I’ve published a briefing at World Politics Review titled “Managing Expectations Could Be Toughest Challenge for Nigeria’s Buhari.” If you read it, I would be eager to your reactions in the comments below.
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.
[The post below comes from Jochen Stahnke, a staff writer at the German national daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He traveled to Diffa, Niger in May of this year to report on the fight against Boko Haram. He has graciously agreed to share some of his reflections here. – Alex]
The first corpse comes into view lying in the dust two hundred metres behind the closed border between Niger and Nigeria. It is the body of a Boko Haram fighter, probably middle aged, dressed in Islamic male robes. A couple of metres further into northeast Nigeria, the next corpse lies decomposing in the sand. I walk with Lieutenant Issoufou Umara, who is in command of Niger’s 50 gendarmerie troops positioned just behind the bridge that crosses the border river Koumadougou. The soldiers close to Diffa city are tasked with curbing Boko Haram’s influx into the neighbouring states that has already been going on for long time. The army of Nigeria has fled some 30 kilometres into the province of Borno, Umara tells me. His last battle against the Islamist sect here took place at the end of February. “In the night they hung their flag in the tree over there,” Umara explains. The battle raged for more than an hour. Umara’s soldiers claim to have killed 100 fighters. But they do not bury their enemies. “These people are not human beings,“ declares Umara.
The impact of the war is visible at every corner in Diffa city. As the immediate border is closed, there are fewer goods to trade in the marketplaces. This region of Niger, probably the poorest of an already poor country, has been the worst afflicted. Diffa used to import almost everything from the big neighbour to the south. But instead of traders, soldiers now roam the streets in their pickups, machine-guns or anti-aircraft cannons welded onto their flatbeds. The soldiers belong to the armies of two countries: Niger and Chad.
Chad has deployed two Mil-24 helicopter gunships, now stationed on the airstrip at Diffa airport. French special forces patrol the airport area. But neither they nor the roughly 50 Canadian and US special forces fight Boko Haram directly. Mostly they share reconnaissance and intelligence data, predominantly gained from three drones that are operated in the region. The French and North Americans occupy two separate camps right in the middle of the garrison of Niger’s army. Colonel Major Moussa Salaou Barmou, the zone commander for Diffa province, would prefer to receive more than reconnaissance support, military advice and “non-lethal“ support. Niger and Chad run a joint operations center in Diffa. But cooperation with Nigeria was difficult – at least when I visited Diffa in May, just before Muhammadu Buhari was sworn in as new president of Nigeria. At that time, Nigeria only gave Niger permission to have a single liaison officer in Maiduguri. Joint operations did not take place, even though Boko Haram has no regard for national borders.
In Diffa, the sect recruits young men mainly among the poor Kanuri population. Most Boko Haram fighters are Kanuri, the major ethnicity in this region. Indeed, says regional commander Salaou, Boko Haram is “a Kanuri thing as well.“ But not exclusively. “Over there in northern Nigeria there were a lot of bandits and gangs that fought for politicians – in return for money they intimidated political opponents.“ Upon assuming power, these politicians forgot their fighters. “And now they demand their share,“ says commander Salaou.
A couple of kilometres outside of Diffa city at the Koumadougou river lies Bagara, a small Kanuri village, where 30 or more young men have joined Boko Haram. A couple of others are detained at Diffa prison. Many of them have waited months there without trial. People in Bagara say Boko Haram pays new recruits 300.000 Francs-CFA, plus a motorbike and the promise of a bride. Often, Boko Haram issues threats via mobile phone and coerces locals in Bagara into buying food and fuel for them in Diffa city. At this time of year, the Koumadougou river is only a couple of metres wide and easy to cross. The rainy season has not yet started.
The army of Niger operates two checkpoints at the entrance to and the exit from the town of Bagara. People here are as afraid of the army as they are of the sect. There is a mandatory curfew after 6:00 pm. Recently, authorities have also banned the wearing of full-face veils. Local religious authorities are caught in between. An Imam in Bagara tells me that the boys who joined Boko Haram, while they were not his students, had not previously studied extremist ideology or attended anything like a salafi madrassa. Since the army has been operating the area, the Imam has not left his village. “I am afraid of the soldiers,“ he says.
Niger hardly spares its own population from harsh treatment. Ever since the Nigerian army has finally started entering Sambisa Forest to battle Boko Haram, a big share of Boko Haram fighters has withdrawn towards Lake Chad – a largely ungoverned area with hundreds of small islands where the sect has already suppressed the local population and controls a large portion of the fishery trade. In order to fight Boko Haram at Lake Chad, Niger has ordered all residents to leave – anybody still encountered at Lake Chad is going to be considered Boko Haram. (Chad is said to have issued the same order just this weekend). But Niamey did not prepare for what evidently had to follow: A mass flight of tenth of thousands, largely towards Diffa. Diffa city has been flooded with IDPs. To determine who is Nigerien or Nigerian is largely an academic question. Almost no one here has ID or passport. At first Niger did not allow UNHCR to set up refugee camps due to the fear that IDP settlements might become permanent and that Boko Haram could use them as hiding and recruiting grounds. But even after UNHCR was finally permitted to set up camps in Diffa, they largely remain empty. Most of the refugees and IDPs find refuge with relatives or leave Niger for Maiduguri and other Nigerian cities.
In Niamey, Niger’s Interior Minister Hassoumi Massoudou, who is considered a hardliner and close ally of president Mahammadou Issoufou, explains to me: “Soon“ there will be aerial attacks at Lake Chad. Therefore, in his view, “evacuating“ the population was inevitable. But to win the war, he says, it is absolutely necessary that Nigeria “pushes“ from south to north to prevent Boko Haram from retreating in the other direction. But can Boko Haram be fought with only military force? Massoudou explains: “Boko Haram are not rebels. They are criminals. When they raid a village, they kill almost everybody, enslave the young girls, and steal what is of value. You cannot see any logic to this mob. If they want to occupy territory, they will need to set up some kind of administration, to convince the population. But they do not do any of that.“ According to Massoudou, at least a thousand members of Boko Haram are imprisoned in Niger alone. “Many of them are also citizens of Niger.“ Boko Haram’s influence has long been spilling over from Nigeria into its neighboring countries, and this trend is not likely to end anytime soon. In fact, the most terrible part of the war, at least in the Lake Chad region, may be just about to begin. But will air raids be able to change what is also a problem of society?
This month, the journal Islamic Africa published a special issue on Salafism in Africa. The issue includes an introductory essay by the University of Florida’s Dr. Terje Østebø, as well as articles on Tanzania, Ghana, Niger, Somalia, and Sudan. I contributed an article on Nigeria entitled “Nigeria’s Mainstream Salafis between Boko Haram and the State.” In brief, the article argues that the rise of Boko Haram on the one hand, and state suspicions of Salafis on the other hand, have made life awkward for those Salafis who oppose Boko Haram. The article deals primarily with life under President Goodluck Jonathan (served 2010-2015); at some point I may post an update here or elsewhere giving a few thoughts on how non-jihadi Salafis are faring under new President Muhammadu Buhari, but it’s early yet.
Islamic Africa is normally paywalled, but the publisher, Brill, is offering free access to those who register. Details are here.
If you read the article, please stop back by here and share your thoughts.
On October 11, Burkina Faso will hold presidential and legislative elections. Senior members of the current interim government, which took office in November 2014 following the fall of long-time ruler Blaise Compaore the previous month, are ineligible to run in the elections. For now, though, the primary political struggle in the country is not over the October vote, but over who will wield power today, and what the role of different factions of the military will be in the government.
In recent weeks, NGOs and media outlets have buzzed with discussions of tension between the Presidential Security Regiment (RSP) and Prime Minister Yacouba Isaac Zida, a conflict that could, at worst, derail the transition. Although both Zida and Compaore belonged to the RSP in the past, the elite unit has reasons to fear that it will be disbanded and punished: in December, Zida called for its dismantling, and in February, a political crisis unfolded when Zida attempted to reshuffle the RSP’s officer corps (French).
The most recent crisis (French) involves suspicions in some quarters of the government that the RSP was planning to arrest Zida upon his return from a trip to Taiwan – suspicions that were serious enough to make Zida land at a military base instead of at the airport as planned (French). On June 29, the day after Zida got home, gendarmes in the capital questioned three RSP officers, including Lieutenant Colonel Céleste Coulibaly, about their involvement in the suspected plot. That evening, shots were heard coming from the RSP’s barracks, which sits behind the presidential palace. Rumors then spread that Zida was resigning under RSP pressure, but he quickly stated that he was not stepping down.
These incidents have passed without bloodshed, but they have raised fears of an RSP-led coup. For its part, the RSP says (French) that there are no plots, but that it wants Zida and other military officers, such as Minister of Territorial Administration and Security Auguste Barry, to leave the government (French). Both sides accuse the other of seeking to undermine the planned transition. Many observers now look to interim President Michel Kafando to mediate (French) between the parties.
The International Crisis Group has urged parties in Burkina Faso to look forward:
With less than four months to go, the transition in Burkina Faso must focus all its efforts on the October elections…
The transitional government is caught in its own trap. It has made many promises without being able to satisfy them. The public is still waiting to see justice served for the economic crimes and murders committed under Compaoré. However, investigations have come up against a brick wall in the form of the RSP, some of whose members are accused of being involved in such crimes. There can be no final resolution of the question of the RSP’s future without destabilising the country. The transitional government is too weak to tackle their future role head on and seems to have decided to leave it to the new authorities.
With less than four months left before the elections, the transition has no more time to begin reforms and must focus on organising the ballot and promoting a peaceful climate.
For once, I find myself torn about Crisis Group’s recommendations (usually I agree fully with them). I wonder if postponing the question of the RSP’s future is tantamount to settling it in their favor. That does not mean I think the interim government should move to disband the unit – clearly Crisis Group is correct that such a move could prompt a crisis or even a coup. But I worry about a scenario for Burkina Faso where none of the issues that prompted the October 2014 revolution find resolution, even after the elections produce a winner. It seems to that the international community should take a strong stand not for or against the RSP’s existence, but for investigations of crimes. Supporting such investigations should involve creative thinking about how to ensure that the transition to the next government does not end up entrenching an atmosphere of impunity.
[Update July 10]: There have been two very smart responses to this post:
- Jay Ufelder relates the case of Burkina Faso to broader questions of civilian control over security forces.
- Michael Kevane offers concrete steps that civilian authorities and civil society activists could take to reduce the risks (or raise the costs) of a coup and to move the RSP close to “acquiescence to civilian rule.”
Around May 15, a Muslim preacher named Abdul Nyass gave a controversial sermon in Kano, the most populous city in northern Nigeria. Nyass belongs to the Tijaniyya Sufi order. He allegedly stated that Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse (1900-1975), a Senegalese Muslim who revived and popularized the Tijaniyya across West Africa in the mid-twentieth century, was greater than the Prophet Muhammad. The remarks were made at a celebration of Ibrahim Niasse’s birthday. The incident set off an extended and ongoing intra-Muslim controversy in Kano.
Here is a timeline of events:
- Circa May 15: Abdul Nyass’ alleged sermon glorifying Ibrahim Niasse over the Prophet. Conflict breaks out and Nyass, together with some of his followers, is arrested.
- May 20: Two major Nigerian leaders of the Tijaniyya, Shaykhs Dahiru Usman Bauchi and Isyaku Rabiu, dissociate themselves and the Tijaniyya from Abdul Nyass and his statements.
- May 22: “Thousands of youth” burn down the court in the Rijiyar Lemo neighborhood of Kano where Abdul Nyass and his followers are set to appear; other youth burn down Nyass’ house in Kano; other youths attempt to storm Government House and Emir Muhammadu Sanusi II’s palace.
- May 29: Inauguration of Kano State’s new governor Abdullahi Umar Ganduje
- June 25: The Upper Shari’a Court in Kano sentences Abdul Nyass and eight of his followers to death for blasphemy; four others were acquitted.
- June 29: Governor Ganduje announces his support for the court’s verdict.
Some context and reflections:
- Kano is a significant site of inter-religious and intra-Muslim disputes. Such incidents do not happen on a monthly or even yearly basis, but this case is not the first: one example of Muslim-Christian conflict is the October 1991 riot that occurred in response to plans for a visit to Kano by the controversial Christian preacher Reinhard Bonnke, and one example of intra-Muslim conflict is the 2007 arson at Freedom Radio station.
- The Tijaniyya is one of the largest Sufi orders in the world and one of the most important Muslim constituencies in Nigeria as a whole and Kano in particular. Emir Ado Bayero (1930-2014, ruled 1963-2014) belonged to the Tijaniyya, as did several Emirs before him. The order as a whole is mainstream in the Nigerian context. If Abdul Nyass did utter the remarks attributed to him, that would make him a fringe voice in the order. Many of his opponents have referred to his group as “yan hakika” (people of the truth, i.e. people who aspire to reach a mystical state), a Tijaniyya offshoot with some fringe beliefs. The mainstream Tijaniyya leaders are taking the case very seriously. Shaykh Dahiru Usman Bauchi essentially called Abdul Nyass an unbeliever (Hausa), and took pains to say that Tijanis are mainstream Muslims.
- Even though the Tijaniyya as a whole is mainstream, there is a long history in Nigeria of opposition to the order, particularly among high-placed scholars. Shaykh Abubakar Gumi (1924-1992), who was Grand Qadi of Northern Nigeria (an administrative unit at the time of colonialism and decolonization) from 1962-1967, authored a harshly anti-Tijani book in 1972. Critics of the Tijaniyya have long accused the order of elevating its own texts and leaders over the central texts and leaders of Islam. The blasphemy case this year, then, activates long-standing suspicions of the Tijaniyya among some Nigerian Muslims, particularly Salafis.
- Given this anti-Tijani precedent, the current case may allow some public officeholders to impose their views about what constitutes Islamic orthodoxy. For example, a major figure in this case is the Salafi leader Shaykh Aminu Daurawa, head of Kano’s Hisba, a governmental law enforcement body charged with upholding public Islamic morality. Daurawa has commented frequently on the case, including in terms that go beyond Abdul Nyass himself. In one Facebook post (Hausa), Daurawa wrote, “This is the truth of the [Sufi] order. There is a need to get rid of all [Sufi] orders, because the Prophet (Peace and Blessings Upon Him) is being insulted among them.” One important question about the case, then, is whether it and its aftermath will further empower the opponents of Sufism in Kano.
- Many analysts in the West have come to believe Sufis are good and their opponents are bad. It’s never that simple. To my mind the analyst should neither caricature Sufis nor demonize their opponents. I don’t see this case as a sign of some “creeping radicalization” in northern Nigeria: I see it as the latest incident in a long-running intra-Muslim struggle to define doctrine and practice in Kano.
- The case is also important because it will test the limits of what punishments shari’a courts can impose. As AFP writes, since the new shari’a penal codes were implemented starting in 1999, shari’a courts have sentenced various people to death – “but to date, no executions have been carried out.” Federal authorities may pressure Kano’s authorities to overturn the sentences. However, given that both Kano’s new Governor Ganduje and Nigeria’s new President Muhammadu Buhari are very new to their offices, they may decide to either drag their feet or even let the sentences stand. The sensitivity of the questions involved (blasphemy, intra-Muslim relations, public order, etc.), combined with the overall tense atmosphere (including because of Boko Haram’s violence), puts both state and federal authorities in a tricky position. That makes this case one to watch.
Washington’s map of the world still gives Africa much less importance than it is due, but U.S. policymakers do pay substantial attention to Nigeria. The Deputy Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, is in Nigeria and neighboring Niger this week. Blinken is there as part of a series of U.S. diplomatic engagements with the new Nigerian administration of President Muhammadu Buhari. In particular, Blinken is there to help prepare the ground for Buhari’s visit to the White House on July 20. You can read a brief statement about Blinken’s agenda here, and a biography of him here.
If I learned anything in the year I spent on a fellowship at the State Department, it’s that from the perspective of the U.S. government, trips abroad by senior State Department officials are a big deal. I doubt that more than one in two hundred Americans could name the Deputy Secretary of State at any given time, but inside the U.S. government, that person is a demigod. Whether the Nigerians and the Nigeriens perceive the Deputy’s visit as a big deal is, of course, up to them – but Washington is attempting to send a signal that it cares about Nigeria a lot.
The shadow of Boko Haram will hang over the trip. The sect’s violence has been horrific in recent months, including a wave of shootings and bombings in just the past week. Southeastern Niger has been suffering as well, as has Chad, though the latter is not on Blinken’s itinerary. The violence has confirmed grim predictions that neither the election of Buhari, nor the destruction of Boko Haram’s would-be Islamic state in northeastern Nigeria, would be sufficient to end the group’s violence.
Blinken is hosting a Facebook chat today at 10:45 am EST to take questions and comments on his Nigeria/Niger trip. Many people have already posted.
If I were advising Blinken, and if his trip is partly about scaling up U.S. assistance in one or more spheres, I would urge him to prioritize humanitarian relief over military aid. Hundreds of thousands of civilians are suffering in the Lake Chad region, and I believe that it would be more appropriate – and more productive – for the United States to help feed and resettle people than to offer military training and equipment. If all it took to defeat Boko Haram was a few more helicopters, a few more guns, and a few more months of training, Boko Haram would already be defeated. The Nigerian government and its military clearly face a long-term, multi-faceted struggle against Boko Haram; it will take time and sophistication on their part to unravel the Gordian knot, and no outsider can slice through this problem in one stroke. In the meantime, the U.S. government should help Nigeria’s neediest citizens. How better to show that Boko Haram is wrong about the West?