My New Article on Nigerian Technocrats in African Studies Review

A bit belatedly, I want to mention that I published an article in African Studies Review back in April. It’s called “The Politics of Technocracy in Fourth Republic Nigeria.”

The article grew out of my frustration, circa 2014 or so, with how some Washington policymakers and think tankers talked about figures such as Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, then Coordinating Minister of the Economy in then-President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration. Some in Washington wanted to classify Okonjo-Iweala as a technocratic reformer while portraying Jonathan as a corrupt bumbler, and they wanted to make a neat separation between the two figures. I repeatedly heard people wonder aloud how Okonjo-Iweala could stand to serve in Jonathan’s administration. For me, though, the whole idea of the technocrat is suspect.

Whether they like it or not, I argue in the article, technocrats find themselves caught up in a web of politics. Politicians use them, and/or they allow themselves to be used. Publics get angry at them. And technocrats are often tempted to enter electoral politics themselves, with varying degrees of success. Moreover, the technocrat doesn’t devise policies in a vacuum. Instead, many technocrats become the representatives of and vehicles for neoliberal capitalism – that is, for privatization, jobless growth, and slashing public sector jobs and expenditures. I see this pattern as a worldwide trend, but in the article I delve into the case of Fourth Republic Nigeria, especially the years 1999-2015.

I focus on six figures who have become famous in Nigeria and around the world. Here I’ll mention two. The first is Okonjo-Iweala, who served twice as finance minister, and who also had a career at the World Bank. The second is Nasir el-Rufai, who oversaw privatization efforts early in the Fourth Republic, then fell out of favor and went into exile, and ultimately returned to Nigeria as a politician.

The trajectories these figures followed show how technocracy is wrapped up in politics. One example comes from Okonjo-Iweala’s involvement, under President Olusegun Obasanjo (served 1999-2007), in creating a document called NEEDS (National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy). Although presented as a Nigerian-led effort, the document was created partly to satisfy the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as part of Obasanjo’s campaign to secure debt relief for Nigeria. In her memoir, Okonjo-Iweala acknowledged that the ostensibly technocratic exercise of drafting NEEDS became politicized. The document, she said, required “marketing” to the public in order to counter its “many critics, including those who felt that the strategy had too much of what they termed a ‘neoliberal’ Western flavor.” Later in her memoir, she wrote,

It was clear to me from the outset of the reform process and the formation of the Economic Team that President Obasanjo saw the team as technocratic and wanted to keep it that way…[But] as the reforms moved along, the idea that economics could be separate from politics and that the reform team could remain as technocratic as it was became increasingly untenable. We needed to explain NEEDS and the economic reforms to the lawmakers so they could understand and back the reforms.

Technocrats run into politics on multiple levels: their policies are political, their relationship with the public is political, and their interactions with politicians are political. There is no such thing as apolitical technocratic governance. You cannot simply ask experts to devise the “correct” solutions according to some economic orthodoxy, and then implement those solutions, without engaging politics. If would-be technocrats such as Okonjo-Iweala don’t have their eyes open when they go into government, harsh realities will soon compel them to open their eyes to the intermarriage between their own work and politics.

El-Rufai’s case is even more dramatic. Initially a protégé of Obasanjo, El-Rufai began to lose favor when he opposed Obasanjo’s bid for an extra-constitutional third term. When Obasanjo shifted his strategy, selecting a northern candidate (in keeping with Nigeria’s rotational politics) as a successor, El-Rufai found himself in a sensitive position. As a high-profile northerner himself, El-Rufai was seen – rightly or wrongly – as a potential rival to the new president, Umaru Yar’Adua (served 2007-2010). El-Rufai left Nigeria, positioning himself as a critic of Yar’Adua. During this time, El-Rufai acknowledged the limits of the technocratic illusion:

I think we all [on Obasanjo’s economic team] made two huge mistakes. First, we failed to appreciate that the political leadership never really bought into the economic reforms we championed, and accepted them only out of necessity. Second, by insisting that we were technocrats, we failed to get deeply involved in the political process and therefore got easily marginalized and policy directions reversed. Clever as we were deemed to be, we failed to realize that politics trumps everything, everyday!

El-Rufai did not make those mistakes again. Instead, he implicated himself more deeply in electoral politics, siding with the opposition in the 2011 presidential election. Between 2011 and 2015, he became a key opposition figure, helping to stitch together the coalition that ultimately brought current President Muhammadu Buhari to power in 2015. In his incarnation as a politician, El-Rufai won office himself, as governor of Kaduna. His tenure there has been full of controversy, but he has been more successful than some of his fellow technocrats who tried to convert their technocratic credentials into electoral success without getting their hands dirty in the real substance of campaigning, coalition-building, and deal-making.

The Nigerian case, then, shows that there is no such thing as an apolitical technocrat at senior levels of government. Voters should keep this in mind when they hear promises of salvation through technocracy, and Washington elites should keep this in mind when they are tempted to put technocrats on a pedestal.

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Blog Post for RESOLVE Network on the Dapchi, Nigeria Kidnapping

Over at RESOLVE Network, I have a blog post on the kidnapping of over 100 schoolgirls in Dapchi, Yobe State, Nigeria.

Here’s an excerpt:

The students Boko Haram often targets are those who come from relatively more privileged backgrounds, and in contrast to its effort to entice and coerce young men into joining in other settings, it is striking that Boko Haram often chooses to simply slaughter the young men it finds in boarding schools. If Boko Haram’s treatment of the Chibok girls is any indication, the group relishes having power not just over girls in general, but particularly over girls from families with means and mobility that are poised to go on to university or to independent careers.

My Annotated Translation of al-Naba’s Interview with Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi

The file below is my annotated translation of an interview that an Islamic State newsletter, al-Naba’, did with Boko Haram’s (or, if you prefer, “ISWAP’s”) Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi, who is likely the son of Boko Haram’s founder Muhammad Yusuf. The interview was published in August 2016, marking a rupture between al-Barnawi (whom the Islamic State recognized as its “governor” for West Africa) and Abubakar Shekau, Muhammad Yusuf’s successor as Boko Haram leader (and the previous, official “governor” for West Africa in the Islamic State’s eyes). My translation was in the publication pipeline, otherwise I would have posted it sooner, but it recently came out in the Journal for Islamic Studies , which has given me permission to post it. Please find it here.

A Response to a Review of My Book on Boko Haram

Sam Wilkins, a U.S. Special Forces officer who deployed to Nigeria earlier this year, has written a fairly negative review of my new book on Boko Haram. Most of Wilkins’ review reacts to one section dealing with the Islamic State and Boko Haram, and to a second section discussing how the War on Terror has shaped Nigeria’s responses to the group.

Wilkins makes some good points, but he also attributes positions to me that I do not hold:

  • “Thurston’s treatment of the CJTF [Civilian Joint Task Force, the civilian vigilantes] mirrors his treatment of the Nigerian military as a whole. He dismisses the contributions of both groups due to human rights concerns.”
  • “A policy of humanitarian assistance without military assistance, as advocated by Thurston and others…”
  • “[Thurston] posit[s] a false equivalence between the security forces and the insurgency.”

Wilkins misinterprets analytical points as moral judgments. In the book, when dealing with the Nigerian military and the C-JTF, I try to explain unintended consequences. The Nigerian military’s heavy-handed approach exacerbated and prolonged the conflict. The C-JTF partly secured cities but ended up pushing Boko Haram into the countryside, contributing to Boko Haram’s bid to take mass territory in 2014. I suppose there is an implicit moral judgment in those arguments, but the point is to explain what happened. On p. 13, however, I do say that I “unequivocally condem[n] Boko Haram.” The book contains no equivalent statement directed at the Nigerian military or the C-JTF.

Wilkins says that because he’s been in Nigeria, he can determine where my arguments are “theoretical and divorced from the reality on the ground.” But many foreigners have been “on the ground” in Nigeria, and then there are obviously the millions of Nigerians who live in Nigeria and whose perspectives must also be taken seriously. To say the least, all of these people often disagree with one another about how to interpret events. Nigeria is a complicated place.

Wilkins says, “During my time in Nigeria, I learned to see the CJTF as the Nigerians saw it.” This is a red flag. If he feels that “the Nigerians” see anything in just one way, then he is being overconfident about his experience. For what it’s worth, in my fieldwork in Kano for my first book – when I was speaking with people in Hausa and Arabic, when I met leading religious figures, and when I was an independent researcher unaffiliated with any government – I always knew that I had only gotten part of the story. You have to triangulate between your experience and other points of view, and even then you will not get everything right.

Wilkins also, I think accidentally but also revealingly, puts some of Amnesty International’s words in my mouth when he dismisses my writing on the U.S.-Nigeria security relationship. Obviously, I agree with Amnesty and quoted them for that reason (p. 287). But Wilkins’ mistake matters: Amnesty has researchers “on the ground” in Nigeria, so Wilkins’ rhetorical strategy wouldn’t work as well against them. Easier, perhaps, to attribute Amnesty’s words to me, and then dismiss me.

Notably, two pages before, I discuss the Nigerian military’s open hostility toward Amnesty. I write, “The War on Terror has given Nigerian military and political hardliners a set of rhetorical tools with which they can easily rebut and undermine criticism: Boko Haram or ‘the terrorists’ are depicted as purely evil, Nigeria’s government is presented as a heroic participant in a global struggle, and all critics are cast as either deliberately or unwittingly proterrorist.” Is there no relationship between what Wilkins does in his review, where he bristles against criticism of the Nigerian military or the U.S. government, and the way that Nigerian senior military officers castigate Amnesty?

On Wilkins’ other major objection to my book – that I’m not sufficiently alarmed by “Islamic State West Africa” – I have less to say. I take them seriously. I suppose I’m just a bit more cautious than Wilkins about hyping them as a threat, and about reifying their Islamic State ties.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning Wilkins’ plan to defeat Boko Haram (and “ISWA,” if you go for that stark division between the two groups). Here, there is significant common ground between us – we both favor a combination of military and political measures, and Wilkins thoughtfully considers some of the more unattractive but probably necessary political measures I mention, such as amnesties for fighters. But Wilkins emphasizes the military approach more than I do, and he is more optimistic than I am about what will follow military campaigns. Much of the process Wilkins advocates – “a meaningful ‘follow-through’ of governance, pro-government religious messages [seriously?!], and enduring local security” – seems unlikely to happen, or at least to happen cleanly. That’s why I think the government of Nigeria should start, or rather restart, negotiations now, and keep looking for political opportunities even as the military conflict continues. Some of this is already happening, of course, perhaps more in Niger than in Nigeria. The point is that the end of the Boko Haram conflict is probably going to be messy. No one has all the answers, including me.

In any case, I encourage you to read the review. And perhaps read the book as well! There’s a bit more to it than Wilkins lets on.

Analysis of Senegal’s Legislative Elections

I’m up at World Politics Review with a piece on Senegal’s legislative elections, which took place July 30. An excerpt:

A closely fought site was Dakar, symbolically important as the home turf of the president’s main rival and politically important as the country’s capital and most populous city. Initially, both [the ruling coalition Benno Bokk Yakaar] BBY and [Dakar mayor] Khalifa Sall’s coalition claimed victory there, with a margin of less than 3,000 votes. Winning Dakar would not fundamentally change the balance of power in parliament, but the opposition hoped to prevent a rout. In the end, official results accorded a narrow victory to BBY.