Roundup of Recent Reports on Boko Haram, Ansaru, ISWAP, and the Surrounding Conflict

Philip Olayoku and Bassim Al-Hussaini, Spoor Africa, “Beyond the Decade of Boko Haram Insurgency in Nigeria: Counterinsurgency through the Eyes of Key Stakeholders.” For me, the most interesting part was Chapter 4, “Multi-Stakeholder Counterinsurgency Approaches in Nigeria’s Northeast.” An excerpt (pp. 12-13):

Abiola Sanusi, the Chair of the Safe Schools Declaration Sub-Committee of the Education in Emergencies Working Group Nigeria emphasised the fact that women and children remain the worst sufferers as they constitute 79% of the IDPs. Overall, women make up 54% of the total IDP population as most of them have become household heads resulting from death of or separation from their spouses. In giving the statistics of the impacts on these vulnerable groups, wom- en and children in the base states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa, about 2.7million women and children need nutrition, out of which around 350, 000 children suffer from severe acute malnutrition (SAM) and 250,000 others from moderate acute malnutrition (MAM). Children victims include at least 3,500 recruits by the insur- gents while young girls have been most targeted as human bombs numbering up to 136 from 2017 according to the available data. Education has also been un- der severe attacks with 867 schools reportedly closed, leading to at least 390,150 children out of school and 19,000 teachers displaced. Also, 645 teachers have been killed and 1,500 schools destroyed or occupied (by the insurgents, military or IDPs). There is however the effort to create safe schools through the develop- ment of the Policy on Safety and Security in schools to ensure minimum stand- ards for ensuring that school children, teachers and administrators are protected from harm in schools. Edwin Kuria, Director of the Humanitarian Programmes at Save the Children, Nigeria puts the total number of people in need of assistance in affected communities at 7.1million across Borno, Yobe and Adamawa States, with about 930,000 people in very remote areas that are hard to reach resulting in very minimal or no access to aids by humanitarian actors, and 230,000 pregnant and breastfeeding women acutely malnourished. 2.8 million children reportedly out of school in Borno State alone while children constitute 58% of the total num- ber of 5.8 million people in need of assistance. He therefore advanced the need for the special protection of children facing grave human rights violations to avert a lost generation of children.

Zoë Gorman, Aspenia Online, “Chad: Extremist Violence and Recession in the Wake of the Pandemic.” A quote:

[Chadian President Idriss] Déby, who has held office since 1990, is struggling to balance a need to confront internal vulnerabilities with external military engagements critical to his continued political longevity.[6] Home to 60 million people from more than 200 ethnic groups, Chad is surrounded by conflict states — Libya, Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR), as well as the Lake Chad states, Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria.[7] Against a highly variegated security landscape and a faltering oil-dependent economy, Chad faces internal insurgency and youth unrest. Elections for the national assembly have been repeatedly postponed or cancelled since 2015 with security concerns cited, and soldiers are increasingly frustrated with rampant corruption and ethnic discrimination concerning the payment of military salaries and access to medical care.[8]

Abdullahi Murtala, The Republic, “The Resurgence of Ansaru.” I wasn’t convinced by this one. From the article itself:

Ansaru claimed responsibility for the 17 January attack on a convoy in Kaduna State. This was the group’s first attack since 2013. Through Al Qaeda’s Al Hijrah Media, Ansaru stated that it targeted a military convoy and destroyed several vehicles along the Kaduna-Zaria road. It was later revealed that the military contingent attacked was escorting the convoy of the Emir of Potiskum, the northeastern town. In response, the Nigerian Police Force conducted a raid that supposedly killed 250 Ansaru members in the group’s Birnin Gwari camp in Kaduna. The 17 January attack is a disturbing signal that Ansaru is resuming its activities. Furthermore, the group is currently exploiting ungoverned spaces, vulnerable rural communities, and the existing climate of insecurity in the North, a region that has been plagued by kidnappings, armed rural banditry, and violence.

That’s the contradiction that runs through so much of the writing on Ansaru (and other jihadist groups) – any time they make a public statement or claim an attack, it’s supposedly a sign of their resurgence; but then they’re treated as super insidious because of all their supposedly unclaimed attacks. Which is it? If they’re dangerous because they’re in the shadows, then why is it a big deal when they make a statement? And if they only claim a few attacks, then how can we be confident they’re so powerful in the shadows?

One could ask related questions about the new International Crisis Group report on violence in northwest Nigeria. An excerpt (p. 12):

Many Nigerian security and other independent local sources interviewed by Crisis Group corroborate that amid the breakdown of stability in Zamfara and elsewhere, two Boko Haram offshoots are making inroads into the region, where they are forging tighter relationships with aggrieved communities, herder-affiliated armed groups and criminal gangs. The first is Jama’atu Ansarul Muslimina Fi Biladis Sudan (or the Group of Partisans for Muslims in Black Africa), better known as Ansaru, an al-Qaeda-linked group that declared itself independent from Boko Haram in 2012 and was operating in north-western Nigeria until it was largely dismantled by security forces by 2016. Now it seems to be making a comeback. Secondly, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) – another splinter of Boko Haram in Nigeria’s North East zone – has forged links to communities in the north-western region on the border with Niger, which is separately in the throes of fighting its own local Islamic State insurgency. Ansaru, which has a long history of operating in the North West (where it engaged in the high-profile kidnapping of expatriate engineers between 2012 and 2013), is forging new relationships with other smaller radical groups in Zamfara state, particularly in the areas around Munhaye, Tsafe, Zurmi, Shinkafi and Kaura Namoda. The group has also deployed clerics to discredit democratic rule and the state government’s peace efforts, a “hearts and minds” campaign aimed at winning support from rural communities. It is also wooing some of the armed groups to its ranks, including by offering or selling them AK-47 rifles supplied by its allies in the al-Qaeda-linked Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), at lower than the prevailing market price. Security officials say it has been recruiting members, and that it previously sent some recruits to Libya for combat training.

First, why should these statements from security officials – or even from ICG’s other interviewees – be accepted uncritically? And second, if Ansaru is so embedded in the conflict that it traffics arms, allies with other groups, and operates a preaching network, why does it not announce these activities? Are they shy? Again, you see this pattern throughout much analysis of jihadism. “The group made a statement! Drop everything!” and then in the next breath “This group is too clever to proclaim themselves publicly! Drop everything!”

Finally, Folahanmi Aina, Wilson Center Africa Up Close, “Re-Engineering Counter-Terrorism Efforts in Nigeria’s North East: The Pursuit of Peace.” Aina discusses what he calls “mutuality”:

Let us consider two levels of mutuality, using the case study of Nigeria’s North East region. The first level is international—the Nigerian state and its neighbors and partners under the umbrella of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJT)—which can be seen as the two ends of the same cord. For peace to be nurtured and achieved, it has to be rooted in mutuality between the two actors as distinct political entities. This requires their respective political leaders to commit to upholding agreements and commitments in the common war against the region’s insurgencies.

A second level of mutuality needed to nurture and achieve lasting is internal: each state must be able to secure mutuality with its own society in attaining shared goals. This internal mutuality is what this essay focuses on. This essay argues that the chances of ensuring lasting peace are better when this second level of mutuality (internal) is pursued alongside the first level (international), rather than being completely ignored.

Roundup of IMF Statements on Disbursements to Sahelian Countries amid COVID-19

On April 15, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved six-month debt service relief for twenty-five low-income countries, including the Sahelian countries Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, and Niger.

The IMF has also given disbursements to each of those countries to help offset the impact of COVID-19.

Burkina Faso ($115.3 million, approved April 14):

The immediate challenge is to contain the spread of COVID-19, strengthen medical care, implement the social distancing and other containment measures, and mitigate the socio-economic impact of the pandemic, especially on the most vulnerable.

[…]

The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in Burkina Faso is rapidly unfolding, with the short-term outlook worsening quickly. The pandemic comes at a time when Burkina Faso was already gripped by a heightened security crisis. The authorities responded by putting in place measures to help contain the spreading of the virus, including by closing schools and universities, banning mass gatherings, and suspending international travel. Though absolutely needed to contain the outbreak these measures, together with the global response, have significantly worsened the economic outlook in the near term, with real economic growth declining substantially, and both the fiscal and balance of payments deficits widening significantly.

Chad ($115.1 million, approved April 14):

Due to a significant deterioration of the macroeconomic outlook and weakening of fiscal situation, urgent external and fiscal financing needs have emerged. The IMF’s support will make a substantial contribution to filling immediate external needs and preserving fiscal space for essential COVID-19-related health expenditure. It is also expected to help catalyze additional donor support.

Mali ($200.4 million, approved April 30):

This assistance will help support urgent spending on health services and assistance to affected firms and households, while preserving overall social spending.

[…]

The COVID-19 shock hit the economy hard amid an already challenging social and security situation. The economic outlook has deteriorated significantly, and growth is expected to slow to below 1 percent, increasing already high unemployment and poverty.

Mauritania ($130 million, approved April 23):

The COVID-19 pandemic is having a dramatic human, economic, and social impact on Mauritania. The short-term economic outlook has deteriorated rapidly and growth is expected to turn negative this year, with severe hardships for the population, and the outlook is subject to considerable uncertainty. These developments have given rise to urgent balance of payment and fiscal financing needs.

[…]

The IMF’s financial assistance under the RCF will provide a sizable share of the financing needed to implement the anti-crisis measures. Additional concessional and grant financing from the international community will be critical to close the remaining financing gap and help Mauritania respond effectively to the COVID-19 crisis.

Niger ($114.5 million, approved April 14):

The COVID-19 pandemic is having a pronounced negative economic impact on Niger and downside risks are significant. The economic downturn, fiscal pressures, and tightening financial conditions are giving rise to large financing gaps in Niger’s public finances and balance of payments this year.

[…]

A substantial widening of this year’s budget deficit is appropriate, reflecting unavoidable revenue shortfalls and pressing spending needs for health care, social protection, and support for hard-hit businesses.

Senegal ($442 million, approved April 13):

The Covid-19 pandemic is hitting Senegal hard. The sharp global economic downturn and domestic containment measures have led to a substantial reduction in economic activity, with sectors such as tourism, transport, construction, and retail particularly hard-hit, and the pandemic in Europe is also translating into lower remittances. As a result, the short-term economic outlook has deteriorated significantly, with large uncertainties surrounding the duration and spread of the pandemic.

 

COVID-19 and Jihadists, Part Two

See part one here, where I lay out a few reasons to be skeptical of the now widespread media/think tank narrative saying COVID-19 benefits jihadists. I’m going to revisit this as necessary because I think the narrative is still very flawed. It’s still too soon to tell.

For example, last week saw a piece from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) entitled “Extremist Groups Stepping up Operations during the Covid-19 Outbreak in Sub-Saharan Africa.”

The piece opens with a seemingly strong argument, seemingly backed by data:

Sub-Saharan African extremist groups are poised to make strategic gains during the Covid-19 outbreak, outmaneuvering distracted and overstretched domestic and foreign security forces. Violent attacks in the region’s hotspots rose by 37 percent between mid-March and mid-April, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) database, and groups have begun to release pandemic-related propaganda. Meanwhile, African states—like governments worldwide—are shifting military resources to the pandemic response, potentially undercutting counterterrorism operations.

On closer examination, though, there are problems:

  1. The individual attacks and incidents discussed in the piece don’t fit the supposed pattern. In one paragraph, the authors cite three incidents: the March 19 attack on a Malian army base; the March 25 kidnapping of Malian opposition politician Soumaïla Cissé; and the March 22-23 attack by Boko Haram on Chad. At the time of all of these incidents, however, confirmed case counts in Mali, Nigeria, and Chad were very low. Mali didn’t even confirm its first two cases under March 25; Nigeria’s first confirmed case was reported on February 27, but Nigeria only reported its first COVID death on March 23; and Chad’s first official case was on March 19. One could make the argument that the global pandemic and/or the response to it was already emboldening jihadists and constraining security responses in the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin by mid-March, but I think even that is a tough sell. When we look at the kidnapping of Cissé, moreover, it could arguably be blamed not on jihadists being emboldened by the pandemic but on Malian authorities’ decision to press ahead with legislative elections despite the pandemic – Cissé was kidnapped while campaigning in the ultra-dangerous southern Timbuktu Region. And the reality may be even murkier than that; one account (French) says that Cissé had actually brokered a deal with local jihadists to campaign in their area, but was then kidnapped by a rival jihadist group. Assessing the causal role of COVID-19 in any of these incidents is pretty difficult, to say the least, and there are a lot of grounds for blaming other factors.
  2. The trend lines were already bad. The ACLED numbers quoted by the authors sound bad, but they do not unpack them – and they do not contextualize them. 2017-2019 were already very bad and worsening years for Mali and Burkina Faso, and the Boko Haram/ISWAP insurgency in northeastern Nigeria/Lake Chad has been quite bad for some time as well. A 37% jump in violent attacks sounds bad (and again, the authors don’t unpack this – attacks by whom?), but consider that Burkina Faso had a 25% jump in displacements from January to February 2020, or that there was a roughly 57% increase between December 2019 and January 2020 in what the Council on Foreign Relations’ Nigeria Security Tracker calls “incidents” in the Boko Haram conflict – meaning, to put it less dramatically, that there were 19 incidents in December and 30 in January. So for one thing, the numbers concerning attacks, deaths, and displacements are just bad all around; and for another, there is significant variation in levels of attacks even without a pandemic around. Certainly COVID-19 must be having an impact on these conflict zones, but in complex ways and in combination with other factors.
  3. Jihadist governance can be brittle. I wrote this in the last post, but it’s worth revisiting here. The authors argue that jihadist propaganda and service delivery will win them support while governments stumble. But it is not at all clear that jihadists are skilled at managing humanitarian emergencies – in fact, they often create humanitarian emergencies around them, and many, many people simply flee jihadist control. The authors of the CSIS piece write, “Al-Shabaab, for example, took advantage of the famine in Somalia three years ago to publish photos of its fighters distributing food and medical supplies to needy families, blaming the crisis on regional and international governments.” But this is not evidence of success, it is only evidence of propaganda; meanwhile, various experts have argued that al-Shabab grossly mismanaged the 2011 famine in Somalia. Here is one quote from a study: “Al-Shabaab has poorly managed the famine crises. The Famine Early Warning Systems (FEWS) has declared that the crisis broke in several southern regions of Somalia. Al-Shabaab had expelled most of the intergovernmental and non-governmental relief organizations. They have also denied that there was a famine in the country. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people were forced to seek food and shelter in TFG- controlled Mogadishu and neighboring countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya. To the victims, al-Shabaab was complicit in their suffering” (emphasis added, because that’s a crucial point – jihadists’ propaganda can be clumsy, it’s not always masterful). If jihadists botch their pandemic response through inflexibility, lying, and harsh treatment of civilians, it could be a setback for them in various ways.
  4. African militaries are not necessarily pulling back yet. Here, the authors seem to conflate possibilities with actualities. They write, “A memo from Nigeria’s army headquarters called on soldiers to be on ‘maximum security alert and be ready for deployment’ and suspended leave passages for all personnel.” But suspending leaves doesn’t mean that counterterrorism is slackening (it might be, it might not be!). A glance at the Nigerian Army’s Facebook page shows them heralding supposed counterterrorism successes as recently as April 29. There are a lot of competing claims and counter-claims to sort out when it comes to the Nigerian military’s own propaganda, obviously, but one shouldn’t assume that militaries will pull back. In fact, recently there have been several excellent (and disturbing) Twitter threads (see below) from experts pointing to patterns of severe and persistent security force abuses in the Sahel. Will CSIS write a piece arguing that COVID-19 is emboldening security forces to commit abuses? It seems to me you could make that case just as easily as the case that the pandemic is emboldening jihadists.
  5. International forces are not yet pulling back majorly. The authors even note this themselves, despite the title of the relevant section of their piece – and furthermore, Irish troops coming back from peacekeeping in Mali, and the British suspending a training mission in Kenya, do not add up to a major shift. And as I said in the last piece, it’s way too soon to tell with some of these supposed trends. And one might even wonder whether international forces pulling back a bit – say, if AFRICOM did ease up on drone strikes – might not improve the overall situation a bit in Somalia and elsewhere.
  6. The policy recommendations are thin and predictable. “Enhance civilian outreach,” “uplift religious leaders,” and “exploit insurgent missteps.” None of these ideas are new, and there is a particularly unfortunate line saying “Somali imams and teachers, in collaboration with Somali government ministries, have been broadcasting best practices for staying safe during the pandemic—tying them to Koranic dictates.” The authors act surprised that imams would try to keep people safe (!), and act as though this basic function of religious leaders should be harnessed to some kind of counterterrorism agenda. But most Muslim clerics around the world have been trying to protect their co-religionists (and their societies more broadly) while remaining true to their visions of what authentic Islam is. In fact, it’s probably better to let religious leaders speak for themselves rather than trying to “uplift” them, because there are substantial dangers into trying to fashion clerics into the mouthpieces of some kind of “official Islam” – governments trying to co-opt clerics can even inadvertently undercut them. Finally, one irony in the “exploit insurgent missteps” is that the point the authors are making is both obvious and in some instances already happening. The authors write, “if extremists attempt to launch operations beyond their capabilities and overextend themselves, security forces should retaliate, hitting poorly defended bases and safe havens.” This is effectively what Chad has done, although there are real limits to what Chad’s offensive is likely to accomplish. In any event, it’s odd that if the authors consider the situation so scary, that they didn’t put more effort into the policy recommendations.

Relevant Twitter threads on security force abuses:

It’s Way Too Soon to Tell Whether COVID-19 Will Benefit Jihadists (And Here’s a Few Reasons It Might Not)

Amid the pandemic, there has been a spate of commentary arguing that the Islamic State, al-Qaida, and other jihadist groups stand to benefit from the disruptions COVID-19 is causing (see here, here, here, and here for examples). Here’s how the argument runs: strong states will pull back on counterterrorism campaigns, and weak states will see further erosions in stability and governance. Some states are also increasing repression amid lockdowns, with security forces exhibiting the precise kinds of behaviors that research suggests drive much jihadist recruitment.

There is merit to these arguments about the benefits jihadists may reap – but it is way too soon to tell. Attacks in recent weeks, for example Boko Haram’s killing of ninety-two Chadian soldiers in late March, cannot be convincingly attributed to the pandemic. And there are reasons to think that COVID-19 could hurt jihadists too.

First, youthfulness will not necessarily protect jihadists’ ranks. In settings without mass testing and without strong public health systems, the virus has sometimes taken a significant toll on people under fifty. Jihadists, young and old, may also have comorbidities due to battlefield injuries and years of poor diet and limited access to healthcare. And not all jihadists are young – al-Qaida’s formal leader Ayman al-Zahawiri, for example, is sixty-eight. When and if the virus spreads to jihadist groups, fighters with severe symptoms will face the difficult choice of suffering alone or leaving their hideouts to seek care. Top leaders could struggle to find treatment without being recognized, and ordinary fighters may find – even if they do not arouse suspicion when arriving at hospitals and clinics, which they very well might – that the health systems in their areas are overwhelmed. For example, even though the reported cases in Yemen and Libya are low, experts have sounded the alarm about how the pandemic could shatter what remains of those countries’ health infrastructures.

Second, severe outbreaks could expose the hollow and brittle character of jihadists’ “shadow governance.” In some areas, jihadists have elaborated relatively sophisticated systems of political and economic sway – for example, drawing rents from gold mining and other activities in eastern Burkina Faso – yet these systems have very limited public health components. Jihadists’ relationships with organizations such as Doctors Without Borders are also often shaky at best, and some humanitarian agencies are being forced to pull back amid the outbreak. If COVID-19 begins to ravage communities under jihadists’ sway, sufferers may not find much help from those outfits – and the incipient social contracts between communities and jihadists may take a hit. As with famines, jihadists’ responses may make the pandemic even worse – and may cost those organizations support among civilians. Meanwhile, states who move swiftly to offer services and manage lockdowns in non-repressive ways may even find that they can repair some of the trust deficits that have festered in recent years (a long shot, I know, but possible). And as the economic toll mounts from the virus and the attendant lockdowns, people may vote with their feet – and not necessarily by flocking to jihadist-dominated zones. Or, in one of the grimmest scenarios imaginable, states may harness the virus as a quiet but lethal bioweapon, blockading jihadist-dominated zones to weaken both jihadist organizations and the wider populations of perceived “enemy civilians.”

Third, jihadists’ narratives may resonate even less with ordinary Muslims than before. There has been no shortage of jihadist propaganda responding to the virus and its effects, but a few competing and overlapping dynamics are at work in the wider religious arena. One is that jihadists by no means have a monopoly on depicting the virus as divine punishment, promoting conspiracy theories about the virus’ alleged Western origins, or calling on Muslims to be more pious. Another dynamic is that many Muslim scholars around the world are redoubling their efforts to reach constituents online or through other media, meaning that media environments are saturated with religious messages as never before. The scholars championing strong public health precautions are often making extremely sophisticated textual arguments, and their higher degree of learning is often on full display in contrast with those who are resistant to public health precautions; jihadists, in other words, may be outcompeted in a real-time competition to display scholarly mastery, in a context where jihadists cannot necessarily fall back on their core messages as easily as before. Yet another dynamic is that with reminders of mortality now so vivid and ever-present, the appeal of calls for ascetic orientations toward the afterlife may grow even among some of jihadists’ potential audiences. The ways that the pandemic may reshape Muslim religiosity has yet to be seen, as events unprecedented in any living Muslim’s lifetime, from Ramadan under lockdown to a year (likely) without hajj, are playing out.

Fourth, states may consider repression, for better or mostly for worse, an “essential” activity. This means that, as in Chad, even the poorest states may still mount forceful responses to jihadist challenges. That kind of state repression certainly drives jihadist recruitment, as noted above, but it is not inherently proof that COVID-19 will benefit jihadists. Meanwhile, as noted above, some states appear keen to repress other perceived challenges – opposition parties and critics, independent journalists and NGOs, and both violent and nonviolent protesters. Such repression could benefit jihadists, if jihadists position themselves as the champions of popular frustration; but state repression of dissidents could also give states more latitude to respond to jihadist attacks, for example if elections are delayed and local media fall silent. Meanwhile, security forces are highly vulnerable to the spread of the virus within their own personnel – but the virus is not, in various ways, an equalizer, and states may be able to provide better care to their sick soldiers and police than jihadists can provide to their sick fighters.

In sum, many of the dynamics that analysts assume will benefit jihadists could actually cut both ways. In the longer term, meanwhile, we may all emerge from COVID-19 into a more securitized world of enhanced tracking of mobile phones, widespread temperature checks, and recurring lockdowns. Those processes will likely gain more purchase in wealthy nations than in poor and fragile ones, but even poor countries may be reshaped by such a future. It is true that jihadists have survived and sometimes thrived even amid intensive surveillance and manhunts, but the post-COVID – or COVID-endemic – world may bring surveillance to a new level that pushes jihadists even further toward the peripheries.

Finally, on a meta level, it is worth noting where the warnings about jihadists are coming from – mostly from the various think tanks for whom conflict analysis is a core coverage area. Although there were terrorism analysts before 9/11, since those attacks there has been a massively profitable industry dedicated to sustaining the idea that terrorism is the central threat to the United States, Europe, and the world. Representatives of that industry can be relied upon to regularly wax alarmist about jihadism no matter what is happening in the world. Some of the analysts warning now about pandemic-emboldened jihadists, it can be assumed, are doing so on the basis of their honest assessments of the situation in different countries – but other analysts may be looking more to their own bottom line, now potentially threatened as public fear turns from terrorism to disease.

Chad’s Big Anti-Boko Haram Campaigns Are the Exception to the Rule

After Boko Haram killed some ninety-two Chadian soldiers at the Boma/Bohoma peninsula on March 23, Chad launched a reprisal operation called the “Anger of Boma” on March 29. The background to these incidents, the course of the operation itself, and Chadian President Idriss Deby’s open frustration with his Nigerian and Nigerien counterparts, are covered in depth by Le Monde here (French), and by Dan Eizenga here.

I have four brief thoughts:

  1. Chad has impressed observers again and again with its military capabilities, but Chad does not appear willing or able to sustain operations like this for long. My assumption is that if Chad could maintain an operational tempo that would permanently disrupt Boko Haram’s activities in Chadian territory and on Lake Chad, it would do so – which means that a burst of activity like this is at least partly intended to show strength and beat Boko Haram back for the medium term, but not to establish a new normal for the long term.
  2. I do not think that a fundamentally greater level of regional cooperation and integration in the fight against Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) is forthcoming. I can certainly sympathize with the chorus of voices urging Chad and its neighbors to take full advantage of this moment, consolidate the gains Chad has made, and use regional frameworks (i.e., the Multi-National Joint Task Force) to begin decisively encircling and defeating Boko Haram and ISWAP. But I think if that was going to happen, it would have already happened.
  3. If Chad’s big military campaigns against Boko Haram (2015 and 2020) are the exceptions to the rule, and if Nigeria, and to a lesser extent Niger and Cameroon, are visibly slow to take advantage of the resulting opportunities, then that reinforces what I am far from the first to say – the governments of the Lake Chad Basin region, Chad included, can tolerate a certain and even a high level of Boko Haram activity. I don’t mean that in a conspiratorial sense, in terms of government actively abetting Boko Haram; I mean it in the more passive sense of governments having multiple priorities and of top leadership not always seeing Boko Haram as a key threat, especially to themselves. If Chad intervenes massively when they feel the situation has gotten out of control, then the corollary to that is that authorities in all four countries may regard certain levels of violence as still being “under control” – from their own perspective.
  4. The idea that a certain level of insurgency/violence can be tolerated by the governments of the region can help to explain why the insurgency has persisted so long. Imagine for a moment that there was complete and effective regional coordination, and that all four militaries (plus Benin, if you like) really were prepared to hunt down Boko Haram and ISWAP throughout the entire region, somehow avoid unwittingly angering civilians in the process, then hold all the territory they had retaken, and then implement massive programs of economic and physical reconstruction, victims’ justice, post-conflict social contracts, etc. How much would that cost? How long would it take? I don’t know for certain, of course, but I imagine some policymakers in Abuja, Niamey, N’Djamena, and Yaoundé have taken a hard look at the situation and decided that it’s not worth it. By no means do I point that out to justify or excuse such decisions – my point is rather than Chad’s operation appears to me less like turning the page, and more like a familiar part of an extended cycle whose end I, for one, cannot foresee.

 

Chad: Notes on Ben Taub’s Recent New Yorker Piece

I like the journalist Ben Taub’s work a lot, and there is much to like in his latest, on rebellions in Chad, for the New Yorker. Taub gets into the politics of the recent rebel advance – and the French airstrikes that followed – in northern Chad, developments I have covered a bit here.

The central argument of Taub’s piece is one that I agree with, and that I rarely see stated so bluntly in the American media: propping up dictators is bad.

After decades of supporting Sahelian strongmen, and turning a blind eye to their abuses, Western countries have been unable to devise any regional strategy except one that conflates the strength of a regime with the stability of a country, and which brings about neither stability nor strength.

Taub falls into the occasional cliché – “jihadi groups thrive in the margins of broken states” – but he also sees through the current rhetoric about “terrorism” coming from both Chad and France. What follows that line about “broken states,” for example, is very good:

and, where there are no terrorists, [Chadian President Idriss] Déby has seen it as politically advantageous to fabricate them. In the aftermath of the French air strikes, his forces arrested some two hundred and fifty rebels and announced that they would be tried as “terrorists,” without the veneer of judicial protections typically afforded to criminals, traitors, or whatever category would normally apply to political opponents and army defectors who have attempted a coup. The designation is convenient for France, too; the legal mandate for Operation Barkhane is counterterrorism, not killing men who have had enough of Déby’s rule. But the facts are being obscured amid staged cries of victory.

Taub goes on to make some very grim predictions:

Absent radical changes in local Sahelian governance and priorities, no humanitarian crisis in Africa’s recent history will compare to the hell to come. What is likely doesn’t have to be inevitable. The question for Western governments is whether they will be complicit in its acceleration.

There are huge questions to ponder here. Is demography destiny in the Sahel? Is the most likely future one of brittle (or collapsing) regimes, with popular desires for change channeled largely or solely into violence? Will the Sahel of 2050 be the frontline of climate apocalypse? There is definitely good reason to think so. But in addition to highlighting the agency of Western governments, one should also keep in mind the agency of Sahelians themselves. Multiple futures are possible for the region, and who knows – maybe increasing crisis and fragility will elicit not just chaos but also creativity.

Recent Media Quotes/Review

I’ve been quoted in a few media reports recently, and a new review of my book on Boko Haram came out.

Media:

  • Voice of America, “French Airstrikes in N. Chad Affirm Support for President Déby”
  • BBC, “Nigerian Elections: Has Boko Haram Been Defeated?”
  • The Economist, “Boko Haram, Nigeria’s Jihadist Group, Is Regaining Strength.”

The review appeared in International Affairs, by Caroline Varin, whose own book on Boko Haram can be found here. Varin highlights things that I see as the book’s strengths, and she also makes some solid critiques of the book – writing conclusions, in particular, has never been my strength!