Boko Haram and ISIS: Be Careful with Evidence

In March of this year, the violent Nigerian sect Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. The pledge has elicited questions about what kind of material support the Islamic State may provide to Boko Haram, especially in terms of fighters, training, and money. These questions tap into an older inquiry about what connections Boko Haram has/had to other jihadist organizations – for years before the pledge, there were allegations of operational ties to al-Qa’ida’s affiliate al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). And these questions also take on added significance now, as Boko Haram is being forced to chart a new course in the wake of its recent territorial losses to Nigerian and regional armies.

When assessing the strength of Boko Haram’s outside connections, it’s important to weigh the evidence carefully. News organizations and analysts all have the temptation to seize on small details or perceived trends as evidence of growing operational ties. But the details may not be as significant as analysts presume, and the trends may not be new.

Example 1: An article headlined “With Help from ISIS, A More Deadly Boko Haram Makes a Comeback.”

The Nigerian terror group Boko Haram, after some much heralded reversals on the battlefield, has made a dangerous comeback, unleashing female suicide bombers, carrying out a series of deadly attacks, and seizing a highly strategic town [Marte, Borno State].

[…]

All this comes amid reports that Boko Haram may be receiving training from the self-proclaimed Islamic State, widely known as ISIS, which operates in Iraq and Syria. A group called the Mosul Youth Resistance Movement, apparently formed to fight ISIS in and around the major Iraqi city it conquered almost a year ago, killed five Boko Haram members there, according to the Iraqi Kurdish website BasNews. Saed Mamuzini, spokesperson for the Kurdish Democratic Party, is quoted saying, “The Nigerian Boko Haram militants were in Mosul to take part in a military training course conducted by Islamic State.”

What caught my eye here was first, the phrase “unleashing female suicide bombers” – which suggests that this is new. Not really. I basically stopped reading after that, since the article’s credibility evaporated when it began to present the old as evidence of the new. But to go further, it is certainly possible that Boko Haram members are training in Iraq. Yet are Kurdish websites really the most reliable sources? And is this really evidence of an Islamic State-supported Boko Haram comeback?

Example 2: An article headlined “Captured video appears to show foreign fighters in Nigeria’s Boko Haram.” When we read the article, we find that the video shows “a man speaking in Sudanese Arabic” and wearing “a white turban.” Another man wears “a black turban.” Are these men fighters? Are they Sudanese? Are they Nigerians who spent time in Sudan? Do they have anything to do with the Islamic State? The answers to some of these questions may well be yes, but I would argue that we can’t know yet – and so we shouldn’t over-interpret the limited evidence that is available. It’s better to withhold judgment.

As a final note, I would say that there has long been an assumption in many quarters that Boko Haram simply could not be homegrown, or that Nigerians could not possibly be the masterminds of Boko Haram’s violence. Well, why not? Nigeria is home to over 170 million people (that’s more than Iraq, Syria, and Algeria put together, with at least 70 million residents to spare). Is it inconceivable that some Nigerians would know how to make bombs, plan sophisticated attacks, conquer territory, and produce propaganda? I think the alliance with ISIS is real and that it will have some effect, especially in the sphere of media and rhetoric, where there is observable and consistent evidence of influence. But I am suspicious of the analysts who seem to need to find an Arab hand behind any and all terrorism in sub-Saharan Africa.

 

Roundup on Niger’s Arrest of Moussa Tchangari (Updated)

On Wednesday, Niger’s Interior Ministry confirmed that authorities had arrested (on Monday)

On Monday, Nigerien authorities arrested a journalist and civil society activist named Moussa Tchangari on charges of collaborating with Boko Haram. (EDIT: Interior Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou said that Tchangari “has been collaborating with Boko Haram for some time, and he is actively spreading propaganda and false news in liaison with Boko Haram.” According to Oxfam’s Associate Country Director for Niger, Fenke Elskamp, “Tchangari[‘s] file [is] still empty, his lawyers confirm.”)

The arrest comes amid an uptick in Niger’s conflict with the Nigerian sect this year, which has seen Nigerien soldiers deploying inside Nigeria as well as a spate of attacks by Boko Haram inside Niger, particularly the southeastern Diffa Region.

Niger’s action also occurs in the context of other struggles over the control of information during the fight against Boko Haram. For example, the Nigerian government has in the past blacked out mobile phone service in northeastern states, and journalists have complained that they lacked access. Moreover, the case of Tchangari is reminiscent of Nigerian journalist Ahmad Salkida, who left Nigeria for the United Arab Emirates in 2013. Salkida had interviewed Boko Haram’s founder Muhammad Yusuf during the latter’s lifetime and had written for years on the sect. He began to experience harassment “after security agencies and Nigerian authorities began to mistake his in-depth reporting on the extremist group as evidence of his closeness to the sect.” I obviously do not know all the facts in either case, but I give the benefit of the doubt to both Salkida and Tchangari.

A few perspectives on Tchangari’s case are below.

AFP:

“This man has been collaborating with Boko Haram for some time, and he is actively spreading propaganda and false news in liaison with Boko Haram,” Interior Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou told AFP.

[…]

Tchangari was arrested on Monday and charged with “criminal links to the terrorist group Boko Haram”, he said.

Tchangari’s organisation Alternative Espace Citoyen has been critical of the humanitarian crisis in southeastern Niger, where the army is fighting Boko Haram.

In early May, his group published a report that criticised the Niger authorities after the evacuation of some 25,000 Lake Chad residents over fears of new Islamist attacks, following a deadly assault in late April.

Amnesty:

Niger must immediately release a human rights defender arrested after he criticised the indictment of six village leaders for “failure to cooperate” with the authorities in the fight against Boko Haram, Amnesty International said today.

[…]

The fight against Boko Haram and national security requirements must not be an excuse for arrests, which lack a solid legal basis and do not respect human rights. Arbitrary arrests and detention without charge should not be the weapons used to silence those who peacefully exercise their right to freedom of expression.

Here are a few more resources:

  • Tchangari’s Twitter account. His most recent tweets, dating May 8, are photographs of people displaced from Lake Chad islands by order of Nigerien authorities.
  • The website of Alternative Espaces Citoyens, an NGO where Tchangari is Secretary General.
  • A statement (French) from African and European human rights organizations, calling on Nigerien authorities to free Tchangari.
  • RFI (French) quotes some civil society members in Niger, including a member of Alternative Espaces Citoyens and Amnesty’s Nigerien researcher.
  • The RFI story above says that Nigerien authorities were offended by an interview Tchangari gave to RFI’s Hausa service. The Hausa service has covered the displacement from Lake Chad, but I haven’t been able to find the interview.

Nigeria: The PDP Thinks about Its Next Steps

Nigeria’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has held the presidency for sixteen years, but as of May 29 it will be in the opposition. Defeat has left the PDP with a number of questions, most importantly: What next?

Over the weekend and into this week, the PDP’s official Twitter handle started a surprisingly candid discussion of this issue, all while expressing confidence that the PDP would maintain “its ability as the flagship of democracy.” The series of tweets generated controversy, including within the PDP, with some officials saying that the account was not speaking for the party.

The online conversation has been paralleled by leadership changes. Adamu Mu’azu, national chairman since January 2014, just resigned, as did Tony Anenih, chairman of the Board of Trustees – perhaps to make way for outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan to take that position. There is a precedent for a former head of state to play such a role: former President Olusegun Obasanjo was chair of the Board from when he left office in 2007 until 2012.

A number of serving and former PDP elected officials have weighed in on what the party should learn from its defeat and where it should go from here. One is former Cross River Governor Donald Duke, who gave an interview with Channels Television in April. The interview has attracted some attention – you can read about it (and watch it) here.

For my part, I thought the PDP’s tweets effectively conveyed the message that the party was willing to listen to ordinary citizens. For that reason, disavowing the conversation would make the party look worse. On the other hand, a willingness to listen will not be sufficient for revamping the party’s image. I think what the PDP will need to figure out is whether it is, or can be, more than a collection of elites united by a desire to win elections. The party will also need to show what policies it has to offer beyond a slate of macroeconomic “reforms” that sometimes delivered rapid growth, but did not deliver enough jobs.

 

Headlines out of Today’s ECOWAS Summit

Between May 15 and 19 (today), Ghana has hosted three important meetings for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS): (1) an Ordinary Session of the Council of Ministers from May 15-16; (2) a Session of the Mediation and Security Council on May 17; and (3) a Session of the Authority of Heads of State and Government on May 19.

The Council of Ministers is made up of member states’ Ministers in charge of ECOWAS Affairs, while the Mediation and Security Council is composed of member states’ Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defense. More details about the agendas for these meetings can be found here, with additional information on the Heads of State summit here. I should note also that Ghana’s President John Mahama has been the ECOWAS Chairman since 2014.

Here are some key takeaways, readouts, and headlines from the meetings:

  • Term limits: “West African leaders on Tuesday rejected a proposal to impose a region-wide limit to the number of terms presidents can serve, after opposition to the idea from Togo and Gambia, Ghana’s foreign minister said.”
  • Mahama’s remarks/Jonathan’s farewell: Reiterating his earlier praise for Nigeria’s “historic elections,” Chairman Mahama lauded President Goodluck Jonathan for his “mature statesmanship” in conceding defeat, and “salute[d]” President-elect Muhammadu Buhari for his victory. You can read Jonathan’s remarks at the summit here.
  • Youth Employment: Mahama also urged greater focus on job creation for youth, saying, “considering the fact that we have the fastest growing youth population; young people are coming out of school at every level of the educational system in the hope of finding jobs, it’s going to be a major hurdle for us.”
  • Common External Tariff: “Regarding the [ECOWAS Common External Tariff or CET], which entered into force in January this year, the Commission indicated that as at 30 April 2015, only eight Member States had started the implementation, namely, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Togo, with the remaining seven countries, lagging behind due to various reasons, such as legal requirements, public health and other technical considerations. Council commended the eight Member States and urged the remaining seven to take the necessary steps to ensure effective implementation of the CET before the end of the year in accordance with the decision of the Authority of Heads of State and Government.”

Two Points about Boko Haram’s Recent Maiduguri Attack

Boko Haram, the Nigerian sect, has repeatedly attacked the northeastern city of Maiduguri, its birthplace. Maiduguri was part of Boko Haram’s mass uprising in 2009, it saw sustained guerrilla-style violence from 2010-2013, and it was the site of a massive raid on a detention facility, Giwa Barracks, in May 2014. During Boko Haram’s period of territorial expansion in 2014-early 2015, it sometimes appeared that the group was encircling the city and stood a good chance of taking it. Indeed, in January-February 2015 the group made several major assaults on Maiduguri, but failed (or perhaps never intended) to take it. Soon, however, Boko Haram was thrown on the defensive, as Nigerian and regional forces started to retake its territory.

All this is background to this week’s attack (May 13) on Maiduguri. The violence reportedly began with explosions by three female suicide bombers (a standing Boko Haram tactic), followed by an assault involving hundreds of “militants.” Much of the fighting reportedly took place in the village of Kayamla, about twenty kilometers from Maiduguri, which was the site of a prior attack. Authorities quickly imposed a twenty-four hour curfew in Maiduguri.

I would make two simple points:

  1. Boko Haram is still deadly and will likely remain so for some time to come, even if they are greatly weakened. As Reuters says, “Wednesday’s assault shows [Boko Haram] is still capable of pulling off bloody assaults.” This is a basic point, but an important one: premature triumphalism about retaking territory from Boko Haram could easily lead the military, the incoming administration, and outside observers to forget that Boko Haram has long demonstrated a capacity to adapt – and to resurface with new violence even after the authorities thought they had quashed it. The Maiduguri attack may have signaled some desperation or an attempt at distraction, as Boko Haram is pushed out of other areas. Nevertheless, even if its supply of fighters dwindles, the suicide bombers may remain an intermittent feature of urban life in the northeast.
  2. People are being repeatedly displaced. As one Twitter user, Maina Kachallah, said, “Well that’s Life in Maiduguri. We flee…return…flee…return. our fate, with our IDPs.” Earlier this week I discussed how some Nigerian refugees were being repatriated from Niger after attacks there, with others being further displaced within Niger. Some of the repatriated persons were heading to Borno State – meaning they could be affected by this latest violence in Maiduguri. Many of the survivors are losing years of their lives and existing amid frequent instability.

Niger and Boko Haram: Violence, Refugee Repatriation, and Regional Politics

WFP food distribution in Bosso, funded by ECHO

WFP Food Distribution in Bosso, Niger

 

On April 25, Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect seized the island of Karamga, Lake Chad, leading to a protracted battle with soldiers from Niger. This attack was Boko Haram’s second assault on Karamga, following violence there in February. The aftermath of the recent attack highlights not only Niger’s continued fight against Boko Haram within its territory, but also how the violence is affecting the complicated politics surrounding the displaced.

As part of the response to the violence on Karamga, Governor Yacoubou Soumana Gaoh of Niger’s Diffa Region ordered an evacuation of civilians from the island. As many as 25,000 people may be displaced within Niger as a result of the evacuation. In addition to the scale of the displacement, there is an international dimension. Last week, Niger’s government began to deport some 6,000 Nigerian refugees and migrant workers back to Nigeria, with more likely to follow. At least 4,000 of these were removed from Karamga. Many of the returnees are fishermen and their families who were displaced by Boko Haram’s violence around Lake Chad.

Representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have expressed concern over Niger’s approach. Some refugees have died during the return journey. So far the Nigerian-Nigerien cooperation on the repatriations seems to have been amicable: The Nigerian Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) welcomed the returnees in Yobe State and sent some on to Sokoto, Kebbi, and elsewhere. 1,200 refugees were returned to Borno over the weekend, with another installment of 1,200 coming soon; Borno authorities were reportedly ready to receive them. Nevertheless, there are underlying tensions and conflicting incentives for Nigeria and Niger: Niger is desperately poor and can ill afford to host refugees, especially amid a fight with Boko Haram; Nigeria is re-establishing territorial control in a halting fashion; and Nigeria and its neighbors have had tensions over who bears what responsibilities in the fight against Boko Haram.

Meanwhile, the deportations add to a trend of repeated displacement for victims of Boko Haram, partly driven by the violence inside Niger itself. In February, after violence in Diffa, many of the displaced there fled north, or headed west to Zinder and other regions in Niger. Diffa itself became a “ghost town” at points. For those civilians who have been displaced multiple times, rebuilding could be even harder, especially given food insecurity in Niger.

Finally, one important detail: Reuters reported on Friday that Boko Haram had attacked a village in the Dosso Region of southwestern Niger. If true, that would mark one of Boko Haram’s furthest attacks west – even in Nigeria, the center of gravity for violence has been the northeast, and attacks anywhere west of Abuja have been somewhat rare. If Boko Haram is now raiding in southwestern Nigeria, that might – as with the attack on Karamga – reflect that the group is becoming scattered and desperate. At the same time, though, it might mark a stage of further unpredictability in the conflict.

Oby Ezekwesili, Olusegun Obasanjo, and Corruption in Nigeria

Earlier this week, Al Jazeera interviewed Oby Ezekwesili, a well-known Nigerian governance expert who has worn many hats: co-founder of Transparency International, cabinet minister under former President Olusegun Obasanjo (for Solid Minerals and then Education, 2005-2007), World Bank Vice President for Africa (2007-2012), and activist with Bring Back Our Girls.

The interview generated controversy in Nigeria and in the diaspora, especially because of Ezekwesili’s refusal to say that the Obasanjo administration was severely corrupt (see around 13:20 at the link above). Obasanjo was the first civilian president of Nigeria’s Fourth Republic; he served 1999-2007.

To give a sense of the criticisms of Ezekwesili’s statements in the interview, here is an excerpt from a piece by Professor Moses Ochonu of Vanderbilt University, who writes,

When you go around self-righteously castigating the corruption of the present government without even a perfunctory acknowledgement of, or an effort to explain your failure to prevent or punish, the corruption of the government for which you were supposed to act as gatekeeper for public procurement and contracts (the primary conduit for political and bureaucratic corruption in Nigeria), your rhetoric rings hollow and raises questions about the sincerity and consistency of your moral indignation at malfeasance. It is only a matter of time before such duplicity is exposed, and Ezekwesili’s moment of exposure came in her interview with Mehdi Hasan on Al-Jazeera, which has now gone viral.

[…]

It was under Ezekwesili’s stint as czar of transparency that corruption in high places blossomed, including the curious case of [Obasanjo], who, from having only 15,000 Naira in his bank account in 1999 according to [former Obasanjo cabinet minister and economic team member Nasir] el-Rufai* (information which has never been contradicted), transformed into a billionaire and one of the wealthiest Nigerians alive. It was while Obasanjo was president and Ezekwesili was his preeminent transparency enforcement officer that damning revelations on how he and his vice president, Abubakar Atiku, turned the Petroleum Technology Development Fund (PTDF) into a personal piggy bank surfaced in the media and provided tragic national political entertainment for a whole season.

As commentaries and criticisms of the interview spread, Ezekwesili penned a Twitter essay on corruption. The tweets were interesting not just for her implicit defense of Obasanjo, but also for the general theory of anti-corruption she put forth. I’ve storified her tweets here.

The debate featuring Ezekwesili comes at an important moment, as expectations are rising concerning the incoming administration’s stated anti-corruption agenda. Nigerians are looking both backward and forward now, re-assessing past administrations’ anti-corruption rhetoric and their actual performance, and wondering how the next government will perform.

*El-Rufai is also the governor-elect of Kaduna.