A Few Comments on the Clashes Between the Nigerian Army and the Islamic Movement in Nigeria

In December 2015, Nigerian authorities arrested Ibrahim al-Zakzaky, longtime leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), a Shi’i Muslim organization whose antecedents emerged around 1980. The arrest followed clashes between the IMN and the Nigerian Army in Zaria, the IMN’s headquarters; the military accused the IMN of attempting to assassinate Chief of Army Staff Tukur Buratai. Since that time, al-Zakzaky has remained in detention, despite reports of ill health, and the IMN has continued to agitate for his release.

This week, the Nigerian Army has cracked down on IMN protests in Nigeria’s capital Abuja.

The Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) said on Wednesday that security forces opened fire with live ammunition on members who had marched in the hundreds to demand the release of their leader Ibrahim Zakzaky.

The number of people killed since Saturday in the protests hit at least 48, according to the IMN, contrasting with the military’s official death toll of six.

Clashes erupted between soldiers and IMN supporters in Abuja on Saturday, Monday and Tuesday, said Ibrahim Musa, according to an IMN spokesman.

The protests are timed to coincide with Arba’in/Arbaeen, a major Shi’i pilgrimage and commemoration (see here).

As with many other conflicts, there has been a war of words and information raging as well. Both sides have presented themselves as the victims, with the Nigerian Army highlighting images of wounded soldiers and the IMN highlighting the military’s violence and presenting its fallen comrades martyrs. The IMN has also accused the army of “commission[ing] its men and paid agents to massively infiltrate the Arbaeen procession scheduled to hold in Abuja in the coming days to induce violence with the view to smearing the movement in the eyes of the world once and for all.” It’s hard to credit some of what the IMN says; although I do not consider the IMN a terrorist group, the IMN’s insistence that “there is no single Shia group that is in any way linked to terrorism across the world” is a bit much.

But if both sides have acted aggressively and have framed events in one-sided ways, that does not mean that “both-sidesism” should be our main framework for understanding these events. You’re probably not going to be inviting the IMN to your next birthday party, but that does not mean that the Nigerian military has acted with respect to human rights and freedom of religion.

In that vein, the analyst Matt Page rightly took U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Tibor Nagy to task for deploying “both sides” rhetoric to avoid a more meaningful intervention:

Amnesty International (which is openly despised by the Nigerian military, we should note) made a similar point:

An investigation by Amnesty International shows that the horrific use of excessive force by soldiers and police led to the killing of at least 45 supporters of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) over two days, as the Shi’a Muslim group held a peaceful religious procession around Abuja.

Amnesty researchers visited five different locations in Abuja and Nasarawa state where wounded IMN supporters were receiving treatment, including two locations where bodies were deposited. Researchers spoke with victims, eyewitnesses and medical practitioners, and analyzed videos and photographs of those injured and killed during the protests, which took place on Saturday and Monday.

“We have seen a shocking and unconscionable use of deadly force by soldiers and police against IMN members. Video footage and eyewitness testimonies consistently show that the Nigerian military dispersed peaceful gatherings by firing live ammunition without warning, in clear violation of Nigerian and international law,” said Osai Ojigho, Director of Amnesty International Nigeria.

“Those injured were shot in different parts of the body – head, neck, back, chest, shoulder, legs, arms – and some of them had multiple gunshot wounds. This pattern clearly shows soldiers and police approached IMN processions not to restore public order, but to kill.”

The Nigerian Army should show restraint, but Nigerian authorities also need to move to address the most prominent issue: the continued detention of al-Zakzaky. He should either be tried, speedily, or released. An editorial in the Nigerian newspaper This Day makes the case well:

Given that the continued detention of Sheikh Ibraheem El-Zakzaky, leader of the Shi’ite Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) has given rise to repeated protests in Abuja, the federal government should be held responsible for the violence in which innocent bystanders are getting caught. That lives are now being lost in what started as a civil action to compel respect for the rule of law is an indication that the crisis is getting out of hand. That also signposts the security implications of a situation in which El-Zakzaky is allowed to die in incarceration that has been deemed illegal by our courts.

[…]

If there is anything that the crisis has proved, it is that without justice, there can be no peace and that the flagrant disregard to court orders [a court ordered al-Zakzaky’s release in 2016 – AT] which has become the hallmark of this administration is dangerous for the health of our society.

There’s a lot more to say, but I’ll leave it there for now. The situation is bad and the authorities should move to defuse it.

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Update on Mauritania’s New Cabinet

Earlier this week, I wrote a bit about Mauritania’s new Prime Minister Mohamed Salem Ould Bechir. The members of his new government have already been announced – see the full list at Le 360 (see also RFI’s brief report). Aside from the change in prime minister (and here we should note that the departing Prime Minister Yahya Ould Hademine is not leaving government, but has accepted the post of minister of state to the presidency), there are – according to Sahara Medias – five new entrants to the cabinet.

Foremost among them is Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, who moves from Army Chief of Staff to Minister of Defense (perhaps partly because he was due to retire from the military based on age). Le 360 calls him President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz’s “dauphin,” and I can’t say that they’re wrong – if the president bucks most analysts’ expectations and does not seek a third term, one could easily imagine a scenario where his long-time right-hand man Ould Ghazouani would become the ruling party’s candidate.

The other notable entrant is Sidi Mohamed Ould Maham, who moves from being head of the ruling Union for the Republic (UPR) party to a kind of mega-post: Minister of Communication and Relations with Parliament, and Spokesman of the Government. Jeune Afrique argues that these moves add up to Ould Abdel Aziz placing his closest loyalists into the most key positions.

A few other sub-cabinet changes have also taken place, such as a replacement for the long-time director of the national television firm.

The cabinet held its first meeting today.

Chad: Recent Military Clashes with the CCMSR in Miski

I’m a week late to this,* but it’s worth flagging a recent clash in northern Chad between the military and the rebel group the Military Command Council for the Salvation of the Republic (French acronym CCMSR), which I’ve been blogging about from time to time.

On 24 October, a clash occurred in Miski, in the Tibesti Borkou (see below) region of far northern Chad. As RFI relates, the Chadian military and the CCMSR each say that the other side was the aggressor. RFI adds that according to the Chadian government, all civilians have left Miski.

The government is experimenting with different ways to characterize the violence. RFI cites the government labeling the rebels “drug traffickers and human traffickers.” A military communiqué (via Jeune Afrique) makes no mention of the CCMSR, but rather says:

The Chadian defense and security forces deployed on an inspection and security operation in the new department of Miski were attacked Wednesday by a small group of terrorists. The armed forces assure [the public] that the assailants were neutralized and that the situation is currently under control.

In short, the government seems keen to characterize this as the work of malefactors rather than as a politically-motivated rebellion.

The reference to the “new department of Miski” takes us back to the Jeune Afrique article linked above, which gives a bit of context. In March, Miski was detached, administratively, from the Tibesti region and attached to the Borkou region. The move has been criticized by some northern Chadians as an affront to “historical and cultural norms.” There is a long and multi-layered history surrounding these issues, notably the intersection of (a) government authority in Miski, (b) gold mining, and (c) rebellion. For deeper background, see this report from Small Arms Survey, which discusses past conflicts in Miski starting on p. 96.

For their part, the CCMSR also seeks to delegitimize the other side, namely the Chadian government. The CCMSR’s statement on the Miski incident portrays it as a genocidal campaign aimed at northern populations and undertaken by the “mercenaries and clan militia of Idriss Deby.” Note that the CCMSR characterizes the Chadian government forces as President Deby’s personal militia and to characterize Deby’s government as “mafia criminals.”

Put differently, alongside the violence there is also a war of words going on between the government and the rebels, and simultaneously there is a campaign to control and shape the flow of information. This is particularly crucial in an ultra-remote zone such as Miski where even basic facts – are there civilians there or not? – can be disputed by the two sides. Each side seems keen to argue, for an international audience as much as for a domestic Chadian one, that they are fighting illegitimate predators.

*My new motto is “Sahel Blog: Bringing You Last Week’s News”

A New Prime Minister in Mauritania

In Mauritania, following the recent legislative (and regional and municipal) elections in September, there has now been a change in prime minister. On 29 October, Yahya Ould Hademine (in office since August 2014) offered his resignation, which was accepted. The new nominee is Mohamed Salem Ould Bechir, who has held multiple senior government appointments, including head of the Department of Water and Sanitation (September 2013-January 2015), Minister of Petroleum, Energy, and Mines (January 2015-August 2016), and CEO of the Société nationale industrielle et minière (National Industrial and Mining Firm, SNIM, from August 2016-present). You can find a brief, official biography of him at the SNIM website, and longer journalistic biographies of him here and here.

The new PM will present his policies to the National Assembly in a month, and the deputies will then vote on his confirmation.

The Mauritanian outlet Cridem (h/t Lissnup) notes a few factors that might have gone into President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz’s selection of Ould Bechir. First, Ould Bechir continues a pattern where Ould Abdel Aziz has chosen prime ministers from eastern Mauritania (as this longer biography discusses, Ould Bechir is from El Aioun in al-Hodh al-Gharbi). Second, Ould Bechir may be taking on “a mission less political than technocratic” in the months remaining in the president’s term, a mission that has to do with reviving the economy (although I could, and would, argue that this is actually highly political). Third, Cridem emphasizes the close relationship of trust between the president and this “faithful servant.” Cridem closes by saying that apart from anticipating some ministerial retirements due to age and health, there is no precise sense of whom the next cabinet will include.

Quick Background and Analysis of a Video Report on Nigeria’s Operation Safe Corridor

TVC Nigeria has an interesting video report on Nigeria’s Operation Safe Corridor – a program for processing the surrenders and rehabilitation of Boko Haram members. The video focuses more on the program’s architects and overseers than it does on Boko Haram members themselves, but it is still well worth a watch:

A bit more background on some of the figures mentioned and interviewed in the video.

  • T.Y. Danjuma is a retired Nigerian general and active philanthropist. He is perhaps the best-known living ex-general who has not served as head of state. He is currently the chairman of the Presidential Committee on the North East Initiative (PCNI). In the meetings portrayed in the video he is represented by Asmau Joda, a longtime civil society activist and herself a PCNI member. Here is an interesting 2005 interview with Joda about Islam, women, and sharia in Nigeria.
  • Major General Bamidele Shafa is the Coordinator of Operation Safe Corridor.
  • The video has footage from Yola, Adamawa State, whose governor is Jibrilla Bindow.  In the meetings shown in the video, the governor is represented by Christian Pastor Agoso Bamaiyi.

The newscasters and several interviewees stress the idea that many Boko Haram members joined under duress – which I think is likely true, although I think sometimes that ideological recruitment gets overlooked. But the emphasis on duress may be intended to make the idea of forgiveness and reintegration more palatable to the Nigerian public.

Senegal: More on Macky Sall’s (and Marième Faye’s) Visit to Touba

Earlier this week I posted about the upcoming Magal celebration in Senegal. The Magal is a mass gathering of the Mouridiyya, one of the country’s two major Sufi orders; the event commemorates the return of founding Shaykh Ahmadou Bamba (1853-1927) from exile in Gabon during French colonial rule. The Magal takes place in the Mouridiyya’s hub, the city of Touba.

The event attracts courtesy calls from various politicians, including President Macky Sall – who, as one specialist pointed out to me, is not particularly popular in Touba. In the first round of the 2012 elections, then-incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade won an outright majority in the Mbacké Department, where Touba is located (and then went on to lose the overall election to Sall in the second round). As I discussed in my last post, this year the Mouride hierarchy had to publicly intervene to stop a junior shaykh from “sabotaging” Sall’s visit to Touba this year. Although it is partly, as mentioned above, a simple courtesy call, this visit is possibly more important than the average such call, as this is the last Magal before the February 2019 presidential elections.

Some press reports indicate that Sall’s visit went well. And reporters are calling attention not just to Sall but also to the First Lady, Marième Faye. One headline reads, “Macky in Touba: This Gesture by Marième Faye, Calculated or Not, Reinforces His Popularity.” From the article:

Having arrived late to the great room of Khadim al-Rasul [servant of the Prophet, a common title for Ahmadou Bamba among the Mouridiyya] residence at the moment when her husband, President Macky Sall, was going to begin his speech beside the Khalife General of the Mourides, the First Lady, Marième Faye, suddenly crouched down in the middle of the audience, a few steps from the doorway she had just crossed. Like a simple disciple.

Photos here.

Such images and moments have a longer history, as articles like this one spell out. From the Catholic President Leopold Senghor to the somewhat reservedly Tijani President Abdou Diouf to the overtly Mouride President Abdoulaye Wade and the openly Mouride President Macky Sall, the relationship between the Senegalese presidency and the Sufi orders – and we might say the Mouridiyya in particular – has been dynamic, even if certain deep continuities persist. Wade’s public displays of Mouride affiliation were controversial, particularly among intellectuals in the capital, one of whom coined the now-famous descriptor of “the Republic on its knees” in reference to Wade’s prostration to the Mouride Khalife General in 2000. Has something changed since 2000, in terms of how these moments play out in Senegalese public life? It’s beyond my expertise to say – but the parallels are interesting. I’m also reminded of something several young Mourides said to me when I lived in Senegal in 2006-2007, namely that it was divinely ordained that Senegal would first have a Christian president, then a Tijani president, and then all the rest would be Mourides thenceforth. Wa-Allahu a’lam.

Here, finally, is the president’s speech (in Wolof):

 

Chad: An Example of How the State/Military Describes the Anti-Boko Haram Campaign

Following up on my post earlier this week about a Nigerian colonel’s analysis of Boko Haram, I want to highlight an official Chadian readout of the military’s efforts to secure the Lake Chad region, and specifically Chad’s Lac Province.

The readout, from earlier this month, describes President Idriss Deby’s 17 October visit to Kaïga-Kindji (or Kinjiria), the site of a Boko Haram attack on 9 or 10 October (the official readout says 9 October, but most news reports give the date as 10 October). The official readout also gives the figure of six soldiers killed, in contrast with news reports saying eight dead. The attack followed one in late September on Moussarom and Ngueleya, as well as one on 22 July near Daboua.

Not unusually for official military/security press releases, it strikes a triumphalist note and emphasizes ‘s role not must as head of state, but also as commander-in-chief. The readout notes that Deby came to “review the troops and shake the hands of all the general officers deployed on the ground.” The readout repeatedly uses words connected to valor and glory to describe and hail Chadian soldiers, and emphasizes the theme of vigilance in the midst of an asymmetric conflict. Deby’s visit seems to have been calculated to boost morale and to showcase his own willingness to travel to the frontlines. The visit also showcased the wider political and national security team. One aim seems to have been to project an image of integration and coordination at the national and sub-national levels – Deby was met at Kaïga-Kindji by the governor of Lac Province, Mahamat Abali Salah, and the president was accompanied by a host of officials and commanders including Defense Minister Bichara Issa Djadallah and Deputy Chief of Army Staff Hamada Youssouf Mahamat Itno (who, as you might deduce from the name, is a relative of the president – a nephew, from the sources I’ve seen).

I would not say that Deby is worried, either about Boko Haram or about the prospect of mutiny, but I do find it significant that he would make and publicize such a trip. The authorities seem keen to make the soldiers feel seen and supported.