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?”