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.

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Chad: A Suicide Bombing and Its Response [Updated]

On June 15, four suicide bombers killed twenty-seven* people and wounded 101 others at the Central Police Station and the National Police School in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad. Chadian authorities (French, .pdf) and most observers attribute responsibility to Boko Haram, the Nigerian-born jihadi group. Boko Haram has motive. Starting in January, Chadian soldiers helped to dislodge Boko Haram from territory it controlled in northeastern Nigeria. Boko Haram has long had the habit of conducting reprisals against those it considers enemies, and the sect’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, has been threatening and criticizing Chadian President Idriss Deby for months. Deby even said (French) that he was “not surprised” by the incident. The attacks in N’Djamena also occurred in a context where Boko Haram, reacting to the loss of its territory, is increasing its suicide attacks in and around northeastern Nigeria. This is, however, the first suicide bombing in N’Djamena, and the first major attack by Boko Haram in Chad.

The Chadian government’s reaction has been multi-faceted but, in my view, problematic. Since the attacks, the government has bombed suspected Boko Haram camps in Nigeria. The actual military effects of the bombing will be hard to assess, though Chadian authorities have been quick to claim a major success. Politically, the bombings seem to be a predictable step, one that governments in similar positions often take. The effects in that sphere are also hard to assess. The retaliatory bombings have generated some irritation among Nigerians, directed both at Chadian authorities (for potentially violating Nigerian sovereignty) and at Nigerian authorities (for “sleeping”). Meanwhile, Chad does not seem to have an end-game strategy beyond killing everyone in Boko Haram – which may prove impossible. In the long term, Chad may already be facing the dilemma that its very efficacy against Boko Haram draws it further into violent conflict with the sect.

More controversially, and for me unadvisedly, the Chadian government has also banned full-face veils for Muslim women (the BBC and the Chadian government say “burqa,” but I think they also mean the niqab, which I suspect is more common in Chad). The government’s rationale is that such clothing could be used to conceal identities and weapons, but the attackers on Monday seem to have come on motorbikes and it is unclear whether they were men or women. In any case, to me, such a ban represents a dangerous conflation of jihadism and (what label should one use?) other interpretations of Islam, including non-jihadi Salafism. If a woman wears a niqab, does it mean she is in league with Boko Haram? Of course not. And if you start telling Muslim women what they can wear, and telling Muslim men how their wives should dress, you risk antagonizing people. I don’t think that Chadians will pick up weapons or join Boko Haram over this issue, but in the long term, it is problematic to use incidents of terrorism as a reason to pick sides within non-violent, intra-Muslim struggles. Again, I don’t think non-jihadi Salafis in Chad are going to fight the government over this, but – especially in a context of pre-existing issues of potential government bias against Salafis – it’s possible that the Chadian government is sowing the seeds of future non-cooperation among a significant segment of its Muslim population.

Finally, Chad’s Prime Minister Kalzeubé Payimi Deubet has called (French) on religious leaders to tell their audiences to cooperate with the security forces and to denounce suspicious persons. This seems like a wise step to me, although context and tone matter – if audiences get the impression that religious leaders are being co-opted or intimidated by the government, those leaders’ credibility will suffer alongside that of the government itself. Here too, I think the niqab/burqa ban will work against the government’s other goals.

I do not envy the position in which the Chadian government finds itself. Boko Haram is a genuine threat to Chad, as the suicide bombings show. The challenge is, and will remain, how to respond to that threat without exacerbating it, and without needlessly elevating internal social and political tensions that may, in the long run, have little to do with Boko Haram except where they intersect with the violence almost by accident. Ultimately, much may depend – as it already has – on Deby’s relationship with the new government in Nigeria, because Chad’s ability to strike and bomb Boko Haram will mean less if the governments of the region, working together, cannot develop a strategy for ending the threat of Boko Haram completely. That endeavor will require more than bombs.

*I’ve also seen twenty-eight and thirty-three as counts of those killed.

[Update June 19]: Two reactions from religious bodies:

  • Chad’s Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs has endorsed the burqa/niqab ban, telling the BBC “the hijab is recommended, but wearing a burka is not part of the Chadian culture.”
  • Nigeria’s Jama’at Izalat al-Bida wa-Iqamat al-Sunna (The Society for the Removal of Heresy and the Establishment of the Sunna, better known as Izala), a Salafi organization, has denounced the ban (Hausa), asking, “if [a government bans niqab], where is democracy?”

Africa News Roundup: The UNSC and Mali, HRW on Boko Haram, Abyei, Somali Oil, and More

The United Nations, from yesterday:

Citing the threat to regional peace from terrorists and Islamic militants in rebel-held northern Mali, the United Nations Security Council today held out the possibility of endorsing, within the next 45 days, an international military force to restore the unity of the West African country.

In a unanimously adopted resolution, the 15-member body called on Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to provide, at once, military and security planners to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union (AU) and other partners to help frame a response to a request by Mali’s transitional authorities for such a force, and to report back within 45 days.

Upon receipt of the report, and acting under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the Council said it was ready “to respond to the request of the Transitional authorities of Mali regarding an international military force assisting the Malian Armed Forces in recovering the occupied regions in the north of Mali.”

Human Rights Watch released a new report on Thursday entitled “Spiraling Violence: Boko Haram Attacks and Security Force Abuses in Nigeria.” From the summary:

This 98-page report catalogues atrocities for which Boko Haram has claimed responsibility. It also explores the role of Nigeria’s security forces, whose own alleged abuses contravene international human rights law and might also constitute crimes against humanity. The violence, which first erupted in 2009, has claimed more than 2,800 lives.

Governor Mu’azu Babangida Aliyu of Nigeria’s Niger State speaks about Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau.

VOA:

The long term success of an oil and security deal between Sudan and South Sudan could depend on the much disputed Abyei border region.

That’s why Princeton Lyman, the U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, says Abyei’s exclusion from the agreement between presidents Omar al-Bashir and Salva Kiir is “a big, big loss.”

Abyei is a territory claimed by both Sudan and South Sudan. The residents of Abyei were supposed to hold a referendum in 2011 to determine which country they would join, but the referendum was postponed indefinitely due to disagreements over who was eligible to vote. Some are still proposing that Abyei hold a referendum, but Sudan’s government opposes the idea. More from VOA:

The Sudanese foreign ministry spokesman, Al-Obeid Ahmed Marawah, says his government prefers a political agreement over a plebiscite because “the referendum would end by attributing Abyei to one of the two countries.

“And this will not satisfy the other party. Therefore, this could cause a new conflict between the two people [ Messriyah and Ngok Dinkas] of Abyei and it might extend to between the two countries,” Marawah says.

And that, in turn, threatens the new deal over the sharing of oil-revenue, which Ambassador Lyman says “holds tremendous potential benefits for the people of both countries, particularly in South Sudan where there has been serious rises in food prices, shortages of fuel, and insecurity on the border.”

In addition to French President Francois Hollande’s trip to Senegal yesterday and his stop in the Democratic Republic of the Congo today, two other noteworthy visits to the Sahel by foreign officials: Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in Senegal for Thursday and Friday, while Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights María Otero will be in Mauritania from October 15-17 and France from October 18-19.

In Mauritania, Under Secretary Otero will meet with government officials, including President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, representatives from civil society, UN agencies and youth groups to discuss political and democratic developments in the country, electoral processes, refugees and humanitarian assistance and combating trafficking in persons. This is the most senior-level U.S. State Department visit to Mauritania in five years.

Somalia’s new government “does not plan to nullify oil and gas exploration contracts made in recent years in favour of those that were signed prior to the toppling of the government in 1991, a senior state official said on Friday.”

Fatal flooding continues in Niger.

What else is happening?

Nigeria: A Middle Course on Designating Boko Haram a Foreign Terrorist Organization

This spring, legislators, the Justice Department, and others in Washington urged the administration of President Barack Obama to designate the Nigerian rebel movement Boko Haram a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” (FTO). For now, the administration is taking a middle course:

The U.S. government is expected to formally apply a “foreign terrorist” label on Thursday to three alleged leading figures of the violent Nigerian militant group Boko Haram, officials said.

The action by the State and Treasury departments follows growing pressure on the Obama Administration to take stronger action against Boko Haram. The group, which says it wants to establish an Islamic caliphate in northern Nigeria, has stepped up attacks on Christian places of worship this year.

Thursday’s anticipated action, officials said, involves applying the “terrorist” designation to three men presumed to be central figures in the group.

The three individuals, an official said, are Abubakar Shekau, aged around 43, described as a Boko Haram leader who allegedly aligned himself with al Qaeda in a video message; Abubakar Adam Kambar, aged roughly 35; and Khalid al Barnawi, aged approximately 36. All three are native Nigerians.

The expected action will freeze any assets they have in the United States, and bar U.S. persons from any transactions with them.

It is among the first such action the U.S. government has taken against Boko Haram, but falls short of demands from some U.S. lawmakers and the Justice Department to designate the entire group as a “foreign terrorist organization.”

This decision seems likely to put the issue, which resonates very little on the US domestic scene in any event, to rest for at least a few months; the administration can tell proponents of the FTO designation that it has already done something and that it is continuing to monitor the situation. And critics of the FTO designation for Boko Haram will likely be less critical of this move, although one of those critics’ main concerns was that legal labels could impede eventual negotiations with Boko Haram. That concern that (from what I can tell) is still relevant to this designation, but not as relevant. The Nigerian government and non-governmental organizations retain much room to maneuver; they would not necessarily have to talk directly to Shekau in order to hold negotiations.

Finally – and I should say that I only use open source information – I have to say that the name “Khalid al Barnawi” seems remarkably vague to me. Al Barnawi is the Arabic adjective corresponding to “Borno,” the Northeastern Nigerian state where Boko Haram is strongest (Borno was also the name of a precolonial empire in the region). “Khalid al Barnawi” is the rough equivalent, then, of something like “Bob from Maine.” It could well be a pseudonym, and I imagine counterterrorism officials are quite used to dealing with people with pseudonyms or with extremely common names. But it’s still odd to me to see a name like that on the list.

What do you think of how the administration is handling the situation?