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.

Thoughts on Chad in Nigeria

Bloomberg published an article yesterday on dynamics surrounding Chad’s involvement in fighting Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect. I am quoted in the article, and I thought I’d expand on my comments here.

First, some context: in 2014 and into this year, Boko Haram has sought to hold territory in the northeastern part of Nigeria, even as the sect continues to perpetrate urban terrorism and extreme violence against rural populations. Nigeria’s neighbors to the north and east – Niger, Cameroon, and Chad – are directly affected by the violence. Boko Haram has disrupted trade and sent thousands of refugees fleeing across borders. Increasingly, Boko Haram has affected the security of its neighbors, with attacks in northern Cameroon and more recently in southeastern Niger.

Nigeria’s neighbors have become more and more frustrated with Nigeria. Boko Haram’s current campaign of violence began in 2010, and as the violence has dragged on, nearby African countries have pressured Nigeria to cooperate with them, including at major multilateral meetings last year in Paris and London.

Cameroonian soldiers began to clash regularly with Boko Haram last year, but it is only this year that Chad (and now Niger, as part of an African Union-backed regional force that will also include Nigeria’s western neighbor Benin) has become heavily involved in the fighting. In the past few weeks, Chad has reportedly pushed Boko Haram out of several towns and villages on the border and inside Nigeria.

Chad’s role in the fight against Boko Haram deserves special attention for a few reasons, including the Chadian military’s reputation for toughness and the Chadian government’s multifaceted incentives for participating in the fight. Another reason is the juxtaposition of Nigeria’s wealth and Chad’s poverty. As Bloomberg points out, Chad is one of the poorest countries on the planet (while Niger is, by the same measure, the poorest). Hence Bloomberg’s headline, “African Giant Relies on Poorer Chad to Fight Boko Haram.”

In terms of toughness, Chadian soldiers most recently distinguished themselves in northern Mali in 2013 as participants in the French-led intervention against a coalition of jihadists. Although Chad ultimately partially withdrew its troops, during the initial fighting they joined in some of the toughest combat. Chad’s strong performance in Mali partly reflected Chadian soldiers’ experience fighting in desert conditions, but Chad has also projected military power into non-desert areas like the Central African Republic (where they were, however, accused of taking sides in the civil conflict). Despite some complications, Chad has become a valued partner for the United States and particularly France, with the latter basing its Sahel-wide security mission Operation Barkhane in Chad – for both logistical and political reasons.

Chad’s incentives for fighting in Nigeria are simple. First, Chad has genuine security concerns. An escalation in Boko Haram attacks in northeastern Nigeria and surrounding areas spells trouble for Chad.

Second, there is a political dimension. Chad can hope to continue to distinguish itself as a partner for the West by asserting a role as a guarantor of regional security. Chadian President Idriss Deby, who took power in 1990, needs France’s support – when he faced severe rebellions in 2006 and 2008, France’s help was reportedly critical to his ability to weather those storms. Deby may have partly re-consolidated his grip on power since 2008, but he remains vulnerable. Protests last year in Chad did not rock the regime, but the fall of Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaore last year can only make Deby nervous – and armed rebellion still looms as a possibility.

Chad’s involvement in the fight against Boko Haram, it should also be added, parallels France’s increasing engagement with Nigeria – France’s President Francois Hollande, on a visit in February 2014, told Nigerians that “your fight against Boko Haram is also ours.” So Chad’s involvement in Nigeria helps to support French policy as well – and the French are supporting Nigeria’s neighbors logistically.

Where is all this headed? So far, Nigerian authorities have presented Chad’s presence on their soil as part of a larger, well-coordinated plan. But Nigeria, like many other countries, is keen to protect and assert its sovereignty. Nigeria and its neighbors – for example Cameroon – have disagreed in the recent past about just how it should work when one country pursues Boko Haram fighters into another’s territory. We will see how the African Union-backed regional force shapes up; the idea of a multinational force is not new, but the level of urgency the players feel is. In the short term much of the spotlight might be on Chad.

Key Economic Debates in Nigeria’s Election

Nigeria’s national and state elections are approaching (now March 28 and April 11). Many journalists and commentators have depicted them largely – sometimes exclusively – in terms of security and the violence by the Boko Haram sect. That perspective misses a great deal of the picture. For example, the campaign has sparked important debates about the state of Nigeria’s economy – debates that have particular resonance in the context of falling oil prices, which have hurt government revenues and weakened the naira.

The economic debates going on in Nigeria are sophisticated, and they involve real issues. The debates challenge the often-heard narrative that African elections are about personalities and networks, not issues. I’m not saying personalities won’t matter; I am saying that the campaign is not issue-free.

To get a sense of the economic debates, I’d recommend two pieces – or rather, one piece and one conversation.

First is former Lagos Governor Bola Tinubu‘s “Slum[p] in Oil Prices: A Progressive Way Out.” Tinubu is a key leader in the opposition coalition the All Progressives Congress (APC), which has nominated former military ruler General Muhammadu Buhari as its candidate. In this piece, Tinubu articulates his opposition to austerity. He argues for decoupling the naira from the dollar and running a deficit into to fund projects (especially infrastructure) that will put large numbers of people to work.

Second is former Central Bank Governor Charles Soludo’s debate with Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (h/t Zainab Usman). Soludo served from 2004 to 2009 (under Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Umaru Yar’Adua, but not under incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan).

In his first piece, “Buhari vs. Jonathan” Soludo stated that he was an undecided voter and wrote, “The two main parties talk around the major development challenges—corruption, insecurity, economy (unemployment/poverty, power, infrastructure, etc) health, education, etc. However, it is my considered view that none of them has any credible agenda to deal with the issues, especially within the context of the evolving global economy and Nigeria’s broken public finance.” Soludo directed attention to what he called historically unprecedented poverty and unemployment rates (71% and 24%).

Soludo’s essay provoked a response from Okonjo-Iweala, which in turn drew a reply from Soludo. Beyond the personal invective, there is a deadly serious struggle over statistics – whose are accurate, and even whose are genuine. The APC’s Kayode Fayemi (who was voted out as governor of Ekiti State in the southwest in an off-cycle election last June) also joined the debate. The full exchange is worth reading.

With over six weeks left in the campaign (due to the postponement of the elections), it will be worth watching how these debates continue to play out. It is also worth noting the role of the Finance Minister as a participant, but even more importantly as a symbol, in these debates – opponents and critics of Jonathan’s regime have focused on her and her credibility as they make the case that Jonathan’s administration, despite having an internationally-known economist as a core part of the team, has failed to make the economy work for ordinary Nigerians. We’ll see, then, what kind of economic arguments the Jonathan team puts forward in this final stretch of the campaign.

 

Nigeria: Key Statements on the Postponement of the Elections

Late on Saturday, February 7, Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) Chairman Attahiru Jega announced the postponement of the country’s national and state elections. Originally scheduled for February 14 (national) and 28 (state), the dates will now be, respectively, March 28 and April 11. The Constitution sets May 29 as inauguration day, which many Nigerians view as “sacrosanct” – so further delays could be even more contentious.

The administration of incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan began to press for a delay on January 22. National Security Advisor Sambo Dasuki recommended a delay on two grounds: the incomplete distribution of Permanent Voters’ Cards and the security situation in northeast Nigeria, where the Boko Haram sect is based. These two issues are not entirely linked: card distribution has lagged in Lagos, which is about as far from the northeast as one can get and still be in Nigeria. As late as February 5, Jega asserted INEC’s readiness to proceed with the vote as scheduled.

The postponement has occasioned outcry within Nigeria and abroad. Rumors are swirling that the administration may move to force Jega out. The international media generally feels that the delay benefits Jonathan by giving him more time to make a tangible improvement in the security situation as well as to strengthen his re-election prospects (through various means). The administration, however, has denied pressuring Jega to delay.

I’ve rounded up a few key statements with excerpts and commentary:

  • Jega: “Our level of preparedness, despite a few challenges, is sufficient to conduct free, fair and credible elections as scheduled on February 14th and February 28th…But as I mentioned earlier, there are some other variables equally crucial for successful conduct of the 2015 general elections that are outside the control of INEC. One important variable is security for the elections…Where the security services strongly advise otherwise, it would be unconscionable of the Commission to deploy personnel and call voters out in such a situation.” (For me, the takeaway here is that Jega is placing responsibility for the call onto the security chiefs.)
  • Jonathan campaign/People’s Democratic Party (PDP): “With this decision, INEC has allayed the fears of many of our citizens that they may not have had the opportunity to vote for the candidates and parties of their choice on Election Day…We are constrained to take this opportunity to wholeheartedly condemn the opposition APC [the All Progressives Congress, the major opposition coalition) for its paranoid delusions and its far-fetched and childish conspiracy theories when it comes to the issue of poll shift. By insisting that the elections should be conducted on February 14th the opposition was not only dangerously flirting with chaos but was also putting our country firmly on the path of confrontation, division, injustice, disaster and destruction.” (This gives a sense of how sharp the rhetoric is, and how the postponement has become a partisan issue.)
  • Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (APC candidate and Jonathan’s main challenger): “As a Nigerian and a presidential candidate in the elections, I share in the disappointment and frustration of this decision. This postponement coming a week to the first election has raised so many questions, many of which shall be asked in the days ahead. However, we must not allow ourselves to be tempted into taking actions that could further endanger the democratic process. Our country is going through a difficult time in the hands of terrorists. Any act of violence can only complicate the security challenges in the country and provide further justification to those who would want to exploit every situation to frustrate the democratic process in the face of certain defeat at the polls. If anything, this postponement should strengthen our resolve and commitment to rescue our country from the current economic and social collapse from this desperate band. Our desire for change must surpass their desperation to hold on to power at all cost.” (For me, the takeaway here is the effort that Buhari is making to project calm leadership. Buhari has sometimes been portrayed in the international and Nigerian media as a strongman former military ruler and a pro-Northern Islamist, and here as elsewhere he is trying to undo that image.)
  • U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry: “The United States is deeply disappointed by the decision to postpone Nigeria’s presidential election, which had been scheduled for February 14. Political interference with the Independent National Electoral Commission is unacceptable, and it is critical that the government not use security concerns as a pretext for impeding the democratic process. The international community will be watching closely as the Nigerian government prepares for elections on the newly scheduled dates. The United States underscores the importance of ensuring that there are no further delays.” (The U.S. is being clear that it sees the postponement as a political, rather than a logistically necessary, move. The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office statement is similar, though a notch softer in tone.)
  • The BBC has some “man on the street” reactions and some coverage of anti-postponement protests by the APC.

Finally, Karen Attiah of the Washington Post has a good piece laying out why this delay is problematic: it is unlikely to bring a rapid improvement in the security situation, which is a long-term challenge; and it undermines the credibility and independence of INEC, which could exacerbate already strong mistrust of the process among many Nigerian voters.

Writings/Podcast/Event on Nigeria’s Elections

Nigeria will hold elections on March 28 and April 11. I’ve done a few things recently on the elections and related topics. I will appear on a panel at the Wilson Center on Wednesday, February 11 to discuss the state of play, including the recent postponement. Here are links to some recent writings and a podcast:

  • Background to Nigeria’s 2015 Elections” (.pdf). This paper, written for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), gives an overview of the processes, parties, and candidates. It also takes a look at some state-level developments and contests. The paper’s purpose is to offer the non-specialist an informational introduction. More subtly, the paper seeks to remind readers that there is more to this election than just Boko Haram.
  • Don’t Ignore Nigeria’s Gubernatorial Elections.” This blog post at the Washington Post‘s Monkey Cage builds on the CSIS report by calling attention to some of the dynamics that receive little attention in the U.S., but that will have major consequences for many Nigerians’ lives – namely, the outcomes of gubernatorial elections. Again, this piece highlights developments beyond Boko Haram, specifically by examining governors’ races in Lagos, Kano, and Rivers.
  • The Logic Behind Boko Haram’s Brutal Attacks.” This briefing for World Politics Review argues that there is a logic behind Boko Haram’s violence against civilians in northeastern Nigeria, and that Boko Haram’s attacks are only partly related to the elections – in other words, I expect Boko Haram to trouble Nigeria for some time to come, no matter who wins.
  • Boko Haram and the Nigerian Elections.” This podcast with UN Dispatch explores some of the ways in which Boko Haram’s violence is intersecting with the campaign.

If you read or listen to any of these pieces, I welcome your thoughts in the comments.

Turning the Lights Back On

After an eighteen-month break, now seems like a good time to start blogging again. Nigeria’s elections (although postponed) are approaching, conflict in northern Mali is escalating, Burkina Faso is working through a transition, and the wider Sahel region is dealing with a number of interrelated crises.

To give a brief professional update, I spent the 2013-2014 academic year as an International Affairs Fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. The program, which aims in part to give scholars a hands-on experience in government, placed me in the Department of State as a Desk Officer for Nigeria. After wrapping up the fellowship, I started at Georgetown University’s African Studies Program as a visiting assistant professor. I am teaching courses there on Islam and politics.

I have done some writing during my absence from the blog. I published two academic journal articles, one with African Affairs and another with the Journal of Religion in Africa. In fall 2014, I began writing monthly for the Global Observatory of the International Peace Institute, and I also resumed contributing periodical briefings to World Politics Review. I’ve been doing some writing about the upcoming elections in Nigeria (March 28 and April 11), and I’ll post those pieces separately. I have also completed a book manuscript on Salafism in Nigeria.

The purpose of this blog has not changed – I aim simply to provide informative commentary on current events in Nigeria and the Sahel, and to a lesser extent the Horn of Africa. I do not know that I’ll be able to maintain the pace I set before; my students and my academic research are and must be higher priorities than blogging. I may welcome a few guest bloggers from time to time in order to bring new perspectives.

What may change slightly in this new incarnation is my tone. I want to be more explicit about my values – my effort to write about people in the Sahel as real human beings, not just objects in geopolitical dramas; my distaste for analysts who write breathlessly and speculatively about Africa in order to put forth the most nightmarish picture of global terrorism possible; my opposition to targeted killings, to the West’s strategy of short-term airstrikes followed by long-term neglect (see: Libya), to the shoot-and-vote model, and to unimaginative “train-and-equip” efforts that just flood the world with more weapons; and my impatience with those who can only see Islam in Africa through the lens of “good Sufis” and “bad Salafis.”

The world has enough voices pushing simplistic narratives, quick fixes, and counterproductive violence – let this blog be an advocate for more constructive and promising paths toward peace.

Sahel Blog Goes Dark, at Least for a Time

Today will likely be the last time that I post on this blog for about a year; as readers have likely noticed, the pace already slowed considerably over the summer.

This month marks two major transitions for me. The first transition is that I’ve finished my Ph.D. in Religious Studies at Northwestern University (it was awarded yesterday, in fact). And the second transition is that on Monday, I will start a new position as an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. I am grateful to the Council for this opportunity, and I am excited to begin this new chapter in my career.

During the 2013-2014 academic year, I will not be blogging. I am sorry to take this pause, but also grateful. I am grateful first for the opportunity to have interacted with so many people through the blog, especially regular commenters here and conversation partners on Twitter and elsewhere. I am grateful too, however, for the chance to step back a bit from this medium. I’ve mentioned some of my struggles with blogging before; here I’ll rehash them.

For most of the time I’ve spent on this project since I started in 2009, I was enthusiastic about the ways in which blogging could provide rapid, timely analysis of events, sometimes even as they unfolded. I think it is vital that at least some academics take up blogging. Through this medium we can showcase some of the things we have to offer: language skills, analytical skills, historical perspective, knowledge of cultural and religious traditions, etc. In a country (America) that often despises intellectuals and asks what they’re good for, blogging gives us a chance to demonstrate our value. (For the record, I don’t think intellectuals need to “justify their existences” to anyone – but it’s easier for all of us if some of us make the effort.) Blogging also allows academics to circumvent some of the barriers that often stand between us and the public. Finally, and most importantly, it gives scholars a chance to counter some of the narratives that dominate in media and policy circles. For me, that has meant trying to present one critical region of Africa in its complexity, and to write about it in a way that seeks to recognize the dignity of the real people who live there. So many “foreign policy” writers seem to view the people they talk about with contempt – an attitude that makes it easy for such writers to recommend the use of violence against those people. Hopefully I have provided some antidote to that point of view here.

During 2013, however, I’ve increasingly felt that my style of blogging – which is highly reactive to events, as well as highly scattered – does little more than skim the surface. I live in dread of making factual errors, translation errors, and sloppy analytical judgments, all of which are strong possibilities if I blog every day, hopping from topic to topic. I have also grown concerned that what I write doesn’t build toward anything, and that staying wedded to the news cycle constrains my ability to work on topics in depth. Writing my dissertation in 2012-2013, as well as trying my hand at a few journal articles, I came to appreciate traditional scholarly formats even more than I did before: in 10,000 words, or 100,000, based on meticulous research over a period of years, the potential for insight and depth vastly exceeds the potential of a rushed, poorly researched blog post of 700 words. Therein lies a dilemma: how much time to devote to the long but relatively isolating intellectual quests that might yield a truly powerful contribution to knowledge, and how much time to devote to the kind of engagement that brings me into dialogue with a greater public? The answer must be some combination of both, but I haven’t gotten the proportions right yet.

In this vein I’ve been experimenting with different writing formats. This month is also an important one for me because Northwestern’s Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITA) has released a working paper I co-wrote with Andrew Lebovich. The paper is entitled “A Handbook on Mali’s 2012-2013 Crisis” (.pdf)* and it aims to be exactly that: a comprehensive guide to the events, actors, and institutions that have interacted in Mali over the past twenty-one months and more. I hope the Handbook will be a valuable resource for anyone interested in Mali.

I also have another intention for it: I** want it to showcase how empty of empirical content so much writing about the Sahel is. Does the world need more reports that tell us about the “dangers of ungoverned spaces” in the Sahel and the “nexus of terrorism and trafficking” there, or some other tired phrase like that? I don’t think so. I think people need information they can sink their teeth into, and some way to contextualize it that goes beyond stock narratives.

This year I won’t be doing much blogging or traditional scholarship, so perhaps that will give me a chance to reflect on both media, as well as on what kinds of new analytical projects are becoming possible. I welcome readers’ suggestions.

I also welcome their contributions. Some guest writers may pass through here during the coming academic year. And in 2014, if I decide to resume this project, I will likely want to do so in a more expansive and ambitious way. If you have an interest in contributing here – and if you understand and agree with the point I’ve tried to make about recognizing other people’s dignity – then I urge you to contact me.

In the meantime, thanks to everyone for reading!

*The hyperlinks in the current version do not work, but ISITA plans to post an updated, corrected version next week.

**In this post I speak for myself alone.