I have fond memories of Borno state, camping beside my LandRover in the cold, crisp early mornings, steam rising from a cup of tea, then the thermometer climbing visibly as the sun got to work. Fulani herdsmen crossing the horizon under conical hats with their angular cattle, women walking behind, slim and with beautiful posture, swaying as they walked. The neat homesteads surrounded by fences of beautifully woven millet stalk. Meals of roasted corn and suya. I remember the farmer who offered me a drink, then took a tin cup and brought milk straight from the cow, still very warm. The people there are grave and hospitable.
I never one felt in the slightest danger, thirty years ago. I am taken aback that places I went round then without a care for the British High Commission (I had the agriculture brief, which was an amazing license to roam) are now no-go areas. The region is mostly dry savannah: the forest area stretching into Cameroon, incidentally, is by no means impenetrable, though it is true the canopy would be a barrier to aerial surveillance. Very little of it is primary forest any more.
The media now have a new cartoon figure of hate in the bearded, bobble-hatted leader of Boko Haram, and in truth he is a very bad person. But armed rebellions of thousands of people do not just happen. It is not a simple and spontaneous outbreak of evil, still less a sign that we must wage Tony Blair’s war on Muslims everywhere.
Nigeria is a country with governance and corruption as bad as anywhere in the world. A country of billionaires and of near starving sufferers. A country of pollution and exploitation by big oil, and a happily complicit and deeply corrupt political class. Nobody disagrees with that, and very few would disagree that there lies the root cause of Boko Haram’s ability to gather support.
If the Nigerian government were to have sent in the army en masse to try to recover the kidnapped schoolgirls, the first result would undoubtedly have been, on all previous experience of the Nigerian army, that hundreds more women would have been raped, this time by soldiers. Villages would have been looted and people arrested, tortured and killed, more on the basis of extorting money than of looking for suspects.
To be fair to President Goodluck Jonathan he knows this, and he had made the extremely brave decision a year ago to try to deal with Boko Haram by dialogue and negotiation, and call off the military campaign which was making matters far worse. He drew much criticism for it at the time, particularly from neo-cons, and will be blamed now. The problem is that things have gone too far to be easily remedied, and to negotiate with the crazed is not simple.
Were I trying to get back the girls, I would operate through the agency of traditional society. Nigeria’s indigenous institutions are much degraded, but offer more hope than any Western style interventions. I am not precisely sure which is the appropriate traditional ruler, but I suspect that it is the Lamido of Adamawa, whose immediate predecessor I took tea with on several occasions. Information on the girl’s whereabouts will definitely be obtainable through the networks of subsidiary chiefs and elders, which still exist, even though their political and administrative power had passed. It is particularly helpful that in this region these traditional allegiances are linked to Islamic authority. Adamawa’s territory extends into the Cameroon, and even Chad.
The fact of the old state of Adamawa extending into Cameroon and Chad brings us to the heart of the problem. Nigeria is an entirely artificial, colonial construct created by the British Empire (and bounded by the French Empire). Its boundaries bear no relation to internal national entities, and it is huge. The strange thing is that these totally artificial colonial constructs of states generate a genuine and fierce patriotism among their citizens. After just my first year of living in Nigeria I had formed a firm view that it would be much better for the country to be split into at least three states, and that Britain’s attitude in the Biafran war, that colonial state boundaries must be inviolable, had been wrong.
Many patriotic Nigerians will be very angry with me for suggesting their country should split up. It is also worth observing that, not only in Nigeria, many Africans who are, with justice, most vocal in their denouncing of colonialism, are at the same time most patriotic about their entirely artificial nationality, created by the colonial power.