Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Dipping a Toe into Lake Chad

A thought I’ve had over the years is that today—and presumably fated to last for a few centuries more—a process will be unfolding right under our eyes much resembling what “went down” in Europe during the last centuries of Roman rule and continued long thereafter. That process is the transformation of Africa.

A current phenomenon that can lend some anchorage for investigating how good that thought of mine may be are the troubles assigned these days to the Boko Haram insurgency in and around Nigeria. Even a cursory look immediately reveals an extraordinary complexity not made even faintly visible by current news coverage. If I take myself as an ordinary modern, I know virtually nothing about Nigeria, never mind the regions immediately touching Lake Chad on its eastern edge—which is the current center of the insurgency; in fact today is the first I’ve ever even heard of Lake Chad. To correct that I present a map of Nigeria and point to the upper right corner where Lake Chad colors the screen blue. As you can see, a part of the lake is in Nigeria, specifically in the Borno region which has its capital in Maiduguri.

The entire northern territory of Nigeria, reaching down to below where the name of the country is actually printed, is populated by Islamics. They constitute just a shade over 50 percent of total Nigerian population; Christians are 48 percent, the rest adhere to what we might call pagan-style beliefs.

The first kingdom known to history in this territory, named after the Niger River (see inset), was the Kingdom of Nri, located just to the east of the Niger’s delta. It was founded by the Igbo people who, today, represent the second largest ethnic grouping in the country. The year was 1000. At is farthest extension north, the kingdom reached to about Enugu, thus a small part of today’s Nigeria. A century later the Kanem-Bornu Empire, which became Islamic around 1068, covered large parts of Chad and part of today’s Nigeria; the Nigerian portion corresponded directly with the Borno region—and the Islamic influence expanded from there west and to the south—but not very much south.

Those earliest developments in effect set up the conflict which today’s events still echo as the conflict between Boko Haram and the Nigerian central government. There has always been a north-south tension within this realm, the North always more populous and poorer, the south always richer.

To underline the complexity here, be it noted that Nigeria has 250 ethnic groupings—the largest of which are the Yoruba (west), the Igbo (east), and the Hausa (northern Islamics). These and other groupings speak 512 different languages—and it is therefore not surprising that English is the country’s official language. English. Not French. And that is because Nigeria figures in colonial history as first governed by the Royal Niger Company (1886), then by the British Government (1900), and finally—until the United Kingdom granted the country its independence in 1960—becoming in 1901 a British Protectorate and thus joining the British Empire.

I began by referring to the Roman Empire—the fall of which then set in motion a vast Medieval process of nation building, also building nations out of countless tribes and ethnicities, all of which strenuously fought the process. The role of the Romans in today’s process was played by the British Empire. After it withdrew in 1960, the process began in earnest. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Boko Haram, the name of the insurgency, translates as Forbidden Teaching (haram being forbidden, boko meaning culture, teaching, heritage—the word thought by some to have been derived from the English word “book”). Here we have a situation of a younger culture actively resisting the decadent overhang of an older one—while pursuing with the brutal energy of youth something of a biological imperative to multiply and to cover the earth.

For those who like to have some size comparisons, Nigeria (with 366,000 square miles) is significantly larger, but in the same ballpark, as Texas (with 269,000). Lake Chad (with 521 square miles of area) is greater than Lake Saint Clair in Michigan (430) and smaller than Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana (with 631 square miles).

This, so far, a small toe dipped into Lake Chad. I may return to enlarge upon this at a future time.


  1. An excellent start. Hope you will continue your research into this, to me, mysterious continent.


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