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.

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Senegal: Politicians Visit Touba in Advance of the Magal [Updated]

The Magal is one of the most important annual religious events in Senegal. A mass gathering in Touba, the epicenter of the Mouridiyya Sufi order, it commemorates the return of the order’s founder Ahmadou Bamba from exile in Gabon during French colonial rule. This year’s Magal is scheduled for 26/27 October 28 October, and as such will be the last gathering before Senegal holds its presidential elections in February 2019.

The occasion can take on political ramifications, which are obviously a bit heightened this year. There has been a bit of controversy amid the planning for President Macky Sall’s annual pre-Magal courtesy trip to Touba. The head spokesman* of the Mouridiyya, Cheikh Bassirou Abdou Khadre Mbacké, had to explicitly tell Serigne Modou Bousso Dieng, head of the Association of Young Religious Leaders of Senegal, not to disturb the president’s visit. Dieng told the press that he submits completely to those instructions, but he added that “I remain convinced that Touba does not enjoy major consideration from President Macky Sall. In view of what this city represents on the religious plane and in terms of population, it merits more regard and this is not the case!”

Dieng, who is already a declared candidate for the 2019 presidential election, has previously said that he will withdraw if the former ruling party, the Parti Démocratique Sénégalais (PDS), nominates former foreign affairs minister Madické Niang. The latter recently received some rhetorical support from another of Senegal’s three most prominent Sufi families, the Sy branch of the Tijaniyya in Tivaouane; that family’s head said that former President Abdoulaye Wade should retire from politics (and stop attempting to impose his son Karim as the PDS’ 2019 candidate). In any case, back in Touba, the stage appears set for a smooth visit by the president circa October 25.

It is worth noting, however, that certain politicians are heading to Touba before Sall gets there. One is former prime minister and likely presidential aspirant Idrissa Seck, who arrived Monday for a four-day stay, heading out of town just before Sall’s arrival.

*[Update: I misidentified Khadre – he is the spokesman, not the head/khalifa general of the Mouridiyya. The khalifa is .Mountakha Bassirou Mbacké. See more from Ousmane Diallo here.]

Nigeria: A Look at Lagos in the Lead-Up to the 2019 Elections

In earlier posts, I’ve surveyed gubernatorial politics in three Nigerian states – Osun, Kano, and Borno – in the lead-up to Nigeria’s 2019 general elections. Another crucial state is Lagos, the country’s most populous state, commercial hub, and crucial node in the national ruling coalition.

For a long time after Nigeria returned to multi-partyism in 1999, gubernatorial politics in Lagos was relatively straightforward. Former oil executive and career politician Bola Tinubu won the governorship in 1999 and served two terms, then handed off power to his hand-picked successor, his chief of staff (and current Federal Minister of Power, Works and Housing) Babatunde Fashola. After Fashola ran into term limits in 2015, Tinubu again selected the winning candidate: Akinwunmi Ambode, an accountant and career civil servant. The party names have changed during this period – Tinubu initially won on the Alliance for Democracy ticket, part of which then merged in 2006 into the Action Congress, which then merged in 2013 with other parties to form the All Progressives Congress (APC), Nigeria’s current ruling party.

Now, however, things have gotten more complicated in Lagos, as the APC decided to switch horses. The party’s gubernatorial primary, held October 2, anointed Babajide Sanwo-Olu as the next candidate, sidelining Ambode. For his part, Tinubu endorsed Sanwo-Olu, speaking euphemistically about Ambode’s deviations from the “master plan”:

When I was elected governor in 1999, my administration faithfully implemented that plan. The government of my immediate successor, Tunde Fashola, also honoured this enlightened plan.

Where state government remained true to that blueprint, positive things happened. During my tenure and Governor Fashola’s, Lagos state recorded improvements in all aspects of our collective existence.

I make no pretence that the master plan is perfect. It can always be fine-tuned.

However, whenever a government departed from this plan without compelling reason, the state and its people have borne the painful consequence of the improper departure.

In other words, it sounds like Tinubu felt Ambode was bucking his authority. Following Sanwo-Olu’s victory, moreover, Tinubu urged the Lagos APC to stay united and look ahead to 2019: “You don’t bring the roof down. You don’t bring the house down. Safeguard the foundation. The exercise you have witnessed today is a prelude; it is good for the general election of the party.”

The splits in Lagos reportedly brought some tensions, however, between Tinubu and the presidency. Nigeria’s Sun wrote that initially, Ambode felt he had some chance to defy Tinubu and win the primary:

He was emboldened to challenge the age-long power establishment in the state through words of encouragement from the Presidency and some notable Yoruba traditional rulers and leaders. Indeed, President Muhammadu Buhari and his deputy, Prof Yemi Osinbajo, never hid their preference for Ambode’s second term and had put pressure on Tinubu to allow the governor re-contest. This remained their position until last Monday when Ambode addressed a world press conference, where he lost his cool, accusing his challenger in the race, Sanwo-Olu, of fraud and mental illness. This, presidency sources revealed, forced the Villa to soft-pedal on their support for him.

So far, Ambode himself has fallen back into line. Initially, some observers expected him to do as frustrated/ambitious politicians in other states have done and leave the APC, but his public statements have turned conciliatory, as he tells audiences “you can therefore be rest assured of the continued sustenance of this programme by an All Progressives Congress-controlled government in Lagos State.”

Or has he? More recent reports have bubbled with rumors that Ambode is still thinking of defecting, and that APC leaders are considering a drastic move – impeaching him. The threat may motivate him to finish out the rest of his term quietly and not defect.

All of this seems like a demonstration of Tinubu’s continued power, but it also exposes some potential fault lines in the southwest. I’ve argued before that Buhari is not fundamentally threatened by the recent defections of northerners such as Bukola Saraki and Rabiu Kwankwaso to the former ruling People’s Democratic Party – but that Buhari would be threatened if he lost the support of the more or less solid southwest. Perhaps coincidentally and perhaps not, Buhari is scheduled to be in Lagos today. In any case, it will be crucial to watch what happens in Lagos and the surrounding states between now and February.

A Window Into How Part of the Nigerian Military Views Boko Haram

Earlier this month, Colonel Timothy Antigha, the Chief Military Press Information Officer for the Multi-National Joint Task Force, published an essay entitled “Counter-Insurgency: The Broader Implications of Recent Execution of Boko Haram Commanders.” The essay is a follow-up to earlier analyses Antigha has disseminated, including the December 2017 piece “Boko Haram: State of Counter-Insurgency Operations.”

Antigha’s writings give insight not just into the state of Boko Haram (where some caveats and questions are in order regarding his analysis), but also into how parts of the Nigerian military views Boko Haram. This latter aspect of the writings is most interesting to me.

Antigha’s analyses, I should note at the outset, are more sophisticated and blunter than the typical verbiage one encounters in Nigerian military press releases. Many of those promote a one-dimensional, triumphalist narrative of brave soldiers killing “Boko Haram Terrorists” or surmounting temporary setbacks.

Consider, by way of contrast, this passage from Antigha’s December 2017 piece:

Apart from being religious fundamentalists, Boko Haram is a terrorist social movement.

Like all social movements, it represents groups that are on the margins of society and state, and outside the boundaries of institutional power, Boko Haram seeks to change the system in fundamental ways, through a mix of incendiary religious dogma, unbridled criminality and unmitigated terror.

The strategic end state of the insurgency is the establishment of an Islamic State in the Sahel covering parts of Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria, in the likeness of what ISIS envisioned for Iraq and Syria.

Without doubt, 2011 – 2014 was Boko Haram’s most active and successful years.
During this period, the public lost confidence in the ability of the military to defend Nigeria’s territorial integrity.

This is pretty three-dimensional stuff. One might take issue with parts of it, but it’s clear that Antigha is light years beyond the “snuff out all the BHTs” guys.

Now, some of the caveats: Antigha is very positive on the Nigerian military’s performance starting in 2015, i.e. under the current administration of Muhammadu Buhari. One could be forgiven for concluding that politics plays into how he periodizes the counter-insurgency. I agree with him that 2011-2014 (or I would say into early 2015) were Boko Haram’s most successful years, and available data on the numbers of attacks and the extent of territorial control would bear that out. But it’s too neat to just emphasize that “the emergence of a new government and leadership in the Nigerian Army in 2015 resulted in a new operational framework and design for the North East.” For one thing, Boko Haram’s fortunes declined before Buhari took office, amid the Chadian-Nigerien (and then Nigerian) push into Boko Haram-held territory. SInce Buhari took office, moreover, some old problems have continued to plague the Nigerian military, including corruption, brutality, and a weak rural presence. All of this is to say that we must remember, when reading Antigha’s analyses, that he is an information officer working for the Nigerian military and the MNJTF. He is not an independent or disinterested voice.

Now, turning to Antigha’s more recent analysis, a few interesting points stand out:

  • Antigha does not differentiate starkly here, as do so many analysts and reporters, between Abubakar Shekau’s Boko Haram and Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi’s Islamic State West Africa. That is, when discussing the recent reported assassinations of Mamman Nur and Ali Gaga (both of whom are typically identified as having been affiliated with al-Barnawi’s group), Antigha sees the dividing line within Boko Haram not as Shekau vs. al-Barnawi but as “moderates” vs. “radicals.” Antigha sees this divide as one centered on relations with civilians. According to Antigha, Nur and Gaga “were trying to win back the confidence of the people when they met resistance by younger and radical commanders.” Antigha expects further fragmentation, again not along lines determined by global affiliations but along lines determined by strategy: “Commanders and foot soldiers who were loyal to the executed commanders may, subject to their assessment of their chances of survival go their separate ways as terrorists or denounce terrorism and surrender.” Al-Barnawi’s name does not even appear in the text, and Antigha seems to see factional divisions as secondary to this issues of “moderates” versus “radicals.” Antigha writes, “Following the execution [of Nur], Mustapha Kirmimma has succeeded Nur as second in command. Kirmimma is reputed as a Shekau type of terrorist.” Is Antigha saying that both factions now have strong Shekau-like contingents within them – or is he suggesting a different understanding of how Boko Haram is organized? After all, Antigha uses the singular when he argues that Boko Haram is “an organization that has a semblance of core values, is well policed and governed by strict rules and regulations.” The accuracy of any of this is less interesting to me, in this context, than is the insight into how Antigha (and, by extension, at least part of the Nigerian military and the MNTJF) understands Boko Haram’s organizational structure. A number of questions follow – is this analysis based on flawed information? Or information not available to the public? Or is it simply a different reading of what the 2016 split really meant?
  • Antigha is not really concerned at all about external linkages. He writes, “It becomes difficult to ignore the view that Boko Haram has become a highly poisonous brand, which is unattractive to global terror entrepreneurs who are looking for conflicts to invest in. More so, opinion is building among analysts and commentators that Boko Haram could be a liability rather than asset to the Islamic State which it claims affiliation to.” For me, again, this is interesting not because of the question of whether he is right or wrong in his diagnosis, but because his portrayal is a far cry from what we hear/have heard from some other voices within the Nigerian government, past and present. If you want to be ultra-cynical (more cynical than I am willing to be, actually), you could say that when Nigerian officials want to maximize their chances of gaining more external military support, they play up Boko Haram’s transnational ties; and when they want it to appear that the counterinsurgency is working and that Boko Haram is on the back foot, they downplay those ties.
  • Antigha concludes by attempting to manage expectations, in a really interesting way: “Likely fallout of the recent executions could be more Boko Haram skirmishes against defence forces and of course more attacks on soft targets in the area of operation. However, the skirmishes would not be borne out of a desire by Boko Haram to gain any strategic or operational advantage; (the capacity is really not there) rather, the attacks will be driven by the need for some publicity by the radicals who have seized power in Boko Haram. The aim of these attacks, some of which have been reported already, is to hoodwink supporters and sympathizers to believing that Boko Haram is still a viable and reckonable terrorist organization.” Translation: Antigha knows that there will be more attacks, but he wants to portray these attacks as Boko Haram’s last gasps rather than as signs of a continued resurgence by the group. The big question to me, though, is who controls the countryside in Borno and Yobe; many Boko Haram attacks appear, to me, to be not so much about publicity as about preventing the Nigerian military from establishing firm control over rural and remote areas.

In conclusion, read the whole piece. It is the most interesting Nigerian government/military statement that I’ve seen about Boko Haram in quite some time. Again, I don’t agree with all of it, but it does give a window into how *some* top military officials see the jihadist organization. A final question, as with figures in the previous administration who also seemed to have a sophisticated viewpoint, is how much influence such analysts really have – or whether the guys who think in terms of body counts are the dominant figures after all.

Notes on Nigeria, Borno, and Qur’an Recitation Competitions

The other day a Facebook post from outgoing Borno State Governor Kashim Shettima caught my eye. In the post, Shettima’s office discusses the governor’s substantial gifts to Borno men and women who had won state, national, and international rankings at Qur’an recitation competitions. Such competitions can be major events in Nigeria and throughout the Muslim world – as you can see in the documentary “Koran By Heart,” which I show in some of my classes. The competitions often center on (a) thoroughness of memorization, e.g. the judges/moderators will begin a verse and then ask competitors to complete it, and (b) beauty/technical perfection of recitation.

Qur’an memorization and Qur’an schools in West Africa are an increasingly prominent topic of academic study, with recent books on the topic by Butch Ware (2014, on Senegal) and Hannah Hoechner (2018, on northern Nigeria).

Within Nigeria, Borno in particular has high repute as a center for the memorization of the Qur’an, and so it is no surprise to see the governor recognizing high-performing competitors from the state. Nevertheless, the gifts are notable, both the ones that competitors won outside the state and the ones that Shettima added:

The Governor announced the rewards on Monday [October 15] in Maiduguri when he received the participants, accompanied by members of the Qur’anic Competition Committee led by the Chief Imam of Borno, Imam Laisu Ibrahim Ahmed.

Beneficiaries of the scholarship award include; Al-Bashir Goni Usman who was last year’s 1st Position at the Kwara State Qur’anic Recitation Competition. He got 2nd Position at the International Competition held in Saudi Arabia where he was awarded SR100,000 (equivalent to N10,000,000), Amina Ali Mohammed who was this year’s overall winner in the female 1st category in Katsina State. She won a car (G.M.) costing about N4,900,000 and a cash prize of N500,000 by the Katsina State Government.

Others are Sale Abubakar Sale (1st position in male 4th category) who won a Hyundai car worth N3,600,000 and awarded N500,000 cash prize, Idris Abubakar Mohammed (2nd in the 3rd category recitation), who won one tricycle worth N600,000, a deep freezer, and N250,000 cash, and Aisha Hamidu (4th in 2nd category) who won a motorcycle worth N190,000 and a cash prize of N150,000.

The remaining six participants were given N50,000 each by the Katsina State Government.

Impressed with their performance, Governor Kashim Shettima directed the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Education to process their scholarships immediately, adding that six of the remaining participants will get One Hundred Thousand Naira each.

Some quick comments, in no particular order:

  • The imam-ship is essentially hereditary in Borno. A eulogy for the current imam’s father, who may have been the longest-serving imam in Borno history, can be found here. In a way, an event like this showcases a kind of “government Islam” in Borno, where elected politicians and hereditary, largely traditionalist figures cooperate in an attempt to define and shape Islam for the public.
  • I really enjoyed Obi Anyadike’s recent African Arguments piece on a decline of Islamic religiosity in Maiduguri, but the attention Borno authorities are showing to this competition – and the strong performances Borno-ans are delivering in competitions in Nigeria and around the world – would be data points against that narrative.
  • Qur’an competitions attract participants from diverse backgrounds, including Sufis and Salafis. During my dissertation research in Kano I met two prominent brothers from the Tijaniyya Sufi order who organized Qur’an competitions through their schools.
  • Ja’far Mahmud Adam (1961/2-2007), the most prominent northern Nigerian Salafi of his generation, won a national competition and then placed third at a Qur’an recitation competition in Saudi Arabia in 1988 (see here, p. 5). These performances helped him secure admission to the Islamic University of Medina and helped accelerate his preaching career back home. So competitors who perform well are (a) sometimes positioned for success in religious leadership generally and (b) not just automatons with good memories; they can also have broader religious profiles and knowledge.

More on Talking with Jihadists: Examples from Somalia

As readers know, I’ve been plugging the idea of talking with jihadists, both here at the blog and in a new paper for the OECD. So I was interested to see that argument being made with regard to Somalia and al-Shabab. In a piece for The Guardian this week, Somalia’s former counterterrorism and national security advisor Hussein Sheikh-Ali, who managed the country’s program for al-Shabab defectors, lays out his case. Notably, as I’ve stressed in my own writing, the idea of talking with jihadists is not hypothetical. Here is an excerpt from Sheikh-Ali:

There is little doubt in my mind that the perpetrators of [the October 2017 Mogadishu bombing] are akin to monsters. Despite this, I call for dialogue. I believe we have to compel and convince al-Shabaab to come to the political negotiating table.

I have been talking to them for years. Since 2009, members of al-Shabaab have been defecting and rejecting violence and the group’s ideology. During my time as counterterrorism advisor to the government of Somalia, I created and coordinated the country’s first and only defector programme. I managed several high-level defections from al-Shabaab, including their head of intelligence as well as dozens of soldiers. I would sit opposite them and listen to them for hours. What those defectors said in our meetings made me believe dialogue with al-Shabaab is possible.

Sheikh-Ali then spells out, bluntly, one central premise of negotiated settlements with jihadists: the settlements may require profound concessions. In the case of Somalia, Sheikh-Ali notes that authorities may have to offer a constitution that comes closer to al-Shabab’s vision of what is “sharia-compliant.” He further notes that al-Shabab wants the withdrawal of foreign forces, including the African Union Mission in Somalia or AMISOM. He adds that a settlement may also require immunizing al-Shabab leaders to prosecution. In other words, settling with jihadists could mean giving up a lot. But I agree with him that it would be worth it for the sake of peace. Obviously jihadists could negotiate in bad faith – but if they renege, then you just go back to fighting them. It makes sense to fear that withdrawing foreign forces and immunizing leaders could ultimately extend the war, but Somali authorities and foreign powers have been fighting al-Shabab since 2006, or 2003, or even the 1990s if you count certain antecedents of the group. It’s time to think creatively.

Here, of course, it’s worth mentioning that Somalia’s defector program netted some big fish. One is former al-Shabab Deputy Commander Mukhtar Robow, who defected to the government in August 2017 following years of tensions between him and other al-Shabab leaders. More recently, earlier this month, Robow declared his candidacy for the presidency of Somalia’s South West region. Authorities blocked his candidacy, due to continued international sanctions against him, but I would be surprised if the story ends there – he is reportedly continuing to run. The sight of a former al-Shabab leader running for office, much less winning, would be extremely distasteful to many observers – but the example also shows that some of these jihadist leaders can prove surprisingly flexible over the long term. Again, no one is saying that making peace with jihadists would be pleasant or pretty; the argument is just that it could be better than the status quo.

A Ministerial Security Meeting in Burkina Faso [Updated]

On 16 October, ministers from Benin, Togo, Niger, and Burkina Faso met in Ouagadougou to discuss security issues and cross-border cooperation. In public remarks, attendees stressed the inter-connectedness of their sub-region and the desire for greater collaboration between police, gendarmes, and soldiers. The ministers also met Burkina’s President Roch Kaboré.

Clearly, then, the violence in Burkina Faso’s east has its neighbors worried.

These four countries are already part of different political, economic, and security organizations. All of them are members of the Economic Community of West African States. Niger and Burkina Faso are members of the G5 Sahel, which has its own Joint Force. Those two countries re also members of the U.S.-sponsored Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Partnership. Niger and Benin are both members of the Multi-National Joint Task Force (to counter Boko Haram), although Benin is a minor member. There is not, to my knowledge, a formal common framework for these four countries. Perhaps we will see one emerge. [Update: On Twitter, Nicolas Desgrais points out that there is an  intelligence and counter-criminality framework, ratified in April of this year, that groups together these four countries and Cote d’Ivoire.]

I am, in general, a skeptic about the efficacy and prospects of regional approaches to counterterrorism. The MNJTF, I think, has been less integrated than advertised, and the G5 Joint Force has gotten off to a slow and problematic start. With that said, though, more cooperation is obviously better than less. We’ll see where this goes.