Boko Haram: A review of Eat the Heart of the Infidel

Andrew Walker’s book on the rise of Boko Haram is a mine of fascinating information. But like any mine, its valuable nuggets can take some hard labour to find.

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Andrew Walker’s book, the latest in a line of works on Boko Haram and its origins, contains a myriad of detailed historical sections full of illuminating snapshots of life in northern Nigeria, insights into the problems of corruption and patronage in the army, and analysis of a variety of factors that have led to Boko Haram’s ability to pick up adherents and survive counter-insurgency efforts. The book constitutes an informed and almost insider’s insight into how Nigeria works.  The author clearly understands well  the corruption and the complex of religious, social, economic and political influences that have given rise to a brutal insurgency and similarly brutal and often incompetent response by the Nigerian government and armed forces.

Eat the Heart of the Infidel is a mine of useful and fascinating information. Though like any mine, its valuable nuggets can take a lot of digging and hard labour to find.

For example, it is 135 pages in before you get any real reference to Boko Haram, how it operates, and its particular history rather than the broad background historical and religious dynamics. That is 135 pages out of a total of 219. Not that the opening chapters on the history of Islam and the varying interpretations are wasted. They are well-written, researched and interesting, but an introductory chapter setting out the basics of the Boko Haram campaign, the Nigerian response and the local context is really needed.

Walker was a journalist for the Daily Trust  and BBC World Service. This is clear from his journalistic eye for story and detail in the book, though at times it reads like a series of newspaper stories or radio dispatches stitched together without enough linking material or a clear order and narrative structure.  This makes it slightly frustrating sometimes and a book for the specialist rather than someone coming to the story looking for a clear, logical narrative – for this, Virginia Comolli’s book, Boko Haram: Nigeria’s Islamist Insurgency (also published by Hurst) would be a better starting point.

However, Walker’s book is well worth sticking with and working through for the insights it brings. The early chapters, for example, provide a very detailed and useful account of the competing interpretations of Islam among communities in northern Nigeria in the late 18th and 19th centuries as religious leaders became powerful social and political leaders whose influence covered the “realms of spiritual and political power”. Meanwhile later on, there is an important section on Wahhabism in Nigeria and the way spiritual and military leader Othman dan Fodiyo (Usman Dan Fodio) developed a blend of Wahhabi Islam that recognised local traditions but came into conflict with the existing religious and social power of the Sufi brotherhoods.

The book is also able to link religious appeal to social and economic conditions and gives a good account of the rise of the Maitatsine movement in Maiduguri, capital of Borno State. Maiduguri became the breeding ground for Boko Haram support but was not a direct ideological successor to Maitatsine, though it did fed off the marginalisation, frustration and wish for a better life amongst young men who had failed to become part of the networks of patronage that enabled some wealth to trickle down to the poor.

The way that such movements pick up support from the angry, poor and those seeking a new way out of an unremitting existence reminds me of Umberto Eco’s account in The Name of the Rose of the way rebellious reformist movements  gained power and undertook violent attacks in 14th century Europe. As Eco described it, “The movements grow, gathering simple people who have been aroused by other movements and who believe all have the same impulse of revolt and hope…The simple cannot choose their personal heresy…they cling to the man preaching in their land”. That is not to say that people are “simple” in a derogatory sense, but just that they are ordinary people with little education, living lives of toil or want and are susceptible to being won over to a cause that offers a way out of their harsh lives.

Walker is particularly good on the failures of the military where merit was replaced by a “fear and favour approach”, which meant that at all levels, soldiers were “forgetting their military role to concentrate on the real business at hand, of scaling the ladder upward, enticed by the riches that went with it”. He also exposes the myth of the straightforward good guys vs. bad guys presentation of a complex problem like Boko Haram, emphasising that “Boko Haram were bad, but to the mind of the ordinary people of Maiduguri – at that point at least – the police were the immediate, daily, and deadly threat”.

He goes on to describe the appalling state of relations between the people and the corrupt and brutal police, which was so poor that those with information that could have helped rein in Boko Haram when it was still weak would not go to security forces with information. “They feared, in an entirely justified way, that they would be arrested, detained, tortured and extorted by the officers of the state”.  In a sentence or two, Walker sums up why Boko Haram has been able to gain and retain local support and why the security forces haven’t.

Keith Somerville is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, and professor at the Centre for Journalism, University of Kent

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