In November 2015 a report released by the Sydney-based Institute for Economics and peace (Iep) stated a somehow unexpected truth. In 2014 it was Boko Haram, and not the dreaded Islamic State or Al Qaeda, the deadliest terrorist group in the world. The Nigerian insurgents were responsible for 6,664 deaths, six hundred more than those blamed on the followers of self-anointed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Over the years, the Nigerian armed group has been regarded in different ways: at the beginning it was seen as a local force possibly linked to unspecified actors in the complex Nigerian political landscape. During the war in Mali some analyses suggested that it was acquiring some sort of international dimension, because a number of its fighters had reportedly joined other groups which took control of the northern regions of the West African country. Finally, after the occupation of large chunks of land in the northeastern Nigerian Borno State, the multiple attacks in countries such as Cameroon, Niger and Chad and the allegiance pledge to the ‘caliph’ of Raqqa, Boko Haram has been considered little more than an African offshoot of the Islamic State. In fact, all these description are partly true, yet they miss something: the broader historical context that enabled movements as Boko Haram and its predecessor, Yan Tatsine, to emerge. This is precisely the point that Andrew Walker makes in his book Eat the heart of the infidel – The harrowing of Nigeria and the Rise of Boko Haram. Walker – who has been writing about Nigeria since 2006, working in Abuja for The Daily Trust and reporting from there for the BBC – takes its historical analysis to a depth well summarized by the preface, whose title is “the strange tale of John Henry Dorogu”. Despite the account of a raid on his village carried by horsemen might sound very familiar nowadays, Dorogu lived in 19th-century in an area near lake Chad and the entire first part of the book deals with these decades.
These chapter analyze in detail the competing interpretations of Islam in northern Nigeria at that time, the rise of the spiritual and political leader Othman dan Fodiyo (Usman Dan Fodio), the fall of the Kanem empire and Frederick Lugard’s role in establishing a British indirect rule. Walker is also particularly attentive to the issue of education and to its effects on the entire Nigerian society and the status of the northern élites. These, however, are only a few of the factors mentioned in order to show that Boko Haram didn’t emerge out of nowhere. The historical roots of inequality in Nigeria are also taken into consideration and the same can be said of the complex relationships between the civilian population and the security forces, which have not begun with the imposition of the state of emergency on the northeastern part of Nigeria, but date back to the years of the military rule.
Relying on direct testimony, the author details both the extent of corruption and patronage in the army and the reasons for which the police was perceived by many as an “immediate, daily, and deadly threat”. It’s only at this point that Boko Haram enters the frame. Leaving aside the preface, the first mention of the group occurs at page 87 of the book and it is dealt at length with only at page 135, which is well beyond the first half of the book. This might sound frustrating to readers attracted by the quite gruesome title but makes perfect sense to the experts. Writing about Boko Haram, in fact is also writing about Nigeria itself. This does not mean, obviously, that the complex reality of one of the political and economic giants of Africa can be reduced to terrorism. Nevertheless, in order to avoid simplistic and narrow interpretations historic and social factors must be taken in due consideration, as Walker certainly does.
On the other hand, a greater effort could have be done in giving the book a structure. The reason why the author ranges from one argument to another might be evident to those already familiar with the subject but surely it is not to the average reader. That’s why, despite the author’s impressive journalistic and narrative skills and the use of a number of direct sources, Eat the heart of the infidel, although very readable, doesn’t reach the level of books like David van Reybrouck’s Congo, which it reminds from time to time. Generally speaking, however, the book is set to be a key source for all those dealing with the Boko Haram issue in the near future, particularly because it clearly states that, despite recent progress, the deep roots of the problem make its solution still difficult. (M.G.)
Andrew Walker, Eat the heart of the infidel – The harrowing of Nigeria and the Rise of Boko Haram, Hurst and Co., London 2016, 281 pp.