- Searching for Boko Haram: A History of Violence in Central Africa by Scott MacEachern
Discussions of Boko Haram often veer into the sensational, emphasizing the group’s brutal tactics or the latest development in the conflict that has been grinding on for years. In Searching for Boko Haram: A History of Violence in Central Africa, Scott MacEachern seeks to contextualize Boko Haram within the long arc of the Lake Chad Basin’s history. MacEachern leverages his three decades of fieldwork to demonstrate how the local population—in particular, those who reside in the Mandara Mountains near the border with Cameroon—understands and interprets Boko Haram and its violent campaign.
Despite the title, the book is not primarily concerned with Boko Haram as an organization. In fact, the group itself is not examined in detail until roughly 150 pages into the book. MacEachern makes clear in his introduction to the text that “this book is not a comprehensive history of the Boko Haram insurgency itself or of the political processes that gave rise to it in Nigeria and around the Lake Chad Basin. Nor does it focus on the religious background or ideology of what is usually understood in the West as an Islamist insurgency” (3). Rather, the book is a cataloguing of the “human landscapes” (3) and “the historical processes that brought this terrorist organization into being” (31), tracing the region’s history back more than 16,000 years to the Last Glacial Maximum.
Much of the book’s analysis seeks to illustrate how authority and influence manifested itself in the region over time. In this discussion, MacEachern also unpacks the climatological and technological changes that swept the area, and how they affected human interaction. Those who are looking to gain a better understanding of Boko Haram as an organization may find themselves disappointed, but those seeking to gain a [End Page 587] firmer grasp on the history of the region and context from which the group emerged will find it here.
MacEachern discusses not only the relatively well-known authority figures, like Usman Dan Fodio, the founder of the Sokoto Caliphate, but also lesser known power-brokers, like Hamman Yaji, a 20th century warlord based in the Mandara Mountains who dictated his conquests to a scribe. Drawing from his extensive archaeological fieldwork in the region and linguistic patterns, MacEachern is also able to trace out a history of local development as it would have related to non-elites. Throughout his description of human settlement MacEachern describes a symbiotic, but often conflict-ridden relationship between different ethnic and religious communities. He insightfully notes that “such paradoxes are to be expected when both societies,” referring to the “Muslim states and mountain communities” in the area, “need resources that only the other can supply and when one such resource is the bodies of enslaved people from the mountains” (58). This sort of historically grounded exploration of inter-group dynamics in the region is one of the book’s most interesting and useful contributions. The book’s discussion of how climatological factors influenced area development is a particularly valuable facet of MacEachern’s agenda, given the anticipated effects of climate change on rainfall in the region and the size of Lake Chad.
Though the book does not probe the characteristics, ideology, or operations of Boko Haram, it offers a number of contributions to the current discourse surrounding the insurgency. MacEachern provides a rich and detailed description of a region that, prior to the rise of Boko Haram, was rarely discussed by the media—and has remained shrouded in mystery and plagued by ahistorical descriptions since the insurgency thrust the region into the 21st century’s spotlight. Throughout the book, MacEachern advances a conceptualization of the region as a frontier, characterized by “dangers and opportunities,” long a home to bandits and smugglers (85).
Two themes within MacEachern’s history seem particularly pertinent to understanding Boko Haram: the region’s long history of smuggling and banditry and the role that “wealth in people” has played in determining influence and...