Two Points about Boko Haram’s Recent Maiduguri Attack

Boko Haram, the Nigerian sect, has repeatedly attacked the northeastern city of Maiduguri, its birthplace. Maiduguri was part of Boko Haram’s mass uprising in 2009, it saw sustained guerrilla-style violence from 2010-2013, and it was the site of a massive raid on a detention facility, Giwa Barracks, in May 2014. During Boko Haram’s period of territorial expansion in 2014-early 2015, it sometimes appeared that the group was encircling the city and stood a good chance of taking it. Indeed, in January-February 2015 the group made several major assaults on Maiduguri, but failed (or perhaps never intended) to take it. Soon, however, Boko Haram was thrown on the defensive, as Nigerian and regional forces started to retake its territory.

All this is background to this week’s attack (May 13) on Maiduguri. The violence reportedly began with explosions by three female suicide bombers (a standing Boko Haram tactic), followed by an assault involving hundreds of “militants.” Much of the fighting reportedly took place in the village of Kayamla, about twenty kilometers from Maiduguri, which was the site of a prior attack. Authorities quickly imposed a twenty-four hour curfew in Maiduguri.

I would make two simple points:

  1. Boko Haram is still deadly and will likely remain so for some time to come, even if they are greatly weakened. As Reuters says, “Wednesday’s assault shows [Boko Haram] is still capable of pulling off bloody assaults.” This is a basic point, but an important one: premature triumphalism about retaking territory from Boko Haram could easily lead the military, the incoming administration, and outside observers to forget that Boko Haram has long demonstrated a capacity to adapt – and to resurface with new violence even after the authorities thought they had quashed it. The Maiduguri attack may have signaled some desperation or an attempt at distraction, as Boko Haram is pushed out of other areas. Nevertheless, even if its supply of fighters dwindles, the suicide bombers may remain an intermittent feature of urban life in the northeast.
  2. People are being repeatedly displaced. As one Twitter user, Maina Kachallah, said, “Well that’s Life in Maiduguri. We flee…return…flee…return. our fate, with our IDPs.” Earlier this week I discussed how some Nigerian refugees were being repatriated from Niger after attacks there, with others being further displaced within Niger. Some of the repatriated persons were heading to Borno State – meaning they could be affected by this latest violence in Maiduguri. Many of the survivors are losing years of their lives and existing amid frequent instability.

Mali: Examining the CMA’s Language on Peace

Today a coalition of northern Malian rebel groups signed a “preliminary peace agreement” with the government, after months of talks in neighboring Algeria. Rebels have said that they will not, however, attend a planned signing ceremony in Mali’s capital Bamako on Friday. Yesterday’s statement from the Coordination of the Movements of the Azawad (CMA, where “Azawad” refers to northern Mali) can be found in French here.

Even more important is another statement, issued the day before yesterday and addressed to the Malian people. It contains the CMA’s perspective on the peace talks and the fundamental issues at stake. One key paragraph:

The government of Mali and the CMA today have the heavy responsibility of establishing a true peace that corrects the failures in the political relationship that former governments have maintained up until now with the Azawad for more than half a century, and [a peace] that reorients the management mechanism of the Azawad by the Malian government. The peace for which we sincerely call must be guided by our own convictions and not dictated by anyone else. So now it is necessary to have the emergence of a new social contract between the government of Mali and the Azawad. We remain convinced that any solution to the crisis that ignores the concerns of the people of the Azawad is doomed to failure.

The CMA condemns the creation, arming, and utilization of civilian populations disguised as militias, at the same time that it condemns any illegitimate violence.

There’s a lot to ponder there, and throughout the statement, which contains both moments of frustrating vagueness and elements of pointed grievance – the last sentence of the excerpt above, for example, seems aimed at GATIA, a pro-government militia. Overall, the statement works to project a willingness to make peace, yet it also references serious stumbling blocks that will remain no matter who signs what.

And that, to me, is the main takeaway: the serious and worsening violence on the ground renders the accord ineffective. I won’t say “meaningless,” because these agreements become, if nothing else, elements in a longer narrative of disagreement, but I will say “ineffective,” because I expect that serious violence will continue after this week.

Al-Murabitun and the Islamic State

Yesterday, Mauritania’s Al Akhbar reported (French, and a slightly different version in Arabic)* that al-Murabitun, a Sahelian jihadist group that takes its name from an eleventh-century Northwest African dynasty, had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. The audio statement (Arabic) was a short and straightforward pledge of allegiance read by someone who gave his name at the end as ‘Adnan Abu al-Walid al-Sahrawi. Al-Sahrawi was a leader in the Movement for Unity/Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), one of two groups that came together to form al-Murabitun in 2013. The other group was Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s al-Mulaththamun, or “the Masked Men.” Both groups are splinters from al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Al-Sahrawi is (may be?) the emir of al-Murabitun. If genuine, the message from al-Sahrawi would represent a further diminution of al-Qa’ida’s influence in North Africa, the Sahara, and the Sahel.

I don’t go much for the kind of over-analyzing of jihadist media statements that can lead to making mountains out of molehills, but it is striking that al-Sahrawi’s (purported) statement was not nearly as formal or extensive as other, formulaic pledges of allegiance to the Islamic State. Compare the pledge (Arabic) by Boko Haram’s Abubakar Shekau, which included a number of formal elements (such as Khutbat al-Haja, “The Sermon of Necessity,” an oft-used Salafi doxology) not present in al-Sahrawi’s audio pledge.

One of al-Murabitun’s recent attacks was an April 15 suicide attack on United Nations peacekeepers in Ansongo, Mali. That attack was claimed by Belmokhtar.

*h/t Rukmini Callimachi and Andrew Lebovich, whose commentary on this is worth reading.

Senegal: A Marabout-Politician in Macky Sall’s Government?

President Macky Sall of Senegal

President Macky Sall

Since at least the 1990s, there’s been a major question about the leaders of Senegal’s Sufi orders and their relationship with formal politics: given that succession to the high leadership positions is hereditary and complex, how will the increasing number of younger leaders (often called marabouts) react? Will younger members of major families attempt to create their own constituencies? Will charismatic marabouts from outside the major families attempt to do the same? What effect will their moves have on Senegalese politics?

One of the “politicized marabouts” scholars have long watched is Modou Kara Mbacke (b. ca 1954), a grand-nephew of the founder of the Mouridiyya Sufi order. In 2004, after long activism as a religious leader for youth, he created a political party, the Party for Truth and Development (PVD in French). Yet he has tended to support incumbent presidents – in 2000, he backed Abdou Diouf (who lost to Abdoulaye Wade that year), and in 2007 he backed then-incumbent President Wade. The PVD did not run its own candidate in the 2012 presidential elections (nor in 2007), but in the 2012 legislative elections, the PVD won two seats. The Senegalese press has reported that Kara will be a candidate for president in 2017, a race that is already in its nascent stages.

Now, however, there is speculation that Kara might enter Macky Sall’s government. The two men recently met, and afterwards Kara told journalists that he wants to “accompany President Macky Sall” – a phrase open to multiple interpretations. He also called for the appointment of “people who don’t do politics.” Perhaps Sall just met him to be polite. But it is interesting that Kara has access to the president.

For more on Kara (and the Tijani Sufi Shaykh Mustapha Sy, to whom he is often compared), two references:

  • Fabienne Samson, “Islam, Protest, and Citizen Mobilization: New Sufi Movements” in New Perspectives on Islam in Senegal
  • Linda Beck, Brokering Democracy in Africa, especially the chapter “Influential Brokers”

Recent and Upcoming Workers’ Strikes in the Sahel

Sahelian countries are typically in the international news for elections or insecurity, but it’s interesting to follow labor issues there as well. Public employees’ syndicates in particular can be strong enough to mount newsworthy strikes. Here are a few recent and upcoming workers’ strikes:

  • Senegal, May 19-20: The Sole Syndicate of Health and Social Action Workers plans to strike. Points of contention include alleged government plans to remove certain allowances that health workers receive – see some background here (French).
  • Mali, April 21-23: Transport workers in Gao, who work on the Gao-Bamako route, struck over safety conditions.
  • Niger, April 8-10: Mine workers at two Areva uranium mines struck over non-payment of part of their bonuses.
  • Burkina Faso, April 8: The Coalition against the High Cost of Living called for a general strike, but it was only partly followed in the capital and elsewhere. The Coalition has a complex set of demands for the government, including demands for investigations into the deaths of former military ruler Thomas Sankara and murdered journalist Norbert Zongo.
  • Chad, early April: Schoolteachers struck over the government’s delayed payments of salaries.
  • Burkina Faso, March 31-April 1: The National Union of Truck Drivers of Burkina struck to demand the implementation of a 2011 convention containing provisions on salaries, allowances, and other matters.

Niger and Boko Haram: Violence, Refugee Repatriation, and Regional Politics

WFP food distribution in Bosso, funded by ECHO

WFP Food Distribution in Bosso, Niger

 

On April 25, Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect seized the island of Karamga, Lake Chad, leading to a protracted battle with soldiers from Niger. This attack was Boko Haram’s second assault on Karamga, following violence there in February. The aftermath of the recent attack highlights not only Niger’s continued fight against Boko Haram within its territory, but also how the violence is affecting the complicated politics surrounding the displaced.

As part of the response to the violence on Karamga, Governor Yacoubou Soumana Gaoh of Niger’s Diffa Region ordered an evacuation of civilians from the island. As many as 25,000 people may be displaced within Niger as a result of the evacuation. In addition to the scale of the displacement, there is an international dimension. Last week, Niger’s government began to deport some 6,000 Nigerian refugees and migrant workers back to Nigeria, with more likely to follow. At least 4,000 of these were removed from Karamga. Many of the returnees are fishermen and their families who were displaced by Boko Haram’s violence around Lake Chad.

Representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have expressed concern over Niger’s approach. Some refugees have died during the return journey. So far the Nigerian-Nigerien cooperation on the repatriations seems to have been amicable: The Nigerian Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) welcomed the returnees in Yobe State and sent some on to Sokoto, Kebbi, and elsewhere. 1,200 refugees were returned to Borno over the weekend, with another installment of 1,200 coming soon; Borno authorities were reportedly ready to receive them. Nevertheless, there are underlying tensions and conflicting incentives for Nigeria and Niger: Niger is desperately poor and can ill afford to host refugees, especially amid a fight with Boko Haram; Nigeria is re-establishing territorial control in a halting fashion; and Nigeria and its neighbors have had tensions over who bears what responsibilities in the fight against Boko Haram.

Meanwhile, the deportations add to a trend of repeated displacement for victims of Boko Haram, partly driven by the violence inside Niger itself. In February, after violence in Diffa, many of the displaced there fled north, or headed west to Zinder and other regions in Niger. Diffa itself became a “ghost town” at points. For those civilians who have been displaced multiple times, rebuilding could be even harder, especially given food insecurity in Niger.

Finally, one important detail: Reuters reported on Friday that Boko Haram had attacked a village in the Dosso Region of southwestern Niger. If true, that would mark one of Boko Haram’s furthest attacks west – even in Nigeria, the center of gravity for violence has been the northeast, and attacks anywhere west of Abuja have been somewhat rare. If Boko Haram is now raiding in southwestern Nigeria, that might – as with the attack on Karamga – reflect that the group is becoming scattered and desperate. At the same time, though, it might mark a stage of further unpredictability in the conflict.

On Seku Amadu and the Movement for the Liberation of Masina

On May 3, a group called the Movement for the Liberation of Masina partially destroyed the tomb of Seku Amadu in Hamdallahi, Mali (Hamdallahi is some 37km south of Mopti). The attack came just days before the scheduled ceremonial visitation by the shaykh’s admirers (May 9).

Since 2012, a number of such mausolea have been destroyed in Mali, especially in the context of jihadist rule in northern regions in 2012-2013. Regarding motive, the short answer for why jihadists destroy tombs would be that the jihadists see the tombs as manifestations of polytheism – not as respect for a major Muslim leader or a particularly pious saint, but as dangerous symbols of devotion toward a figure other than God. Another answer might be that destroying tombs is a way to physically and symbolically reshape the political and religious landscape, to project power.

This incident in particular struck me, though, because of the clash it represents between pre-colonial and post-colonial models of jihad in West Africa. Seku Amadu (ca. 1776-1845) was not just known for his piety or scholarship: he was one of the Muslim scholars who led jihads in nineteenth-century West Africa. Around 1818, he built an empire called Masina (or Macina) in present-day Mali, with Hamdallahi as its capital. He originally fought in the name of Shaykh ‘Uthman dan Fodio (1754-1817), founder of the more famous Sokoto Caliphate located in present-day northern Nigeria and its environs, but Seku Amadu subsequently acted in his own name. Masina fell in 1862 to the armies of another pre-colonial jihad leader, Al-Hajj ‘Umar Tall (ca. 1794-1864).

There are a few things to note about the pre-colonial jihads and how they differ from the kinds of jihads we see now. First, the theological orientation and worldview of these pre-colonial leaders was heavily shaped by Sufism, by the Maliki legal school of Sunni Islam, and by the classical model of Islamic knowledge in northwest Africa – in other words, by all the institutions that today’s jihadists reject. Dan Fodio was a Sufi of the Qadiriyya order, and Seku Amadu had close ties to the Qadiriyya as well; Tall was a Sufi of the Tijaniyya order. Second, the pre-colonial jihad leaders often had considerable learning and scholarly achievements under their belts before they turned to jihad – unlike today’s jihadists, who often lack any significant training in Islamic scholarship. The list might go on, but the point is that the theological and intellectual make-up of today’s jihadists is so different from that of the pre-colonial jihad leaders that the pre-colonial leaders would likely feel almost nothing in common with today’s jihadists.

This stark difference is worth bearing in mind when we assess how today’s jihadists talk about the pre-colonial jihads, or about pre-colonial Muslim polities more generally. For example, when it comes to northern Nigeria, I read a lot of analyses now about how Boko Haram is trying to “resurrect” the Sokoto Caliphate or the Empire of Kanem-Bornu (a polity in the Lake Chad region that was Islamized starting in the eleventh century, and successfully resisted incorporation into Sokoto). Maybe it’s true that Boko Haram seeks to do so, although I am skeptical. But in any case, Boko Haram’s understanding of Sokoto or Kanem-Bornu has been fed through some heavy filters and a good bit of selective re-imagination. Boko Haram didn’t start that process of re-imagination – for forty years and more, Salafis have worked to portray dan Fodio as (strictly) an activist who fought heresy, and to sand away his Sufism and Malikism – but they have taken the process several steps further. In any case, amid this misleading rhetoric, the outsider needs to keep in mind how someone like dan Fodio or Seku Amadu understood himself.

This is critical as one assesses the Movement for the Liberation of Masina, which has reportedly committed multiple acts of violence in central Mali, in a worrying trend that extends northern Mali’s conflict into new areas. If the reports are accurate, then the Movement features many of the same characters who played a role in the jihadist takeover of northern Mali in 2012-2013: a preacher named Hamadoun Kouffa (possibly dead) formerly associated with the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa or MUJWA; and possibly even Iyad ag Ghali, leader of Ansar al-Din.

Some have read the Movement for the Liberation of Masina as an ethnic movement – specifically Fulani/Peul, and indeed Seku Amadu himself was Fulani. Yet the goals of the Movement seem to be ideological. In the Malian press, we read that the Movement hopes to “restore” the Empire of Masina. When the Movement attacked Tenenkou, Mopti Region in January, they reportedly used similar language, including about bringing back the “old order.” But it is apparent that what they are “restoring” would bear little resemblance to what Seku Amadu built. They, of course, would likely see no irony in their destruction of Seku Amadu’s tomb – they would say that he himself would not have tolerated tombs or visitations to them. But what I see is the contrast between the Sufi-infused, intellectually sophisticated jihads of the nineteenth century, and the anti-Sufi, crudely ideological jihads of the present.