Deconstructing Scholarship on Al-Shabaab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria

08/09/11- Mogadishu, Somalia – AMISOM Troops stand in Mogadishu stadium, the former al-Shabaab headquarters.

Mohamed Haji Ingiriis argues that scholars should develop a better understanding of insurgency groups in Africa, such as Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, and Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin, including their origins and the state functions they provide.

Insurgent groups in Africa are to a greater extent attracting the attention of a new generation of scholars who are bent on deconstructing the previous misunderstandings of the activities of the insurgent movements. As they increase their local and regional operations, African insurgent groups remain resistant and resilient and frustrated in all military attempts to defeat them.

Al-Shabaab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria are the two most crucial and critical insurgent groups in Africa. Because they do not constrain and confine them to insurgent activities, it is important to reconsider their other activities to move beyond the preoccupation of only exploring the aspect of their terror attacks.

Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram undertake more than insurgent activities. As a result, there is no serious scholar who can confidently call them as “terrorist organisations,” because for them terrorism is not an end, but a means to an end. They use terror attacks as a strategy (albeit evil) in a tactic toolbox than an essence of an organisational ultimate policy (see, for example: https://www.hurstpublishers.com/book/horn-sahel-and-rift/).

When examining Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram, a new generation of Africanist scholars began to use the terms such as “extremist movements” or “extremist organisations”; “insurgent movements” or “insurgent organisations”; “Islamist movements” or “Islamist organisations”; “militant movements” or “militant organisations”; “radical movements” or “radical organisations” rather than making sentimental descriptions such as “terrorists.”

The new reconsideration and reconceptualisation of Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram has been obliged by the very fact that, in opposition to the Western-supported secular governments of Somalia and Nigeria, Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram have adopted state systems and structures on the basis of parallel Islamic governments (obviously with their own strict scriptural interpretation) in the areas under their control. 

The state-like rules of Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram provide more than social and security services that the governments of Somalia and Nigeria have failed to provide to the local population. Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram have achieved to capture and continue to rule peripheral societies where the failed state of Somalia and the fragile state of Nigeria cannot reach and as such where the provision of security is non-exist.

Despite their position as parallel governments, the ways in which Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram are often emotionally vilified is something that blinds and blocks us (as scholars studying those insurgencies in Africa) to present the everyday reality exist in the areas under their control. With the label of ‘terrorist organisations’, observers can hardly adventure into the other aspects of Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram.

However, it is thus quite difficult to overlook the fact that both Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram began as popular movements providing alternative governments to local populations, even though their approach and engagement had fundamental differences, because Boko Haram started as a social movement offering social services to marginalised communities in northern Nigeria, while Al-Shabaab started as a jihadist network right from the beginning.

Al-Shabaab was born out of the brutal Ethiopian invasion of southern Somalia in the winter of 2006, an invasion approved by the United States and allowed by the United Kingdom and the rest of the West. In the beginning, Al-Shabaab was not separate from the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) which emerged in the summer of 2006, but its founders behaved and pretended they were ruling a separate entity. Yet, Al-Shabaab could not exist without the legitimacy it had enjoyed under the shadow of the UIC.

In Somalia, scholars studying Al-Shabaab do not squabble about their research findings of Al-Shabaab. Whilst they backbite each other behind the backdoor privately, scholars tend to avoid disputing each other publicly. In contrast to Nigeria, scholars studying Boko Haram are arguing over the emergence and existence of Boko Haram to the extent that ideological positions in the form of left wing and right wing exist in the scholarship on Boko Haram, also including personal insults in the discussion.

Overall, nonetheless, there is a burgeoning scholarship on Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram, but most of this scholarship is concerned more with Boko Haram than with Al-Shabaab. Academic and non-academic books have been published about these insurgent movements, even though more on Boko Haram than Al-Shabaab. Astonishingly, the third largest African insurgent movement Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM) has not been attracted a book of its own.

Arguably, Nigeria is the most populated country in Africa and the highest oil-producing state in Africa and as such is much more important than Somalia, the most failed state in the whole world, but is not Al-Shabaab, the only insurgent movement in the world currently controlling a large swathes of territory, more important than Boko Haram, which is only concentrated in small parts of northern Nigeria?

Mohamed Haji Ingiriis is a Somali academic specialising in Somali history and politics at the University of Oxford. He is a research fellow at the CRP, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He is the author of “Building peace from the margins in Somalia: The case for political settlement with Al-Shabaab“, Contemporary Security Policy, 39(4), pp. 512-536.