Boko Haram/Islamic State West Africa’s New History of Itself, Part 2

Find Part 1 here. Let’s resume the notes:

  • p. 35: Here, the authors begin discussing Boko Haram’s reconstitution in the wake of the July 2009 uprising, which naturally leads into a discussion of Abubakar Shekau. It is striking to see how little they know, or at least reveal, about this person. The authors relate what we know of his birthplace – Shekau village in Yobe State, as his name would indicate and as other sources have confirmed – although even they do not seem to know what year he was born. They go on to write, “He had a rough upbringing, not knowing any sort of opulence, nor any semblance of wealth.” He then worked as a farm laborer, which the authors believe left “a bad effect on his soul” and instilled qualities such as “abruptness, stinginess, and coldness” in him. Is there a bit of class contempt here? Not that Yusuf came from the upper crust, but there seems to be a hint that Shekau is low-bred.
  • p. 35: Continuing on Shekau’s biography (or their version of it – let us keep in mind that these are now his enemies), they relate that Shekau studied the Qur’an with various teachers in the northeastern Nigerian countryside before coming to Maiduguri. There, he enrolled in an institution the authors call (in English) “High Islam.” All this would be consistent with other accounts, particularly the more detailed one from International Crisis Group, especially if we interpret “High Islam” to mean the Borno College of Legal and Islamic Studies (BOCOLIS, now MOGCOLIS). In any case, here it is claimed that Shekau left “High Islam” for ideological reasons (mutabarri’an minhu, i.e. disavowing it) and without earning a degree, after falling under the influence of some Salafi shaykhs and rejecting the Sufi-dominated atmosphere of “High Islam” – which, again, sounds a lot like BOCOLIS. Then he met Yusuf and became one of his early students and devoted supporters. The authors then go on (pp. 35-36) to describe Shekau’s teaching style and overall persona at this time, occasionally slipping in a note of retrospective doubt as to whether his “asceticism” and “piety” were genuine. There is no mention here about Shekau studying in Mauritania, a claim made by Lemine Ould M. Salem but that I do not regard as likely).
  • p. 37: Here is where the account begins to talk about serious contacts with al-Qa’ida, i.e. al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM (and this is when some key correspondence between Shekau and these entities dates from, for example here). In rather vague terms, as in Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi’s 2016 interview, the account relates that Boko Haram fighters began training with AQIM “in the desert” and receiving money and expertise from AQIM. The authors comment, “The tie with them was strong then.” There is not here, however, any mention of AQIM directly helping Boko Haram plan any specific operation. The authors of this book arguably have an incentive to downplay contacts with/help from AQIM, but they do not adopt a polemical tone toward AQIM and it is possible that they are accurately summarizing the overall nature of the relationship.
  • p. 38: Consistent with other anti-Shekau sources from within Boko Haram and its offshoots, the authors write that Shekau began displaying “extremism” at a relatively early point, i.e. around 2011, especially in matters of takfir. The authors further relate that AQIM wrote to Shekau advising him to change his ways (this is again consistent with other sources), but he refused. As a result, the authors continue, Boko Haram split into three factions (I understand them to be describing not official factions at this point in the narrative, but rather tendencies): one that supported Shekau, one that openly opposed him while remaining committed to jihadism, and one that opposed him and in so doing renounced jihadism (and fell into what the authors here term “murji’ism”). The authors frankly state that the majority of the fighters backed Shekau, in part because he successfully blocked his opponents from disseminating their views within the ranks. In this context, his jihadist opponents broke off and formed Ansar al-Muslimin fi Bilad al-Sudan, better known as Ansaru. The account continues on p. 39, where the authors are full of praise for Ansaru’s knowledge but where they describe Ansaru as being partly dismantled through the deaths and capture of its leaders. The remainder, the authors say, fell into criminality. The authors here do not mention Ansaru reintegrating into Boko Haram as a bloc, again consistent with other sources, although they do allude to some of their individual leaders joining the Islamic State, which I take to mean fighting under Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi. Meanwhile, contradictions between different sources remain concerning the identities/status of some key figures, particularly Abu Usama al-Ansari, whom these authors say is dead but whose name was signed to a 2017 Ansaru polemic.
  • p. 41: Here the authors describe Shekau’s control (and, from their perspective) his doctrinal extremism growing amid two developments: the shift from urban to rural combat and the deaths of the remaining key commanders appointed in the time of Muhammad Yusuf. What changed things, the authors say, was the establishment of the Islamic State – at this point, various commanders said that Shekau must pledge allegiance to the Islamic State or be overthrown. “He made the pledge to stay on his throne,” in their telling. Not mentioned here is that the pledge (in March 2015) coincided with major military setbacks for Boko Harm, as its proto-state in northeastern Nigeria crumbled amid a Chadian-Nigerien-Nigerian offensive.
  • p. 42: Here the authors are forced to raise and address the obvious, and very sensitive, question: “Why did we refuse to call the group Khawarij before, and now we call them by that name?” In other words, if Ansaru was essentially in the right from these authors’ perspective, back in 2012 or even 2011, why did it take so long for these authors to break with Shekau? The authors explain, rather lamely in my view, that the coming of the Caliphate made Shekau’s group into literal Khawarij (i.e. actual rebels against the “imam,” rather than just extremists) and that Shekau fooled a lot of people for a long time. And here is where I’ll stop, since the text pivots to doctrinal questions after this, although there is a noteworthy passage on p. 45 where they talk about their “sources” for understanding Shekau, which basically come down to their personal experience of him. There are also, I should note, some more narrative passages interspersed in the rest of the book, particularly when it comes to internal conflicts within Boko Haram and the pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State – perhaps I’ll post about those later, but again, this is a decent stopping point for now. As I mentioned in the last installment, I may add a part three at some point.

One wonders if anything resembling a decent biography of Shekau will ever emerge. If his own mother does not know much about his own life, if he himself is heavily invested in a certain wild-eyed persona, and if his opponents only know snatches of his early life, then perhaps much of who he was and is will never come to light. It’s striking, really: we live in an age of information saturation, yet the long-time leader of Africa’s most prominent jihadist groups is still hidden, to a significant extent, from almost everyone’s view.

 

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World Politics Review Article on Nigeria’s 2019 Elections

Yesterday I had a piece out with World Politics Review, looking at the approaching February/March 2019 elections through the lens of intra-elite shifts and some of Nigeria’s multi-faceted problems. The piece amplifies some of the themes from this post, and it would be well worth reading Matt Page’s latest for Quartz, which deals with some of the same developments.

As always, comments welcome below.

Tired Clichés from The Economist about Jihadism in Africa

The Economist is out with an article, more or less about Boko Haram, that contains all the clichés one expects in a piece like this.

  1. The conflation of diverse conflicts: “Nigeria’s main north-eastern city is at the centre of a series of jihadist campaigns stretching in two broad belts across Africa on either side of the Sahara. The northern one hugs the Mediterranean, from Egypt through Libya and Tunisia to Algeria. The southern one extends from Somalia and Kenya in the east through Nigeria and Niger and on to Mali, Burkina Faso and Senegal in the west.” Aside from the bad writing – how can Nigeria be at the center of campaigns in “two belts” if one of the belts does not include Nigeria? – the conflict in Nigeria is not equal to the conflicts in Mali, Burkina Faso, etc. Hell, even Mali’s conflicts (plural) have different characteristics, and the insurgency in northeastern Nigeria has many, many local wrinkles and permutations.
  2. Amplifying the voices of anonymous, cynical Western military officers while making various other actors sound like credulous idiots. “A retired general who once held a senior post at AFRICOM, America’s military command for Africa, puts it thus: ‘If Nigeria goes down it would make a giant sinkhole that would suck in six or seven other countries.'” What a weird metaphor. And what would it mean for Nigeria to “go down”? Is this person saying that Boko Haram is about to march into Abuja and overthrow the government?
  3. Sloppy summaries about causality that read like guesswork: “In each country, conflict may be fuelled largely by local grievances. But the insurgents share some ideological traits. Many have been strengthened by the breakdown of Libya after the downfall of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in 2011. Weapons spilled out of Libya’s armouries, and smuggling networks for everything from people to drugs developed across the Sahara. There are signs that the jihadists are learning from one another and sucking money and support from militant groups in the Middle East.” So basically, conflict “may be” local (is there no way to find out, or at least decide?), Libya might be a factor, and “there are signs” that Arab money is a factor. Also interesting to learn that Qadhafi’s fall was what birthed Saharan smuggling. Thanks for wrapping things up so neatly.
  4. Acknowledging that increased militarization won’t work, but pushing it anyway: “Some think that, far from cutting back the military effort, it needs to be stepped up. A Western air campaign could inflict heavy casualties and knock back ISWAP’s ability to organise by a year or more. But air strikes alone would probably not be enough to defeat the group. ‘We could knock out the leadership, but would that make things any better?’ asks one British officer. Western officers talk of the need for a long-term commitment to train, equip and assist local forces, and to give them air support when needed.” Like there has been no training or air support before – hell, if you believe al-Barnawi (.pdf, p. 268), “We see the airplanes of those countries, fighter planes and reconnaissance planes, hovering over us densely.”
  5. And no article on jihadism in Africa would be complete without the inevitable comparison to Afghanistan: “General Hicks compares the rise of jihadism in Africa to that of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 1993. The threats they pose to the West ‘are still in a nascent stage and can be dealt with at a price that’s affordable in both blood and treasure,’ he says. Leaving the danger to fester might allow the threat to grow until Western forces are compelled to intervene directly and massively. But the experience of the West in Afghanistan since 2001 holds another lesson: military intervention alone cannot solve the problem. It can disrupt jihadists and buy time to win back the allegiance of the disgruntled and marginalised. For the most part, that is a job for Africa’s beleaguered rulers—if they are up to it.” Sure thing – it’s always the venal local elites who are the problem, and never the counterinsurgency doctrines. And are we sure a quick anti-Taliban mission in 1993 would have gone smoothly?

Parts of the article are good, especially the actual on-the-ground reporting in it. But on the whole, the piece reads like an MRI of the confused, self-contradictory Western thinking about jihadism. It’s local! It’s foreign! We need to act! If we act we’ll make it worse! Locals have to solve the problem for themselves! Locals are too venal to solve this! And on and on.

 

Nigeria: How Far Does the R-APC’s Reach Extend?

On 3 July, some prominent Nigerian politicians announced that they were breaking with the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and forming a new bloc called the Reformed All Progressives Congress (R-APC). The breakaway group say they are dissatisfied with the performance of the APC and particularly with President Muhammadu Buhari. In their  statement, the R-APC also complain about what they allege is a lack of internal party democracy and a pattern of top-down manipulation for the selection of party officers. The R-APC specifically objects to how events played out at the APC National Convention, the main events of which were on 23 June.

The R-APC is chaired by Bula Galadima of Yobe State, a former Buhari ally, but in terms of actual sitting elected politicians, the key figures in the R-APC are Senate President Bukola Saraki (Kwara State), House Speaker Yakubu Dogara (Bauchi), and Senator Rabiu Kwankwaso (Kano).

In some ways, the R-APC is a rebranding of the “New People’s Democratic Party” or nPDP, a group of primarily northern elites that broke with the then-ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in 2013. The story is well summarized here, including how the nPDP figures felt marginalized under the big tent of the APC after the 2015 election victory. nPDP leaders believed that other constituent parties and blocs within the APC, a mega-coalition of four parties, were getting better positions and offices. Saraki and Dogara’s positions were opposed by prominent APC figures, and there have been major tensions between Buhari on the one hand, and Saraki and Dogara on the other, since the 2015 elections if not longer.

Although it may seem that history is repeating itself, I think that it is too early to conclude that the split has decisively affected Buhari’s re-election prospects. What matters, ultimately, is the electoral map. In 2015, the APC represented a major threat to the PDP because the APC could – and, obviously, eventually did – put together a coalition (of elites or voters, as you like) that won the north, most of the southwest, and significant parts of the Middle Belt. If 2011 serves as precedent, then Buhari can win in the north even over the opposition of some northern elites – Kwankwaso, for example, won back the governorship of Kano in 2011 on the PDP ticket even as Buhari won the state in the presidential contest.

A major question for the R-APC, then, is how far south its reach extends. I hesitate to use the term, but one might call Adamawa and Kwara “swing states” in the Nigerian context; Buhari lost both in 2011 but won both in 2015. If the R-APC pulled those two states out of Buhari’s column come 2019, it wouldn’t necessarily spell doom – in 2015 (.pdf), the APC/Buhari won 21 states to the PDP’s 15 states and got 15.4 million votes to the PDP’s 12.8 million votes. Take Adamawa (374,701 votes for the APC) and Kwara (302,146 votes for the APC) out of Buhari’s column, and the APC still would have gotten roughly half of the approximately 28.6 million valid votes cast. Things will be very different in 2019, of course – more voters, different dynamics – but the point is that Buhari could win without those two states. What would become truly dangerous for Buhari is if the R-APC starts picking off states in the southwest. It is perhaps no accident that alongside Galadima as chairman, the R-APC appointed Fatai Atanda of Oyo (just south of Kwara) as National Secretary. One problematic scenario for Buhari would see him winning a plurality of votes but falling short of the majority needed to avoid a run-off. In a way, the fragmented opposition bodes well for him, but enough cracks within the APC and enough momentum for different opposition groups in different parts of the country and he may run into trouble.

 

Nigeria: Preliminary Notes on a Few Key Actors in Plateau State [Updated x2]

Plateau State, in Nigeria’s Middle Belt, has suffered another wave of inter-communal violence:

At least 86 people have died in central Nigeria after violent clashes broke out between farmers and cattle herders, police in Plateau state said.

Some reports say fighting began on Thursday [June 21] when ethnic Berom farmers attacked Fulani herders, killing five of them.

A retaliatory attack on Saturday led to more deaths.

Some estimates of the death toll range much higher. Key local governments affected include Riyom, Barkin Ladi and Jos South.

In lieu of talking about the causes of the violence, I thought it would be helpful to readers to discuss a few of the key actors in Plateau State. This is a very basic, preliminary, and non-exhaustive list. I name these actors here not to assign blame, but simply to give an initial sense of some of the power structures in the state.

  • Governor Simon Lalong: The first-term governor was elected in 2015. He belongs to the All Progressives’ Congress (APC), the same party as President Muhammadu Buhari.
  • The Nigeria Police Force (NPF) : The NPF are federal, not state, but the central leadership assigns commissioners for each state. Following the recent violence, Plateau’s Commissioner Undie Adie was replaced by Bala Ciroma, who is profiled here.
  • Operation Safe Haven: This is the Nigerian military’s special task force for peace operations in Plateau and parts of Bauchi State. It is headed by Major General Anthony Atolagbe.
  • Miyetti-Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN): This umbrella group for herders is sometimes accused of orchestrating violence, but I have not seen compelling evidence to that effect. Nevertheless, MACBAN often attempts to speak for the herders as a group, and its rhetoric is sometimes inflammatory. For example, MACBAN’s Chairman for the North Central Zone, Danladi Ciroma, recently told journalists, “Criminals thrive a lot in Berom communities, but when the Fulani, who are always victims of their crime, react with attacks, they blame the government.” [Update: see below, where commenter Dr. Carmen McCain quotes Ciroma denying that he made these statements. The controversies over the media’s reporting of the violence and the surrounding politics are one thing that make the crisis so difficult to understand.] [Update x2, 29 June: Nigerian newspapers such as Premium Times are retracting the statements attributed to Ciroma after objections from him and following investigations concluding that the sourcing of the quotations was dubious.]
  • The Berom Educational and Cultural Organisation (BECO): This umbrella group seeks to speak for the Berom people. Key leaders include the president, Da Ericsson Fom, and the vice president, Da Iliya Choji Kim.

A Visit to the Paden Collection at George Mason University

Today I had the chance to do a few hours of reading and research in the John N. Paden Papers collection, which is held at George Mason University’s Fenwick Library. The guide to the collection is here. Professor Paden is the foremost American expert on northern Nigeria, and he donated a massive collection of books, sources, and notes to George Mason when he retired last year. Prof. Paden has been an extremely generous mentor to several generations of Nigerian and American researchers, including me.

My own academic research of late has mostly focused on the Sahel, but over the long term I hope to get back to one of my abiding interests: Muslim intellectuals in Northern Nigeria during the period of decolonization. Visiting the Paden collection today was a chance to re-immerse myself in that period and to discover reams of new material.

Picking a bit at random from my notes today, here is a quotation from an article by the northern Nigerian author, publisher, and politician Abubakar Imam, writing in the official magazine of Jama’at Nasr al-Islam, Nur al-Islam, in 1965:

In February, 1960, The Honourable Premier, Alhaji Sir Ahmadu Bello, Sardauna of Sokoto, appointed a committee to investigate the ways and means of assisting the vast number of Koranic and Islamic Schools existing in Northern Nigeria so that their standard may improve in accordance with the needs of the modern age.

 

In light of the recommendations of this Committee, the Government approved the following measures for assistance to these Schools and Islamic Education in general: (a) That more Islamic Schools be assisted financially as has already been done in the case of Islamic Schools in Sokoto and Zaria. (b) That subsidy be made towards the printing of cheap Islamic Religious Knowledge books for use by Koranic, ‘Ilmi and Islamiyya Schools; and contemporaries for the development of Northern Nigerian Islamic Culture. (c) That a Teacher Training College for Islamic Education be established for the training of Teachers of Primary Islamic, Koranic and ‘Ilmi Schools. (d) That Native Authorities be encouraged to establish Schools for Higher Muslim Studies and that Government Grants be paid to assist these projects; and (e) That Government Supervision and financial assistance be given to Koranic Schools, but as a first step a team be sent to Moslem countries, e.g. Egypt and the Sudan, to study the organisation of Koranic Schools prevailing in those countries.

If you are doing research on northern Nigerian history, the collection is well worth a visit.

Quick Thoughts on the VOA Interview with Abubakar Shekau’s Mother

Recently Voice of America’s Chika Oduah found the mother of Abubakar Shekau, the long-time leader of Boko Haram who continues to act as head of one of its two principal factions (here is a photo of Oduah and Shekau’s mother together).

A quick note on surnames in northern Nigeria might be useful – many surnames are either the person’s father’s name (i.e. Muhammad Yusuf was most likely, “Muhammed, son of Yusuf”) or the place where the person is from. Shekau’s surname is the latter – “Abubakar, from Shekau.” So VOA found his mother, or a person claiming to be his mother, in – you guessed it – the village of Shekau, which is located in Yobe State, northeastern Nigeria. To an extent I am surprised that it took journalists this long to speak with her; and one hopes that Nigerian authorities had thought, long before, to interview her as well…

The interview does not shed much light on Shekau’s biography, perhaps because his parents lost track of him some fifteen years ago. And the few details in the interview raise many unanswered questions. For example, his father was “a local district imam before passing away a few years ago” – although, as is so often the case, it is hard to know what journalists (or their interlocutors) mean by “imam.” Was he the imam of a mosque? Or just a man with some religious learning? Did he have a school?

We read further that Shekau “left Shekau [village] as a boy to continue his Islamic education in Maiduguri, a center of religious studies for hundreds of years.” Crisis Group (.pdf, p. 19) places Shekau (the man) in Maiduguri’s Mafoni Ward as of 1990, when he was in his teens or early twenties (I’ve seen estimated birth dates for Shekau that range between 1967 and 1976). Shekau’s mother told Oduah that the turning point in his life was meeting Muhammad Yusuf, who is widely considered the founder of Boko Haram. Various analysts (including me) believe that by 2009, when Yusuf was killed by security forces in the aftermath of Boko Haram’s mass uprising that summer, Shekau was more hardline than Yusuf – but in the beginning it seems plausible that Yusuf heavily influenced Shekau. It would be extremely interesting, of course, to know exactly when the two men met – again, in Crisis Group’s account, Shekau enrolled in the Borno College of Legal and Islamic Studies in the 1990s, met Mamman Nur (another future Boko Haram leader) there, and then met Yusuf through Nur. But the meeting could have occurred at any point in the 1990s or even in the early 2000s.

Being a student at the College, of course, meant that Shekau was exposed to some degree to the very “boko” (Western-style education) that Boko Haram later declared haram. The College was meant to be a bridge for people coming from a classical Qur’an school background and seeking to enter into formalized study in the state system and from there to enter the salaried economy. I have never found confirmation of how long Shekau attended or whether he attained a degree there.

At Premium Times, Oduah provides more details about Shekau’s mother’s life in recent years – including how Boko Haram’s attacks have forced her to repeatedly relocate. Of course I’m always hungry for more information, but I should say that I’m really impressed by how Oduah speaks about this woman – Oduah displays an exemplary sensitivity to the complexities of her life and her context.

As for why Ms Oduah wanted to get the story, she told PREMIUM TIMES, “It is important to know that members of Boko Haram come from somewhere. They have parents and siblings and hometowns. This woman’s voice is crucial in understanding the man who plays a major role in this insurgency, which is entering ten years.

On a final note, I’m reminded of the story (I can’t remember where I read it, possibly in Lemine Ould M. Salem’s book on Mokhtar Belmokhtar) that Algerian authorities somehow set up a meeting between Belmokhtar and his mother, who had not seen him for many years. According to the account, Belmokhtar wept when he saw her and said her would leave armed jihadism – but then, after the meeting, went back to his ways.