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How to Write about Boko Haram 'Eat the Heart of the Infidel'

A political arena plagued by corruption and a crisis of legitimacy; a deepening sense of moral outrage within the populace and, in particular, amongst its youth; a charismatic preacher calling for spiritual cleansing, for social retreat, for the armed overthrow of the powers that be, and for the construction of a new upright society; and a brutal confrontation between the emboldened new movement and the furious authorities. The events that fuelled the meteoric rise of Muhammad Yusuf and the emergence of his Jama’atu Ahlis Sunnah Lidda’awati wal-Jihad—the group that came to be known as Boko Haram—are, by now, fairly well-known.

Yet, if this succession of factors were the harbingers of Boko Haram’s birth in the early 2000s, they are also remarkably similar—if not virtually identical—to the ingredients that catalyzed the growth of several other Islamic revivalist movements that emerged in northern Nigeria in the preceding century. A far from exhaustive list of groups that fit this bill can be culled from the opening chapters of British journalist, Andrew Walker’s recent book, Eat the Heart of the Infidel.

In reverse chronology, we may include: Yan Tatsine, a movement lasting through the early 1980s and remembered for triggering riots and clashes with the authorities in several northern cities; or the late-eighteenth-century Satiru Mahdist, whose revolt ended when Fredrick Lugard, the (in)famous colonial administrator, ordered an intervention that, according to a later inquiry into the ensuing massacre, left in its wake “fields running with blood”; or, indeed, the famed 1804 Jihad of Usman Dan Fodio, which overturned the ruling Hausa states and established the Sokoto Caliphate in the previously ‘disputed territories’ that would later become northern Nigerian.

In the past century, northern Nigeria has proven fertile soil for the repeated emergence of a peculiar kind of social and political turmoil. Beyond a narrow retelling of the major events in the narrative of Boko Haram’s rise, Walker’s Eat the Heart of the Infidel brings to life the realities—both in Nigeria’s northern region and in the broader national political economy—that engendered the northern situation of recurrent upheaval, and, consequently, Boko Haram’s uncommonly brutal campaign. Walker’s detailed historical approach in charting the rise of Boko Haram, ultimately, is one that will elate some readers as much as it will annoy others.

How to write about Boko Haram

At one extreme, some recent, often journalistic, accounts written for a largely foreign ‘non-specialist’ audience have treated the Boko Haram insurgency and contemporary Nigerian politics and society as virtually interchangeable terms. Nigeria, in these accounts, emerges (as per the unnamed African country in Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation) as little more than a ravaged wasteland caught between an incompetent and corrupt government and a senselessly brutal rebel group.

A slightly less ridiculous approach has been to write about Boko Haram as though it is possible to divorce the terrorist sect from the historical, social, and political context from which it emerged. In these accounts, often addressed to a policy or security audience, Boko Haram appears as simply a local iteration of a more wide-spread jihadist phenomenon which threatens the contemporary global order and, in particular, the United States.

It is not that Eat the Heart of the Infidel skirts around the moments of the Boko Haram insurgency’s distinctive brutality, or that it dismisses questions of Boko Haram’s comparative or actual ties to global jihadism. Rather, where many others fail, Walker’s account succeeds in its ability to travel across policy and academic audiences, to speak to Nigerians and foreigners alike, and to ground the Boko Haram insurgency in the wider conversation about how Nigeria became a country in which such a harrowing phenomenon could emerge. Walker’s deep, even personal commitment to (particularly northern) Nigeria, developed through nearly a decade of working with and for Nigerians is apparent from early on in the book. It is no surprise, then, that the starting point for Eat the Heart… are questions probably every well-meaning Nigerian has asked herself in a sombre moment, questions Walker attributes in his preface to tweets from the account held by then APC presidential candidate, and now president, Muhammadu Buhari. “We must ask ourselves these questions,” reads one tweet, “How did we become like this? How did we get to this point? What kind of country have we become?”

The Heart of the infidel

Walker’s response to Buhari’s questions begins with the tale of a young boy captured as a slave in the Sokoto Caliphate in 1849, another point that will annoy some and elate (probably a lesser proportion of) other readers. John Henry Dorogu, the astute young boy, is sold to European explorers who buy him his freedom and take him to London. There, he becomes a local curiosity, converts to Christianity and helps write the first Hausa-English dictionary before returning to Kano where aged, reclusive, and shrouded in mystery, he dies.

When Dorogu’s death closes the book’s preface without an explicit connection to the larger arch of the Boko Haram narrative, the reader catches a first glimpse of a distinct style that runs through Walker’s entire narrative; it is a style which, in Walker’s own description of a Hausa approach to story-telling, seems to “avoid getting to the point directly.” Yet, this preface does also introduce the themes mentioned above: of societal rot, youth, emigration, and identity crises that are both the undercurrents of subsequent chapters and triggers for the deep social transformations northern Nigeria undergoes in the two-century time-span that Walker examines.

Part One of Eat the Heart of the Infidel, divided into three chapters, traces the aforementioned themes—focusing on corruption and emigration—through the century that preceded Nigeria’s independence. Drawing from an impressive trove of anthropological and historical sources, Chapter One recounts Usman Dan Fodio’s encounter with late-eighteenth-century Hausa Kingdoms in which venal Sarkis ruled and a mix of Islamic and traditional beliefs flourished. “If the soul was thirsty in the night…” writes Walker on one of such beliefs, “it could transform itself and fly away in search of refreshment. What, otherwise were dreams?” Outraged at this syncretism and the general perversity of the world around them, Dan Fodio and his fellow itinerant Fulani radicals resolved to launch a midnight flight of their own: “to come out from amongst the workers of evil,” writes Walker, and to establish a community of true believers.

Such a declaration, as Walker keenly observes, would have been recognizable to Dan Fodio’s followers as a call to a sort of metaphorical re-enactment of the Prophet Muhammad’s Hijra from the corrupted city of Mecca to set up a community in Medina. Of course, in both episodes, radical disavowals would lead to confrontation with the existing authorities and, ultimately, revolution or more precisely, Jihad.

Chapters Two and Three describe the lands soon to become northern Nigeria after their domination (though only partially) by the Fulani ruled Sokoto Caliphate in the decades after Dan Fodio’s founding Jihad, and, thereafter, by British Colonial authorities. It is in these chapters that Walker clearly establishes the region’s peculiar historical pattern typified by the rise of “strange sects” (including those listed above), which denounce society as corrupt and withdraw “into the bush to begin their quest for spiritual purity.” Here, the burning question of why Hausa, Fulani, and British authorities—quite different political orders ruling in quite different times—would be faced with such similar challenges to their sovereignty is masterfully raised but less convincingly answered.

Part Two of Eat the Heart… travels forward in time, into contemporary Nigeria, to trace the outcomes of decades of misrule in the nation’s era of oil-wealth and mass poverty. Unsurprisingly, the already dominant theme of societal corruption takes centre stage at this point. In chapters with titles “Big-Potato on Top,” “Stomach Infrastructure” and “Eating the Chords of Society,” consumption emerges as another key theme in the narrative, affirming a widely held view in Nigeria (or, some would say, across Africa) that political power concerns the ability to access state resources and is allocated according to whose turn it is ‘to eat’. Also brought into sharp relief in these chapters are moments of popular resistance to the widespread decay —such as the northern outcry in the early 2000s for Sharia institutions, thought accountable to God and thus inoculated from corruption. But, while mainstream religious zeal increasingly seemed unable to stem the politics of plunder to the extent Nigerians desired, a more politically radical alternative was on the horizon.

It is at this point, in the book’s third and final part, that Walker’s narrative finally turns to the Boko Haram insurgency. Though these pages do not present much new information on the sect, a reader may be struck by Walker’s keen eye for the bizarre and contradictory aspects of Boko Haram’s history, such as the group of Christians in Plateau State who confessed to having been hired by the terrorist sect to blow up local churches. In highlighting such contradictions, Walker stresses the weaknesses of some of the popular theories that have been propounded to explain who or what is ‘behind’ Boko Haram. Refusing to arbitrate between often highly politicized explanations, he offers a useful corrective to the prevalent practice among analysts and lay commentators alike of offering confident perspectives that are “big on speculation and short on evidence.”

Yet the book’s greatest contribution, in narrating Boko Haram as a contradictory product of its troubled contexts, is clearly summarized when Walker, in one of his concluding pages, writes: “When Abubakar Shekau, the successor of Boko Haram founder, Muhammad Yusuf, said they were coming to “eat the heart” of the infidel state, what was it he thought he would find? The ability of the state in Nigeria to provide its basic functions… have already been eaten by the people charged with providing them.”

Learning from history

Karl Marx, after quoting German philosopher, Georg Hegel’s remark that “all great events and characters of world history occur, so to speak, twice,” once chided that the latter philosopher “forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” What neither thinker clarified, however, is how we are to construe history when it repeats itself a third or fourth time—or even more times. Could it be that in these later repetitions of the past, such ‘great’ historical phenomena occur as, at once, equal parts tragedy and farce, intertwined and inseparable?

Boko Haram set out to break a country that was already broken and, in this doomed quest, the sect has murdered over 50,000 Nigerians and displaced nearly a million more. It is clear that, as central actors in Walker’s narrative, the Boko Haram insurgency is very much both a farcical and a tragic repetition of earlier historical uprisings. Yet, while his book is full of clues, Walker’s account ends as a Dorogu-esque mystery on the precise mechanism through which these repetitions have occurred in northern Nigeria. Why, in other words, has this region been repeatedly gripped by these harrowing episodes? And why have these outbreaks been so violent?

Three interventions on the topics of violence in northern Nigeria, and rebellions in Africa more generally, may serve to deepen Walker’s intuitions on these pressing questions. Murray Last, whose other pre-eminent work on northern Nigeria is often cited in the book, writes that modern religion—and Islamic fundamentalism, in particular—has been a tool used by successive generations of northern youth to challenge gerontocracy by claiming moral superiority over the elderly, and thus asserting their entitlement to political power. Related, Abdul Raufu Mustapha argues that an ideology of revivalism, rather than one of pluralism, has developed among devout youth in the region where Usman Dan Fodio’s Jihad and more recent revolutionary legacies still resonate. Lastly, Swedish-Malawian economist, Thandika Mkandawire, has argued that rebel movements, which begin in urban contexts but are forced to retreat to the countryside, often resort to plunder and ‘exemplary’ brutality both as punishment for a resistant peasantry and as a strategy to mask their inherent weaknesses.

Cumulatively, these perspectives underline how generational struggle, ideologies of religious revolt, and the strategic use of violence may have influenced Boko Haram’s trajectory and brutal approach. These analyses also highlight how important themes—of youth violence, emigration, and revivalism—in Walker’s narrative may offer the opportunity for more systematic analyses of historical causes and effects. Before such explanations are offered, however, a certain degree of context is necessary, and for providing this in the case of Nigeria’s harrowing insurgency, Andrew Walker deserves our critical readership⎈

‘Eat the Heart of the Infidel’
The Harrowing of Nigeria and the Rise of Boko Haram
Andrew Walker
281 pp. Hurst & Company, 2016.
London.