Quick Thoughts on the VOA Interview with Abubakar Shekau’s Mother

Recently Voice of America’s Chika Oduah found the mother of Abubakar Shekau, the long-time leader of Boko Haram who continues to act as head of one of its two principal factions (here is a photo of Oduah and Shekau’s mother together).

A quick note on surnames in northern Nigeria might be useful – many surnames are either the person’s father’s name (i.e. Muhammad Yusuf was most likely, “Muhammed, son of Yusuf”) or the place where the person is from. Shekau’s surname is the latter – “Abubakar, from Shekau.” So VOA found his mother, or a person claiming to be his mother, in – you guessed it – the village of Shekau, which is located in Yobe State, northeastern Nigeria. To an extent I am surprised that it took journalists this long to speak with her; and one hopes that Nigerian authorities had thought, long before, to interview her as well…

The interview does not shed much light on Shekau’s biography, perhaps because his parents lost track of him some fifteen years ago. And the few details in the interview raise many unanswered questions. For example, his father was “a local district imam before passing away a few years ago” – although, as is so often the case, it is hard to know what journalists (or their interlocutors) mean by “imam.” Was he the imam of a mosque? Or just a man with some religious learning? Did he have a school?

We read further that Shekau “left Shekau [village] as a boy to continue his Islamic education in Maiduguri, a center of religious studies for hundreds of years.” Crisis Group (.pdf, p. 19) places Shekau (the man) in Maiduguri’s Mafoni Ward as of 1990, when he was in his teens or early twenties (I’ve seen estimated birth dates for Shekau that range between 1967 and 1976). Shekau’s mother told Oduah that the turning point in his life was meeting Muhammad Yusuf, who is widely considered the founder of Boko Haram. Various analysts (including me) believe that by 2009, when Yusuf was killed by security forces in the aftermath of Boko Haram’s mass uprising that summer, Shekau was more hardline than Yusuf – but in the beginning it seems plausible that Yusuf heavily influenced Shekau. It would be extremely interesting, of course, to know exactly when the two men met – again, in Crisis Group’s account, Shekau enrolled in the Borno College of Legal and Islamic Studies in the 1990s, met Mamman Nur (another future Boko Haram leader) there, and then met Yusuf through Nur. But the meeting could have occurred at any point in the 1990s or even in the early 2000s.

Being a student at the College, of course, meant that Shekau was exposed to some degree to the very “boko” (Western-style education) that Boko Haram later declared haram. The College was meant to be a bridge for people coming from a classical Qur’an school background and seeking to enter into formalized study in the state system and from there to enter the salaried economy. I have never found confirmation of how long Shekau attended or whether he attained a degree there.

At Premium Times, Oduah provides more details about Shekau’s mother’s life in recent years – including how Boko Haram’s attacks have forced her to repeatedly relocate. Of course I’m always hungry for more information, but I should say that I’m really impressed by how Oduah speaks about this woman – Oduah displays an exemplary sensitivity to the complexities of her life and her context.

As for why Ms Oduah wanted to get the story, she told PREMIUM TIMES, “It is important to know that members of Boko Haram come from somewhere. They have parents and siblings and hometowns. This woman’s voice is crucial in understanding the man who plays a major role in this insurgency, which is entering ten years.

On a final note, I’m reminded of the story (I can’t remember where I read it, possibly in Lemine Ould M. Salem’s book on Mokhtar Belmokhtar) that Algerian authorities somehow set up a meeting between Belmokhtar and his mother, who had not seen him for many years. According to the account, Belmokhtar wept when he saw her and said her would leave armed jihadism – but then, after the meeting, went back to his ways.

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Niger: States of Emergency Extended in Diffa, Tahoua, Tillabéry

In Niger, the cabinet met yesterday and issued its communiqué (French). Two notable, though unsurprising, items include the extension of the state of emergency covering Diffa and the partial state of emergency covering two departments in Tahoua ((Tassara and Tillia) and five departments in Tillbéry (Ouallam, Ayorou, Bankilaré, Abala, and Banibangou). For context, here is a map of Niger’s regions.

The state of emergency in Diffa has been in effect since February 2015 and primarily reflects insecurity stemming from Boko Haram. Diffa suffered a suicide bombing earlier this month. The state of emergency in Tahoua and Tillabéry has been in effect since March 2017 and primarily reflects spillover from jihadist violence Mali, as well as a growing conflict matrix (militia-based, ethnic-based, and jihadist, to put it a bit reductively) that increasingly implicates certain border communities as well. Both states of emergency must be renewed every three months, so this renewal is essentially a routine measure, extending the states of emergency through mid-September.

[Note: no post tomorrow, given the likely Eid al-Fitr holiday.]

The 25th Anniversary of June 12, 1993

Today marks the 25th anniversary of June 12, 1993, a date with tremendous significance in Nigeria. On that day, Nigeria held a presidential election that was supposed to help bring the country out of military rule. Instead, the administration of military ruler General Ibrahim Babangida annulled the election. In the ensuing crisis, Babangida stepped down, a civilian caretaker regime was established, and another military coup occurred – bringing another officer, Sani Abacha, to power in November 1993. In 1994, the Abacha regime imprisoned the man widely considered to have won the 1993 elections, MKO Abiola, after Abiola declared himself Nigeria’s rightful president. Both Abacha and Abiola died, the latter in prison, in 1998, in circumstances that remain disputed in both cases. Nigeria ultimately transitioned back to civilian rule in 1999 and has not had a coup since.

This year’s anniversary has attracted even larger than usual symbolic actions. For example, current President Muhammadu Buhari shifted “Democracy Day” from May 29 (Inauguration Day) to June 12, in honor of Abiola. The presidency also “said Mr Abiola will now be conferred with nation’s highest honour, the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic, GCFR. The honour is exclusively conferred only on presidents and former presidents.” There is also pressure from the Senate on the Independent National Electoral Commission to finally declare official results from the 1993 election.

If you see any noteworthy commentary or have any of your own reflections and memories to share, please comment below.

A Quick Note on Banditry and Counterterrorism in Niger

RFI (French) reports that over the weekend, Nigerien soldiers in the northeast of their country clashed with armed Chadian bandits. The bandits reportedly fled toward the Nigerien border.

The incident reminds me of a quote (French) I’ve come back to again and again, from Mohamed Anacko, president of Agadez’s regional council. This came in the context of discussing France’s Sahel-wide counterterrorism program, Operation Barkhane, in a 2015 interview:

First of all, I should say that if Barkhane had not been there, the last Nigerien lock would have been forced open during the war in Mali. The national army would not have been able to prevent the terrorists from coming to set up shop in the north. But it is true that from the start, Barkhane suffered from a lack of communication. When you send helicopters and planes into the desert, without having created an information mechanism, you should expect that the populations will see a new form of colonialism in it…The inhabitants do not understand that Barkhane only takes action against certain armed groups. There are gangs, coming from Chad or Sudan for example, that practice looting, particularly since gold panning became important. But Barkhane, because that is not its mission, does not take an interest in them. Neither do the Nigerien security forces, moreover. However, these are the persons who create conditions propitious for the installation of terrorism. The risk is that the population will create militias to defend itself. What’s more, the struggle against terrorism, it’s first of all about intelligence. There must be collaboration with the inhabitants, who know the region. If not, Barkhane will have to content itself with doing tourism in the desert.

Words worth reflecting on.

Niger: On Bazoum and al-Sahrawi

Earlier this week, The Guardian published a report on the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) based on an interview with a Nigerien soldier whom ISGS held captive for three months. The whole piece is worth reading, but what stood out to me – more than the soldier’s testimonial – was a passage about an exchange between ISGS leader Abu Walid al-Sahrawi and Niger’s Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum:

When Bazoum took the interior minister job, he sent emissaries to ask what [ISGS] wanted.

“I said ‘listen, if you have political claims, or problems with the justice, the administration, the state, then tell me’,” said the imposing Bazoum, sitting on the sofa in his Niamey office. “We are ready to discuss your problem with you and resolve it. Declare that you’re a rebel front with specific claims on the Nigerien state.”

He said he received a handwritten letter from Sahraoui himself, which said: “No, we have no problem with you; we are waging jihad against Mali.”

According to Bazoum, the letter contained a list of Sahraoui’s comrades in Nigerien jails, whom he wanted released. If they were freed, ISGS promised to shield Niger from attack.

“I freed some of them to show my good will, but I couldn’t free all of them because some were on trial,” Bazoum said.

After that, the communication channel broke down and attacks escalated. Some believe the group’s militants could still be offered an olive branch to demobilise and be reintegrated into Nigerien society. But Bazoum is not among them.

If true, this account points to some patterns that American officials and analysts are often unwilling to acknowledge: national governments sometimes communicate with jihadists on a non-hostile basis and cut, or attempt to cut, deals with them. And jihadists are sometimes willing to talk, and even to deal a bit.

I’ve been working on some pieces that touch on how different Nigerien officials’ understanding of Sahelian jihadism is from American officials’ understanding of it; here is yet another instance of that divergence.

Think Bazoum was being naive? The guy’s been around the block more than once. And you might play your cards similarly if you held the hand he does.

A Lawyers’ Strike in Chad

It’s been a while (.pdf, p. 13) since I’ve written about the periodic waves of strikes by professionals and students in Chad. Here is a recent strike worth noting (French):

On Thursday, 31 May, Chadian lawyers, bailiffs, and notaries joined magistrates in a country-wide strike in order to support a lawyer who was taken to task by security forces…The magistrates decided on the “cessation of all activities throughout the national territory” to protest against the aggression against a lawyer and his clients by the security forces on 22 May in Doba.

RFI (French) provides more details on the incident in Doba:

The Chadian judicial system is today paralyzed by an affair that has shaken it since 22 May. That Tuesday, in Doba, in the south of the country, the justice system released three men accused by the city’s highest political and military authorities of “complicity in associating with wrongdoers” linked with a murky affair of alleged arms possession. Except that the men were then attacked by gendarmes, arrested and beaten up publicly. The affair has since taken on a national dimension…Meeting in general assembly that Sunday, the Order of Lawyers decided to launch a strike in the tribunals for three days, together with a condition: that three high authorities of the oil town of Doba, including the governor and the head of the legion of the gendarmerie, be relieved of their functions and judged.

At least one source (French) reports that the governor has been sacked by presidential decree. If true, that would be a sign of the presidency’s real concern over these strikes. After all, these judicial personnel are highly educated and well-placed people making extremely serious and specific political demands. It’s not easy to ignore them.

 

Mauritanian Ulama Debate a Third Term for the President

Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Abd al-Aziz will reach the end of his second term next year, and with it the limit of what the current constitutional provisions allow him to serve. Talk of a third term, however, has circulated for quite some time, and now the country’s religious scholars – ulama – are joining the debate. Recently, one of the most prominent senior shaykhs in the country, Hamdan Ould al-Tah, led a delegation that met the president and urged him to seek a third term. The expression of support is not necessarily surprising – Ould al-Tah has been close to different governments in Mauritania almost throughout the postcolonial period, and served as Minister of Islamic Affairs in addition to serving on various official religious bodies. Moreover, from a religious point of view, many ulama see political stability as preferable to the potential risks of change.

On the other side of the religious debate is Mahfoudh Brahim Ould Vall, vice president of Markaz Takwin al-Ulama (the Center for the Training of Ulama). The Markaz’s president is the globally famous Muhammad al-Hasan Ould al-Dedew, who is also a symbol of sorts for the Islamist movement in Mauritania, though he is not a member of the Islamist Tawassoul party. I assume that Ould Vall speaks for a broader constituency within the Islamist movement. Ould Vall argues that president, like any state functionary, is morally bound to fulfill his original commitments – i.e, to serve only what he initially said he would serve. RFI sees a generational split in this debate, but I think it may be more about which ideological tendency one affiliates with.

A third perspective comes from another globally famous Mauritanian shaykh (and former Minister of Islamic Affairs), Abd Allah Bin Bayyah. In a recent interview, Bin Bayyah said in a general sense that he believes ulama should leave politics to a country’s rulers. He did not, however, comment specifically on the third term issue in Mauritania.