty centuries later a contemporary writer, Yuval Noah Hariri in his book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, made the implicit explicit by asserting that "[p]eople are egalitarian by nature, and unequal societies can never function well due to resentment and dissatisfaction."1 Indeed, it is not inequality per se that causes [End Page 729] social dysfunction, but the neglect, if not the oppression, of the poor and the weak, and the injustice that accompanies inequality, particularly if seen as the result of corruption. This is especially salient in the social context in which the Boko Haram insurgency took roots. The structural violence that led to actual violence in Northern Nigeria is meticulously documented and vividly described by Hilary Matfess in her book, Women and the War on Boko Haram: Wives, Weapons, Witnesses. As she stated very forcefully, "because non-inclusive societies have proven to be prone to violence. … Peace in northern Nigeria will not be durable if it is peace made by men."2

The book is a judicious combination of the lived experiences of women, the use and misuse of masculinity, the clash of local traditions with universal norms, the inadequate coordination between local and international institutions, and the shifting lines in a battle without a frontline. Women, while trying not only to survive, but also to control their own fate in this new form of warfare once described with foresight by Martin van Creveld in his book, The Transformation of War,3 are caught in the crossfire of contending masculinities within a patriarchal society. Faced with the dilemma of serving as pawns or players in a war by and of men, they often make the conscious choice of serving alternatively, if not simultaneously, as wives, weapons, and witnesses.

Each of the eight chapters of the book, based on extensive interviews, focuses on specific issues. Chapter 1 describes the background of Boko Haram as a case of "horizontal inequalities"4 used by charismatic leaders with "coherent ideology and an organization capable of mobilizing the excluded" who then unite the anti-institutional energy of "the deprived and repressed urban masses."5 Chapter 2 describes the political theology and the interplay of politics and religion in the Nigerian Fourth Republic.

What does it mean to be a girl in Nigeria? Chapter 3 addresses this issue and stresses how gender politics is exploited by Boko Haram. In that context, Chapter 4 explains the symbolism of the abduction of the Chibok girls in April 2014 and depicts the dilemma of girls in Northern Nigeria: forced marriage in civil society or forced into marriage with Boko Haram fighters. To borrow a comparison from Hariri describing the process of animal domestication, "Is it better to be devoured by a lion than slaughtered by a man? Are crocodile teeth less deadly than steel blades?"6

In Chapter 5, Matfess insists that women are not passive victims in an oppressive patriarchal society: "The systemic structural violence that women face in Northern Nigerian society makes it easier for some to lend their support to anti-state movements (including the Boko Haram insurgency)"7 and, in so doing, provide reproductive support as wives and serve as weapons. While Chapter 6 points out the dire humanitarian conditions of displaced people in the Lake Chad Basin, Chapter 7 sees [End Page 730] a way forward: "Coupled with research on the importance of female inclusion for social stability and durable peace, it becomes clear that Nigeria's future must be female if it is to be peaceful."8 For Matfess, thus, if the society is to avoid recreating the conditions that lead to war, women have to be mainstreamed in post-conflict negotiations and reconstruction. Consequently, Chapter 8 focuses on best practices such as what...


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pp. 729-731
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