by Steve Anderson
Diffa, Niger. When referring to the Komadougou Yobé, most locals simply call it “the River.” There is only one. It returns once a year and then ebbs progressively. This cycle is one of the constants in the lives of Diffa’s popu-lation. The River’s rebirth is—by turns—weak or strong, early or late, long enduring or fleeting, but it will happen.
The River has returned more than 100 times since this countryside knew horror and violence akin to that now returned to its doorstep. In the closing decades of the 19th Century it was here that the Sudanese slave-trader and brigand, Rabih Fadl Allah (commonly called “Rabah”), and his bands looted, enslaved, and slaughtered men, women, and children. Their swath of destruction mowed through this same corner of the Lake Chad Basin that has once again fallen under the shadow of an implacable predator.
The oldest people I knew were born just after the termination of Rabah’s bloody reign. These children and grandchildren of survivors refused to utter his name. Those who would speak to me at all of what had come to pass did so in hushed, fearful tones. At a spot close to where I lived, it was recounted that the River had been so choked with bodies that they made a “bridge.” There is a village in a dale named “Man’s Head” for the number of skulls left strewn about the valley floor. And well into the 20th Century, clay jars full of silver Marie Thérèse Thalers continued to be unearthed in isolated spots…the cached fortunes of the unfortunates who’d not been able to return for them. The voices rising skyward, in lament, were legion during those years of scourge.
Rabah was felled in 1900. Three French columns converged on him, one from Brazzaville, another cross-ing the Sahara from Algiers, the third snaking east from Dakar. If his execution marked the beginning of la paix coloniale, Rabah’s brutal legacy outlived him, scarring the collective memory, reaching into the minds of succes-sive generations, transforming perception of past evils to presentiment concerning the future.
The River came and went for more than a century without ever truly washing clean the wounds inflicted by Rabah. And so when we began to hear about another marauder the ancestral dread arose anew. It started vaguely, like the distant nocturnal flare of lightening and soft bumping of thunder that long precede the crashing cacophony of wind, dust, and torrential rain that will come. But no one doubted the inevitability of the mael-strom’s arrival. People spoke in hushed tones of something malignant evolving in northeastern Nigeria, just across the River, just beyond the horizon. The adults would not speak its name—Boko Haram. Indirect allusions were made, eyes fixed on the ground. No one wished to see his or her own apprehension confirmed in another’s regard.
This was ten years into the 21st Century. The wider world was preoccupied with the fighting in northern Mali, yet another coup d’état in Niamey, and the implosion of Libya. To my friends and neighbors these events seemed impossibly remote. They were transfixed by the slow but regular expansion and approach of Boko Haram’s sphere of carnage, and the equally devastating, indiscriminately murderous ripostes of Nigeria’s troops.
In reality, the battle had already arrived, stealthily. It was being waged in the hearts and minds of young men. Estranged and increasingly alienated, much of this new generation was veering radically away from its parents’ ethos and customs. The rupture was largely in-voluntary, fueled by dangerously incompatible trends besetting both rural and urban contexts, namely a burgeoning youth population1 versus incommensurately slow growth, stagnation, or regression of the natural resource base2, educational opportunities, and licit employment options. Simultaneously, the IT revolu-tion has fueled a veritable of globalization of dreams. The now ubiquitous cellphone and widespread Internet access provide an unprecedented window on the world. They tantalize with visions of a life that poor people will never attain, emphasizing the sense of relative deprivation already felt with acuity by ambitious by side-lined young men.
The narrow strictures of fundamentalist ideology are at odds with what most young men wish to do with their lives, but what happens when you are without viable career prospects, when your life is in disarray because the traditional values inculcated by your parents have revealed their bankruptcy? What happens when extremist dogma propagated online or in the streets is neatly packaged as an easy-to-follow recipe with which to organize and give sense to your errant existence? What happens when this new ideology is cloaked in sanc-tity, as a right-thinking movement meant to sweep away a corrupt world order, the entrenched elite whose cushioned indifference to your plight you feel bitterly every single day? Why not strike a blow against it, in a violent and purifying flameout? Compared to that, what are your vain, flimsy hopes for temporal wellbeing? Especially now that things are going to pot here…with Boko Haram attacking on Nigérien soil (which every-one said would never happen), the imposition of martial law, the denunciations, the arrests, the stop-and-frisk searches, the jailings, and the ever-present, pervasive fear and suspicion that transform anyone into a potential enemy.
It’s over tea, on the street corner, that the young men are mulling over what they’ve heard. It sounds vaguely glorious. And, at least, it qualifies as “doing something,” a signal merit when compared with facing another empty day, one more day you know your family can’t help you get ahead and you’re ashamed to de-pend on them but you do because you don’t know what else to do. One of your group will get up from the bench on which you’ve passed these indolent, unfulfilled days together. It might be you or it might be another. Others will follow, because it’s important to stick together with your friend. And because now you have a plan, a direction in life, not just listless drifting. Apprehensive and hopeful at once, you’ll all head south into Nige-ria, passing first through the palm forest, just across the River.
1 An estimated 50% of Niger’s 17 million population is less than 15 years of age. Similar demographic esti-mates are given for other Sahelian states. 2 Natural resources in the Sahel are under unprecedented pressure from combined effects of climate change (manifested by increased frequency and severity of rainfall deficits) and over-exploitation (more users employ-ing more rapacious, unsustainable techniques). Diffa’s situation in particular has been further exacerbated by the influx of more than 100,000 refugees; the region’s total pre-crisis population was estimated at just under 400,000.