Recent Analyses and Articles on Boko Haram

Recently there has been a spate of interesting work on Boko Haram and its offshoot Islamic State West Africa (ISWA) or Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). Here are some links and excerpts. As always, it can be difficult to verify some journalists’ and analysts’ sources, especially when they claim rare of exclusive access to insiders.

  • The journalist Ahmed Salkida is covering ISWAP’s military endeavors in northeastern Nigeria. See here and here. An excerpt from the former: “Boko Haram/ISWAP policy with respect to physically holding territories changed after the steady losses they suffered in the run up to general elections in Nigeria in 2014. They do not want to physically hold unto territories anymore than they are determined to ensure that the military does not have any sustainable presence in the territories. Furthermore, ISWAP is paying more premium to wooing local communities to feel more secure with them than they could ever be with the military. That is their strategy…ISWAP is no longer showing interest in taking a formidable military base such as was in Baga and staying put there. It doesn’t apparently serve their tactical and strategic interest well. They are more interested in taking over military hardware and ammunition in those bases while instilling fear on the troops and making it extremely difficult for the military to have the comfort to plan and launch attacks.”
  • Babatunde Obamamoye has written an interesting-looking article about negotiating with Boko Haram. From the abstract: “A notable shocking development in the advancement of the Boko Haram terrorist revolt was the abduction of about 276 Chibok girls in April 2014. Shortly afterward, while the terrorists made known their extremist determination to offer the girls for sale, the Nigerian government vowed unconditional rescue of the girls. Notwithstanding the evident opposition of both adversaries to nonviolent engagement, some of the victims were eventually released through negotiations. What then were the rationales that paved the way for negotiations? What are the implications of this approach? This article demystifies the rationales for negotiation between the Nigerian government and the Boko Haram terrorist group over the abducted girls. It argues that nonviolent engagement in this context arose out of intersecting interests but, more important, reinforced the “vulnerability” of the “new” religious terrorists to negotiation when violence proved futile in accomplishing some of their vital objectives.”
  • Christian Seignobos has also published a fascinating article (in French) on local dynamics of Boko Haram’s violence and the insurgency’s broader effects in the year 2017. The abstract is available in English: “The 2017 chronicle of events belies the assertions of the concerned governments diagnosing the impending end of the group. In Nigeria and neighbouring countries of Borno State, the bands called Boko Haram are still as active as ever. Fishermen, breeders and traders who want to continue to live of Lake Chad have to live with it, and sometimes take advantage of the chaos to oust their rivals. For its part, Boko Haram had to make choices in its local alliances. The insurgents interests have coincided with those of the Buduma indigenous people: the first wanted to expel the populations who refused to accept to pledge allegiance and pay them taxes, while the latter took the opportunity to try to chase away «foreigners» who had taken over their islands’ lands and pastures. In Cameroon, the «movement» had gradually established itself in the departments of Logone-et-Chari which cover the Kotoko country, and of Mayo-Sava, which includes the former kingdom of Wandala in the foothills of the northern Mandara Mountains. It is currently trying, from its multiple withdrawal sites, to escape the intervention of the army and its auxiliaries.”

On the Nigerian Military Expelling UNICEF from the Northeast [Updated]

Reuters, today:

The Nigerian military on Friday accused United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) staff of spying for Islamist militants in northeast Nigeria, and suspended the agency’s activities there.

Sahara Reporters has more. They quote Colonel Onyema Nwachukwu, Deputy Director of Public Relations, Theatre Command:

It is baffling to note that some of these organizations have been playing the terrorists’ script with the aim to continue demoralizing the troops who are doing so much to protect the lives of victims of Boko Haram Terrorism and safe guard them from wanton destruction of property and means the of livelihood. The Theatre Command considers the actions of these organizations as a direct assault and insult on the sensibilities of Nigerians, as they tend to benefit more from expanding the reign of terror on our people.


“This has become inevitable since the organization has abdicated its primary duty of catering for the wellbeing of children and the vulnerable through humanitarian activities and now engaged in training selected persons for clandestine activities to continue sabotaging the counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency efforts of troops through spurious and unconfirmed allegations bothering on alleged violations of human rights by the military.

The move is not surprising, given the military’s repeated expressions of open contempt for other international humanitarian and human rights organizations, particularly Amnesty International. The military is highly, and it seems increasingly, sensitive to outsiders’ criticisms of its human rights abuses.

My main comment on all this is that the military is playing politics here in a big way. The military is obviously well aware of allegations, by its own soldiers as well by journalists and other critics, that the fight against Boko Haram is not going well. The problems include not just brutality against civilians, but also lack of proper equipment for frontline soldiers. The military is likely aware, moreover, that even among many civilians there is a strain of suspicion toward Western NGOs, the United Nations, foreign development and humanitarian agencies, and so forth. The politics of this announcement, then, in my view includes an effort to cater to this strain of suspicion while deflecting attention away from the military’s own serious problems.

Or, as Brandon Kendhammer puts it:

[Update, December 17]: I tweeted this out when it happened, but I want to link to it here as well. Late on Friday, the Nigerian military reversed itself and canceled the expulsion of UNICEF from the northeast. See their statement here.

Now, of course, they’re back to going after Amnesty.


Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Nigerian Technocrats Revisited

At Africa Is a Country, Omolade Adunbi has written an incisive review of former Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s newest memoir, Fighting Corruption Is Dangerous. An excerpt from the review:

What becomes clear is that Okonjo-Iweala sees every disagreement with her economic policies as an attack on her person because of her gender, ethnic identity or her previous role as a World Bank employee.


it is hard to find any evidence of the fight against corruption by Okonjo-Iweala in the entire book. She presided over the economy under two administrations adjudged to be some of the most corrupt in the history of the country. For example, electricity is a major challenge in the country and the $16 billion that Obasanjo administration under which Okonjo-Iweala served spent on the power sector was mismanaged and power is still at the level it was before the administration came to power in 1999. Over $32 billion was said to have been lost to corruption during the Jonathan administration because state coffers were turned into personal coffers by the president and his cronies and it is hard to fathom that a Finance minister who coordinates the economy can feign ignorance of the monumental fraud that took place under her watch. At best, the book highlights how narratives can be reconstructed in ways that turns principled opposition into personal attacks in an attempt to provide cover for someone who might be seen as culpable in the mismanagement of Nigeria’s wealth for about 16 years. If anything is dangerous, it is not admitting to one’s culpability in the scheme of monumental fraud in the history of Nigeria.

Adunbi’s review, I think, goes well with my article “The Politics of Technocracy in Fourth Republic Nigeria.” Okonjo-Iweala was a key character in that article as well, and I drew heavily on her earlier memoir, Reforming the Unreformable. My basic argument in the article is that technocrats such as Okonjo-Iweala are essentially politicians and should be understood as such. And my basic motivation for writing the article was a lingering frustration from my time at the State Department (2013-2014), when various American officials seemed quiet enamored with Okonjo-Iweala and wondered how someone “good” like her could tolerate serving in the corrupt atmosphere of the Jonathan administration. Again, the short answer is that she is a political actor who is interested in power, and cultivating a “reformer” image is part of her pursuit of power. Adunbi’s review, in my reading, confirms and extends these arguments. Particularly troubling is his convincing case that Okonjo-Iweala’s political outlook runs in a strongly authoritarian direction: In the memoir, Adunbi observers, “Every invitation to the [National Assembly] to give account of the stewardship of her ministry is considered an attack on her person such that the reader might be convinced that she would rather serve under a dictatorial government than a democracy.”

Thoughts on the Boko Haram/Islamic State West Africa Attacks on Metele and Kangarwa

On November 24-25, the “Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWA)” faction of Boko Haram attacked the town of Kangarwa in Nigeria’s Borno State, near Lake Chad, and claimed control there on the 25th (see a brief video here). The attack on Kangarwa followed a November 18 assault by ISWA on Metele, also in northern Borno.

Neither Kangarwa nor Metele appears on Google Maps. For context, then, here is a useful map of Borno’s Local Government Areas (LGAs). Kangarwa is in Kukawa LGA and Metele is in Guzamala LGA.

What exactly happened in Metele is unclear, given disputes over how many Nigerian soldiers were killed there, but some kind of major attack or even massacre occurred. The Nigerian Army says that 23 soldiers were killed, but Premium Times (same link) puts the figure at 118 killed and 153 missing in action. As you will see below in the translation of an Islamic State account of what happened at Kangarwa, the Islamic State is claiming that the killings at Metele so frightened the soldiers in Kangarwa that they left without a fight, even though they had previously been determined to hold the town. We should add that soldiers in Metele themselves have complained that their weapons are obsolete and broken down: in the video below, the narrator repeatedly asserts that their equipment dates to the regime of Shehu Shagari (1979-1983):

There are now a lot of moving parts to the equation in northern Borno State.

First, there is the question of what ISWA wants – or even what it is – in the wake of the reported death of Mamman Nur, a longtime senior Boko Haram operative and by some accounts the power behind the throne in ISWA since it broke with Abubakar Shekau’s faction of Boko Haram circa August 2016.

The emerging conventional wisdom (well articulated here, and quite possibly correct) is that ISWA is growing more militarily aggressive and more ideologically hardline, and that Nur’s death was both a result of and a further catalyst for that trend. It is worth noting, however, that some informed observers (notably the Nigerian Colonel Timothy Antigha, whose analysis of Nur’s death I discussed here) present things in a somewhat different light, highlighting ideological changes within Boko Haram but seeming to say that the lines between Shekau’s faction and ISWA are less clear that many think, and that Shekau-like voices are ascendant in ISWA.

Second, the attacks are causing political turmoil for President Muhammadu Buhari – according to one outlet, even the Shehu of Borno recently told Buhari to his face that the government and the military needed to “review the strategies in nipping this lingering crisis in the bud.” Amid growing criticisms of Buhari’s handling of Boko Haram, the media narratives are growing extremely contentious and murky. Take this report, for example, where an anonymous officer in Maiduguri is quoted as saying the following about Nigeria’s military command:

The distrust [among senior officers] arises from the fact that no one knows who among them is giving Boko Haram information because they all know that the terror group has infiltrated the Nigerian Army. Everyone is edgy and suspicious of one another. The situation is really bad. Everybody present in that barracks in Melete was wiped out. Another important point to note here is the massive corruption in the hierarchy. A lot of people are feeding fat from this war.

Some of this is certainly true, above all the “feeding fat” part (why are there Shagari-era vehicles in Metele, after all?). But it is also election season and a moment of mounting frustration, where it becomes even harder than normal to sort out what information is true from the information that is planted or spun to advance certain narratives. Is it true that Boko Haram has infiltrated the Nigerian Army (news that would make the army and the president look bad)? Is it true, as the military now asserts, that Boko Haram/ISWA has a rising number of foreign fighters (news that could absolve the president and the military of some responsibility for the rising violence)? Is it true, as Chief of Army Staff Tukur Buratai recently said (the quote is a paraphrase), that “the troops should be mindful of what they see and read on the social media as most of the stories are either doctored or fake”? There are now serious calls for various heads – Buratai’s, for one – and so everyone, pro or con, will be trying to shape how the media covers these latest attacks.

A lot of this, moreover, feels like a replay of how Boko Haram was discussed by official sources and journalistic outlets circa 2014, as the Goodluck Jonathan administration was facing heavy criticism over its handling of Boko Haram. The same accusations of double agents and massive international backing were very prominent during Jonathan’s time, including in statements by Jonathan himself. Now, this is not to say that Buhari will lose, but it is to say that Boko Haram’s tenacity has now twice posed significant political problems for incumbents – and that affects how politicians and political actors discuss the issue.

To close this post out, let’s look at the brief description of the Kangarwa attack included in the latest issue of the Islamic State’s weekly Arabic newsletter al-Naba’ (p. 7; h/t “Edward“). Here is my translation:

The Islamic State’s Soldiers Control the Town of Kangarwa and Target the Apostates in the Town of Arge

On Sunday, the 17th of Rabi al-Awwal, the soldiers of the Islamic State in West Africa took control, by the grace of God alone, of the town of Kangarwa near Lake Chad following an attack they carried out on the apostates in the town. They also targeted elements of the apostate Nigerian army in the town of Arge with machine guns, which led to hitting many of them.

According to the media office, the soldiers of the Islamic State launched a vast attack on the town of Kangarwa located near Lake Chad, where God cast terror into the hearts of the apostates such that they turned their backs and ran. God protected the muwahhidin [monotheists] in the fighting, and they returned to their positions safely.

The media office added that previously, six battles had broken out between the soldiers of the Islamic State and the apostates for control over this village, but the apostates were defending it desperately due to its importance to them. But they left it and fled from it this time without fighting, due to their fear of the caliphate’s soldiers after they saw what was done to their apostate brothers in the nearby town of Metele and other towns.

[The last paragraph repeats nearly verbatim the above-translated paragraph about Arge, except that it adds “and to God is the praise and the benefit.”]

On the one hand, this is scary stuff. On the other hand, I find it revealing that the so-called master propagandists of the Islamic State chose to write a brief and highly repetitive statement that is, if one looks closely, quite thin on content. What do official proclamations of control (as opposed to unofficial influence or sway) really mean? These statements give little clue, ultimately.

Nigeria: Options for Freeing Ibrahim al-Zakzaky?

I am in Kano this week for a conference, and last night I had an exchange (off the record, I believe, so I won’t mention my interlocutors’ names) about the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, or IMN, a Shi’i group. The IMN’s leader Ibrahim al-Zakzaky has been detained since 2015, following a clash between the IMN and the Nigerian military in Zaria. Al-Zakzaky’s detention has sparked numerous IMN protests.

My interlocutors mentioned two potential ways to resolve the problem: exiling al-Zakzaky to Iran, or placing him under house arrest. Each path would have pros and cons, of course. The voice favoring exile said that one benefit of that path would be clarifying the nature of al-Zakzaky’s relationship with the Iranian government; if Iran tried to use him for propaganda purposes, the speaker said, Nigeria could respond by asking for international diplomatic support.

For my part, the issue of due legal process is vital. He should get a fair trial. But in terms of the ultimate outcome, the Nigerian government has options beyond the binary choice of letting al-Zakzaky go completely free or detaining him until he dies. The government would be wise, in my view, to choose a path other than indefinite detention.

Islamic Movement in Nigeria Leaders Beyond Ibrahim al-Zakzaky

The Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), the country’s mass-based Shi’i organization, is back in the news amid a crackdown against it by Nigerian security forces. The current cycle of conflict between authorities and the IMN revolves around the imprisonment of the IMN’s founder and longtime leader Ibrahim al-Zakzaky. But with al-Zakzaky in detention since 2015, who leads the IMN?

In a sense, the IMN is so closely identified with al-Zakzaky that there is not room for another leader of his stature within the movement. If you go to the movement’s website, the only biography listed under the “biography” tab is al-Zakzaky’s, and his image is plastered across the website. The group’s Twitter account primarily foregrounds al-Zakzaky or ordinary followers who have died, rather than other group leaders.

I’ve made a preliminary effort to find names of other leaders. It’s surprisingly difficult, given the extent to which the press has associated the IMN almost exclusively with al-Zakzay. Here are a few names I found, though:

  • Ibrahim Musa, IMN spokesman and president of the Media Forum
  • Abdullahi Musa, secretary of the Academic Forum
  • Dauda Nalado, chairman of the Academic Forum, whose daughter was killed in 2017; he is also on the faculty of technology at Bayero University Kano
  • Sanusi Abdulkadir, Kano-based IMN leader
  • Kasimu Tawaye, Sokoto-based IMN leader who reportedly died earlier this year
  • Sidi Munir Sokoto, another Sokoto-based IMN leader
  • Adam Tsoho Jos, a Plateau-based IMN leader


US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Tibor Nagy in Europe and West Africa

It took the Trump administration an unusually long time to appoint an Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. When the nominee was ultimate chosen, it was Tibor Nagy, a retired Foreign Service officer who had served as ambassador to Guinea and Ethiopia. His swearing-in took place in September (see his remarks from that ceremony here).

Nagy is now on his first trip overseas (I think) since taking his post. Lasting from 29 October to 10 November, the trip will take him to the United Kingdom, France, Togo (November 1), Guinea (November 2-4), Mali (November 4-7), and Nigeria (November 7-10). From the official statement, let’s just excerpt the part about Mali and Nigeria:

In Bamako, Mali on November 4-7, Assistant Secretary Nagy will hold meetings with Malian government officials, host a trade and entrepreneurship roundtable, and meet with YALI alumni.

The final stop on the trip will be Abuja, Nigeria. Assistant Secretary Nagy will have meetings with government officials, members of the American business community, religious leaders, civil society organizations, youth groups, and he will deliver a speech at Baze University on U.S.-Africa relations.

I was not previously familiar with Baze University, which is located in Abuja. Its website is here.

Nagy laid out more of his agenda in a blog post. After describing his past experiences in/with Africa, he wrote:

On this trip, I have set out four themes as part of my engagement. The first is to promote stronger trade and commercial ties between the United States and Africa by creating a level playing field across African markets for all companies, regardless of where they come from.

This means placing an emphasis on rule of law, transparency, recourse for investors, and fighting corruption.

My second priority is harnessing the potential of Africa’s youth as a force for economic ingenuity and prosperity.

[…a section on demographics follows…]

My third goal is to advance peace and security through partnerships with African governments and regional mechanisms. The transnational challenges of terrorism and extremism in the Sahel, Northern Nigeria, Somalia, and now in Central Africa, and the rise of Boko Harem [don’t blame me – AT], Al Qaeda in the Magreb, ISIS West Africa, and Al Shabaab, require new, determined regional approaches to counteract these groups. This includes better-trained and paid African security and law enforcement.

I look forward to engaging productively with the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States, and what I hope will be an inclusive and re-energized Intergovernmental Authority for Government.

Finally, I want to set the record straight – the United States has an unwavering commitment to the continent and its people. From the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief to Power Africa, to the African Growth and Opportunity Act, Feed the Future, the Young African Leaders Initiative, and numerous other development and exchange programs, the United States has stood side-by-side with African nations since de-colonization to improve livelihoods, increase life expectancy, open our markets to African exports, promote democracy and human rights, and elevate Africa’s place in the world.

If you’re eager too more information on the trip, Jeune Afrique interviewed Nagy about his intentions for the trip, and about his views on the recent Cameroonian presidential elections, the upcoming presidential elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the role of China in Africa, and other issues – but honestly, I found nothing of great interest in the interview.

Nagy has gotten some good will from the Africanist community in Washington so far, including this glowing write-up of his swearing-in remarks. That write-up was penned by former a Ambassador to Botswana and Senior Africa Director at Obama’s National Security Council, Michelle Gavin, who almost certainly would have had a high Africa-related post in a hypothetical Hillary Clinton administration. For me, though, this is part of the problem – U.S. Africa policy is often so blandly articulated, and so focused on the recurring themes of stability, security, and development, that it can seem like a mere technocratic exercise, rather than a set of political choices. Those choices should be controversial (it’s politics!), but somehow U.S. Africa policy (more than for other regions, I think), seems to be structured around cliches. So I don’t have high expectations for what this trip will yield.