This book contains one of the best descriptions of the psychology of Boko Haram I have read. A sect member explains to Andrew Walker why he kills in the name of religion. Imagine, he tells him, a bus depot full of people, some are travellers, some are hawking wares, some just idling and doing all sorts of things. The sect members, he explains, are the travellers, on their way to paradise; everyone else in the park is just hawking peanuts. Walker’s book is anecdotal, well researched and engaging. He has a novelist’s eye for story and situation. But the most important thing is that he knows Nigeria well, having lived there for about a decade, working for a local newspaper in Abuja, the Daily Trust, and later as a reporter for the BBC. Most of the non-historical accounts here come from his on-the-ground reporting done over many years.
The book tells the story of religious conflicts in northern Nigeria, going back to the early 19th century, and ending with the rise of Boko Haram. Walker references almost every important work written on the subject, beginning with founding myths and legends, European explorers’ accounts, official colonial transcripts, correspondences between traditional rulers and colonial administrators, and biographies of important political figures. He takes the reader back to the rise of Sunni Islam in northern Nigeria with Othman Dan Fodio, who is referred to as the Shehu, and his jihad against the nominally Muslim Hausa states. Dan Fodio was a zealous reformist, conquering city state after city state, installing Fulani rulers over the Hausa populace, and in the process creating a feudal, theocratic system that impressed the British colonialists so much when they arrived in the later part of the 19th century that they decided to leave the system intact. As Walker puts it: “While northern Nigeria was a British territory, the colonial administrators allowed the emirs to retain their sharia law courts. This was part of governor general Lord Lugard’s system of ‘indirect rule’.”
Lugard, who “could almost have been drawn directly from the pages of Rudyard Kipling”, was famous for his indirect rule policy, which he had earlier experimented with in Uganda. Continuing the Kipling analogy, Walker writes that Lugard’s “great impetus was admiration for the British man-of‑action; men who had a will to make something of themselves, men who could – as they saw it – civilise the world, men who – as Kipling described in The Man Who Would Be King – fantasised about becoming something of a benign dictator in a savage world”. A sort of west African Cecil Rhodes, but working for the crown.
To create this new, civilised world of his fantasy, Lugard had to subjugate the local rulers. He wrote: “My maxim is not to go to war and shoot down natives if it can possibly be avoided, but if you do start, give them a lesson they will never forget.” He achieved this with his mainly native soldiers of the West Africa Frontier Force, subjugating Dan Fodio’s entire caliphate, replacing the emirs with his stooges, and culminating with the defeat and killing of the then Sultan Attahiru, a descendant of Dan Fodio.
Unfortunately the new world created was based on a shaky foundation; it left the status quo intact. The feudal aristocrats kept their power, and continued to use the traditional system of religion and family connections to maintain their privileges. With the active connivance of the colonial powers, the Hausa/Fulani rulers contrived to keep missionary-run schools, Christianity and other forms of western influence out of their regions. As a result, they gradually began to realise they stood at a disadvantage next to the more educated and westernised regions of the country. But opening up and accepting western education and administration put them in direct conflict with the more fundamentalist members of the society, people who believed that the only system acceptable to a Muslim umma is the religious one, meaning sharia.
The central aim of Walker’s book is to show how the history of northern Nigeria, from the time of Othman Dan Fodio until now has been shaped by the rise of Islam and the conflict between Islam and modernity. With example after example, Walker attempts to demonstrate how the non-egalitarianism of the Hausa-Fulani feudal system became the norm for Nigerian politics not just in the north, but all over the country, and how unsustainable this non-egalitarianism is in a modern democracy. Incessant religious conflicts over the years are explained within this narrative. With time, and sometimes with increasing foreign influence, the moderate Sufi brotherhoods of Qadiriyya and Tijaniyya, which had hitherto been the dominant sects in the north, began to be challenged by Salafi reformists such as the Izala Movement. Even outliers such as Maitatsine and Boko Haram are somehow presented as part of this reformist attempts, albeit misguided ones, but arising from genuine discontent with the political status quo.
One of the shortcomings of this narrative is that, like most books on religion in northern Nigeria, it focuses almost solely on Islam and its role in shaping the history of the region, relegating the sizeable non-Muslim population to the role of bystanders and victims. It is an ambitious account, and perhaps it would be a stronger one had the author narrowed his subject matter to the Boko Haram insurgency, which forms the strongest part of the book and contains its freshest material. Also, a lot of the Hausa words in the book are misspelt or erroneous – something the author can easily fix in a future edition. But there is no denying the author’s mastery of his subject and the usefulness of this overview to anyone interested in Nigerian history and the role of religion in Nigerian politics.
Review by Helon Habila and first published in the Guardian.