Or about the pre-colonial kingdom of Kanem-Bornu?
In this book, the Italian political scientist Alessio Iocchi takes us on a 1000-year-long journey in the areas around Lake Chad. The journey starts with the battles of conquest in the large centralized state of Bornu-Kanem in 1076 and ends in April 2021, when Chadian President Déby is killed on the battlefield. The source material for the book Living through Crisis is impressive: Iocchi uses non-fiction in Arabic, French, English and Italian, in addition to various travel accounts from Ibn Kaldun (1377) to Gustav Nachtigal (1879-89) – as well as interviews and observations from his own fieldwork in present-day Nigeria and Chad, conducted between 2014 and 2021.
Iocchi wrote this book, an adaptation of his doctorate from the Orientale University in Naples, while he was a postdoctoral fellow at NUPI in Oslo.
Iocchi refers to Agamben's term "state of exception" and Mbembe's "necropolitics".
Iocchi refers to Italian Giorgio Agamben's concepts of "stato di eccezione" (state of exception) and "la nuda vita" (the naked life) and Cameroonian Achille Mbembe's "necropolitics" – where control over death is more important than control over life, and where gun ownership determines where a lot of power you have. He tries to make us understand how people manage in this troubled area of Africa. Anyone who has traveled in this part of the Sahel knows that if you ask an ordinary man on the street if he is doing well ("Ça va?"), you will get the answer: I am fine ("Je me debrouille"). Iocchi spends close to 200 densely written pages trying to understand this answer. Crisis, or state of emergency, we would probably call the local population's living conditions, but they have lived with the uncertainty, the state of emergency, for so long that it has become normality.
The slaves and the colonies
In the first part of the book, he deals with the accumulation of resources and mobility in the pre-colonial kingdom of Kanem-Bornu (from the 800th century). At its most powerful, the kingdom included 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 annually carried out a series of slave raids against pagan – that is, non-Muslim – people groups. Often several thousand people, both women and men, were captured and taken to the king. Some of the slaves were sold on to other kings or to slave traders from the coast – around one million (just under 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 of the kingdom. The most trusted slaves were given important tasks in the state administration, such as tax collectors or army commanders, and lived better than free, common people. In other words, the slaves were not a uniform category – their status varied from mere goods for sale via soldiers to tax footers.
The most trusted slaves lived better than free, common people.
The Kanem-Bornu kingdom collapsed at the end of the 1800th century in a mixture of internal wars among several claimants and colonization by the British (Nigeria), the French (Chad, Niger) and the Germans (Cameroon). But Iocchi is not very concerned with marking a break between the pre-colonial monarchy 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 up-to-date empirical evidence.
There are three chapters in particular that I find interesting – two about Boko Haram and one about the porous border between today's Cameroon and today's Chad.
The small border town's customs officers, security personnel, traders, middlemen, tax collectors and smugglers.
Iocchi gives a detailed account of the rise of Boko Haram and the group's founder, the young and very Sufi scholar 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 morphed into a militant organization that trained its sympathizers in guerrilla warfare and spoke out against anything remotely Western, including the Nigerian regime.
In the next chapter, Boko Haram's terrorization 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 the "fight against terror" creates between the local population and those who fight this fight is analyzed with the help of observations and interviews conducted in Bol.
According to the UN, it is completely inadvisable to travel to Bol, but Iocchi goes there at the invitation of the sultan of the village. 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 get to take part 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 abounds in the local community, as there is a form of mutual isolation between the local population and the peacekeepers.
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 officers, security personnel, traders, middlemen, the tax collector and smugglers in this small border town, quite close to Chad's capital, N'Djamena. The physical boundary is very porous, airy and permeable, he claims. This means that the dividing line between the formal requirements and the rules for being able to cross the border is subject to negotiation. Personal relationships between those who control and those who will pass are at least as important as formal requirements and regulations for border crossing.
By using Agamben's term "state of exception" as a "state of necessity", Iocchi shows that the state on both sides of the border tolerates this form of personal negotiations rather than regulated customs duties. By not cracking down on the unregulated personal forms of customs and tax collection, the state gives underpaid customs officers 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 – which can be good to have when new elections are organized or demonstrations are to be organized in support of the regime.
Finally: Iocchi's thoroughness and thoroughness means that this book will never become a bestseller, but for professionals working on the Sahel, it will become a reference work.