Bernard-Henry Lévy in Nigeria

Vincent Foucher
Oumar Ba

The French philosopher and TV personality favors spectacle over analysis. The result: we don't make sense of political violence in Nigeria.

Bernard Henri Levy speaks at a conference in Argentina in 2017. Image credit Mauro Rico via Argentinian Ministry of Culture Flickr CC.

Interview by
Caroline Roussy

Bernard-Henry Lévy’s article in Paris March, declaring a “pre-genocidal” situation in Nigeria, reveals a gap between spectacle dressed as news versus the reality on the ground. By seeking to shock the audience, one runs the risk of misrepresenting the facts, discrediting the media, and making the situation on the ground worse. The following is an interview with Vincent Foucher, CNRS Research Fellow at Les Afriques dans le Monde lab-SciencesPo Bordeaux, by Caroline Roussy, researcher at IRIS.


Is there currently in Nigeria a “pre-genocidal” situation, with violence perpetrated by the Fulani from the north against the Christians in the center and the south of the country with the approval of President Buhari and the army’s leadership? Is such geographical representation of the religious divide accurate?


No. The current situation is not one of a pre-genocide. It is true that there are brutal sporadic violent episodes, generally pitting nomadic pastoralist Fulani against farmers in the rural areas (but there are also some violent clashes in urban areas as well, and some involving non-nomadic Fulani). This is true both in the center and the south, but also in the northern region, where Fulani herders are confronting other communities, whether Muslim or not, especially over grazing areas and damages to crops by the herds.

This violence is however localized, and it is not coordinated on a large scale contrary to what Lévy claims, even though certain episodes may reverberate in other parts of the country. This violence is not new, but it has been on the rise in recent years due to a number of factors—the development of increasingly massive herds, rising demand for meat in urban centers in the south, climate change, and expansion of farmlands. There are also victims in both camps. For instance, members of the ethnic Mambilla community, who are mostly Christian, killed several hundred Fulani villagers in 2017 in Taraba state in the center-east of the country.

It is therefore inaccurate to describe the current situation as one of a pre-genocide. Raphael Lemkin, the lawyer who coined the word “genocide,” defines it as “coordinated strategy of destruction [of a community].” Genocide requires a coordinated plan by a state or an organization. That is not the case in Nigeria.

The Nigerian state is absolutely not operating with a genocidal logic, even a preliminary one. And this is certainly the most astonishing of Lévy’s claims: yes, President Buhari is a Fulani and a Muslim, but he is definitely not an Islamist, or a genocidaire. Like all his predecessors, President Buhari is trying, with unequal success, to maintain Nigeria’s unity. He has allies in all regions, in all communities. Nigeria has no organized system of exclusion and discrimination against specific communities. Of course, there are clientelist networks, and some local political leaders or military commanders can favor one community or another, or they may take bribes. And in this regard, the herders may have an advantage because their cattle is more fungible than, say, crops: with cattle, they may find it easier to buy favors. But all communities, regardless of their faith, are involved in the governance of Nigeria, notably through the federal system. As for the army, it is quite inclusive, thanks again to the constitutional notion of “federal character,” according to which all communities must be represented fairly in all state institutions and bodies.

It is true that President Buhari picked many Muslim northerners like himself for key positions in the security sector (army, state security, national security adviser). But other communities are present at high level positions in the security sector too. Muslims do not have a monopoly. Also, many of these senior Muslim security officials are not Fulani, and come from other northern communities, especially from the northeast, which the region most affected by the Boko Haram activities.

Moreover, the idea of a Muslim north and Christian south is not accurate, even though that may also be how many Nigerians imagine and represent their country. There are indigenous Christians in the north, and Islam is very influential in the South, because of the large northern diaspora in the south, but also the Yoruba, a large portion of which are Muslim. As for the central region, it is an ethnic and religious melting pot. Therefore, Lévy’s version of the ethno-religious map of Nigeria is wrong.


Is there, as Lévy claims, a coordination between the Fulani and Boko Haram? He claims that there are “bush camps”—which he said he heard from an American humanitarian worker—where Boko Haram trains the Fulani. Is that credible?


Some have claimed, over many years now, that there is a link between Boko Haram and the Fulani. But there has been no solid evidence to support that claim. Of course, men in arms can circulate from one role to another: armed bandits, cattle thieves, jihadists, herders, and even soldiers or police officers … Symmetrically, some sources mention for instance that some communities such as the Tiv, a predominantly Christian community in Benue State in the south of the country, recruited former Boko Haram militants as mercenaries to protect themselves against Fulani herders. But, in any case, we still do not have evidence of a close link between Boko Haram and the Fulani herders. Recently, sources have indicated that another Nigerian jihadist movement, Ansaru, which is linked to Al-Qaeda, is seeking to recruit among armed bandits, including some Fulani. But just because some Fulani herders are shouting “Allahu Akbar” while fighting does not necessarily mean that they are jihadists, or that they are linked to Boko Haram. In fact, Muslims in the Nigerian army also shout “Allahu Akbar” when they are fighting against Boko Haram.

Regarding the so-called “bush camps,” there is no evidence that they exist. I’m wondering who the “American humanitarian worker” that Lévy encountered really is. You know, Nigeria is one of the playgrounds of the US ultra-conservative evangelical missionary work, which is also violently anti-Muslim. This in fact partially explains the radicalization of Nigerian Islam, which has been more precocious than elsewhere in West Africa. The story that Lévy peddles resonates in the United States, especially within Evangelical and conservative circles. Lévy’s article has since been republished in the Wall Street Journal, and it is welcomed with enthusiasm by the ultra-Christian right and relayed by American and French magazines and sites such as or Valeurs Actuelles.

Boko Haram first emerged in Borno state in the northeast of the country and has never really established itself in the rest of the northern region. The northeast is an ethnic melting pot, and Boko Haram recruited first from the Kanuri community, but also from other groups, including the Fulani of Borno. But Boko Haram has also attacked Fulani herders and other groups with livestock. The Fulani have regularly fought back Boko Haram with their rifles (or bows). So, we must avoid the simplistic narrative of rival ethnic identities: they are never a given, they result from the process of ethnicization of social relationships, a process to which Lévy contributes.


What made you decide to speak out against Lévy’s narrative?


Lévy’s article has outraged all researchers and journalists familiar with the situation in Nigeria. With some colleagues, we published an op-ed in Le Monde, and we also engaged in the debate on social media. Beyond Lévy’s weekend adventure and rushed analysis, his reading of and writing on the situation in Nigeria is very dangerous. Some Nigerian Christian religious and political leaders are trying to politicize the situation, not necessarily to find a solution, but rather to mobilize an electorate and networks of support in and outside of Nigeria. All this is potentially explosive for a country that is divided roughly between two major religious communities, and which, tellingly enough, is experiencing controversies regarding the demography of its component parts and its census. The religious divide partly overlaps with ethnolinguistic, economic, and political divisions. Also, the imaginary in Nigeria is marked by the idea of ​​genocide. The brutal civil war in Biafra (1967-1970) left a lasting scar, even if it ended with a remarkable reintegration of the vanquished.

These days, the craziest rumors and conspiracy theories are circulating, pitting Muslims and Christians against each other: in the north of the country, rumors once alleged that polio vaccination campaigns were in fact aimed at sterilizing the Muslim community to curb its demographic growth. Similarly, many Christians believe that the Nigerian state protects Boko Haram and deliberately sends Christian soldiers to their death in Borno. Fake news is a huge problem in the very tense Nigerian public space.

I do no know what led Lévy to involve himself in this matter. Whether he is aware or not, he has allowed himself to be used for a dubious cause. In any case, instead of helping solve a problem, he has made the situation a bit worse, feeding a potentially larger and deadlier confrontation. His defense is weak: he claims that he only told what he saw. Yet, bearing witness also requires work, research, and analysis. And Lévy has allowed himself to be paraded—in every sense of the word—by a few Christian militants, without bothering to seriously engage with any Fulani, which he caricatures as aggressive, proselytizers, and even pro-Nazi. However, there are Fulani politicians or herders’ unions with whom he could have easily talked to.


Does the possibility of international pressure seem plausible to you?


All states should be subjected to both national and international scrutiny. For instance, the international community’s reaction to police violence in France is both necessary and useful. However, the local context must be taken into account.

Nigeria is a demographic and economic powerhouse, and Nigerian nationalism is acute. In general, Nigerian authorities are not responsive to international pressure, they can afford to ignore it because of the country’s oil resources. Still, national and international human rights NGOs are regularly trying to hold the Nigerian state accountable. They continue, each in their own way, their courageous, serious, sustained work of advocacy, criticism, assistance to the victims and also of dialogue, when possible, with the authorities. In such a situation, one has to be careful and attentive to complexity, in order to make a positive impact. Lévy’s cavalier attitude can contribute to discrediting the international community in the eyes of the Nigerian authorities. This is all the more a problem as the Nigerian authorities are aware of the problem and are trying to remedy it.

Adapted from BHL au Nigeria: le spectacle contre l’info. (The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs)

About the Interviewee

Vincent Foucher is CNRS Research Fellow at Les Afriques dans le Monde lab-SciencesPo Bordeaux.

About the Interviewer

Caroline Roussy is a researcher at the Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques (IRIS) in Paris.

About the Translator

Oumar Ba is a member of Africa is a Country's editorial board and on the political science faculty at Morehouse College.

Further Reading