Last month marked the second anniversary of the kidnapping of 276 Chibok secondary schoolgirls by Boko Haram in Nigeria, an event that caused worldwide outrage.
Despite a recent change of government and a more concerted military effort to dislodge the insurgents, most of the girls remain missing, victims of a campaign of terror that has claimed tens of thousands of lives and made more than two million people homeless.
For Andrew Walker, who worked as a journalist in Nigeria just as Boko Haram was metamorphosing from a small Islamist sect into a hydra-headed monster, it is further proof of the weakness of the Nigerian state and its military.
“President Buhari says the war against Boko Haram is technically over. But while the military has certainly bucked up its ideas and might have gained some wins, I suspect that Boko Haram has simply melted away.
“We are not hearing about battles and we don’t really know what is going on. Besides, it is too dangerous for Nigerian journalists to risk their necks by going to the northeast [where Boko Haram is based].”
Why Africa’s biggest economy has become so overwhelmed by the terror group is a question that Walker attempts to answer in the meticulously researched Eat the Heart of the Infidel: The Harrowing of Nigeria and the Rise of Boko Haram.
Part history, part journalese and part meditation on the nature of Nigerian society and politics, he unravels Nigeria’s tangled story, from its early northern caliphates and brutal birth as a British colony to the independence era when so much hope and promise collapsed into disappointment and mistrust.
With a promotional tour of the US just behind him, in which he addressed the US Institute of Peace and the Council on Foreign Relations, it is a long way from where he began as a journalist at London local paper the Camden New Journal.
Reporting on such stories as the threatened desecration of graves in the historic St Pancras Churchyard by work to build the Channel Tunnel Rail Link in 2002, it was a job he clearly loved.
But as a thoughtful young man with an eye to the wider world, Walker decided to take a degree in development studies at the School of African and Oriental Studies and use it to build on his career.
“I wanted to take from the Journal what I had learned about the role the media plays in democracy, but in a post-conflict society,” he explains.
A vague plan had been to go to Sierra Leone, then just emerging from a protracted civil war, but in 2007 he ended up going to Nigeria to work for the Daily Trust, one of many titles jostling for space in the country’s lively media scene.
In a noisy, dynamic society where everyone has an opinion, the cultural shock was intense but exhilarating. “In Nigeria you have to argue your case everyday to carve out your own place,” recalls Walker. “As an expat you are slightly insulated from this but at the end of the day you are still down there in the queue with everyone else. There are frustrations but I soon discovered that I loved Nigeria – there are so many strong personalities and so many interesting people.”
As he was settling in, Boko Haram was bringing more people under its influence with its puritanical brand of Islam in its base of northeast Nigeria, an already poor area of the country hard hit in recent years by desertification.
As a sect, it was nothing new in Nigeria – the north had witnessed many, in part a reflection of the spread of Saudi-funded Islamic schools in recent decades. But in 2007 a respected Islamic scholar was shot dead after he denounced Boko Haram as a violent threat to the state.
“My colleagues told me that this murder was going to cause trouble and that is how it turned out to be.”
Two years later, Boko Haram’s leader was captured following five days of clashes between his followers and security forces, and later killed in police custody.
This sparked off the wave of bombings, abductions and assassinations that have become Boko Harem’s bloody calling card in its attempt to overthrow the government and set up a caliphate.
Based in the capital Abuja, Walker talks to people in the know to build up a picture of what is going on, including a chilling 2011 interview with a sect member who tells him that the group would soon make use of suicide bombers for the first time as part of its jihad against unbelievers. Months later both the police headquarters and UN building in Abuja were attacked in this way, killing scores of people.
“There was a period when you thought things couldn’t get any lower, but then it did. There was a time while writing the book that I wanted to walk away from it all but I didn’t.”
While it is true that many people were press ganged into service, others freely joined Boko Haram in protest at a government that left them in abject poverty and even killed innocent civilians in its clumsy attempt to reign in the group.
Much of the blame for this disaffection lies with the corrupt elites that see politics as a way of getting rich rather than serving the people, says Walker. This was turned into a fine art by military leader Ibrahim Babangida who during the 1980s and ’90s used Nigeria’s vast oil revenues to fund a web of patronage that rewarded loyalists with absolute power and wealth. At the same time he imposed an IMF-approved austerity programme on the country that saw vital services like health and education cut back and living standards fall.
With no trusted institutions in Nigeria any longer, it is hardly a surprise that rumours that Boko Haram is sponsored by unscrupulous politicians and members of the military are rife.
“This is an attempt to explain what has happened,” says Walker. “People see everything connected to politics – everything is done by a cabal of people behind the veil. This amazing cabal of people can fix all of this stuff but cannot provide piped water. As for allegations of military involvement, while there is corruption among the military, this is a country where it is impossible to keep a secret. ”
He is equally sceptical of Boko Haram’s supposed links with al-Qaeda and, latterly, Islamic State, saying although its leadership has made a formal declaration of allegiance with IS, this has to be taken with a pinch of salt: “For a start, you don’t see Pakistanis turn up in northern Nigeria.”
As far as he is concerned, Boko Haram is an unfinished story as its militants hide out in the remote border areas where the Chibok girls are thought to have been first spirited away: “These are full of caves and dense forests dotted with IEDs. The Nigerian state is just a rumour here. It just doesn’t exist.”
Eat the Heart of the Infidel: The Harrowing of Nigeria and the Rise of Boko Haram by Andrew Walker is published by Hurst & Company, London
This article first appeared in the Camden New Journal on May 6, 2016