Understanding Insurgency in Nigeria: Interrogating Religious Categories of Analysis

Published date01 December 2018
Date01 December 2018
Subject MatterArticles
Institute of Peace, Security and Governance, Ekiti State University, Ado-Ekiti, Nigeria.
Corresponding author:
Seun Bamidele, Institute of Peace, Security and Governance, Ekiti State University,
Ado-Ekiti 360001, Nigeria.
E-mail: oluwaseun.bamidele@gmail.com
Insurgency in
Nigeria: Interrogating
Religious Categories
of Analysis
Seun Bamidele1
In analyzing the motivations behind the formation of insurgent groups
and their activities against the state, academic debates have been sharply
divided. On the one hand are scholars who emphasize insurgency as fallout
of religious activities, while on the other hand are those who prioritize
geostrategic politics or political marginalization as the root cause. Either
claim, however, is only valid in part and obscures a holistic understanding of
insurgency as a political phenomenon. Using Boko Haram as a case study,
this article interrogates literatures on the aforementioned perspectives
and highlights the empirical inadequacies in emphasizing one perspective
at the expense of the other. This study suggests that only a synergized
and balanced consideration of both perspectives can broaden the
understanding of the motivations behind the emergence of Boko Haram as
one of the world’s deadliest insurgent groups.
Nigeria, insurgency, Boko Haram, Islam, geostrategic politics, political
marginalization, identity, religion
Jadavpur Journal of
International Relations
22(2) 189–207
2018 Jadavpur University
SAGE Publications
DOI: 10.1177/0973598418783642
190 Jadavpur Journal of International Relations 22(2)
Religious insurgency in Sub-Saharan Africa, especially in Nigeria,
has been attributed to religious revivalism and the ‘transnationalization’
of global ‘Salafist jihad’. The violence carried out by Islamic funda-
mentalist groups is considered religious insurgency. Incidentally,
interrogations into the phenomenon of religious insurgency often are
unable to see beyond the professed religious ideologies of such groups.
The concept of religious insurgency invoked here, it must be noted, is as
defined by Silberman (2014), which is a war that is fundamentally
predicated toward causing crippling fear and psychological debilitation
among the target community and aimed at pressuring the government to
surrender to the ideological, religious and political demands of the
insurgents. It follows that if insurgency in itself can be defined as an act
or threat of violence against noncombatants with the aim of influencing
a people and a government to succumb to specific religious and political
demand(s), religious violence only differs in the extent that religious
ideologies stand as its scaffolds and its intended goals are geared toward
securing a religious order.
At any rate, investigations of the true, or rather, holistic causes of
religious insurgency suffer certain empirical inadequacies (Yusuf 2013).
These inadequacies stem from the fact that religious insurgency is
being studied or analyzed within the paradigms that highlight certain
causative factors while largely ignoring or underplaying other factors.
There are scholars who highlight religious fervor (while underplaying
geostrategic politics and political marginalization) as responsible for
provoking violence (Hoffman 1995, 2006; Jones 2006; Juergensmeyer
2003; Lizardo 2015; Sageman 2004; Sedgwick 2004; Sosis and Alcorta
2008; Venkatraman 2007) and others who do the opposite, which is to
highlight more of the geopolitical argument as the underlying cause
of insurgency while playing down the religious side (Gunning and Jackson
2011; Haslam and Reicher 2006; Kibris and Haer 2015; Odhiambo 2014;
Okoro 2010; Omale 2013; Stern 2010).
This article aims to highlight the need for balance in both premises
of understanding the causative factors that birth insurgent groups.
It starts with the premise that two paradigms exist, which though accurate
in part, offer a reductive understanding of the underlying causes or triggers
of religious extremist groups. Boko Haram, which is one of the world’s
deadliest insurgent groups, seeks to ‘Sharianize’ (i.e., implement Shari’a
Laws across a territory; see Forest 2012: 121) and boasts a good number

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