Muslim elites, exercise of power, and terror

AFRICA / What can a book say about Boko Haram or the porous border between present-day Cameroon and present-day Chad? Or about the pre-colonial Kingdom of Kanem-Bornu?

Living Through Crisis by Lake Chad: Violence, Labor and Resources
Author: Alessio Iocchi
Publisher: Routledge, UK

In this book, Italian political scientist Alessio Iocchi takes us on a 1000-year-long journey through the areas around Lake Chad. The journey begins with the conquests of the great centralised state of Bornu-Kanem in 1076 and ends in April 2021 when Chad’s president Déby is killed on the battlefield. The source material for the book, Living through Crisis is impressive: Iocchi uses non-fiction literature in Arabic, French, English, and Italian, as well as various travel accounts from Ibn Khaldun (1377) to Gustav Nachtigal (1879-89) – and interviews and observations from his fieldwork in present-day Nigeria and Chad, conducted between 2014 and 2021. Iocchi wrote this book, a revision of his doctoral thesis from the Orientale University of Naples, while he was a postdoctoral fellow at NUPI in Oslo.

Iocchi refers to Italian Giorgio Agamben’s concepts of «stato di eccezione» (state of exception) and «la nuda vita» (bare life) and Cameroonian Achille Mbembe’s «necropolitics» – where control over death is more important than control over life, and where possession of weapons determines how much power one has. He tries to help us understand how people manage in this troubled area of Africa. Anyone who has travelled in this part of the Sahel knows that if you ask an ordinary man on the street if everything is okay («Ça va?»), you will get the answer: «I manage» («Je me debrouille»). Iocchi spends nearly 200 closely written pages trying to understand this response. Crisis, or a state of exception, is what we might call the locals’ living conditions, but they have lived with the uncertainty, the state of exception, for so long that it has become normalcy.

By using Agamben’s concept of a «state of exception» as a «necessity-state», Iocchi shows that the state on both sides of the border tolerates this form of personal negotiation rather than rule-driven customs duties.

Slavery and the colonies

In the book’s first part, he discusses the accumulation of resources and mobility in the pre-colonial kingdom of Kanem-Bornu (from the 800s). At its most powerful, the kingdom encompassed parts of present-day Libya, Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Chad. Slaves were by far the most important resource in the kingdom, and the Muslim elite carried out numerous slave raids against pagan – that is, non-Muslim – ethnic groups every year. Often, several thousand people, both women and men, were captured and brought to the king. Some slaves were sold to other kings or slave traders from the coast – around one million (less than ten percent) of the slaves in the transatlantic slave trade originally came from the inland kingdom of Kanem-Bornu. But many slaves were also used internally by the elite in the kingdom. For example, the most trusted slaves, such as tax collectors or army commanders, were given important tasks in state administration and lived better than free, ordinary people. In other words, slaves were not a homogeneous category – their status ranged from pure commodities for sale to soldiers to tax collectors.

The Kanem-Bornu kingdom fell apart at the end of the 1800s in a mixture of internal wars among several pretenders to the throne and colonization by the British (Nigeria), French (Chad, Niger), and Germans (Cameroon). But Iocchi is not concerned with marking a rupture between the pre-colonial kingdom and the colonial states. He finds similarities in the exercise of power, hierarchies, and taxation between the periods, and in the rest of the book, he deals with more contemporary empirical data.

a line of Boko Harem soldiers
Boko Harem

Boko Haram

There are three chapters in particular that I find interesting – two about Boko Haram and one about the porous border between present-day Cameroon and present-day Chad.

Iocchi provides a detailed account of the rise of Boko Haram and its founder, the young and highly sufi-learned Muhammed Yusuf (1970-2009). Under Yusuf’s leadership, Boko Haram consisted of a small group of young men who received solid sufi-Muslim guidance. But when Yusuf was killed in 2009, Boko Haram transformed into a militant organization that provided guerrilla warfare training to its sympathizers and spoke out against anything that smelled Western, including the Nigerian regime.

In the next chapter, Boko Haram’s terrorism of local populations is exemplified by a detailed analysis of an attack on Bol, a village on the Chadian side of Lake Chad. The enormous difference created by the «war on terror» between the local population and those fighting this war is analyzed using observations and interviews conducted in Bol.

According to the United Nations, travelling to Bol is unjustifiable, but Iocchi goes there at the invitation of the village’s sultan. The international peacekeeping soldiers in Bol live completely isolated from the population; the isolation is physical in that they stay behind high-security walls, but also mental in that they have nothing to do with the local population. The sultan says that the local population does not participate in the increased economic activity that comes with the international peacekeeping force, nor do they see any improvements as a result of all the aid money that is flowing into the local community, as there is a form of mutual isolation between the local population and the peacekeepers.

the most trusted slaves, such as tax collectors or army commanders, were given important tasks in state administration and lived better than free, ordinary people.

At the border post

In the book’s penultimate chapter, Iocchi analyzes the moral economy at a border post, Nguéli, between Chad and Cameroon.

He has observed and interviewed customs officials, security personnel, traders, intermediaries, tax collectors, and smugglers in this small border town near Chad’s capital, N’Djamena. He argues that the physical border is very porous, airy, and permeable. This means that the dividing line between the formal requirements and border crossing rules is subject to negotiations. Moreover, personal relationships between those who control and those who are supposed to pass are at least as important as formal requirements and regulations for border crossing.

By using Agamben’s concept of a «state of exception» as a «necessity-state», Iocchi shows that the state on both sides of the border tolerates this form of personal negotiation rather than rule-driven customs duties. By not cracking down on the irregular personal forms of customs and tax collection, the state gives underpaid customs officials and demobilized soldiers an opportunity to increase their income. Admittedly, at the expense of the state’s income, but in return, the state regime gets a number of passive supporters – something that can be useful when new elections are being held or demonstrations are being organized to support the regime.

Finally: Iocchi’s thoroughness and meticulousness ensure that this book will never become a bestseller, but it will be a reference work for professionals working on the Sahel.

Ketil Fred Hansen
Ketil Fred Hansen
Hansen has a PhD in African history. He is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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