A Response to a Review of My Book on Boko Haram

Sam Wilkins, a U.S. Special Forces officer who deployed to Nigeria earlier this year, has written a fairly negative review of my new book on Boko Haram. Most of Wilkins’ review reacts to one section dealing with the Islamic State and Boko Haram, and to a second section discussing how the War on Terror has shaped Nigeria’s responses to the group.

Wilkins makes some good points, but he also attributes positions to me that I do not hold:

  • “Thurston’s treatment of the CJTF [Civilian Joint Task Force, the civilian vigilantes] mirrors his treatment of the Nigerian military as a whole. He dismisses the contributions of both groups due to human rights concerns.”
  • “A policy of humanitarian assistance without military assistance, as advocated by Thurston and others…”
  • “[Thurston] posit[s] a false equivalence between the security forces and the insurgency.”

Wilkins misinterprets analytical points as moral judgments. In the book, when dealing with the Nigerian military and the C-JTF, I try to explain unintended consequences. The Nigerian military’s heavy-handed approach exacerbated and prolonged the conflict. The C-JTF partly secured cities but ended up pushing Boko Haram into the countryside, contributing to Boko Haram’s bid to take mass territory in 2014. I suppose there is an implicit moral judgment in those arguments, but the point is to explain what happened. On p. 13, however, I do say that I “unequivocally condem[n] Boko Haram.” The book contains no equivalent statement directed at the Nigerian military or the C-JTF.

Wilkins says that because he’s been in Nigeria, he can determine where my arguments are “theoretical and divorced from the reality on the ground.” But many foreigners have been “on the ground” in Nigeria, and then there are obviously the millions of Nigerians who live in Nigeria and whose perspectives must also be taken seriously. To say the least, all of these people often disagree with one another about how to interpret events. Nigeria is a complicated place.

Wilkins says, “During my time in Nigeria, I learned to see the CJTF as the Nigerians saw it.” This is a red flag. If he feels that “the Nigerians” see anything in just one way, then he is being overconfident about his experience. For what it’s worth, in my fieldwork in Kano for my first book – when I was speaking with people in Hausa and Arabic, when I met leading religious figures, and when I was an independent researcher unaffiliated with any government – I always knew that I had only gotten part of the story. You have to triangulate between your experience and other points of view, and even then you will not get everything right.

Wilkins also, I think accidentally but also revealingly, puts some of Amnesty International’s words in my mouth when he dismisses my writing on the U.S.-Nigeria security relationship. Obviously, I agree with Amnesty and quoted them for that reason (p. 287). But Wilkins’ mistake matters: Amnesty has researchers “on the ground” in Nigeria, so Wilkins’ rhetorical strategy wouldn’t work as well against them. Easier, perhaps, to attribute Amnesty’s words to me, and then dismiss me.

Notably, two pages before, I discuss the Nigerian military’s open hostility toward Amnesty. I write, “The War on Terror has given Nigerian military and political hardliners a set of rhetorical tools with which they can easily rebut and undermine criticism: Boko Haram or ‘the terrorists’ are depicted as purely evil, Nigeria’s government is presented as a heroic participant in a global struggle, and all critics are cast as either deliberately or unwittingly proterrorist.” Is there no relationship between what Wilkins does in his review, where he bristles against criticism of the Nigerian military or the U.S. government, and the way that Nigerian senior military officers castigate Amnesty?

On Wilkins’ other major objection to my book – that I’m not sufficiently alarmed by “Islamic State West Africa” – I have less to say. I take them seriously. I suppose I’m just a bit more cautious than Wilkins about hyping them as a threat, and about reifying their Islamic State ties.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning Wilkins’ plan to defeat Boko Haram (and “ISWA,” if you go for that stark division between the two groups). Here, there is significant common ground between us – we both favor a combination of military and political measures, and Wilkins thoughtfully considers some of the more unattractive but probably necessary political measures I mention, such as amnesties for fighters. But Wilkins emphasizes the military approach more than I do, and he is more optimistic than I am about what will follow military campaigns. Much of the process Wilkins advocates – “a meaningful ‘follow-through’ of governance, pro-government religious messages [seriously?!], and enduring local security” – seems unlikely to happen, or at least to happen cleanly. That’s why I think the government of Nigeria should start, or rather restart, negotiations now, and keep looking for political opportunities even as the military conflict continues. Some of this is already happening, of course, perhaps more in Niger than in Nigeria. The point is that the end of the Boko Haram conflict is probably going to be messy. No one has all the answers, including me.

In any case, I encourage you to read the review. And perhaps read the book as well! There’s a bit more to it than Wilkins lets on.

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Foreign Policy Article on Chad and the Travel Ban

I’m up at Foreign Policy today with an article on how Chad is reacting to the Trump administration’s travel ban. As always, I welcome your thoughts and feedback in the comments section here.

Analysis of Senegal’s Legislative Elections

I’m up at World Politics Review with a piece on Senegal’s legislative elections, which took place July 30. An excerpt:

A closely fought site was Dakar, symbolically important as the home turf of the president’s main rival and politically important as the country’s capital and most populous city. Initially, both [the ruling coalition Benno Bokk Yakaar] BBY and [Dakar mayor] Khalifa Sall’s coalition claimed victory there, with a margin of less than 3,000 votes. Winning Dakar would not fundamentally change the balance of power in parliament, but the opposition hoped to prevent a rout. In the end, official results accorded a narrow victory to BBY.

Mali: Amadou Kouffa’s Opening Bid for Negotiations

Mali’s “Conference of National Understanding,” which concluded in April, recommended that the Malian government open negotiations with two prominent Malian jihadists, Iyad Ag Ghali and Amadou Kouffa. Both men are part of Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (The Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM), which is formally part of al-Qaida. After the conference floated the suggestion to negotiate, the French and Malian governments quickly rejected the idea. The suggestion, however, continues to evoke debate in Mali.

Apparently the jihadists are, at least theoretically, willing to consider the idea of negotiating. Recently, two emissaries from Kouffa (who is ethnically Fulani/Peul) approached (French) a prominent Peul politician, Alioune Nouhoum Diallo. Kouffa’s men outlined three preconditions for negotiations:

  1. The withdrawal from Mali of France’s Sahel-wide counterterrorism mission, Operation Barkhane;
  2. The withdrawal from Mali of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA
  3. The appointment of Diallo as mediator.

Needless to say, the first two preconditions are extremely unlikely to happen. Neither the government of France, nor the government of Mali, would agree – indeed, many would see those demands as a trap that the jihadists are attempting to lay.

But the very fact that Kouffa’s people approached Diallo bespeaks a willingness to negotiate, I think. Moreover, I think it bespeaks willingness not only on Kouffa’s part but on Iyad Ag Ghali’s, who is reportedly very close to Kouffa and who is, in a formal sense, Kouffa’s superior in the jihadist hierarchy.

Is there anything that could be negotiated? At the level of ideals, no – Mali will not become an Islamic state, Mali will not formally allow the creation of an autonomous jihadist emirate within its territory, Mali will not expel the international community, etc. But more pragmatically, perhaps Ag Ghali and Kouffa could be swayed by the offer of a path back to normalcy: a deal whereby they renounce al-Qaida in return for a seat at the main negotiating table, or whereby they could enjoy a comfortable exile somewhere far away from Mali (exile beats dying in the desert).

To me, the reason to start talking is to allow some room for creativity – the talking itself, I think, could uncover an area where genuine negotiations are possible. You can’t necessarily determine in advance exactly how the talks would go, or what the areas of compromise would be. You have to hear at least a little bit of what the other side thinks.

The counter-arguments to negotiations are, of course, serious and compelling. Some observers and players justifiably worry that opening negotiations could empower the jihadists politically or even militarily. But I don’t see negotiations and military pressure as mutually exclusive. You can still hunt these people even as you talk to them through intermediaries.

Finally, a bit on Diallo: he is a major figure, both within the Peul community (where he heads an umbrella body of Peul associations) and nationally. He was president of Mali’s National Assembly from 1992-2002, i.e. during the first decade of Malian democracy.

Last month, he gave a fascinating interview (French) where he discussed, among other things, the roots of Kouffa’s appeal – in Diallo’s view, Kouffa has benefited from his own eloquence, but also from broader socioeconomic problems such as unemployment among people educated in Arabic, rather than in French. In that interview, Diallo explained why he favors negotiations with jihadists:

Every time that the State really put itself forward, the State succeeded in halting the rebellions. So I think that a State that decides to talk straight, to speak the truth to all who are rebelling, and to speak with them, cards on the table, and to only commit itself to doing what it can do, that State can totally recover authority in central Mali, in eastern Mali. And that’s why you heard that heartfelt cry from hundreds of participants at the Conference of National Understanding who are sorry that the Peace Accord is not able to stop the bloodshed.

So, let’s talk with those who are presumed to be responsible for the bloodshed today. Let’s talk with Iyad Ag Ghali, let’s talk with Amadou Kouffa. Let’s try to know what’s necessary to do, without losing sight of the fact that the former president of the National Assembly, which I am, can only wish for a secular State, a democratic State, a State that will commit to the path of being just, being upright.

 

Senegal: Details on Dakar’s Urban Rail Project

Bloomberg:

Senegal closed finance arrangements for a $1 billion urban rail project for its capital after finalizing an agreement with the African Development Bank.

The AfDB agreed to offer 120 billion CFA francs ($212 million) for the project that will link Dakar with its main airport, which is 46 kilometers (29 miles) to the east, Economy and Finance Minister Amadou Ba told reporters in the city on Friday. The deal followed after pledges of 197 billion francs from the Islamic Development Bank and 133 billion francs from France, Ba said.

From the AfDB:

This 36 km long railway line will connect the heart of the capital with the new and growing city of Diamniadio. Some 113,000 passengers are expected to borrow it every day by 2019.

In Dakar, 80% of the 13 million daily trips are made on foot due to lack of efficient and cheap public transport. Dakar and its suburbs nevertheless concentrate nearly a quarter of the population of Senegal and contribute to more than half of the national GDP. In this ever-expanding conurbation, the future regional express train will play an essential role, facilitating the daily life of the inhabitants, enabling them to travel smoothly to their work and access to the working areas, as well as to reduce traffic congestion on the road network.

“The project should unleash the growth potential of Dakar and its region,” said Mohamed Ali Ismaël, transport economist at the AfDB, especially since it must be linked with other existing or future modes of transport, such as the Transit Rapid Transit (BRT) project, which will effectively serve the suburbs.”

A few other relevant documents:

  • Overview of the Islamic Development Bank’s projects in Senegal
  • Overview of the Senegalese government’s “Plan for an Emerging Senegal,” of which the regional express train is a part
  • A one-page factsheet (French) on the regional express train
  • Jeune Afrique’s report (French) on the project launch in December. The report mentions that three French firms – Alstom, Engie and Thales – are participating in the project. According to official press releases from those companies, Alstom is providing trains, while Engie and Thales will build the rail system and specifically “will direct the engineering group, provide overall management, and conduct all integration testing.”

Global Observatory Piece on Chad and Its Western Allies

I’m up at Global Observatory with a piece on Chad. Here’s an excerpt:

The Chadian government is also asking Western and African donors for more development funding. Chad will hold a roundtable in Paris in September to seek contributions for its newly adopted national development plan. Potential partners have already shown a willingness to participate: Deby recently hosted the vice president of the African Development Bank, which is financing projects in Chad’s electricity sector; the Bank confirmed that it will attend the Paris roundtable. The adoption of the development plan was one factor in the IMF’s decision to grant a new loan. The IMF did not make any allusion to Chad’s role in regional security, but other actors are clearly aware of the bargaining power that Chad has with donors because of its security role. Meeting the committee organizing the roundtable, France’s ambassador to Chad asked the Chadian government—according to the paraphrase of a Chadian news site—“to avoid playing the security card.” But the card has already been played, and with effect.

I welcome any comments you may have.

Niger: Two Local Critics Address Structural Issues

Two articles on Niger recently caught my eye. One is Jeune Afrique‘s interview (French) with civil society activist Moussa Tchangari (or Tchangary); the other is an article (French) by a professional civil administrator, Soumaila Abdou Sadou. Readers of this blog may be familiar with Tchangari, whose 2015 arrest I briefly covered.

In the recent interview, Tchangari makes some interesting comments about Nigerien democracy, the role of political parties, and the role of civil society. An excerpt:

Tchangari: Power is more and more captured by only one man! [i.e., President Mahamadou Issoufou]

Jeune Afrique: But there are free elections, an opposition?

Tchangari: Niger is still a very superficial democracy, which is not completed. The opposition is struggling, it tries to fight, but the regime tries to divide it.

Jeune Afrique: So the opposition is civil society?

Tchangari: No. We just have a role of vigilance. We are not there to replace the political parties with ourselves, but to propose ideas and to defend human rights.

 

 

Later in the interview, Tchangari rejects the idea that he himself become the head of the opposition. At least for now, he seems keenly interested in a real division of labor between political parties and civil society. At the same time, he alludes to a key problem for opposition parties: ruling regimes (in the Sahel and elsewhere) are often able to divide and rule, offering incentives to some opposition members while marginalizing others.

Abdou Sadou, for his part, directs criticism at the senior bureaucrats of the Nigerien state. An excerpt:

The “affairism” [one might translate this as “greed” or “commercialization,” but there is also a sense of turning one’s bureaucratic post into a business] of the agents of the state is piercing. In fact, these many affairist bureaucrats spend more time outside their offices for the attentive monitoring of their own affairs, instead of devoting themselves to the daily tasks of administration. Public service has henceforth become the site par excellence of affairism. The site most favorable for making his business grow with free capital.

In serving the state, many bureaucrats have become excessively rich, an ostentatious wealth that they do not even bother to camouflage, feeling certain of the cover and understanding of politicians.

Abdou Sadou’s critique is somewhat generic – there is little in the piece that is specific to Niger – but reading the two pieces together, it’s clear that some Nigerien intellectuals and activists are profoundly unhappy with the political direction of the country. Their criticisms go beyond electoral politics or a criticism of the Issoufou administration specifically, and extend to structural issues: the unequal relationship between government and opposition parties, and the vulnerability of public offices to private manipulation.