The Harrowing of Nigeria and the Rise of Boko Haram

In ‘Eat the Heart of the Infidel’: The Harrowing of Nigeria and the Rise of Boko Haram, journalist Andrew Walker examines the emergence of Boko Haram, teasing out the societal and state structures that contributed to its rise and sustained its position. With the book drawing on a comprehensive range of resources, Fisayo Ajala recommends this well-researched and dutifully analysed work.

The north east of Nigeria is a region where the state, specifically the security the state is supposed to provide in its most basic form, was already weak and ineffective. Boko Haram put those already weak institutions into an almost complete reverse. The limited writ of the state, the failure of democratic governance and the thin influence of the rule of the law in the north east had been laid bare for all to see. The heart of the state had already been eaten hollow (161).

The above paragraph from Andrew Walker’s ‘Eat the Heart of the Infidel’: The Harrowing of Nigeria and the Rise of Boko Haram explains the near-capitulation of the Nigerian state at the peak of the Boko Haram insurgency. The technical defeat of Boko Haram in December 2015 could therefore be regarded as a narrow escape.

Walker’s book is a major addition to existing literature on Boko Haram that has described and examined its emergence, the factors that have sustained it and the dynamics of Nigeria’s war against this insurgent group. The book is a reader’s delight. The journalistic background of the author gives life to the book and enthrals in many ways. It provides a dispassionate analysis of Nigeria’s history, particularly of the north, and the prevailing structural and societal imbalances that gave rise to Boko Haram.

Writing on the country since 2006 and having worked for the Daily Trust and the BBC, it is safe to conclude that Walker is well informed about Nigeria, its grand opportunities and fatal vulnerabilities as well as how it works. For instance, Walker decries its certificate culture and describes its education problem as a ‘rot’ that has eaten away the heart of society (73). According to Walker, Nigerian politics is a quilted blanket of clashing and complementary patterns (110), spread across the politics of patronage, stomach infrastructure, federal character, ethnic irredentism and so on.

Walker’s book provides comprehensive detail on (northern) Nigeria’s socio-political and religious history, carefully noting the failed desire of Uthman dan Fodio, founder of the Sokoto Caliphate, to reorganise pre-colonial northern Nigeria or, more precisely, Hausa city states, along salafi principles and create a dynasty of ‘spiritual leaders and a purified faith’ (27), the varying interpretations of Islam among the different sects and the resistance to education that was accommodated because of colonial expediency (60). Decades later, Boko Haram under its founder, Mohammed Yusuf, would denounce western education in strong terms, describing the education system put in place during and after colonial rule as the ‘wellspring of corruption’ (145).

Walker outlines the nature, doctrine and methods of Boko Haram: how before the 2009 uprising Yusuf grew his community through da’wah – or proselytisation – so that his group operated like ‘a state within a state’, drawing followers from the urban and rural poor, trades people and the ‘informal sector’: street hawkers, cobblers, blacksmiths, knife sharpeners and tailors (146, 152). Because Yusuf, the now-slain leader of Boko Haram, was able to move through the many levels of the northern city Maiduguri’s social worlds, the group formed a ‘counter-elite alienated by resentment over what they saw as years of compromise to the state (147, 151).

Walker equally explains the recruitment process, noting the different kinds of people in Boko Haram (167), which fall into Tore Bjorgo’s three categories of captive participants, mercenaries and real ideologues. Recruitment exercises include cult-like, mysterious activities tied to dates tainted with cursed blood. Al Jazeera journalist Chika Oduah testifies to this as she notes that oath of allegiances – mubaya’a – and poisoned dabino (dates), tea and coconuts were asked of, and given to, would-be members as methods of indoctrination and recruitment. Yet, as Walker notes, the real ideologues are so indoctrinated that their world may be beyond reach: ‘they believe that the world is sort of a motor park. They are the passengers; they are the ones who are going somewhere, to paradise. The rest of us are just hawking peanuts’ (168).

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By Fisayo Ayala

Picture credit: Tim Green CC BY 2.0