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Old wounds and modern scars under Professor Miles’ microscope

Northeastern University Professor William Miles has received the “Past Presidents’ Silver Book Award 2017” from the Association of Borderland Studies for his book Scars of Partition (University of Nebraska Press, 2014). He views this book as the distillation of his entire career’s fieldwork along borders and borderlands in developing nations. Professor Miles, who teaches in the Department of Political Science in the College of Social Science and Humanities, has also recently published another book entitled African Border Disorders (Routledge, 2018).

In Scars of Partition, the author recalls that input from his graduate students brought him to the main title. He was considering different options, but his Contemporary Issues of Third World Development class overwhelmingly preferred “Scars of Partition.”  In fact, “we truly are dealing with something which looks like a physical accident of history.” Although colonialism was not a physical accident, it left scars. Wounds may have healed somewhat but they have left deep, raw scars: along international boundaries the cuts are still visible, often mental, and sometimes ugly. Scars of Partitions examines the results of colonial partition in the five different world regions where he has done extensive fieldwork thanks to four Fulbright and other research grants: West Africa, West Indies, South East Asia, South Pacific and Indian Ocean.

Ultimately, Professor Miles strives to answer the question posed by the artist Paul Gaugin in his iconographic Polynesian tableau “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” Miles argues that what makes us who we are – be it in America or Africa – is often an accident of history. Only through self-consciousness of these accidents of history can we understand who and what we have become.

Legacies of colonialism is also a leitmotif of African Border Disorders in which, with co-editor Olivier Walther of the University of Florida, Prof. Miles focuses on the emergence of terrorist organizations in Africa.  African Border Disorders combines network science with geographical analysis to map out regional patterns of violence on the continent.  Professor Miles’s concluding chapter shows how defiance of imperial borders has driven religious rebels from the seventeenth century until today.

William Miles has extensively traveled across Africa, and he has studied African history and politics for over 35 years. His rich knowledge of the region allows him to contextualize terrorism in ways that security-minded “experts” new to the region have a difficult time appreciating. Richly illustrated with original maps, graphs and photos (including hard-to-obtain portraits of jihadists of the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries), the book brings together “international contributions from different perspectives in a timely fashion.” Professor Miles has created strong bonds with important African leaders like Nigeria’s current Minister of Interior, General Abdulrahman Dambazau. “Before becoming Minister, Dambazau was Chief of Staff of the Nigerian Armed Forces. In between such high-powered gigs, he was a research fellow in Boston and guest lecturer in my Religion and Politics class at Northeastern.  Now he is responsible for the domestic security of the largest populated country in Africa.”

Professor Miles presenting a copy of “African Border Disorders” in Abuja to Nigeria’s Minister of the Interior, General (rtd.) Dambazau.

African Border Disorders was launched last December at the Linking borderlands research and policy in Africa and Europe conference held in Niamey, Niger. “We’ve written it not only for scholars but for policymakers specializing in Africa. The hope is that it be useful for counterinsurgency and counterterrorism strategists.” The prestigious journal Foreign Affairs defined this book as a “strong edited volume focus[ing] on the cross-border networks in central and western Africa on which jihadist groups rely.” When asked whether he thinks specific organizations in the United States might be interested in the book, Miles answered, “That’s the biggest challenge – getting it on the radar of US and allied intelligence and counterterrorist organizations and agencies.”  Personally handing a copy to the official responsible for his countrymen’s safety from terrorists like Boko Haram – Political Science Department guest speaker General Dambazau – is not a bad start.

Published On: February 2, 2018 |
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