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Experts Discuss Implications of Nigeria's Boko Haram Crisis

Elections postponed: Violence and tensions growing in Africa's most populous nation

“The events taking place in Nigeria right now are of extreme importance.” – Richard Joseph, the John Evans Professor of International History and Politics at Northwestern.
EVANSTON, Ill. --- As Nigerians prepare to vote in presidential and state elections, Northwestern University African affairs experts and prominent visiting scholars will discuss the rise and development of Boko Haram, a violent Islamist movement creating havoc in northern parts of the country.

The panel discussion and workshop is especially timely: Just a week before this week’s upcoming scheduled elections, voting was postponed until March and April in part due to concerns that the army is too engaged fighting Boko Haram to provide adequate security.

The postponement, protested by Nigerian opposition groups and the U.S. government, “increases uncertainty about the prospects for a peaceful election and an end to Nigeria’s deepening predicament,” said Northwestern Professor Richard Joseph, the John Evans Professor of International History and Politics who writes the AfricaPlus blog.

Events begin at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 11 at 620 Library Place on the Evanston campus. At 5 p.m., over dinner, Joseph will talk about the general challenges confronting Nigeria and the region, and how Northwestern faculty and students can design a scholarly policy initiative to address them.

“The events taking place in Nigeria right now are of extreme importance,” Joseph said.  “Conducting national elections against the backdrop of unrelenting insurgency and a host of other issues, including a drop in oil prices, really puts Africa’s most significant nation in a tough position.”

The workshop assembles some of the world’s leading experts on the current situation in Nigeria to “bring an in-depth conversation to campus and give people the opportunity to go beyond media reports,” Joseph said.

The program -- free and open to the public -- is sponsored by the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITA) and the Program of African Studies at Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. It was organized by ISITA's Interim Director Rebecca Shereikis.

Boko Haram, which roughly translated, means “Western education is a sin,” is known for using young girls as suicide bombers. It has grown increasingly active and deadly in its attacks against state and civilian targets, “drawing on a narrative of resentment and vengeance for state abuses to elicit recruits and sympathizers,” according to a report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS).

Last April, the group’s abduction of almost 300 schoolgirls drew international attention, including from the Obama administration and members of Congress. “Periodic attacks against foreign targets in the region and growing evidence of ties to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a regional terrorist network affiliated with Al Qaeda, have also raised the concern of U.S. policy makers,” according to the CRS report.

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, has the largest economy on the continent. Its oil reserves have played a major role in its growing wealth and influence.

Despite the turbulence, Nigeria also is a constitutional democracy, modeled on the U.S. By mid-century, it is expected to have a larger population than the United States and eventually become one of the three largest countries in the world.

“The role it can play in Africa and on the global scene is of significance,” Joseph said.

Joseph, who has studied, researched, written and lectured on African politics and governance for the last three decades, stresses the distinction between Islamic beliefs and Islamism.

“Islamic beliefs and practices are usually tolerant; Islamism aggressively seeks to have Islam dominate public and private institutions,” Joseph said.

“Jihadism promotes violence to accomplish these aims while cultist Jihadism abandons all moral and even Koranic constraints,” he added. “Nigeria's constitutional democracy is now wracked by the local embodiment of this phenomenon, Boko Haram.”

More than 5,000 people are estimated to have been killed in Boko Haram-related violence, making it one of the deadliest terrorist groups in the world, according to the CRS.  United Nations and Nigerian officials report that more than 6 million Nigerians have been affected by the conflict between Boko Haram and the Nigerian government, and more than 300,000 have been displaced.

The panel will be moderated by Northwestern’s Rachel Riedl, an assistant professor of Political Science and a faculty associate at the Institute for Policy Research.

Panelists will speak for 20 minutes, followed by a question and answer period. They include:

Ibrahim Hassan: Currently a Fulbright African research scholar at Northwestern University, Hassan is a senior lecturer in religious studies at the University of Jos, Nigeria. He will address local perspectives on the factors that influenced the rise and development of Boko Haram. “Poor leadership and bad governance is an important explanation for the rapid rise and devastating effect of the phenomenon, much more than Islamic appeal, the international terrorist connection and marginalization theories,” Hassan said.

Richard Joseph: The John Evans Professor of International History and Politics at Northwestern University and a non-resident Senior Fellow in Global Economy and Development of The Brookings Institution, Joseph will discuss “Islamism, Jihadism, and Nigerian Democracy." Over the last three decades, Joseph has studied, researched and lectured on politics and governance in Africa with a special focus on democratic transitions, state building and state collapse, and conflict resolution. His forthcoming e-book, “The Nigerian Crucible,” which examines whether and how Nigeria can become a world economic leader with progressive social policies will include excerpts of writings dating back to 1977.

Brandon Kendhammer: An Assistant Professor of Political Science and affiliate of the African Studies program at Ohio University, Kendhammer’s research and teaching interests include African politics, particularly Nigerian politics, politics and culture, political Islam, and democratization. His talk is titled “Boko Haram in 2015: Turning Point or Tipping Point?”

Rotimi Suberu: At Bennington University in Vermont, Suberu teaches politics and international relations. His main research interests are Nigerian government and politics, the management of ethnic and religious conflicts, federalism and democratization. Suberu, who has served as a consultant to the Nigerian government, the World Bank and several other organizations, will speak on Boko Haram, the 2015 elections and the future of Nigerian federalism.

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