from Africa in Transition

Balzac and Nigeria’s Boko Haram

January 6, 2015

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This is a guest post by Jim Sanders, a career, now retired, West Africa watcher for various federal agencies. The views expressed below are his personal views and do not reflect those of his former employers.

Balzac’s early novel, Les Chouans (1829), is not critics’ favorite. But, the book, which deals with a revolt in Brittany of Chouans--peasants with royalist sympathies--against the French revolution, is a masterpiece of guerrilla warfare analysis. As I read it, I thought of Boko Haram--a sign of obsession, perhaps, or just simple curiosity. While chronological and cultural contexts are vastly different, I started to see commonalities between guerrillas fighting a civil war, regardless of time and place.

The physical environment plays a major role in the work. Half way through the book, Mademoiselle de Verneuil, a protagonist in the love interest Balzac puts at the center of the story, comes to understand Chouan warfare in a moment of epiphany, when she is looking at the countryside and not thinking about her lover, the Marquis.

Briefly, owing to ravines, dense hedges, lakes, marshes, fields that are fortresses sealed off from each other, and a lack of roads, ordinary warfare was impossible. Moreover, the inhabitants lived in hovels, there were no villages, and the only contact with other people they had was with a priest, and it was ’the voice of the priesthood that roused the Chouans against the Republic.’ Mademoiselle de Verneuil quickly concluded that using military force against the Chouans was useless. Disaffection with the Republic could only be strangled by police and negotiation, she thought.

Dressed in goatskins, rural Bretons blended in so well with the environment as to be invisible much of the time. This calls to mind a recent press report, relating that in its recent attack in Borno, Boko Haram fighters dressed in the black uniforms of the police and approached their target using cattle as shields.

As soldiers, Chouans defied convention: “These soldiers of a new species, on whom the deposed monarchy of Louis XVI was resting its hopes, dispersed into groups. Some drank the cider; others, on the bank before the portico, amused themselves by flinging into the lake the dead bodies of the Blues (Republican soldiers), to which they fastened stones. This sight, joined to the other aspects of the strange scene,--the fantastic dress, the savage expressions of the barbarous uncouth gars,--was so new and so amazing to Monsieur de Fontaine, accustomed to the nobler and better-regulated appearance of the Vendean troops, that he seized the occasion to say to the Marquis de Montauran, ’What do you expect to do with such brutes?’"

"Not very much, my dear count," replied the Marquis. "Will they ever be fit to manoeuvre before the enemy?" "Never." "Can they understand or execute an order?" "No." "Then what good will they be to you?’’ "They will help me to plunge a sword into the entrails of the Republic," replied the marquis in a thundering voice. Aspects of Chouan dress evidenced deep historical roots. The broad-brimmed hats they wore were formerly those of the seignorial class over which they prevailed in ancient times. Victorious in their struggle against them, Chouans wore their hats, "the former ornament of seignorial heads," which they were "proud to have won, after their servitude." Along these lines, one has to wonder whether Boko Haram’s use of military uniforms is only a technique of disguise. Perhaps in their minds, wearing the uniforms also signifies victory over an oppressor. Eventually, Hulot, a professional military officer sent to subdue the insurgent Chouans, dresses himself, and a contingent, like the enemy, in order to fight them effectively. We haven’t yet seen the Nigerian military enter the Dambisa Forest attired like Boko Haram fighters, but that may be coming.

Mademoiselle de Verneuil is a keen observer of the Chouans and she sees that their religion is a key factor. About a hundred men, kneeling with bared heads, were praying fervently in this natural enclosure, where a priest, assisted by two other ecclesiastics, was saying mass. "The poverty of the sacerdotal vestment, the feeble voice of the priest, which echoed like a murmur through the open space, the praying men filled with conviction and united by one and the same sentiment, the bare cross, the wild and barren temple, gave the primitive character of the earlier times of Christianity to the scene."

The officiating priest, Mademoiselle de Vernueil tells us, cast a spell on the peasants, delivering his message with great vehemence. "He had absolved excesses before committal..." a Chouan remarked, "The priests have told us to go to war. Every Blue we shoot earns one indulgence." "Religion, or rather the fetishism of these ignorant creatures, absolved such murders of remorse." In times of revolution, "every man made a weapon of whatever he possessed for the benefit of his party, and the pacific cross of Jesus became as much an instrument of war as the peasant’s plough-share."

Whether something similar is occurring within Islam in northeastern Nigeria, is unknown. But that it could be, is not outside historical experience. Novel-reading may yield more insight than might in some circles be expected.

More on:

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