Chad: A Snapshot of Intra-Muslim Tensions Around Boko Haram

A brief report from a Chadian online source caught my eye yesterday. It relates (French) how a prominent Chadian Muslim shaykh “opened fire on the Wahhabis whom he branded Boko Haram members, even terrorists.” This incident occurs in a context where Chadian forces are fighting Boko Haram, including inside Nigerian territory (read about Chad’s latest advance here [French]). The shaykh’s equation of “Wahhabis” with Boko Haram raises questions about how Boko Haram’s violence and Chad’s involvement could affect intra-Muslim relations inside Chad – an overwhelmingly Muslim country.

The Chadian shaykh in question is Shaykh Hassan Hissene, better known as Shaykh Husayn Hasan Abakar. He serves as president of the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs in Chad, a state-sponsored body that regulates some religious and educational matters in the country. Similar councils exist or have existed in other Sahelian countries.

Abakar has been called one of the 500 most influential Muslims in the world, and is a signatory to the Amman Message, a 2004 declaration calling for Muslim unity and tolerance. He is thus a respected figure in Chad and around the world. He has paid particular attention to questions of extremism in Chad; in a 2010 interview (Arabic) with an Egyptian newspaper, he said, “These extremists and zealots don’t appear in a country except through negligence and in the absence of rigorous rules, or when they incorrectly use the freedoms provided. Chad, thanks to Allah, works to prevent the spread of the factors that lead to the appearance of such elements.”

His accusations against other Chadian Muslims have drawn hostility and charges that Abakar plays sectarian and partisan politics (the Council is seen as favoring the Tijaniyya Sufi order, a widespread order in West and Sahelian Africa). Critics (French) in the Chadian online press have called Abakar a stooge of President Idriss Deby, a “hysterical mullah of the MPS [the Patriotic Salvation Movement, Deby’s party].” The piece that triggered this blog post takes a similarly critical tone and suggests that Abakar is using this moment of tension around Boko Haram to “settle his scores” with movements like Ansar al-Sunna, a Salafi organization with branches in Egypt, Sudan, and Chad. (Find one snapshot of the Chadian Ansar al-Sunna in Arabic here.)

It’s important to point out that just because an organization is Salafi does not mean it would support a movement like Boko Haram – there are Salafis around the world who vehemently reject jihadism. Indeed, the most prominent Nigerian Salafis have condemned Boko Haram. Moreover, Ansar al-Sunna is widely considered to represent a quietist form of Salafism. Given that, it will be important to see how Abakar’s accusations play out in Chad, and how the Salafi movement there responds to charges that it is linked to Boko Haram. In any case, this incident sheds light on rhetorical struggles that are playing out far from the battlefield.

Roundup of Recent Writing on the Humanitarian Fallout from Boko Haram

The violence by and against Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect has had a tremendous impact on non-combatants. Northeastern Nigeria and surrounding countries (Niger, Cameroon, and Chad) have experienced waves of displaced persons. Here is some recent writing on the humanitarian aspect of the conflict:

Accounts about surrounding countries:

  • World Food Program: “WFP Resumes Food Distributions in Diffa, Niger”
  • AFP: “Refugees in Niger Live Under Shadow of Boko Haram”
  • VOA: “Humanitarian Crisis Looms at Cameroon Refugee Camp”
  • ICRC: “Chad: Fallout from Escalating Violence in North-Eastern Nigeria”
  • UNHCR: “As Violence Spills Over to Countries Neighbouring Nigeria, UNHCR Calls for Urgent Humanitarian Access to the Displaced”

Accounts about Nigeria:

  • NEMA: “There Are 981,416 IDPs in Nigeria”
  • BBC: “Doctor on the Frontline”
  • IRIN: “For Boko Haram Victims, Charity Begins at Home”
  • IRIN: “Tackling the Trauma of Boko Haram”
  • Doctors Without Borders: “The Fighting Gets Closer and Closer”
  • ICRC: “Nigeria: ICRC Steps Up Aid as Situation Worsens in North-East”
  • NEMA: “Baga Relief Intervention”
  • Joshua Meservey: “Nigerian Refugees Fleeing Boko Haram are a Crisis in the Making”

Senegal: On the Trials of Karim Wade and Hissène Habré

I have a post at the Global Observatory discussing two ongoing trials in Senegal. An excerpt:

The trials of [former Chadian ruler Hissène] Habré and [former President Abdoulaye Wade’s son Karim] Wade will have implications for elites across Africa. The former’s trial may mark a new, albeit halting, effort to use African judicial systems to hold former heads of state accountable for human rights abuses. The latter’s trial may signal a new effort to crack down on corruption. At the same time, however, the trials may have little impact on ordinary Senegalese and their day-to-day struggles.

If you read the piece, please stop back by here and let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Nigerian Elections: Goodluck Jonathan and the Southwest

While many eyes are fixed on the violence in Nigeria’s northeast, the country’s approaching presidential election (March 28) will hinge on what happens elsewhere. One critical zone is the South West, a base of strength for the opposition coalition the All Progressives Congress (APC). The South West is majority-Yoruba, and its most populous city (which is also Africa’s most populous) is Lagos, which has been governed by opposition parties since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999.

The South West voted for the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in each of the last four presidential elections. Indeed, the 2011 elections featured a fairly straightforward electoral map. Of Nigeria’s six geopolitical zones, President Goodluck Jonathan won four of them – the North Central, the South West, the South East, and the South South. His challenger, General Muhammadu Buhari, won the North West and the North East. In 2015, the same two men are competing again, but the map could look quite different. Few doubt that Jonathan can hold most or all of the South East and the South South. But Buhari is more competitive in the North Central and the Southwest than he was four years ago. In 2011, the rumor goes, APC leader and former Lagos Governor Bola Tinubu (then of the ACN, one of the APC’s constituent parties) made a deal with Jonathan to support his presidential bid if Jonathan’s PDP left several South West governorships to the ACN. Whatever the truth of that allegation, this time could be different. Tinubu backs Buhari (unless something changes!), and other South West leaders seem fed up with Jonathan – hence former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s recent endorsement of Buhari.

This dynamic helps explain why Jonathan recently undertook a high-profile, four-day sweep through the South West. His campaign was especially eager to highlight his meetings with traditional rulers, such as the Alaafin of Oyo, the Soun of Ogbomoso, and the Alara of Ilara Epe. Jonathan also met Muslim leaders in the South West. (Although the international media is quick to talk of Nigeria’s “Muslim North” and its “Christian South,” there are many Muslims in the South West, and a sizeable Christian minority in much of the North.) The Punch quotes one purported insider account of behind-the-scenes deal-making:

A former Minister of Works, Chief Adeseye Ogunlewe, told one of our correspondents on the telephone on Saturday that the Yoruba elders lamented that the people of the South-West had been marginalised in the Jonathan administration.

He said the Yoruba leaders asked Jonathan to put into writing that if he wins the March 28 elections, Yorubas would be given key positions in his government.

The Punch goes on to report that the APC has mounted a political counter-offensive.

Which way will the South West go? I would be foolish to offer a prediction. On the one hand you have the power and charisma of the presidency and the PDP, and on the other you have the APC’s impressive coalition and its fierce criticisms of the President’s performance. And one should not minimize the agency of the voters, whose behavior may defy the will of political giants (from either party). In any case, the South West is a zone to watch.

On the Bombardment of Abadam, Niger

On February 17, an airstrike killed an estimated thirty-six people in the village of Abadam, Niger (map showing the closest nearby town, Bosso). Although the author of the airstrike remains unconfirmed, most coverage has pointed to Nigeria as the likely candidate.

The strike on Abadam comes amid three interrelated trends: (1) violence by Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect is increasingly spilling over into Nigeria’s neighbors as they move to fight the sect within their territory and even within Nigeria; (2) the Nigerian military is facing international and domestic pressure to demonstrate rapid progress against Boko Haram; (3) Nigeria’s neighbors seem frustrated with Nigeria’s performance against the sect. Although it was an accident, the strike shows how these different trends exist in tension with one another. Put differently, it shows how Nigeria’s aims, incentives, and actions may conflict with those of its neighbors.

Back to the incident itself:

At least 36 civilians were killed when a military plane bombed a funeral party in a Niger border village, the government said, in an incident its deputy mayor blamed on the Nigerian air force.

The air crew was likely to have mistaken the villagers, who had gathered near a mosque, for Boko Haram militants, Niger military sources in the nearby town of Bosso said.

[…]

Abadam lies on the border with Nigeria around 13 kilometres (eight miles) southwest of Bosso, where thousands of soldiers from Chad and Niger are massed in preparation for operations against Boko Haram.

The best commentary I’ve seen on the strike has come from RFI (French). RFI focuses on the operational, rather than the political, difficulties with such strikes:

The bombardment of Abadam brings to light the limits of resorting to airstrikes against Boko Haram. The Cameroonians have only used their Alpha Jet with caution. They have only done so one time, to liberate one of their bases briefly occupied by Boko Haram at the end of December. [RFI is referring to this incident – Alex.] As for the Chadians, they strike military targets with their Sukhoï in support of or in preparation for an operation on the ground. African military personnel generally agree in thinking that their fighter planes are too imprecise and thus too dangerous in the zones where members of Boko Haram are mixed into the civilian population.

These points take on added importance as Nigeria turns to airstrikes within its own territory. Just yesterday, the Nigerian military bombed suspected Boko Haram positions in the Sambisa forest in northeastern Nigeria.

The operational dangers feed into the potential for political problems, both within Nigeria and with its neighbors. Authorities in Niger have reacted calmly in public to the strike on Abadam (see the government’s statement in French here), declaring three days of national mourning and promising an investigation into the identity of the aircraft. Nevertheless, if it does turn out that Nigeria was responsible, this episode may foreshadow how a search for quick fixes as the clock ticks down to March 28 (the date of Nigeria’s once-delayed presidential elections) could put Nigeria at odds with the surrounding countries.

Mapping Boko Haram’s Attacks

Ryan Cummings recently wrote about several myths surrounding Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect. To his list one could add others, including the claim that the geographical range of Boko Haram’s attacks is always expanding. Of course, it is self-evidently true that if one looks at the group’s entire career, their range does indeed expand every time they strike a new location. But the idea that the trend is always toward expansion is not necessarily true.

In the current environment, with Nigeria’s neighbors fighting Boko Haram, there is a trend toward Boko Haram strikes in their territory – as demonstrated by recent incidents in Diffa, Niger; Waza, Cameroon; and Ngouboua, Chad.

Yet within Nigeria, the overall trend may be towards contraction of the group’s attacks. Davin O’Regan has published a rich and interesting set of maps, together with analysis, that show a more concentrated, higher intensity battle zone in 2013-2014 versus 2012. O’Regan writes,

Boko Haram’s brutal wave of attacks seemed unstoppable in 2014. Deaths from the Islamic extremist group’s campaign of violence in Nigeria more than doubled 2013’s toll, surpassing rates seen during the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.surpassing levels of violence seen in Afghanistan and Iraq. The group overran military bases and circulated footage of a Nigerian Air Force jet it claimed to have shot down. By August, Boko Haram announced an “Islamic State” in northern Nigeria, eliciting comparisons to ISIS’s sweeping seizure of vast territory in Iraq and Syria. Some reports have claimed that Boko Haram controls up to 20 percent of Nigerian territory.

An analysis of the geographic distribution of the group’s attacks and movement in recent years suggests more limited and shifting territorial ambitions, however. Despite Boko Haram’s growing lethality and tactical sophistication, the group appears to be concentrating larger proportions of its resources in Nigeria’s more remote border areas.

This analysis suggests that rather than representing “new fronts,” Boko Haram’s attack in Lagos last year was an aberration.

Are O’Regan’s data reliable? That depends on the quality of the primary source data. But the real point is the trend. I have heard former Ambassador John Campbell say of his Nigeria Security Tracker that its individual casualty counts (drawn from press reports) are hard to verify, but that the trends in these counts likely give us an accurate picture of whether violence is rising or falling. The same may well hold true for geographic trends.

The implication of O’Regan’s data is that Boko Haram is a northeastern Nigerian group with a limited but real capacity to project violence into other areas – other northern cities (including Abuja), border areas of nearby countries and, rarely, southern Nigeria.

O’Regan’s whole post is worth reading. He gives possible explanations for the contraction (and you can find others here, particularly the idea that by pushing Boko Haram out of Maiduguri, the government-backed Civilian Joint Task Force inadvertently contributed to a wave of extreme rural violence). O’Regan also offers thoughtful policy recommendations, namely a suggestion to contain Boko Haram in the northeast.

Of course, one further lesson from his maps is Boko Haram’s adaptability. Efforts by Nigeria’s neighbors to destroy Boko Haram are already starting to change its range and targets. The map for 2015 may well end up looking different than either the 2012 map or the 2013-2014 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.