When, a third of a century ago, I arrived in the town of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state in northeastern Nigeria, everyone was away at the public executions.
They were evidently the best free show in town: I watched them (all but the denouement) on television in the hotel bar that night, when it was said that the audience, or whatever you call the attendees at a public execution, was almost disappointed by the fact that the execution ground was waterlogged and therefore the stakes could not properly—safely?—be driven into the soil.
Fortunately, said the commentator (though it was not fortunate for all), a patch of dry ground had been found, so that the executions could go ahead as scheduled, and the crows not be disappointed.
The three to be executed were armed robbers, though one of them claimed still to be innocent when the commentator’s microphone was thrust towards him as he was tied to the stake. Only on a later visit to Nigeria did I learn that the police and soldiers sometimes hired out their weapons for the night to bandits and robbers.
Despite this, northern Nigeria seemed peaceful enough to me. I had entered by land from northern Cameroon, and had not even had to pay a bribe to the border guard because he wanted to talk to me about Manchester United, his favourite team (he knew far more about them than I).
An experience in northern Cameroon has remained etched in my memory. I was standing by the side of a road waiting for a bus in an isolated area. A woman who lived in a grass or straw hut two hundred yards from where I was standing emerged from the hut with a simple rustic wooden chair for me to sit on.
Safe TravelsNorthern Nigeria was reputed to be safer for the traveler than the south of the country, for it was more honest, at least in day-to-day life and transactions.
Perhaps this was not surprising. In one market I was visiting, there was a sudden hue-and-cry: a boy had been stealing; a crowd chased him and beat him severely. You didn’t have to watch out for your personal possessions in northern Nigeria, and once, when I forgot them in the street they were still there when I returned.
Perhaps I was still a callow and unobservant young man, but I felt no religious hostility towards me. If there was any, I did not notice it. True, in the city of Sokoto, capital of a sultanate, there had recently been a riot between Moslems and Christians over the question of alcohol (permitted to be drunk only in a specified area), but the disturbances were not very serious, no one had been killed, and things were back to normal.
Boko HaramI had not the faintest inkling that, a quarter of a century later, the areas through which I had passed without a care in the world would become the center of one of the most vicious terrorist organisations in the world, the Boko Haram, responsible for tens of thousand of deaths, millions of displaced people, the kidnapping in 2014 of more than 200 schoolgirls with the intention of enslaving them and, at least if its claims to the “credit” are to be believed, of 330 schoolboys or more in the state of Katsina (who have now mostly been freed).
Boko Haram, which apparently means “western education is forbidden,” expresses a chilling degree of hatred for western civilization, even if that hatred is inconsistent or hypocritical inasmuch as no terrorist group could do without the products and inventions of that civilization.
Was this insensate hatred bubbling under the surface all those years ago, unnoticed by me, or is it something new, and if so, caused by what?
Looking back, I have several times passed through countries that seemed provided with stable, if not necessarily model or admirable, governments: the Soviet Union not long before its implosion and Iran not long before the advent of the Ayatollah, for example.
I also passed through countries not long before they sank into the most atrocious violence: Sri Lanka before the Tamil Tigers, for instance, Peru before Sendero Luminoso, and Rwanda before the genocide of the Tutsi.
I remember even thinking in the latter case that Rwanda was among the best-organized countries that I had seen in Africa, and one only had to look over the border to Zaire, as it was then called under the long rule of Mobutu Sese Seko, to remark the difference: on the one side chaos and mess, and on the other neatness and cultivation.
In Liberia I saw the total dismantlement of every symbol of modern western civilization, for example of hospitals and the university. These institutions had not just suffered the collateral damage of a terrible civil war that had cost the life of perhaps an eighth or a tenth of the population, but had been systematically gone through and carefully, one might even say meticulously, destroyed, as if with personal venom or hatred towards not only those who owned them, but to the things themselves and what they stood for.
I shall never forget the way in which the wheels had been sawn off all the hospital furniture in the then completely deserted university hospital of Monrovia, in an extremely effortful attempt to destroy the hospital so completely that it could never rise again.
We are too civilized, too stable, to do anything like that? Our powers of foresight are far too limited to be certain, and history not altogether encouraging. For long the word civilization has appeared as “civilization” in the writings of the “bien pensant”; Virginia Woolf advocated the regular burning-down of libraries. The joys of destruction and of self-righteousness are all too easily united.