Thoughts on Secretary Kerry’s Trip to Nigeria

On August 23-24, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Nigeria. He visited the capital, Abuja, as well as Sokoto (map), a major city in far northwestern Nigeria. Sokoto has special significance as the seat of one of the largest Muslim polities in pre-colonial Africa, an empire whose territories extended throughout much of present-day northern Nigeria and into parts of Burkina Faso, Niger, and Cameroon. Sokoto has continuing relevance in post-colonial Nigeria, where the Sultan of Sokoto (a direct descendant of the pre-colonial ruling family) is the country’s highest-ranking Muslim hereditary ruler.

Trying to shape Nigerian efforts to counter “extremism” – read, Boko Haram – was clearly the thrust of Kerry’s agenda in Nigeria. But I think the trip was executed in a way that muddled its message, in three domains:

  1. Security Trumps Human Rights: U.S. policymakers have long stressed, in public remarks, that Nigerian politicians and military leaders should work harder to ensure that the anti-Boko Haram fight is not marred by systemic human rights violations. But Washington’s actions toward the Nigerian government have only sometimes indicated that human rights are the U.S. government’s major concern. The same was true on this trip – in Sokoto, Kerry said, “To effectively counter violent extremism, we have to ensure that military action is coupled with a reinforced commitment to the values this region and all of Nigeria has a long legacy of supporting – values like integrity, good governance, education, compassion, security, and respect for human rights.” But that line was buried in the middle of his speech. Meanwhile, one of the big “deliverables” of his trip to Nigeria was a near-promise to increase U.S. military aid to Nigeria. Given that actions speak louder than words, I think Nigerian elites will hear the message that the military’s well-documented abuses against prisoners, militants, and civilians will not, in the long run, be a barrier to receiving more aid from the U.S. If Kerry had intended to send a serious message about human rights, he should not have promised new aid, or he should have made it explicitly conditional upon human rights reforms.
  2. A Top-Down, Risk-Averse View of Religious Engagement: In a sense, it is fitting for the top-ranking U.S. diplomat to meet with Nigeria’s top-ranking hereditary Muslim ruler. But in another sense, Kerry’s trip to Sokoto represented the most clichéd form of religious engagement that the U.S. might attempt in northern Nigeria. Since 1903, when British forces killed Sultan Muhammadu Attahiru I at the Battle of Burmi, Sultans of Sokoto have been largely deferential to Nigeria’s political authorities. The Sultan wields little influence, in my view, over the type of people who join or sympathize with Boko Haram; such people already have real doubts about the integrity of hereditary Muslim rulers. Who, then, was the intended audience for Kerry’s trip to Sokoto? If it is Muslim youth, or fence-sitters thinking about joining Boko Haram, are they meant to be impressed by Kerry praising the Sultan as a model of inter-faith tolerance? In my view, it was fine for Kerry to go to Sokoto, but he should have also met with a spectrum of Muslim leaders in Abuja, including mainstream Salafis.
  3. A Misreading of Boko Haram: Should the U.S. government decide who is a Muslim and who is not? In Sokoto, Kerry argued that Boko Haram has nothing to do with Islam – “Boko Haram boasts no agenda other than to murder teachers, burn books, kidnap students, rape women and girls, and slaughter innocent people, most of whom are Muslims. It has a complete and total disrespect for life, the opposite of every religion. It has a complete nihilistic view of the world. It fears knowledge. It fears education. It fears tolerance.” The idea that Boko Haram is nihilistic is empirically false, unless you are willing to dismiss virtually every statement that Boko Haram has ever made. I’m not saying that Boko Haram is “Islamic,” but I am saying that they consider themselves to be such. And if you discount that, then I don’t think you can really counter their ideology. I believe Kerry should either have avoid trying to imply that he has the authority to give a normative definition of Islam (this is the better option, I think), or he should have acknowledged and addressed some of Boko Haram’s core ideas.

Northern Nigeria Conference at JHU SAIS (Washington, DC), April 7-8

For interested readers: Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, located in Washington, DC, will host a conference entitled “Strategies for Economic Reconstruction in the Northern States of Nigeria” on April 7-8 (tomorrow and Friday). Notable speakers include Prof. Attahiru Jega, former Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, as well as numerous other Nigerian and American scholars and practitioners. The conveners ask that anyone interested in attending RSVP to saisafrica@jhu.edu. I’ve attached the conference program here.

On Doctrine, Politics, and Boko Haram

I’ve published a paper with the Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, entitled “‘The Disease Is Unbelief’: Boko Haram’s Religious and Political Worldview.” It deals with the Boko Haram crisis, which has caused untold damage in northeastern Nigeria and surrounding regions over the past six years and more. The paper’s title derives from a video where Boko Haram’s (deceased?) leader, Abubakar Shekau, responded to former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s denunciation of Boko Haram as a “cancer.”

The paper is the length of a journal article, so I won’t say too much to summarize it here. I do want to emphasize that it’s an attempt to take Boko Haram’s religious discourses seriously: not to excuse those messages or the violence, of course, but to try to understand them and even to give the group’s ideology *some* analytical weight in the quest for an explanation of the violence.

That latter proposition has proven controversial for some audiences and colleagues I’ve encountered. For some, the idea that armed groups might actually believe what they say they believe is anathema. Many analysts view jihadist leaders as either psychopaths or opportunists, and their followers as either dupes or victims. Certainly there is reason to feel that way, especially when there is evidence that leaders are hypocritical, power-hungry, etc, or that followers have been coerced. But people are not simple and it is possible that even if a leader is a hypocrite or an opportunist, it’s still worth paying attention to what he says, because it might give hints as to why a group behaves the way it does. Moreover, if jihadists were all mere opportunists or psychopaths, why would they develop such systematic and detailed ideologies?

So the paper tries to get at some of those questions. I doubt that it will convince those who believe material forces are the sole determinants of the violence. But if you’re interested, I go through various official statements from Boko Haram and discuss the remarkable consistency in their messages from circa 2008 (and probably before) to the present, and show that a core combination of religious exclusivism and perceived victimhood has underlain many of their other ideas, including their rejection of Western-style education.

If you do read the paper, I welcome your thoughts, suggestions, and criticisms here. I will be continuing to work on this topic, and your feedback will help me refine my thinking and research.

Buhari and the Perm Secs

BBC, August 29:

It is now three months since Muhammadu Buhari was sworn in as president of Nigeria and five months since he won historic elections, the first time an opposition candidate had won…But it took nearly two months for him to replace his security chiefs and so far he has only made appointments in about a dozen government offices.

[…]

While it is clear that President Buhari has shown that Nigeria can run without a cabinet, there may be an unacknowledged cost.

On the bright side, with the briefings he is getting from civil servants, the ministers, when they are eventually appointed, will find that their boss knows more about their departments than they do – and that should keep them on their toes.

Vanguard, November 10:

President Muhammadu Buhari on Tuesday, approved the appointment of new Permanent Secretaries in the Federal Civil Service.

This came some hours after the President sacked about 17 permanent secretaries.

Permanent Secretaries are, in theory, civil servants who are not political appointees. This does mean they are immune from political controversies, however.

As the BBC said, the months without a cabinet may have allowed Buhari to interact more directly with senior civil servants than presidents usually do. Apparently the president did not always like what he saw.

Talk by Dr. Usman Bugaje at Johns Hopkins SAIS This Wednesday

If you happen to be in Washington, DC this Wednesday, November 4, consider attending a talk by Dr. Usman Bugaje, a prominent northern Nigerian scholar and politician who has served in the House of Representatives and as adviser to former Vice President Atiku Abubakar. Bugaje is currently Convener of the Arewa Research and Development Project.

Bugaje will speak on “Democracy and the Challenge of Political Change in Nigeria” at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies from 12:30-1:45pm on Wednesday. The talk will be in Room 736, Bernstein-Offit Building, 1717 Massachusetts Avenue, NW.

Article on Salafism and Media in Nigeria

This summer is proving to be a season when some of my academic projects are coming out. Earlier this month, Islamic Africa published an article I wrote about figures I call “mainstream Salafis” in Nigeria – i.e., shaykhs who do not belong to Boko Haram, and in fact reject the movement. The article for Islamic Africa discussed how mainstream Salafis find themselves in an awkward position as they become targets of violence by Boko Haram, and objects of suspicion from the state.

Recently, the Journal of the American Academy of Religion published another article of mine. This piece deals with a similar group, but the focus is on how mainstream Salafis use electronic media, especially radio and recorded lectures. It’s called “The Salafi Ideal of Electronic Media as an Intellectual Meritocracy in Kano, Nigeria.” The piece argues, in part, that Salafis strategically use electronic media to level the playing field against religious rivals who have greater institutional power. This latter article has very little to do with Boko Haram, except perhaps for context regarding the media landscape in northern Nigeria.

One point I hope readers will take from both articles is that Boko Haram is not the only story in northern Nigeria. In fact, the Boko Haram story has distracted attention away from other, equally consequential topics. Muslim religious authority in northern Nigeria is being contested and reshaped through channels other than violence – and if one pays attention only to the violence, one will miss broader and perhaps ultimately more far-reaching changes.

The JAAR article is, for now, available for free at the journal’s website. It will at some point, hopefully this year, appear in print as well. If you read it, I  welcome any comments you might have.