Africa News Roundup: President Kenyatta, Maiduguri Bombings, CAR, and More


Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s founding president, won the presidential election with a slim margin of 50.03 percent of votes cast, provisional figures showed, just enough to avoid a run-off.

Reuters again:

Seven loud explosions shook Nigeria’s northeastern city of Maiduguri on Friday, witnesses said, hours after President Goodluck Jonathan ended a trip there to try to galvanize support for his battle against Islamist insurgents.

The Punch: “Boko Haram Destroys 209 Schools in Yobe.”


French forces have seized a significant arms cache in northern Mali believed to have belonged to Islamist jihadist groups, including “tons” of heavy weapons, suicide belts and equipment for improvised explosive devices, France’s defense minister said Friday.

Magharebia: “Algeria Focuses on [AQIM Fighters in] Kabylie.”

IRIN: “Briefing: Militias in Masisi.”

RFI (French): “Central African Republic: Refugees Continue to Flee Fighting and Insecurity.”

What else is happening?

Quick Items: Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz on Mali, Goodluck Jonathan Visits Yobe and Borno [Updated]

Two noteworthy stories:

Mauritania and Mali

In a speech on Monday, Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz expressed greater openness than in the recent past to the idea of Mauritanian deployments in Mali. Mauritanian forces chased fighters from Al Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb into northern Mali at several points in 2010 and 2011, but during 2012 Abdel Aziz stated repeatedly that Mauritania would not intervene in Mali.

On Monday Abdel Aziz also emphasized his country’s role in “encircling [hardline Islamist fighters] in the north of Mali in order to enable Malian units to intervene and finish them off in their dens.” ANI (Arabic) has more on the speech.


On February 28, governors from an alliance of Nigerian opposition parties held a day-long conference in the northeastern city of Maiduguri, epicenter of the violent Boko Haram sect. The Nigerian newspaper Daily Trust commented, “the fact that the governors took the bull by the horns and held their meeting in Maiduguri, despite security reports that there may be attacks and blasts by suspected insurgents speak volume of their determination to give the [ruling] Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) a run for its money.”

Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan is set to visit the northeastern states of Yobe and Borno (where Maiduguri is the capital) today. One source says this visit “will be his first to the troubled states since his assumption of office.” Residents in Borno and Yobe interviewed by Leadership expressed a range of views about the visit, with some optimistic that Jonathan may use the moment to announce compensation programs or other initiatives, and others fearful that the visit will bring an even tighter security lockdown.

The Sultan of Sokoto, meanwhile, called on Jonathan this week to offer an amnesty to Boko Haram fighters. The Sultan said, “If there is amnesty declared we believe so many of those young men who have been tired of running and hiding will come out and embrace that amnesty.”

UPDATE: Reuters:

“I cannot talk about amnesty with Boko Haram now until they come out and show themselves,” Jonathan told reporters in Yobe state capital Damaturu, a town regularly hit by the sect’s guerrilla-style bomb and gun attacks.

See also Chike’s remarks in the comments section below.

Africa News Roundup: Kenyan Elections, Jonathan in 2015, Meth, and More

The big news for the coming week will be, of course, the elections in Kenya on March 4. The BBC profiles the candidates here.


Opponents [of Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan] within his own party say since he has already been sworn into office twice, another term would break the constitutional two-term limit. Cyriakus Njoku, a member of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), brought the case.

But Justice Mudashiru Oniyangi of the High Court in Abuja rejected that argument.

“After the death of Umar Yar’Adua, there was no election. President Jonathan was merely asked to assume the office … in line with doctrine of necessity,” he said.

“He is therefore currently serving his first tenure of office and if he so wishes, he is eligible to further seek his party’s ticket … to run for office in 2015.”

Njoku did not say whether he would appeal to the supreme court.

In my view Jonathan is highly likely to win the 2015 elections.


Efforts were underway Friday to confirm the killing of a notorious Al-Qaeda commander during fighting with French troops in Mali, with Washington calling reports of his death “very credible”.

Algeria’s independent Ennahar TV reported this week that Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, a chief of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was killed in northern Mali along with 40 other Islamist militants.

In Washington, a US official speaking on condition of anonymity said reports of his death seemed “very credible” and that if Abou Zeid was indeed slain “it would be a significant blow to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.”

French officials have so far reacted with caution, with President Francois Hollande saying Friday: “Reports are circulating, it is not up to me to confirm them.”

Bloomberg relates that Sudan is reinforcing troop levels in Blue Nile State.

Jeune Afrique (French) on Gao, Mali.

Europe1 (French) reports that Boko Haram is attempting to recruit youth in Cameroon. “Today, dozens of members of the religious sect are in prison in Cameroon. It is to obtain their liberation that the group chose to kidnap seven members of a French family last week in the northwestern part of the country.”

VOA: “Methamphetamine ‘Growing Concern’ for West Africa.”

IRIN: “Why the Sahel Needs $1.6 Billion Again This year.”

Africa News Roundup: Kenyan Elections, Bamako Mutiny, Niger’s Tuaregs, and More

Human Rights Watch: “High Stakes: Political Violence and the 2013 Elections in Kenya.”


Malian government soldiers fought mutinous paratroops in the capital Bamako on Friday in a clash that threatened to undermine a French-led offensive against Islamist rebels which has moved up close to the Algerian border.

In the southern capital, local residents fled in panic as heavy gunfire echoed from the Djikoroni-Para paratrooper base on the Niger River and army units with armoured vehicles surrounded the camp. At least one person was killed, state media reported.

Smoke rose from the base, where mutinous members of the ‘red beret’ paratroop unit loyal to deposed Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure, who was toppled in a coup last year, started firing with their weapons to protest attempts to redeploy them.

After several hours of firing, calm returned at the camp.

French troops took the airport at Tessalit, northern Mali yesterday, and a suicide bomber attacked a military checkpoint outside Gao.

RFI: “Mauritania’s Oil Minister Discusses Mali Conflict Fallout.”

Magharebia: “In Amenas Attack Magnifies Belmokhtar, AQIM Rift.”

An open letter (French) from a Nigerien Tuareg to President Mahamadou Issoufou:

Since the beginning of the conflict in northern Mali, Tuareg groups in Niger have stood out by their silence – this, in order to give a chance at Peace, and to save our country Niger, over which hangs the specter of an armed uprising which would feed into that of Mali, compromising all the efforts already agreed to by your government and ex-rebels. And this despite the inertia of authorities from the 5th, 6th, and 7th Republic who have not found ANY SOLUTION to the armed rebellion that ended in 2009, and so to the 4,000 ex-combatants still awaiting reintegration!

Magdi el Gizouli on the Sudanese preacher/activist Yusif al Koda and his interactions with Sudanese rebel movements.

Reuters: “Gunmen Kill Nine Polio Health Workers in [Kano,] Nigeria.”

Africa News Roundup: Human Rights Violations and Ethnic Tensions in Mali, Plus News on Nigeria, Sudan, etc.

Reports of human rights violations and ethnic tensions in Mali:

  • Amnesty International: “The Malian army has committed serious human rights breaches plus violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) during the ongoing conflict against armed groups in the country, including extrajudicial executions of civilians.”
  • Human Rights Watch: “Malian government forces summarily executed at least 13 suspected Islamist supporters and forcibly disappeared five others from the garrison town of Sévaré and in Konna during January 2013…Islamist armed groups in Konna executed at least seven Malian soldiers, five of whom were wounded, and used children as soldiers in combat.”
  • AP: “Northerners living in the central and southern parts of Mali say they have faced discrimination and fear of reprisals by those who blame the country’s problems on anyone who looks Tuareg or Arab.”
  • IRIN: “The Dynamics of Inter-Communal Violence in Mali.”
  • IRIN: “Killings, Disappearances in Mali’s Climate of Suspicion.”

Yesterday, Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono began an eight-day tour of the Middle East and Africa.

After a two-day stay in Monrovia, the delegation will fly to Abuja, Nigeria, for a state visit. Yudhoyono said he would utilize his bilateral meeting with Nigerian President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan to seek new economic opportunities.


From Nigeria, Yudhoyono will then fly to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on a working visit. He and his wife will also make a minor pilgrimage to Mecca and Madina.

The government will set up business meetings in both in Abuja and Jeddah that will feature top businesspeople in both countries.

“Indonesia has become one of the greatest investment destinations in the world. We want more real cooperation, particularly with the Middle-East,” Yudhoyono said.

Yudhoyono plans to conclude his trip by attending the 12th Summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Cairo, Egypt on Feb. 6, despite unrest in some Egyptian cities.

Reuters: “Gunmen Kill Five North Nigeria Police, Ceasefire in Doubt.”

Magharebia: “Mauritania Arrests Salafists.”

Sudan Tribune:

At least 300 refugees from Sudan’s South Kordofan are crossing the border into Yida, South Sudan’s largest refugee camp, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said.

The influx of refugees, it says, calls for creation of new sites away from the “volatile” border area where Yida, currently hosting an estimated 61,000 Sudanese refugees, is located. The move, it added, seeks to ensure the safety of the refugees and maintain the civilian character of the settlement.

Al Jazeera: “Q&A: Kenya’s Upcoming Elections.”

What else is happening?

Boko Haram’s Assassination Attempt on the Emir of Kano

The term “traditional” can be misleading. When talking about northern Nigeria, I prefer to say “hereditary Muslim rulers.” So I’ll say that hereditary Muslim rulers have substantial religious, political, economic, social, and cultural importance in many parts of northern Nigeria. These rulers, including the Sultan of Sokoto, the Shehu of Bornu, emirs, and other figures, trace the origins of their offices to two pre-colonial Islamic empires in present-day northern Nigeria and its environs: the Empire of Sokoto and the Empire of Kanem-Bornu. From the Sokoto side, in addition to the Sultan of Sokoto himself, the Emir of Kano, Al Hajj Ado Bayero, is one of the most important figures. He took office in 1963, making him one of the longest-serving rulers today (he is 82 years old). The assassination attempt against him on January 19, in which six people died, has caused considerable consternation, and has already led authorities to increase security measures in Kano State and elsewhere.

To condense a lot of history into a few quick sentences, the rulers from the Sokoto side came to power after the jihad of Shaykh Uthman dan Fodio started in 1804. Kano was under Sokoto’s control during the nineteenth century but this does not mean that Sokoto could always impose its will there – for example, Kano fought a civil war in the 1890s to resist an unpopular candidate for the Emirate installed by Sokoto (see a brief account here, p. xii). British colonial officials in northern Nigeria from approximately 1900 to 1960 left hereditary Muslim rulers in office. But the British had complicated relationships with these rulers, relationships that could involve coercion and manipulation as well as strategic cooperation. In the postcolonial period, hereditary Muslim rulers have retained significant influence in politics and society. But critics of the emirate class from the independence era to the present have accused hereditary rulers of blocking progress and drawing too close to politicians. Since at least the Boko Haram uprising of 2009, some critics have also charged that hereditary rulers have not been forceful enough in speaking and acting against radicalism and violence. Despite criticism, however, hereditary rulers retain tremendous prestige among some of their constituents; when Boko Haram attacked Kano in January 2012, many people were deeply moved by the Emir’s public grief.

The Boko Haram sect originated in northeastern Nigeria and its epicenter to some extent remains Borno State. That area was part of Kanem-Bornu before the colonial era. But Boko Haram’s westward spread has brought it into areas that were part of Sokoto, including Kano.

When Boko Haram began its campaign of guerrilla-style attacks in 2010, I initially felt that its attitude toward the hereditary rulers was ambivalent. The incident that gave me that sense was a prison break in September 2010 when Boko Haram fighters spared the life of the Emir of Bauchi, even though they had an opportunity to kill him. With various assassination attempts against emirs and their relatives from 2010 to 2013,* however, it seems that hereditary rulers are now at least tertiary targets for Boko Haram (I say tertiary because there have been many more attacks on security personnel and Christian sites). It is also possible, as with other forms of violence, that the insecurity and uncertainty created by Boko Haram’s attacks has given space to violent opportunists who are not necessarily affiliated with Boko Haram. Nigerian officials have stated, however, that they arrested Boko Haram fighters, at least one of whom who confessed to the attempt against the Emir.

Assuming Boko Haram is behind the attack, what would motivate them to kill a hereditary ruler? I can think of two main reasons. First, they may view the emirs as part of the political establishment that they seek to destroy; in the Salafi milieu from which Boko Haram emerged, harsh criticisms circulate painting the hereditary rulers as allies of politicians and opponents of Salafis. Second, they may target emirs for their symbolic importance; the attack on the Emir of Kano may have been timed to coincide with the first anniversary of last January’s mass attack in the city. If terrorism in one sense aims at spectacle, killing the Emir near the anniversary would have been a shocking piece of political symbolism.

What effects will this incident have? Already, it has spurred a ban on commercial motorbikes in Kano (the likely reasoning being that Boko Haram frequently makes use of motorbikes in its attacks). Daura Emirate in neighboring Katsina State has cancelled public celebrations connected with the Mawlud (anniversary of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday). This is not the first time such celebrations have been cancelled or abridged in recent months. Politicians, the Sultan of Sokoto, and other Muslim leaders are calling for investigations and increased security measures; the Christian Association of Nigeria also condemned the attack. I imagine we will see hereditary Muslim rulers being even more cautious than before about how and whether they appear in public.

In terms of what this incident says about the position of hereditary rulers in the north, perhaps it is possible to see this as a sign of their vulnerability and their prestige all at once, even in ways that are contradictory. In the fall, after an assassination attempt on the Emir of Fika, the commentator Shehu Salisu argued, “All over the North, the inbred respect for ward and district heads, as well as emirs, is fast diminishing and, consequently, the authority and the myths behind the traditional institutions they head. For those who feared the institutions, a new boldness is in place; for those who had high regards for them, a subtle disdain has emerged and for members of the ruling clans, the rewards of being part of the royal classes are fast ebbing.” I think is some powerful evidence for this point of view. But there is also evidence that people hold hereditary rulers in high esteem. Even Boko Haram’s choice of the Emir of Kano as a target says something about the symbolic importance of his office.

I think that neither the hereditary rulers’ decline nor the maintenance of their current prestige is inevitable. Rather it seems to me that they stand at a crossroads, and that it will be for the younger ones among them – including the Sultan of Sokoto, who is relatively young at 56, and the next Emir of Kano, whoever he may be** – to make some difficult and fateful decisions about their roles in politics and society. The challenges posed to their authority by the fragmentation of the religious landscape in the north, and by Boko Haram as one manifestation of that fragmentation, are quite formidable. But these hereditary institutions have proven highly flexible over time, and their occupants have frequently been quite adept at navigating social and political change. I would not, in other words, count the emirs and the Sultan out quite yet.

*In my list of attacks on emirs last week, I missed two alleged assassination attempts/plots against the Emir of Kano – one in 2010 and one in 2011.

**Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria and a grand-nephew of the current Emir, is often mentioned as a potential successor, but he will face rivals.

Partial List of Alleged Boko Haram Attacks on Hereditary Muslim Rulers in Northern Nigeria

This post lays the groundwork for an analytical post I hope to write next week on the recent attempt to assassinate the Emir of Kano. Before doing that, I want just to list four incidents where fighters suspected of links to Boko Haram have targeted hereditary Muslim rulers in northern Nigeria. I also want to crowd-source this a bit: What other similar incidents have I left out? Please let me know in the comments.

  • May 30, 2011: Gunmen kill Shaykh Abba-Anas Umar Garbai, a younger brother of the Shehu of Bornu, in Maiduguri. At the link AFP reports that Boko Haram was suspected in the assassination of another of the Shehu’s siblings in April 2011, but I have not been able to find a separate story for this incident.
  • July 13, 2012: The Shehu (whose name is Umar Garbai el-Kanemi) and Deputy Borno State Governor Zannah Mustapha survive a suicide bombing outside a mosque in Maiduguri after Friday prayers.
  • August 3, 2012: The Emir of Fika, Alhaji Muhammed Abali Ibn Mohammed Idrisa, survives a suicide bombing after Friday prayers at Potiskum Central Mosque, in Yobe State.
  • January 19, 2013: Gunmen fire at a convoy carrying the Emir of Kano, Abo Bayero, in Kano city, killing four people but not the Emir.

There is also another encounter that took place between Boko Haram and a hereditary Muslim ruler that is worth mentioning. During a prison break on September 7, 2010, Boko Haram fighters held the Emir of Bauchi and other worshipers inside a mosque near the prison they were targeting.

According to eyewitnesses, the militants entered the Bauchi Central Mosque at about 6.00 p.m. after setting up their armed men round about the entire area, and participated in observing the Magrib prayers, before breaking their fast. Immediately after the prayers, they announced that everybody inside the mosque, including the Emir of Bauchi, Alhaji Rilwanu Suleiman Adamu, should remain where they were, as they were out for an operation at the prisons in order to free their colleagues who had been in detention awaiting trial since last year.

The armed men then opened fire from all directions and headed for the prisons, which is located directly opposite the Central Mosque and close to the emir’s palace using locally-made, but powerful devices which exploded like grenades and bombs. With these explosive devices, they set the prison and other property including vehicles, motorcycles and other valuables ablaze, before gaining entry into the prison yard.

In that incident it does not appear that they wanted to kill the Emir.

Boko Haram: What’s in a Name? [Updated]

I’ve been thinking about how best to translate the names of the Nigerian sect known as Boko Haram.

Boko Haram

The sect’s unofficial, Hausa name – “Boko Haram” – comes from remarks by the sect’s late leader Muhammad Yusuf. This name is often rendered in English “Western education is forbidden.” That translation sacrifices some potential nuance and depth.

“Haram,” in Arabic and in Hausa, could be translated not just as “forbidden,” but as “something forbidden according to Islamic law and precepts.” This is the phrasing in Paul Newman’s A Hausa-English Dictionary. Translating “haram” as “Islamically forbidden” represents a middle ground between a one word translation and the longer phrase.

“Boko” is trickier. It can certainly mean “Western education” – this is the first definition Newman lists – but it can also refer to the Romanized Hausa script. There is some debate over the word’s etymology. Some say that “Boko” is a corruption of the English “book,” which would link the word strongly to educational contexts. Others say the word is of Hausa origin and means fake or deceitful, and appears in contexts other than just education. Some add that the usage of “Boko” in reference to Western education – even before the “Boko Haram” sect appeared – connoted a feeling that Western education could mislead Muslims into accepting false knowledge (including the feeling that Western education could serve as a gateway for Christianization).

Regardless of etymology, more than just education is bound up in the word “Boko.” The phrase ” ‘yan boko,” where ” ‘yan” means people, could be translated, “people/representatives of Western education,” i.e., people who have graduated from Western-style educational institutions. But the phrase could have a broader, cultural connotation – “people who operate within Western-style frameworks and institutions” or “representatives of Western culture” or even “Westernized people.” The idea of ‘yan boko, at least in the ways I have heard it used, also carries a connotation that these people are elites – that their particular credentials and experiences have placed them in positions of power because they can navigate Western-style institutions.

Put that all together, then, and you have “Boko Haram” meaning something like, “Western culture is Islamically forbidden” or “the Westernized elites and their way of doing things contradict Islam.” Recall that in addition to attacking Western education, Yusuf also forbade Muslims from working for secular governments.

Ahl al Sunna li al Da’wa wa al Jihad

Turning to the group’s official, Arabic name, we have “Ahl al Sunna li al Da’wa wa al Jihad,” or if you want the phonetic rendering, “Ahlussunna lid-Da’wa wal Jihad.” Let’s break that down word by word:

  • ahl=people
  • al Sunna=the normative tradition or model of the Prophet Muhammad
  • li=for
  • al da’wa=the call to Islam
  • wa=and
  • al jihad=jihad

Recently, the translation “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad” has spread widely. I think this translation conveys the sense of the meaning, but it misses a few nuances.

First, the translation takes the word “sunna” from the second position in the phrase and moves it to the penultimate spot. What you lose then is the compound meaning of “Ahl al Sunna.” That smaller phrase is one synonym for Sunni Muslims (“sunni” being the adjectival form of “sunna”). It is a fairly common phrase used by Salafis to describe themselves – the Salafis I met in Kano, for example, did not refer to themselves as Salafis or Wahhabis, but as “Ahl al Sunna wa al Jama’a” – “the people of the Prophetic model and the Muslim community.” But one must be careful – non-Salafi Muslims, including Sufis, can apply this phrase to themselves as well – as with, for example, a prominent Sufi militia in southern Somalia.

Given its appropriation by Salafis in the Nigerian context, Boko Haram may use the phrase “Ahl al Sunna” partly to affirm its own Salafi identity, and partly to reference its break with the “Ahl al Sunna” circle around the late Shaykh Ja’far Mahmud Adam of Kano (d. 2007). Shaykh Ja’far was at one time a teacher of Yusuf, but he publicly denounced Yusuf when Yusuf began to forbid Muslims from working for secular governments and pursuing Western-style education.

If we keep the phrase “Ahl al Sunna” intact when we translate Boko Haram’s name, we end up with something subtly different, something that emphasizes the Salafi identity that is a part of Boko Haram’s self-definition. We could translate the sect’s Arabic name as, “Salafis/Sunnis for Preaching and Jihad” – with “Salafis” being a somewhat neutral term imposed by the outside analyst, and “Sunnis” being, again, the adjectival form of the name the group calls itself. This is a tricky choice to make, because certain translations can imply tacit agreement with the sect’s claims to represent the Prophet Muhammad’s true legacy. The sect members might even wish us to translate their name as “Orthodox Muslims for Preaching and Jihad.”

Further variants: If “preaching” does not capture the full sense of a “call” embedded in “da’wa” (and, honestly, it doesn’t), we could try, “Salafis for Calling People to Islam and Engaging in Jihad.” Going a step further, my own preference, increasingly, is to leave as many complex terms untranslated as possible – perhaps that would leave us, then, with something like “Salafis for Da’wa and Jihad.”


There is no definitive way to translate either the unofficial Hausa name or the official Arabic name. I have experimented with these translations mostly out of intellectual interest in the translation problem, but I do want to reiterate a key point about each name:

  • Hausa: “boko” can signify more than just Western education, but also the broader cultural values and social positions that access to Western education can bring.
  • Arabic: the phrase “Ahl al Sunna” emphasizes Boko Haram’s self-definition as Salafis, i.e. as people who belong to Salafi traditions and employ particular methods of interpreting and applying Islamic scriptures.

UPDATE: Dr. Paul Newman, in a 2013 article available here (.pdf), conclusively (at least to my mind) settles the etymological questions around the word “boko.” From his conclusion (p. 11):

Hausa boko does not mean ‘book’ and it is not derived etymologically from the English word book. The phonetic and orthographic similarity between the two is purely coincidental. They are what the French call “faux amis” (“false friends”). The accidental similarity in spelling between the two words has no historical significance other than having served to lead us astray, where “us” includes political and social commentators with a modicum of knowledge about the Hausa language, as well as a host of well-regarded Hausa linguistic experts. We were all hoodwinked. Whereas the idea that boko came from book looked plausible from the outside, it was really shallow on the inside. In other words, we were all victims of biri-boko (‘monkey-fraud’)! Despite the many assertions regarding the etymology of Hausa boko reported above, the fact is that boko is a native Hausa word, originally meaning sham, fraud, inauthenticity, and such which came to represent western education and learning, and NOT a loanword coming from English book.

Nigeria: In Niger State, Plans to Build State-Run Qur’anic Schools as a Means of Preventing Radicalization

Many observers believe that the violent northern Nigerian sect Boko Haram draws some of its recruits from the region’s large population of itinerant Qur’anic students or almajirai (Hausa; singular: almajiri). Observers often argue that such populations are vulnerable to recruitment by radical groups because the students grow from children who support themselves by alms into adult men who have few prospects for stable employment. Potential “radicalizing” agents include not only Boko Haram, but also youth networks linked to political violence.

Many state and federal authorities in Nigeria agree with the basic outlines of this argument, and various levels of government have initiated policies to provide alternative schools for the almajirai (for my overview of the system of Qur’anic education in northern Nigeria, see here).

In March 2012, the BBC reported on a counter-radicalization educational project in Sokoto:

The Nigerian city of Sokoto, where two foreign hostages were killed this month in a botched rescue attempt, hopes that a model state-funded school can help stop poor children from becoming possible recruits for Islamist militants.

There are plans to build hundreds of these schools across the north to deal with the increasing security threat.


Sokoto’s Almajiri Integrated Model, however, offers a different approach.

Started in 2008 with the blessing of the state’s governor, Aliyu Wamakko, it has grown in size from 30 students to 700.

The article is worth reading in full, as it goes on to detail both the alternative model the state is pursuing and various criticisms of it. The model is essentially to build more “Islamiyya” or “Nizamiyya” (from the Arabic nitham, “system”) schools, where religious subjects are taught alongside subjects like English, mathematics, etc. Worth noting also is that these efforts in Sokoto pre-date the mass uprising by Boko Haram in 2009; indeed, efforts to bring Qur’anic schools under state authority reach back to at least the first decade of the British colonial occupation of northern Nigeria (c. 1900-1910).

Niger State, in the Middle Belt, is also attempting to create alternatives to the traditional Qur’anic education system:

The Niger Universal Basic Education Board said on Tuesday that it spent N1.22 billion [around $7.8 million] to construct seven Almajiri Schools across the state.

This article, too, is worth reading in full. The Board’s chairman suggests that the purpose of the schools is to prevent radicalization of almajirai (“ensure that Almajirai were kept off the streets,” in the article’s words) and educate the children to at least the primary level. State authorities also plan to train and certify thousands of teachers. The article says, “The board set 2014 as deadline for all teachers to attain [a Nigeria Certificate in Education] or be flushed out of the system, because it would no longer tolerate unqualified teachers.”

For my part, I think it will be extremely difficult to bring the massive number of Qur’anic schools in the region under close state supervision, or to create enough alternative schools to serve the majority of the almajirai. Yet it will be important to watch how these state-level initiatives perform.

A Look Ahead at the Sahel and the Horn in 2013

What will 2013 hold for the Sahel region and the Greater Horn of Africa?

For the Sahel, the year begins with intense concern about northern Mali and northern Nigeria. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC)’s resolution of December 20 greatly strengthens the prospect of an external military intervention in Mali, in the form of the “deployment of an African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) for an initial period of one year.” The UN, the United States, and others are also placing pressure on Malian leaders to, in the UNSC’s words, hold “elections by April 2013 or as soon as technically possible.” Holding credible and inclusive elections, as well as retaking the north by force, may prove difficult to achieve in the time frame allotted. The anniversary of the northern rebellion’s launch, which will come on January 17, reminds us that Mali’s conflicts have lasted longer, and worsened further, than many initially expected – and may last for quite some time still.

In northern Nigeria, meanwhile, recent attacks by Boko Haram and battles between sect members and authorities suggest that instability in that region will continue in the new year. If last year’s trends are any indication, the combination of mistrust between the government and the sect, human rights violations on both sides, and the shifting nature of the sect’s tactics may make the conflict difficult to resolve either politically or militarily. 

One challenge for analysts and policymakers in 2013 will be to consider interconnections between crises and conflicts in the Sahel without falling into simplistic narratives depicting the region as an “arc of instability.” So for example while Niger is not Mali, what happens in Mali affects Niger, and vice versa. At the country level, I would urge analysts and policymakers to avoid suggesting that complex problems can be solved with variants of the “vote, then shoot” or “shoot, then vote” models. So, for example, would holding elections in Mali just three or four months from now really produce a legitimate and inclusive government? Or would elections turn out to be deeply flawed, and risk generating further discontent?

The crises in Mali and Nigeria, moreover, should not overshadow other challenges and important trends in the Sahel. In the category of challenges,  there is first and foremost the looming threat of renewed hunger. IRIN tells us, “Despite good rains across much of the Sahel this year, 1.4 million children are expected to be malnourished – up from one million in 2012, according to the 2013 Sahel regional strategy.” The numbers are grim, and the problem of food insecurity a long-term one – a challenge that requires more than just reactive, year-by-year responses. While men with guns battle for control of territory, drought and starvation will be claiming lives by the thousands.

Turning to the Greater Horn (for which I use quite a broad definition), four areas I’ll be watching are: (1) the efforts of the new government in southern Somalia to consolidate military and political control, with help from African and other partners; (2) the status of negotiations over border demarcation, security, oil, and other issues between Sudan and South Sudan (as well as the trajectory of rebel and protest movements within each country); (3) the shape of the ongoing political transition in Ethiopia in the wake of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s death last year, and the shape of relations between the state and the Ethiopian Muslim community, which has been protesting alleged government interference in Muslim affairs since late 2011; and (4) the Kenyan elections of March 4. If one broad theme connects these cases, it is the interactions between transitions taking place in the realm of formal politics (elections, successions, agreements) and forms of dissent and contestation (rebellions, protests, ethnic violence) occurring alongside these transitions.

I have no predictions to offer beyond my warning about the risks in holding premature elections in Mali. I should also reiterate what I wrote yesterday about the shocking capacity of chance to affect larger trajectories, and the ways in which the effects of small actions can escalate beyond their authors’ intentions. None of us can tell what the future holds for the Sahel and the Horn, but I do think it will be an eventful year, including in ways we might never have guessed. Here’s hoping that one surprise will be less tragedy and bloodshed than expected, greater opportunities for peace, and successful transitions for countries from Senegal to Kenya.