Five Months in Kano, and an Abrupt Return

Regular readers probably noticed a drop-off in posting around September; daily posting did not resume until last week. During the interval I was in Kano, Northern Nigeria, doing my dissertation fieldwork. My dissertation is not about Boko Haram – rather it is about Muslims from Northern Nigeria who have studied in Arab universities and returned home, and indeed none of Boko Haram’s leaders seem to fall into this category, being instead locally educated – but Boko Haram certainly cast a shadow over my time there.

Looked at in a grim way, my time in Kano was bracketed by two terrorist attacks launched by Boko Haram: the August 26 bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Abuja, which occurred a few days before I left the US for Nigeria, and the series of coordinated bombings that occurred in Kano on January 20, a few days before I left. The first of these attacks gave me a lasting sense of wariness about my safety in Kano, and I followed the advice of an older researcher not to blog about Nigeria, and especially not about Boko Haram, while I was overseas. The blackout on Nigeria coverage on the blog aimed both to avoid attracting any unwanted attention and to avoid confusing any interviewees or others in Kano about the nature of my project and my intentions; I have never blogged about my research in detail, and certainly have never written about the content of interviews, private conversations, or other encounters I’ve had with people in Kano. I am not a journalist, or a spy, even though I was occasionally suspected of being the latter. I plan now to go back to blogging frequently about events in Nigeria, but I want people in Kano to understand that I will not be quoting them, or identifying them, except in the dissertation itself.

The second attack, the bombing in Kano, has unfortunately forced an end to my fieldwork (I had originally planned to stay until June) and brought me home (my family essentially commanded me to return, and the kidnapping of a German engineer in Kano last Thursday has dispelled whatever doubts I had about my decision). I hope to go back to Nigeria and to Kano at some point, but for the medium-term I will be in the US.

Looked at in a more positive light, everything between those two attacks was incredible. I met tremendous personal as well as intellectual hospitality in Kano; not only did people welcome me as a friend and a guest, they also proved astonishingly open – even in cases where they weren’t quite sure what to make of me and my research topic – to sit for interviews, to help me find rare books and tapes, and to put me in contact with others who could help me. All of that has meant that I’ve collected enough material to write the dissertation, though of course I have a long road ahead of me and a number of holes to fill by one means or another.

I also found my time in Kano personally moving and enriching. I miss my friends there terribly, and I miss the city itself. No one should forget that, even though Northern Nigeria often makes headlines now because of violence, the land is home to millions of people who live, work, and worship peacefully. I never felt that anyone was targeting or threatening me; on the contrary, although many people disagreed with Washington’s foreign policies, the same people were often eager to learn about the United States, about its culture and its people, and about me as an American. One of my most keenly felt sorrows now is that these micro-level cultural exchanges have to be put on hold. There are not many Americans in Kano, nor many Kanawa in America, and it’s important for us to get to know one another better.

I don’t have much to say in this post about Boko Haram, or about the attacks of January 20th. I heard some of the bombs but was nowhere near the epicenters of violence, and during the days that followed I was mostly at home, especially when the city was under curfew. The attack shocked the people of Kano, a city that had previously lain outside the range of Boko Haram’s attacks. Afterwards everyone I talked to was terribly upset, not only over the loss of life but also because their sense of security had been taken from them. Everyone prays that Boko Haram will not attack again, but the movement announced its presence in Kano in a big way, and minor attacks have occurred since. Boko Haram’s demands, their sources of funding and power, and their plans seem murkier than ever, but their presence has become a reality for a vast swath of Northern Nigeria, and a threat to the rest.

On the day before I left, a Nigerian friend urged me to make an effort to point out the good aspects of Nigeria whenever possible. I hope I’ve done some of that in this post, and I intend to keep trying in the future. No matter how bad the news is coming out of that country, or how many articles we see titled “Nigeria on the Brink” or some such thing, it’s worth keeping in mind the tremendous vibrancy of Nigeria, which is one the most exciting places I’ve ever been.


13 thoughts on “Five Months in Kano, and an Abrupt Return

  1. Thank you for your very kind words.

    I too was in Northern Nigeria for one year (Gombe State). People in Northern Nigeria are generally friendly and warm, but I could always detect an element of danger lurking beneath that warmth.

    Kano has an unfortunate history of violence, starting with the riots in the fifties, to the Matatsine uprising in the eighties, to the Rienhard Bonnke crusade violence in the nineties and the post-election violence last year. Most of this violence has been traditionally directed against outsiders (southerners and christians), so most of us learned to sleep with our eyes open in Northern Nigeria.

    This time it is different – both Muslims and Christians were attacked.

    Much as we might like to emphasise progress made, we must be frank enough to admit that Northern Nigeria has a unique set of challenges:

    1. Female literacy rates are as low as 5% in some areas. If we don’t educate the women we are sure to breed the next generation of terrorists. We seriously need to get those young women to school.
    2. We need to stop being politically correct and address the impact of polygamy on child welfare. Not every one has the financial means to support more than one wife and this should be pointed out.
    3. The “almajiri” system needs to be reformed. I have a strong suspicion that the products of the almajiri system form the base of Boko haram.
    4. The quality of governance at the local level needs to be questioned. We should no longer tolerate politicians who cynically use religion for political aims.
    5. Northern Nigeria needs to draw clear boundaries between Mosque and State. True, Sharia tends to be popular among the Muslim majority, but the Christian minority needs to be properly accommodated. If this isn’t done, we can look forward to more violence in future and the impact on the economy will be severe.
    6. The Nigerian state neither has the resources nor the capacity to do another “Niger Delta amnesty” (pay off militants, send militants on training etc) in the North. The North is too vast for that sort of thing.

    The regeneration of the North cannot be financed solely from the proceeds of the sale of crude oil. Any economic plan for the North must be geared towards harnessing the immense agricultural and mineral resources in Northern Nigeria.

    If these points are not addressed, Northern Nigeria could very easily become another “North-West Frontier Region”.

      • I was there for one year shortly after NYSC. I have friends who served in Kano and other parts of the North. Our observations tend to be similar.

    • Is Boko Haram an insurgent force or a terrorist organization*? Considering the apparent scale of operations I would have thought that they would be closer to insurgents but I’ve heard more about attacks than holding territory or declaring itself to be the rightful government.

      *Yes, I know that sometimes there’s little difference but it would be nice to look at Boko Haram membership and numbers.

      • Bit of both.

        Most “terrorist organisations” have more than one “core competency”. Hamas for example, blows up things and provides social services.

        Anyone who gives the Nigerian Police a bloody nose will be quite popular in most parts of Nigeria. The question is how enduring that popularity will be.

        No one really knows much about Boko Haram. I suspect that Boko Haram itself doesn’t fully understand in what direction it is likely to go. All it takes is a single charismatic leader.

  2. Thank you for your blog, i just stumbled on it, i was born and raised in Kano but i am Yoruba, Kano will forever be my home and i presently live in North America. If you need help i may be of help with some info in Kano. Mhy family still lives there and i will be going there sometimes this year. You are right, not many Kanawa in US, but there are some of us.

  3. I’m glad you made it back safely Alex, that’s quite a fieldwork experience! I’m looking forward to reading more about your experiences in Nigeria over the past few months. Take care and greetings from Cairo. Rahma

  4. Reblogged this on South of West and commented:
    If you’ve been wondering where Sahel Blog has been, well here is the answer. He found himself in the eye of the Boko Haram storm in northern Nigeria, and for very sensible security and research ethicy reasons went dark for a bit. But his reflections provide interesting context to what’s happening in a poorly understood part of the world…

  5. Pingback: War Is Boring » Pete’s Africa Round-Up

  6. Great blog and nice post. Just came back from Jos a week ago, went there for research. I made similar experiences and always try to stress the beauty and the diversity of Nigeria when being confronted by simplistic statemens about the country drawn from the news.

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