This week in the African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular, we continue our focus on northern Nigeria and Boko Haram with Andrew Walker’s “‘Eat the Heart of the Infidel:’ The Harrowing of Nigeria and the Rise of Boko Haram,” one of the most innovative and readable accounts of Boko Haram’s rise that I’ve come across. Grounded in the deep history of Nigeria’s Sokoto Caliphate and Walker’s years of experience reporting from Abuja, the book is an invaluable and accessible read for anyone interested in why and how the group came to exist and has been able to do so much harm to civilians in northeastern Nigeria and neighboring states. Walker kindly answered my questions about the book, the prospects for peace in Nigeria’s northeast, and how British and American politics might be more like those of Nigeria than you think.
Seay: One of my favorite elements of the book is the way that you situate the rise of Boko Haram in the detailed history of the region. The book begins in the early 1800s and discusses the Hausa kingdoms that once dominated the region, the rise of the Sokoto Caliphate and the impact of British colonialism there. What motivated you to situate the story of Boko Haram in this deep history? What does this history tell us about Boko Haram’s position in modern Nigerian society?
Walker: When I began writing, the world was just beginning to discover Boko Haram. As people tried to assess them, I felt the group’s inclusion among lists of other international terrorists risked missing the historical and social context of their rise. I wanted to take a step back from what was a fast-moving and confusing situation and show readers things I thought would be helpful, but that most news stories would not have space to include.
Boko Haram began in a form of rebellion and state creation that predates colonialism in Nigeria; the followers of a charismatic preacher withdraw from society to take on “false Muslim” rulers, who have been corrupted by the love of worldly things. This process has a long history in West Africa.
I don’t think history entirely repeats itself, Boko Haram are not the same jihadists who created the Sokoto Caliphate in the 19th century. But as I was reading, time after time I found Boko Haram’s language and violence, their impulses and strategies, which seemed so arcane to observers today, had deep and powerful roots.
Seay: What is “stomach infrastructure” (the title of chapter six) and what does that concept tell us about Boko Haram’s rise and success as a movement?
Walker: Stomach infrastructure is the absolutely minimal amount of stuff spread around by Nigerian political elites to maintain their valuable positions, while the capacity of the state withers. It is effectively the entirety of what passes for the citizen’s end of the social contract, their vanishingly small share of the national cake.
Many people, even those who say they will not sell their votes, expect to be materially compensated for attending rallies, supporting their candidate and voting. These contributions of money or consumable items are made in lieu of the other things the state struggles to supply, like physical infrastructure, health care, education and security. In the last election, there were stories about candidates handing out sacks of rice emblazoned with their faces. In some cases it was discovered the imported rice had gone bad.
Another example is, in the decade before Boko Haram emerged, newspapers often ran pictures of ranks of new Chinese-made motorbikes under headlines that said they were “donated to the community” by politicians. These added to the ever swelling numbers of men with little future, except to ply the motorcycle taxi trade up and down the roads.
Mohammed Yusuf, the original sect’s founder, played the stomach infrastructure game well. He won over young people with fragile or nonexistent livelihoods with soft loans and handouts.
Seay: How do local perceptions of the role of sharia law affect northern Nigerians’ perceptions of democracy, corruption, morality and their position vis-à-vis the state?
Walker: The state of sharia in the north is a constant debate without permanent resolution. Sharia was initially reintroduced after the return to democracy by politicians keen to give their own people what they were asking. Although people at the grass roots feel strongly that sharia is essential, they say it is being mishandled and undermined by the political machinations of the elite.
In their turn, non-Muslims in the north see sharia as evidence of a Muslim hegemony, as a tool for further marginalization and a risk to their liberty, even their lives. Many in Nigeria’s “Middle-belt,” (the region between the country’s north and south), go as far as to say they have never experienced Nigeria’s independence.
There have been several occasions in recent decades where attempts were made to resolve the question of where sharia sits in relation to the constitution. Nearly every time the Nigerian constitution has “won” over the law of God. While the Nigerian government and its international partners think that outcome fine, it further offends Islamist extremists. This creates a counter-elite which inevitably turns against the state.
Seay: What is Boko Haram, anyway? You note that people who have encounters with the group’s members have widely varying experiences. Is it accurate to speak of “Boko Haram” as a cohesive organization or movement?
Walker: The group we call Boko Haram clearly has some form of central leadership. They are capable of mounting campaigns of violence that involve coordinated attacks spread across a wide area. They have proved a remarkably adaptable group, capable of changing these tactics to pivot in a new direction with apparent ease.
But “Boko Haram” is also an umbrella for the opportunistic to take advantage of the stirred chaos. It is also thought that, in an attempt to swell their ranks, the organization quietly welcomed bandits, robbers, political thugs, and cultists, criminals who use rituals and charms to protect themselves.
It is important to remember that, as an organization, Boko Haram is not immune to the same political games that go on in Nigeria as a whole. In the same way an individual can use ethnic grievances to capture more state power and available rents, so it is in Boko Haram. As an organization it is very prone to splits, and recent infighting has revealed squabbles and tit-for-tat executions of “traitors” at the top of the organization.
Seay: What’s your prediction for Boko Haram’s future? Will they be defeated? Will the movement splinter and disperse? Has it already done so?
Walker: Power in Nigeria is inherently connected to what Nigerians call “relevance,” a combination of popularity, keen dealing ability and lucky circumstance, converted into personal power. It is entirely possible the organization called Boko Haram could lose their relevance. Eventually military action, internal splits, the loss of their connection to outside jihadi groups, hunger, the prospect of a miserable life followed by a miserable death, or the stigmatization of membership, which prevents fighters returning to the population at large, could mean Boko Haram’s hold on people loosens.
The conditions that led to the group’s rise still exist, however. The shriveling of the post-colonial state’s ability to mediate hard grievances means, in time, another group will likely emerge and do the same.
One of the things that will contribute to this is the continuing poor security situation. People are already nervous about the killing of hundreds of Shia civilians by the military in 2015, and what that could unleash.
Seay: What’s something you learned from your years reporting in Nigeria and writing the book that might surprise readers?
Walker: I was hopelessly naive when I first went to Nigeria in 2006. I think I spent most of the first year reeling at the way Nigeria seemed to lurch from political crisis to crisis, muttering “ … that could never happen in the U.K.!” to myself. Of course, the last few years have proved all that wrong. A lot of the forces I saw at work in Nigeria came alive in the U.K. after the 2008 financial crash. This is partly because of deep cuts to government services stripping the government of capacity, but also partly because the problems themselves are increasingly intractable. In fact, when people ask me what Nigeria is like, I’ve started to say: “Imagine Brexit, but going on for 60 years.”
It suggests to me the idea that “development” represents a permanent resolution of problems we believed only ail newly independent post-colonial states is wrong. As the intangible and often unspoken or unwritten assumptions that hold our polity together are questioned, ignored or dropped, satisfactory reform may become more difficult. A breakdown of trust in institutions, a further breakdown in trust between individuals (let alone between people and the state) and an upsurge in politicized regional or ethnic grievances will follow. It remains to be seen whether our system can successfully mediate.
One of the most notable aspects is the hardening of new ethnicities of grievance in the U.K. and the U.S. One’s approach to Brexit, for example, is not conditioned by facts, but ideas about who you are and what you deserve from the national cake; that’s the basis of just about every conflict in places like Nigeria today.
If trust can’t be reestablished, I think we in the U.S. and U.K. might have to start seeing ourselves as living in “post-colonial” states too. The idea that our political discourse is not a one-way journey, that our future may be more similar to places that until recently we assumed represented a stage we had already passed, might surprise a lot of people.