On Doctrine, Politics, and Boko Haram

I’ve published a paper with the Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, entitled “‘The Disease Is Unbelief’: Boko Haram’s Religious and Political Worldview.” It deals with the Boko Haram crisis, which has caused untold damage in northeastern Nigeria and surrounding regions over the past six years and more. The paper’s title derives from a video where Boko Haram’s (deceased?) leader, Abubakar Shekau, responded to former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s denunciation of Boko Haram as a “cancer.”

The paper is the length of a journal article, so I won’t say too much to summarize it here. I do want to emphasize that it’s an attempt to take Boko Haram’s religious discourses seriously: not to excuse those messages or the violence, of course, but to try to understand them and even to give the group’s ideology *some* analytical weight in the quest for an explanation of the violence.

That latter proposition has proven controversial for some audiences and colleagues I’ve encountered. For some, the idea that armed groups might actually believe what they say they believe is anathema. Many analysts view jihadist leaders as either psychopaths or opportunists, and their followers as either dupes or victims. Certainly there is reason to feel that way, especially when there is evidence that leaders are hypocritical, power-hungry, etc, or that followers have been coerced. But people are not simple and it is possible that even if a leader is a hypocrite or an opportunist, it’s still worth paying attention to what he says, because it might give hints as to why a group behaves the way it does. Moreover, if jihadists were all mere opportunists or psychopaths, why would they develop such systematic and detailed ideologies?

So the paper tries to get at some of those questions. I doubt that it will convince those who believe material forces are the sole determinants of the violence. But if you’re interested, I go through various official statements from Boko Haram and discuss the remarkable consistency in their messages from circa 2008 (and probably before) to the present, and show that a core combination of religious exclusivism and perceived victimhood has underlain many of their other ideas, including their rejection of Western-style education.

If you do read the paper, I welcome your thoughts, suggestions, and criticisms here. I will be continuing to work on this topic, and your feedback will help me refine my thinking and research.

Niger: Yet Another Coup?! [Guest Post]

[Today’s guest post is by Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim, a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University of Florida. He has conducted extensive research in and on the Sahel, and especially on Mauritania and Niger. – Alex]

The celebration of Niger Republic’s birthday used to be a solemn occasion where Nigeriens rejoiced in communion over their “unyielding progress” toward the achievement of national unity and renaissance. This year’s celebration, however, came with sad breaking news: President Issoufou Mahamadou announced in his traditional Address to the Nation that his government had foiled a coup attempt that was supposed to happen on the anniversary day. His announcement came five days after the government conducted a series of arrests that targeted nine high-ranking military officers, including the former Chief of Army Staff, General Salou Souleymane, and the Air Force commander Colonel Dan Haoua. All this happened against the backdrop of heightened social and political tensions related to the arrest of the former President of the National Assembly, Hama Amadou, as well as the contentions surrounding the organization of the 2016 presidential, legislative and district elections, and the fight against Boko Haram.

Niger is known for its history of political instability and recurring military coups. Since the democratization process started in 1992, the country has experienced three military coups, including the last one in 2010. Recently, rumors of another coup have intensified in the country, reflecting the sour political climate that originated from the breakup of the ruling coalition in the late 2013. In brief, President Issoufou’s announcement was not totally unanticipated. But it raises numerous unanswered questions that animate passionate discussions in the fadas, and social media in Niger. One of these questions concerns the credibility of the allegations, whether there was really a coup attempt or whether this is yet another strategy by Niger’s government to divert public attention from crucial challenges that are facing the country while at the same time justifying crackdowns on the political opposition.

Only a few details have so far emerged regarding this alleged coup attempt, but in light of the recent developments, each of these hypotheses can be plausible. On the one hand, there are reasons to believe that a coup might be attempted given the high level of social and political tensions in a country where military coups have often been the ultimate solution to political crises. Yet on the other hand, recent developments in the region might discourage would-be coup makers. If anything, the lesson learned from Sanogo and Diendere’s misfortunes in Mali and Burkina Faso, respectively, is that the period of military coups in the region is becoming outdated. Many Nigeriens are asking how such credible military officers as those arrested in this coup plot might have failed to learn this lesson. Could such officers really have thought they could get away with a coup in such unfavorable circumstances? Many Nigeriens simply do not believe the coup narrative.

Background

The current political tensions started in August 2013, when in response to the deteriorating relationship within the ruling coalition, Issoufou’s government started broad consultations with the opposition parties in order to create a government of national unity. After several months of negotiations, the initiative failed at the last minute. As a result, and in order to prevent losing the majority in the National Assembly, which would result in a tumultuous Cohabitation, Issoufou’s government resorted to extracting allies from within the opposition parties, in complete disregard for the hostility of the parties’ leadership. This strategy produced profound divisions within the opposition parties leading to the breakup of the major ones, including MNSD Nassara, Moden FA Lumana Africa, and CDS Rahama – into pro and anti government factions. Since then, the so-called “crushing of opposition parties” (le concassage des partie de l’opposition in French) resulted in a growing animosity between the government and the opposition.

Hama Amadou – leader of Moden FA Lumana Africa – initially member of the ruling coalition and President of the National Assembly, decided to leave the coalition in favor of the opposition. But soon after he shifted sides, his name appeared in the heavily mediatized baby trafficking “scandal,” where he was accused of illegally claiming the parenthood of two babies that were allegedly “bought” in neighboring Nigeria. He fled the country to avoid arrest and sought asylum in France, where he positioned himself as a radical opponent to President Issoufou and potentially the major challenger of the incumbent President in the upcoming elections. Hama returned to Niger on November 5th 2015, after spending more than a year in exile, and following his nomination as presidential candidate on behalf of his party, the Moden FA Lumana. His party, which enjoys strong support in the capital city Niamey, mobilized thousands of supporters to welcome him at the airport. But the crowd was violently dispersed by the police, and Hama was arrested at the airport and immediately transferred to prison in Filingue, a small town located at around 180km northeast of Niamey.

The arrest of Hama heightened the already tense political climate, and quite importantly, it also generated an unprecedented level of ethnic tension in Niamey. Hama and his followers have often used ethnic arguments in their struggle with Issoufou’s government. Many of their statements suggest that Hama, who is Zarma (the second largest ethnic group in Niger representing 22% of the population) is victim of an ethnic adversity orchestrated by Issoufou’s government allegedly dominated by Hausa (the largest ethnic group, representing 52% of the population). Hama’s supporters in the diaspora have contributed to the heightening of the ethnic tensions in Niamey. One of his strong supporters based in New York published videos on youtube and Facebook in which he call Hama’s supporters to engage in violence to protect their leader. The videos created an outcry particularly after the violence that occurred upon Hama’s return from exile. Ethnicity has been less of an issue in Nigerien politics when compared to other African countries. All the major political parties have rallied significant support across ethnic groups. The ethnic discourse becomes salient when elections approach. During their campaign, for instance, political leaders sometimes use ethnic argument to mobilize support.

Current and Upcoming Developments

2016 is an election year in Niger. The first round of the presidential and legislation elections are scheduled to happen on February 21st. The opposition has expressed grievances regarding the organization of the elections, demanding particularly an international audit of the electoral list, the removal of the President of the Constitutional Court, whom they accuse of partiality given her personal acquaintance with President Issoufou, and finally the rescheduling of the district elections. The main opposition parties have threatened to boycott the elections if these demands are not satisfied. But the absence of direct dialog between the two parties has made it difficult to reach to a negotiated settlement of the issues. The National Council for Political Dialog (Conseil National de Dialogue Politique in French), the traditional venue through which government and opposition discuss and settle political matters has been dysfunctional, constantly boycotted by the opposition.

These tensions are exacerbated by the further deteriorating security situation in the region of Diffa where the military is trying more or less successfully to defend the border from Boko Haram’s recurrent assaults. The government has often used this tense security context as a pretext to justify restrictions on civil liberties. Until recently, in fact, the local authorities have systematically rejected all requests for protests authorization, and have violently dispersed all demonstrations organized by the opposition and the civil society under the pretext of preventing further destabilization of the country. Prominent civil society actors were arrested and accused of complicity with Boko Haram after they denounced violence allegedly committed by the army on local population in the conflict zones in Diffa.

Given all these tensions, and particularly following the recent altercation between Hama Amadou and Issoufou’s government, rumors of an imminent military coups became a major topic of discussion in Niamey. Hama is suspected to have acquaintances with certain influential officers in the army, and every time that he seems in trouble with the government, rumors of an imminent military coup come to surface. This was notably the case in 2008-9 when he was jailed by Tandja’s regime, and in 2014-15 during and upon his return from exile. In the same way that the crisis during Tandja’s regime led to the 2010 military coup, many would suspect that history might repeat itself once again.

Yet, despite these tensions, the current circumstances are far more unfavorable to a military coup in comparison to the 2010 context. First, although there is an increasing social and political tension in Niamey as the result of the arrest of Hama Amadou, the “crushing” of the opposition parties, and the restrictions on civil liberties, the tension has not yet reached the point where it can credibly and legitimately justify a coup, let alone to earn it the broad popular support that it needs in order to succeed. Historically, military coups happen in Niger under the conditions of a complete paralysis of the government or a serious threat to the survival of democracy, as it was the case during Tandja’s Tazarce. None of these seem to be the case in the current situation in Niger. Thus, if this alleged coup is real, then it would be the first of its nature, where the military attempts to overthrow a regime that despite major shortages remains democratic and legitimate.

Second, recent developments in the region, particularly the failed coup attempts in Mali and Burkina Faso, are not very encouraging to potential putschists. Both local populations and the international community appear less and less willing to tolerate the reckless military eruptions in politics. This might be even more so in the current situation in Niger where the likely scenario – would the coup attempt succeed – looks like a déjà vu: a country that is two months away from general elections, more or less successful in keeping the jihadist assault on its periphery, and all of the sudden a military coup occurred in the capital city, the state collapse opening widely the doors to the jihadist to conquer and occupy large portions of the territory… The last time this scenario happened was in Mali in 2012, and the consequences were so terrifying that neither the Nigerien population nor the international community would dare to accept such a risk.

Third, President Issoufou enjoys strong international support due to the focal role that he plays in the struggle against the spread of jihadism in the Sahelo-Saharan region. Niger is viewed as a crucial fortress that prevents the reunion of Saharan jihadist groups operating in Libya, Mali, and Algeria with the sub-Sahara African jihadists, notably Boko Haram operating in the Lake Chad area. Reinforcing this strategic position was certainly part of the reason why France and the US have deployed drone and military bases in Niger. One could bet that neither France nor the US would allow the destabilization of their major ally in the region, even if that would necessitate the intervention of their military forces stationed in Niamey. Moreover, foreign military intervention to save an allied regime in difficulty is not a new practice as suggested by the French military support to Idris Deby’s regime in the 2006 foiled coup attempt in Chad.

For all these reason a military coup is unlikely to succeed in Niger in the current context. One would assume that no one knows this reality better than the military officers who are arrested in this alleged coup plot. Did these officers really conspire to overthrow Issoufou’s regime? Currently the information beforehand is inconclusive, as only the government side of the story is known. The following days and the ongoing investigations will certainly tell us more.

On Salafism and Terrorism in Mali: A Response to the Monkey Cage

On November 20, a team of gunmen stormed the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali’s capital Bamako, taking hostages and killing twenty people. The tragedy reflects the complex aftermath of Mali’s 2012-2013 civil war, which was centered in the northern part of the country, but which has left in its wake a nationwide terrorism problem.

There has been much helpful commentary on the attack, and there has been some unhelpful commentary. In the latter category is a piece published on the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, entitled “After this month’s attack in Bamako, what do we know about fundamentalist Islam in Mali?” The author, a University of Florida political scientist named Sebastian Elischer, unfairly links some non-violent Malian Muslim political activists to terrorism. By “fundamentalism,” Elischer means Salafism, a literalist form of Sunni Islam.

Elischer’s argument is politically dangerous. He writes in the context of a wider environment in which many observers assume that Salafism, a theological position, predisposes its adherents to jihadism, a form of violent politics. This assumption is wrong: as Jacob Olidort has pointed out, if the hundreds of thousands of non-violent Salafis around the world “were involved in forming political parties or in direct violent activity, the world would look very different” (p. 4, footnote 1).

The fact that the majority of Salafis reject jihadism has been largely ignored amid the media’s and the terror-ology industry’s constant equations of Muslim activism with violence. This environment makes it easy for various governments to justify crackdowns against a wide swath of activists, regardless of whether or not they are involved in violent jihad. This environment also distorts Western policymakers’ understandings of the roots of jihadism and terrorism. The current and naïve framework of “countering violent extremism” has yielded many failures, and these failures stem in part from the assumption that the “wrong beliefs” are the main factor in people’s embrace of violence.

Elischer, of course, denies that he is engaging in guilt by association. But listen to the language he uses:

The political Salafists in Bamako are not behind the recent attacks on the Radisson. But they provide an ideology that opposes democracy and secularism — two major achievements of Mali’s political trajectory in the past two decades. Nonetheless, the international community should note that the forces seeking to destabilize Mali are not just isolated in far-flung northern regions but are actually not that far from the presidential palace.

Let us pause briefly here to ask how one ought to explain the Radisson Blu attack. First, one should start by elaborating the histories and agendas of the groups that have claimed responsibility and have previously been involved in violence. One should then contextualize these groups’ violence within the broader history of politics and conflict in Mali during the colonial and post-colonial periods, with particular emphasis on the period 2011-present. One should also make appropriate reference to how the aftermath of Algeria’s “Black Decade” of the 1990s has affected Mali, especially in terms of the spillover of Algerian-led jihadist groups into northern Mali and their long-term efforts to implant themselves in local communities there. In his effort to link southern Salafis to terrorism, Elischer skims over or neglects the relevant history.

The villain in Elischer’s piece is Mahmoud Dicko, a southern Salafi cleric who serves as president of Mali’s High Islamic Council. Dicko is a major Malian public figure who is, by all accounts, uninvolved in jihadist activity – and who has publicly condemned the Radisson attack. In Elischer’s eyes, however, Dicko’s political activities are anti-democratic and “destabilizing.”

Dicko is not going to be any Western policymaker, academic, or human rights activist’s ideal of a “moderate Muslim.” Dicko linked the Radisson attack, for example, to what he calls the Western world’s “promotion of homosexuality.” Dicko envisions and works toward a Mali that is religiously and socially conservative.

But are Dicko’s actions anti-democratic? Elischer writes that Dicko and his camp seek “to impose fundamentalist Islamic beliefs on society by asserting a role in the political sphere.” Doesn’t everyone who participates in politics seek to impose some kind of belief system on their society? In a U.S. context, I want everyone to have free medical care, housing, and a minimum income – and if I can help get politicians elected who support those views, then I am willing to have that system “imposed” on voters who disagree with it. That’s how politics works: even in a democracy, some people don’t get their way.

The issue raised by people like Dicko is what happens when democratic contexts coincide with mobilization in the name of illiberal values. What happens, in other words, when a group of Malian Muslims mobilizes to protest a family code that would give greater rights to women, as happened in 2009? Dicko helped lead a campaign that pressured former President Amadou Toumani Toure to back down and amend the proposed code in a more conservative direction, in line with the wishes of Dicko and others. Such changes, however, were accomplished without significant violence. Arguably, that’s just democracy in action – but for Elischer, all of Dicko’s political actions constitute an inappropriate fusion of religion and politics, a form of “intimidation” against the government, and/or a nefarious “influence” over elected officials and civil servants.

Worth adding, too, is that Dicko is not the only proponent of social conservatism in Mali. Does anyone think that Sufi shaykhs in Mali, or post-Sufi media stars like Shaykh Cherif Haidara, are going to be lining up to advocate for the rights of homosexuals in Mali? Dicko and the Salafis, after all, were far from the only voices arguing against the more liberal family code. And if we’re talking about threats to democracy in Mali, then surely the politicians who steal public money, the junior army officers who staged a coup in 2012, to say nothing of the northern jihadists and separatists, deserve some mention. With secularism, finally, one might ask whether Mali must remain beholden to the version of secularism it inherited from France, or whether the country’s vast Muslim majority has some right to reimagine the relationship of religion and politics in their country.

Elischer’s own orientation, ironically, is nakedly anti-liberal. In his recent article for African Affairs, he suggests that the state of Islamic affairs was better in Sahelian countries like Niger during the 1970s and 1980s, when an alliance of military rulers and Sufi shaykhs could more tightly regulate the religious sphere. Elischer implies that the free of exchange of ideas – allowing Salafis to compete for political and social influence – is inherently dangerous and “destabilizing.” Some societies, we hear, need top-down control and a class of state-appointed “good Muslims” to keep the “bad Muslims” in check.

The ultimate problem with Elischer’s analysis of Salafism is this implicit “good Muslim, bad Muslim” dichotomy. His approach to Salafism is too simple. In his Monkey Cage piece and elsewhere, he relies on an outdated typology of Salafis from 2006, which classifies Salafis into “purists/quietists” (allegedly apolitical preachers oriented toward moral reform), “politicos” (politically engaged preachers), and “jihadis.” As I told Elischer in person at the fall 2015 meeting of the American Political Science Association, recent work has challenged this typology, showing that “purists” participate in politics, that “jihadis” can be “quietists,” and that it’s tricky to assess how theology might inform violence.

Nevertheless, the tripartite typology persists. Elischer invokes it to suggest that Salafis exist along a spectrum from quietism to jihadism, and that the more they participate in politics, the closer they move to jihadism. The case of Dicko should show why that’s too simple: Dicko participates in politics a lot, but he condemns jihadism and in no way seems to be veering toward terrorism. For Elischer and others who are suspicious of all Salafis, however, Salafis’ political behavior will always be interpreted as inherently suspect. In this worldview, other actors participate in politics with integrity, but the Salafis enter politics with the end goal of undermining democracy. If one holds Salafis to be inherently anti-democratic, then they can never prove their democratic bonafides – they will always be asked to defend themselves from the claim that they are potential terrorists.

In this, Elischer’s analysis echoes a wider claim echoed across various media outlets. It is not just Salafis, but all Muslims, who face intensive scrutiny about their relationship to violence. I commend Omid Safi’s question to the reader, “I wonder what [that relentless scrutiny] says about our preconceived notion of a majority of Muslims worldwide secretly being complicit regardless of what they do, regardless of what they say, and regardless of how many of their leading scholars, imams, and experts are denouncing the practices of ISIS” – or any terrorist group.

Returning to Mali, how are policymakers supposed to act on Elischer’s analysis? The “international community” is supposed to “note” the “destabilizing” influence of Dicko and other Salafis in southern Mali. Then what? Demand that Malian politicians repudiate Dicko? Seek to influence elections to the High Islamic Council? Advocate for the arrest of non-violent Salafi preachers? Elevate Sufi Muslims and empower them to marginalize Salafis within Malian institutions and public life? Would any of those actions make it less likely that jihadist groups would storm hotels in Bamako? Or would this kind of suspicion of non-violent Salafis make it even harder to resolve Mali’s many interlocking crises?

Analysts and policymakers desperately need more complicated maps of the religious and political terrain of the Sahel. Nearly a decade into my thinking about the region, I realize how little I understand. But I do believe that “good Muslim/bad Muslim” dichotomies serve everyone poorly, and can have dangerous and unintended consequences when applied in policy.

Buhari and the Perm Secs

BBC, August 29:

It is now three months since Muhammadu Buhari was sworn in as president of Nigeria and five months since he won historic elections, the first time an opposition candidate had won…But it took nearly two months for him to replace his security chiefs and so far he has only made appointments in about a dozen government offices.

[…]

While it is clear that President Buhari has shown that Nigeria can run without a cabinet, there may be an unacknowledged cost.

On the bright side, with the briefings he is getting from civil servants, the ministers, when they are eventually appointed, will find that their boss knows more about their departments than they do – and that should keep them on their toes.

Vanguard, November 10:

President Muhammadu Buhari on Tuesday, approved the appointment of new Permanent Secretaries in the Federal Civil Service.

This came some hours after the President sacked about 17 permanent secretaries.

Permanent Secretaries are, in theory, civil servants who are not political appointees. This does mean they are immune from political controversies, however.

As the BBC said, the months without a cabinet may have allowed Buhari to interact more directly with senior civil servants than presidents usually do. Apparently the president did not always like what he saw.

Talk by Dr. Usman Bugaje at Johns Hopkins SAIS This Wednesday

If you happen to be in Washington, DC this Wednesday, November 4, consider attending a talk by Dr. Usman Bugaje, a prominent northern Nigerian scholar and politician who has served in the House of Representatives and as adviser to former Vice President Atiku Abubakar. Bugaje is currently Convener of the Arewa Research and Development Project.

Bugaje will speak on “Democracy and the Challenge of Political Change in Nigeria” at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies from 12:30-1:45pm on Wednesday. The talk will be in Room 736, Bernstein-Offit Building, 1717 Massachusetts Avenue, NW.

Article on Salafism and Media in Nigeria

This summer is proving to be a season when some of my academic projects are coming out. Earlier this month, Islamic Africa published an article I wrote about figures I call “mainstream Salafis” in Nigeria – i.e., shaykhs who do not belong to Boko Haram, and in fact reject the movement. The article for Islamic Africa discussed how mainstream Salafis find themselves in an awkward position as they become targets of violence by Boko Haram, and objects of suspicion from the state.

Recently, the Journal of the American Academy of Religion published another article of mine. This piece deals with a similar group, but the focus is on how mainstream Salafis use electronic media, especially radio and recorded lectures. It’s called “The Salafi Ideal of Electronic Media as an Intellectual Meritocracy in Kano, Nigeria.” The piece argues, in part, that Salafis strategically use electronic media to level the playing field against religious rivals who have greater institutional power. This latter article has very little to do with Boko Haram, except perhaps for context regarding the media landscape in northern Nigeria.

One point I hope readers will take from both articles is that Boko Haram is not the only story in northern Nigeria. In fact, the Boko Haram story has distracted attention away from other, equally consequential topics. Muslim religious authority in northern Nigeria is being contested and reshaped through channels other than violence – and if one pays attention only to the violence, one will miss broader and perhaps ultimately more far-reaching changes.

The JAAR article is, for now, available for free at the journal’s website. It will at some point, hopefully this year, appear in print as well. If you read it, I  welcome any comments you might have.