On Weak States and Threats to the U.S.

Stanford’s Dr. Amy Zegart has written an important piece for Foreign Policy in which she argues that the threat of weak states has been over-hyped. I agree with the first half of the piece, in which she takes down the common arguments about why weak states threaten the United States.

To take a brief tangent that goes beyond the scope of this blog, I disagree with parts of the second half, in which Zegart argues that other states – Russia, China, and Pakistan, etc. – are the places with real potential to threaten the U.S. For me, the real threats to the U.S. are (1) climate change and (2) our political elites’ lack of alarm in the face of (a) widespread poverty and suffering, (b) a health care system that is still largely broken, (c) inadequate and crumbling infrastructure, and (d) under-regulated industries that expose Americans to diseases. Of course the thought of nuclear war or wars between great powers frightens me – but the disconnect between our politicians and the ongoing problems in this country scares me more.

Returning to the topic of weak states, Zegart rebuts three arguments often made by those alarmed about weak states. First, she writes, is the argument “that fragile states can become terrorist strongholds that pose existential threats to Western ways of life.” Second is the claim “that poorly governed spaces function as incubators for other global ‘bads,’ like disease, conflict, human rights violations, drug and human trafficking, and criminal networks.” Third is the contention “that globalization connects citizens throughout the world in unprecedented ways, binding the fates of strong states to weak states.”

I won’t rehearse all of Zegart’s arguments, but her counter-arguments to the idea of weak states as terrorist strongholds are worth quoting:

Terrorism experts have found that the vast majority of terrorist attacks strike local targets, not foreign ones. What’s more, the world’s weakest states have not produced the world’s most or worst international terrorists. Foreign Policy’s 2014 Fragile States Index listed five countries in its worst-of-the-worst category: South Sudan, Somalia, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan. None are major inspiration bases, training centers, breeding grounds, or exporters of terrorism directed at Western cities.

Now, it’s true that Somalia’s al-Shabab recently urged its supporters to attack Western shopping malls, including the Mall of America. I agree with Slate, however, that it’s not that scary of a threat.

While clearly a bid for publicity after a year of headlines dominated by ISIS, Boko Haram, and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the video does comes with some weight, given that al-Shabab actually did attack the Westgate mall in Nairobi in 2013, killing more than 60 people. There’s also evidence that Shabab has actively recruited fighters from Minnesota’s Somali community. But Shabab has never carried out an attack outside East Africa and it seems unlikely that they would warn their targets to step up security before launching the first one.

The U.S. government doesn’t seem that concerned, though with a potential shutdown looming, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson couldn’t help noting that this sort of vague threat is the reason his department needs a budget.

It’s also worth differentiating, as Zegart does, between threats and existential threats. Even Westgate did not pose an existential threat to Kenya.

The idea of weak states as threats to the U.S. has gained such currency in large part because of the structuring metaphor of Afghanistan. Commentators invoke Afghanistan as a metaphor for every country in Africa where a jihadist movement gains ground: Mali, Somalia, Libya, and so on. There’s even a Twitter account called “Bokostan,” referring to Nigeria’s Boko Haram. But the conflicts in each of these places have specific features that are irreducible to Afghanistan’s experience with al-Qa’ida and the Taliban. Even Afghanistan’s experience is often misunderstood. It’s worth pointing out, yet again, that the 9/11 attacks were planned in various places, including Afghanistan but also Germany.

Analysts can always come up with ways that terrorism in Nigeria (which I wouldn’t call a weak state, though some do), Mali, or Somalia might threaten the West. And the possibility is always there – after all, even one Western sympathizer could do a great deal of harm. But Zegart is right that the threat of weak states has been over-hyped. For example, in thirteen years of existence as a movement and five years as a consistent insurgency, Boko Haram has not attacked the United States; nor has al-Shabab, in its at least nine years of existence; and although Algerian militants carried out attacks in France in the 1990s, since Algeria’s civil war ended (circa 2000-2002) al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghrib has been a threat primarily to Western tourists in northwest Africa, rather than to Europe itself. It’s worth keeping this background in mind when evaluating the threats that weak states, whether in Africa or elsewhere, might pose to the U.S.

Roundup of Recent Writing on the Humanitarian Fallout from Boko Haram

The violence by and against Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect has had a tremendous impact on non-combatants. Northeastern Nigeria and surrounding countries (Niger, Cameroon, and Chad) have experienced waves of displaced persons. Here is some recent writing on the humanitarian aspect of the conflict:

Accounts about surrounding countries:

  • World Food Program: “WFP Resumes Food Distributions in Diffa, Niger”
  • AFP: “Refugees in Niger Live Under Shadow of Boko Haram”
  • VOA: “Humanitarian Crisis Looms at Cameroon Refugee Camp”
  • ICRC: “Chad: Fallout from Escalating Violence in North-Eastern Nigeria”
  • UNHCR: “As Violence Spills Over to Countries Neighbouring Nigeria, UNHCR Calls for Urgent Humanitarian Access to the Displaced”

Accounts about Nigeria:

  • NEMA: “There Are 981,416 IDPs in Nigeria”
  • BBC: “Doctor on the Frontline”
  • IRIN: “For Boko Haram Victims, Charity Begins at Home”
  • IRIN: “Tackling the Trauma of Boko Haram”
  • Doctors Without Borders: “The Fighting Gets Closer and Closer”
  • ICRC: “Nigeria: ICRC Steps Up Aid as Situation Worsens in North-East”
  • NEMA: “Baga Relief Intervention”
  • Joshua Meservey: “Nigerian Refugees Fleeing Boko Haram are a Crisis in the Making”

Senegal: On the Trials of Karim Wade and Hissène Habré

I have a post at the Global Observatory discussing two ongoing trials in Senegal. An excerpt:

The trials of [former Chadian ruler Hissène] Habré and [former President Abdoulaye Wade’s son Karim] Wade will have implications for elites across Africa. The former’s trial may mark a new, albeit halting, effort to use African judicial systems to hold former heads of state accountable for human rights abuses. The latter’s trial may signal a new effort to crack down on corruption. At the same time, however, the trials may have little impact on ordinary Senegalese and their day-to-day struggles.

If you read the piece, please stop back by here and let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Nigerian Elections: Goodluck Jonathan and the Southwest

While many eyes are fixed on the violence in Nigeria’s northeast, the country’s approaching presidential election (March 28) will hinge on what happens elsewhere. One critical zone is the South West, a base of strength for the opposition coalition the All Progressives Congress (APC). The South West is majority-Yoruba, and its most populous city (which is also Africa’s most populous) is Lagos, which has been governed by opposition parties since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999.

The South West voted for the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in each of the last four presidential elections. Indeed, the 2011 elections featured a fairly straightforward electoral map. Of Nigeria’s six geopolitical zones, President Goodluck Jonathan won four of them – the North Central, the South West, the South East, and the South South. His challenger, General Muhammadu Buhari, won the North West and the North East. In 2015, the same two men are competing again, but the map could look quite different. Few doubt that Jonathan can hold most or all of the South East and the South South. But Buhari is more competitive in the North Central and the Southwest than he was four years ago. In 2011, the rumor goes, APC leader and former Lagos Governor Bola Tinubu (then of the ACN, one of the APC’s constituent parties) made a deal with Jonathan to support his presidential bid if Jonathan’s PDP left several South West governorships to the ACN. Whatever the truth of that allegation, this time could be different. Tinubu backs Buhari (unless something changes!), and other South West leaders seem fed up with Jonathan – hence former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s recent endorsement of Buhari.

This dynamic helps explain why Jonathan recently undertook a high-profile, four-day sweep through the South West. His campaign was especially eager to highlight his meetings with traditional rulers, such as the Alaafin of Oyo, the Soun of Ogbomoso, and the Alara of Ilara Epe. Jonathan also met Muslim leaders in the South West. (Although the international media is quick to talk of Nigeria’s “Muslim North” and its “Christian South,” there are many Muslims in the South West, and a sizeable Christian minority in much of the North.) The Punch quotes one purported insider account of behind-the-scenes deal-making:

A former Minister of Works, Chief Adeseye Ogunlewe, told one of our correspondents on the telephone on Saturday that the Yoruba elders lamented that the people of the South-West had been marginalised in the Jonathan administration.

He said the Yoruba leaders asked Jonathan to put into writing that if he wins the March 28 elections, Yorubas would be given key positions in his government.

The Punch goes on to report that the APC has mounted a political counter-offensive.

Which way will the South West go? I would be foolish to offer a prediction. On the one hand you have the power and charisma of the presidency and the PDP, and on the other you have the APC’s impressive coalition and its fierce criticisms of the President’s performance. And one should not minimize the agency of the voters, whose behavior may defy the will of political giants (from either party). In any case, the South West is a zone to watch.

On the Bombardment of Abadam, Niger

On February 17, an airstrike killed an estimated thirty-six people in the village of Abadam, Niger (map showing the closest nearby town, Bosso). Although the author of the airstrike remains unconfirmed, most coverage has pointed to Nigeria as the likely candidate.

The strike on Abadam comes amid three interrelated trends: (1) violence by Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect is increasingly spilling over into Nigeria’s neighbors as they move to fight the sect within their territory and even within Nigeria; (2) the Nigerian military is facing international and domestic pressure to demonstrate rapid progress against Boko Haram; (3) Nigeria’s neighbors seem frustrated with Nigeria’s performance against the sect. Although it was an accident, the strike shows how these different trends exist in tension with one another. Put differently, it shows how Nigeria’s aims, incentives, and actions may conflict with those of its neighbors.

Back to the incident itself:

At least 36 civilians were killed when a military plane bombed a funeral party in a Niger border village, the government said, in an incident its deputy mayor blamed on the Nigerian air force.

The air crew was likely to have mistaken the villagers, who had gathered near a mosque, for Boko Haram militants, Niger military sources in the nearby town of Bosso said.

[…]

Abadam lies on the border with Nigeria around 13 kilometres (eight miles) southwest of Bosso, where thousands of soldiers from Chad and Niger are massed in preparation for operations against Boko Haram.

The best commentary I’ve seen on the strike has come from RFI (French). RFI focuses on the operational, rather than the political, difficulties with such strikes:

The bombardment of Abadam brings to light the limits of resorting to airstrikes against Boko Haram. The Cameroonians have only used their Alpha Jet with caution. They have only done so one time, to liberate one of their bases briefly occupied by Boko Haram at the end of December. [RFI is referring to this incident – Alex.] As for the Chadians, they strike military targets with their Sukhoï in support of or in preparation for an operation on the ground. African military personnel generally agree in thinking that their fighter planes are too imprecise and thus too dangerous in the zones where members of Boko Haram are mixed into the civilian population.

These points take on added importance as Nigeria turns to airstrikes within its own territory. Just yesterday, the Nigerian military bombed suspected Boko Haram positions in the Sambisa forest in northeastern Nigeria.

The operational dangers feed into the potential for political problems, both within Nigeria and with its neighbors. Authorities in Niger have reacted calmly in public to the strike on Abadam (see the government’s statement in French here), declaring three days of national mourning and promising an investigation into the identity of the aircraft. Nevertheless, if it does turn out that Nigeria was responsible, this episode may foreshadow how a search for quick fixes as the clock ticks down to March 28 (the date of Nigeria’s once-delayed presidential elections) could put Nigeria at odds with the surrounding countries.

Mapping Boko Haram’s Attacks

Ryan Cummings recently wrote about several myths surrounding Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect. To his list one could add others, including the claim that the geographical range of Boko Haram’s attacks is always expanding. Of course, it is self-evidently true that if one looks at the group’s entire career, their range does indeed expand every time they strike a new location. But the idea that the trend is always toward expansion is not necessarily true.

In the current environment, with Nigeria’s neighbors fighting Boko Haram, there is a trend toward Boko Haram strikes in their territory – as demonstrated by recent incidents in Diffa, Niger; Waza, Cameroon; and Ngouboua, Chad.

Yet within Nigeria, the overall trend may be towards contraction of the group’s attacks. Davin O’Regan has published a rich and interesting set of maps, together with analysis, that show a more concentrated, higher intensity battle zone in 2013-2014 versus 2012. O’Regan writes,

Boko Haram’s brutal wave of attacks seemed unstoppable in 2014. Deaths from the Islamic extremist group’s campaign of violence in Nigeria more than doubled 2013’s toll, surpassing rates seen during the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.surpassing levels of violence seen in Afghanistan and Iraq. The group overran military bases and circulated footage of a Nigerian Air Force jet it claimed to have shot down. By August, Boko Haram announced an “Islamic State” in northern Nigeria, eliciting comparisons to ISIS’s sweeping seizure of vast territory in Iraq and Syria. Some reports have claimed that Boko Haram controls up to 20 percent of Nigerian territory.

An analysis of the geographic distribution of the group’s attacks and movement in recent years suggests more limited and shifting territorial ambitions, however. Despite Boko Haram’s growing lethality and tactical sophistication, the group appears to be concentrating larger proportions of its resources in Nigeria’s more remote border areas.

This analysis suggests that rather than representing “new fronts,” Boko Haram’s attack in Lagos last year was an aberration.

Are O’Regan’s data reliable? That depends on the quality of the primary source data. But the real point is the trend. I have heard former Ambassador John Campbell say of his Nigeria Security Tracker that its individual casualty counts (drawn from press reports) are hard to verify, but that the trends in these counts likely give us an accurate picture of whether violence is rising or falling. The same may well hold true for geographic trends.

The implication of O’Regan’s data is that Boko Haram is a northeastern Nigerian group with a limited but real capacity to project violence into other areas – other northern cities (including Abuja), border areas of nearby countries and, rarely, southern Nigeria.

O’Regan’s whole post is worth reading. He gives possible explanations for the contraction (and you can find others here, particularly the idea that by pushing Boko Haram out of Maiduguri, the government-backed Civilian Joint Task Force inadvertently contributed to a wave of extreme rural violence). O’Regan also offers thoughtful policy recommendations, namely a suggestion to contain Boko Haram in the northeast.

Of course, one further lesson from his maps is Boko Haram’s adaptability. Efforts by Nigeria’s neighbors to destroy Boko Haram are already starting to change its range and targets. The map for 2015 may well end up looking different than either the 2012 map or the 2013-2014 map.

Nigeria’s Elections: Beyond “The Bumbler vs. the Thug”

Since the two major parties nominated their presidential candidates, Nigeria’s presidential election (now scheduled for March 28, following a six-week delay announced earlier this month) has been, effectively, a two-man race. These two men are incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan and former military ruler General Muhammadu Buhari. Jonathan represents the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), while Buhari is the candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC), a coalition of opposition parties.

In much international coverage of the race, whether by non-Nigerian journalists or Nigerians speaking to international audiences, the two candidates have been presented in crude and one-dimensional ways. The narrative at work in such commentaries says that Jonathan is a bumbler – a nice guy perhaps, but ultimately an “accidental president” who is in over his head, too incompetent to deal with problems like corruption or the violence caused by Boko Haram in the northeastern part of the country. Meanwhile, the same narrative tells us that Buhari is a thug – an essentially military man whose record is fatally tarnished by his regime’s actions in the 1980s, and whose prospects for winning the presidency have grown only because of Nigerians’ anxieties about Boko Haram. The narrative goes on to say that Nigerians face two very bad choices for president – perhaps implying that “the devil they know” is the better choice.

Some critical omissions have led to this distorted narrative of “the bumbler vs. the thug.” Not only does the narrative misrepresent both men, it obscures shifts at work in Nigerian politics. It may be a two-man race, but there is a larger cast of characters involved in deciding who will be Nigeria’s next president.

Jonathan as a Deliberate Choice and a Deliberate Policymaker

Nearly every profile one reads of Jonathan in the international media calls him the “accidental president.” The idea of Jonathan’s accidental rise fits neatly with the idea of him as an incompetent bumbler. He just kind of ended up in his position, we hear, so it’s no surprise that he has trouble dealing with the country’s major problems.

And indeed, Jonathan was twice elevated to higher office by accident – first from Deputy Governor to Governor of Bayelsa State in 2005, when his predecessor was impeached on corruption charges; and second from Vice President to Acting President and then President in 2010, when his predecessor Umaru Yar’Adua fell ill and then passed away.

Jonathan was not, however, an accidental vice president, and that fact is often forgotten. After President Olusegun Obasanjo (served 1999-2007) lost his bid to engineer constitutional changes that would have permitted him a third term, he handpicked a ticket he believed would be politically effective and biddable. Yar’Adua was the brother of Obasanjo’s deceased former second-in-command from Obasanjo’s time as a military ruler (more on this below). Yar’Adua hailed from the north, thus fulfilling a PDP internal agreement to rotate the presidency back to that region. Jonathan was (and is) an Ijaw from the Niger Delta, an oil-producing region where militants, many of them Ijaw, had recently begun a wave of attacks on government and oil industry targets. There was nothing accidental about Jonathan’s selection.

The other problem with the “bumbler” narrative about Jonathan is that it overlooks the sophistication of his team. Jonathan’s Finance Minister is Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former Managing Director of the World Bank (and also Finance Minister under Obasanjo). Jonathan’s Central Bank Governor (until they fell out in 2013-2014) was Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, a Northern aristocrat and banker who won international acclaim for his response to the aftermath of the 2007-2008 financial crisis. Jonathan’s National Security Advisor is Colonel Sambo Dasuki, the son of a former Sultan of Sokoto (the pre-eminent hereditary Muslim ruler in the North) and a professional military man. One could point to current and former members of the team with less stellar reputations – but the point is that the president or his handlers have deliberately chosen a number of figures who are both (a) recognized experts in their fields and (b) exciting and credible to international observers. Ultimately, I think it’s immaterial whether Jonathan himself is a highly capable individual or not; what matters is the administration as a whole.

I see two views one could hold about this team. The charitable view would credit them with rapid economic growth and offer a list of their accomplishments in infrastructure development and other fields. The charitable view would say that the team is doing the best it can in difficult economic and security circumstances. In contrast, the uncharitable view would argue that the administration has deliberately ignored key problems in its approach to Boko Haram (problems such as corruption and systemic human rights abuses by security forces) and has deliberately chosen economic policies that leave poverty and inequality untouched. Whether one is charitable or uncharitable, it is hard to say that the president is a bumbler – either he and his all-stars are doing the best they can in trying times, or he and his all-stars are making choices that privilege certain regions and social groups over others.

Buhari as a Seasoned Politician Assembling a New, Geographically Diverse Coalition

Many profiles from the 2014-2015 campaign discuss Buhari as though he has never run for president before – as though he is a former military ruler who exploded back onto the political scene in response to Nigerians’ anxieties about Boko Haram. The narrative of “Buhari as thug” is perpetuated by thinning his resume, decontextualizing former military rulers’ continued role in Nigerian politics, and misreading the Nigerian political map of 2015.

On the topic of Buhari’s resume, the first thing to note is that he was the runner-up in the past three elections – to Obasanjo in 2003, to Yar’Adua in 2007, and to Jonathan in 2011. So he has been running seriously for president as a civilian for over six times as long as he ruled the country as a military dictator (1983-1985). The other thing to note about Buhari’s resume is his long experience in the petroleum sector, both in the 1970s and the 1990s. This experience should not be invoked to minimize the serious allegations of human rights abuses and violations of civil liberties stemming from his time as military ruler, but the experience does round out the portrait of Buhari as a multi-faceted candidate.

On the subject of Buhari’s military past, the implication that he is an anomaly among current Nigerian politicians – or that his candidacy’s strength is primarily a result of current insecurity – is ludicrous. Since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999, many leading politicians have either been former military rulers or figures closely connected to them. Obasanjo was military ruler from 1976-1979. Yar’Adua was the brother of Obasanjo’s second-in-command. Former military ruler General Ibrahim Babangida has sought the presidency. Former Vice President Atiku Abubakar (served 1999-2007) was close to (Shehu) Yar’Adua. At the state level, various governors and former governors (for example Jonah Jang of Plateau and Murtala Nyako of Adamawa) were military governors prior to 1999. Even Jonathan has connections (as noted above, he was Obasanjo’s pick for Yar’Adua’s Vice President in 2007) to former military rulers. In this context, Buhari’s candidacy is not anomalous – and it does not automatically make him a thug.

Finally, Buhari’s candidacy in 2015 is a different thing than his candidacy in 2011. His campaign has certainly gained strength from anxieties about security – but I would argue that it has gained far more from the skillful politicking of APC leaders, particularly former Lagos Governor Bola Tinubu.

In 2011, the electoral map in Nigeria looked simple: Buhari won twelve northern states, Jonathan won the rest of the country. The 2011 map fit the international media’s narrative of Nigeria as divided into a “Muslim north” and a “Christian south.” Buhari appeared to be the Northern Muslim candidate, end of story.

That map and that narrative may not work in 2015. The APC’s path to victory involves holding the northern vote but also expanding it to make gains in the southwest (the home turf of Tinubu and many other APC leaders, as well as Obasanjo, who recently endorsed Buhari) and the Middle Belt (an ethnically and religiously diverse section of the old “Northern Region” from the early days of Nigerian multiparty politics). Buhari may be the face of the APC, but the party has sought to turn its state-level strength in the southwest (where it holds several governorships, including Lagos) into a core element of a presidential victory. It is no accident that Buhari’s running mate is Yemi Osinbajo, Tinubu’s former attorney general and a friend of an influential Christian pastor in the southwest.

Conclusion

The trope of “the bumbler vs. the thug” distorts understanding of the two leading candidates in Nigeria’s presidential elections. Moreover, the “bumbler vs. thug” narrative directs our attention to the far northeast as though Boko Haram is that only force that matters in Nigerian politics, and thereby distracts us from the evolving and contested electoral map.