I was up at Michigan State University last week for a classroom discussion (on Salafism in Nigeria, my first book) and a talk on Boko Haram (i.e., my second book and also some ongoing research). MSU has a fantastic African Studies community, including my host, Prof. Mara Leichtman, whose book examines the Shi’a in Senegal. At MSU I also had the opportunity to go on the Africa Past & Present podcast with Prof. Peter Alegi. The episode has now been posted here.
I’ve been quoted in a few media reports recently, and a new review of my book on Boko Haram came out.
- Voice of America, “French Airstrikes in N. Chad Affirm Support for President Déby”
- BBC, “Nigerian Elections: Has Boko Haram Been Defeated?”
- The Economist, “Boko Haram, Nigeria’s Jihadist Group, Is Regaining Strength.”
The review appeared in International Affairs, by Caroline Varin, whose own book on Boko Haram can be found here. Varin highlights things that I see as the book’s strengths, and she also makes some solid critiques of the book – writing conclusions, in particular, has never been my strength!
In Nigeria, Boko Haram and its offshoot Islamic State West Africa (ISWA) have perpetrated several major attacks and a number of micro attacks recently. Here are some of the most prominent incidents in recent weeks:
- An ISWA attack on a military base in Baga (map), 26 December
- An ISWA attack on Rann (map), 14 January
- An ISWA attack on Geidam (map), 23 January,
- Attacks attributed to Boko Haram, targeting two military bases/outposts at Pulka (map) and Logomani (map) on the Nigeria-Cameroon border, 26-27 January
- A second attack on Rann, attributed by some reports to Boko Haram rather than ISWA, 28 January
Some of these places are small cities – the number of displaced from Rann alone is estimated at 30,000. Most of these towns/cities have been previously, even repeatedly, exposed to Boko Haram and ISWA violence. Much of Borno State remains extremely dangerous for civilians and soldiers; all of the attacks mentioned above occurred in Borno save the one in Geidam, which is in neighboring Yobe State.
Reporting on these attacks also emphasizes the unpreparedness of the Nigerian military. See the following thread:
The assault on Geidam also shows how individual attacks can build momentum for future violence, as fighters seize weapons and equipment and as the attacks shake soldiers’ and even officers’ confidence. The accounts about Geidam do not all agree on the details, but different reporters and ISWA’s own readout all say that ISWA took supplies in Geidam, perhaps including fuel, a tank, other military vehicles, and weapons. Meanwhile, the attack seems to have caught the military by surprise:
In separate interviews with PREMIUM TIMES under anonymity on Friday morning, military officers were troubled by Boko Haram’s ability to inflict such damage on an area that had long been fortified to serve as a buffer against unchecked movement of insurgents south of River Komadougou-Yobe.
Geidam has been regularly targeted since November 2011 when Boko Haram launched a string of deadly assaults on residents in the community and Damaturu, the state capital. The military, however, moved swiftly to frustrate easy movement of the insurgents by setting up bases in the communities near River Komadougou-Yobe, which is a minor tributary of the Lake Chad.
While other Yobe communities, especially Buni Yadi, live in fear of regular Boko Haram attacks, Geidam was relatively calm, which security analysts credit to the military’s ability to prevent terrorists from using the nearby river.
But the military base in Geidam, which sits near the border with Diffa, Niger Republic, was perhaps the first target of the latest deadly raid, according to military sources.
Amnesty International’s report on the second Rann attack offers an even more damning portrait of military unpreparedness – or outright fear of Boko Haram/ISWA:
Disturbingly, witnesses told us that Nigerian soldiers abandoned their posts the day before the attack, demonstrating the authorities’ utter failure to protect civilians.
Alleged withdrawal of troops, triggered a massive exodus of civilians to Cameroon, as fear spread that Boko Haram would take advantage and attack the town. At around 9am on 28 January, a group of Boko Haram fighters arrived on motorcycles. They set houses ablaze and killed those left behind. They also chased after those who attempted to escape and killed some people outside the town. Eleven bodies were found within Rann town, and 49 bodies were found outside.
Another theme worth noting about recent violence is that even micro attacks can have wide impacts. For example, recent ambushes and abductions on a road running from Damaturu (Yobe) to Biu (Borno) caused widespread disruption:
The road which is about 120 kilometres has remained the only safer means as linkage to people living in southern Borno senatorial district reach Maiduguri, the state capital following closure and danger posed on other closest roads.
Sources said, after the abduction, security forces had to close down the road for motorists and passengers. A driver who plies the road on daily basis, Mallam Ali Isa told our Correspondent that he had to follow through 400km Gombe-Potiskum- Damaturu- Maiduguri road after the news filtered that the road was not safe on Friday. His words: “The Damaturu-Buni Yadi- Biu Road was not safe. Today is Buni Yadi Market where thousands of people from the surrounding communities come for business, unfortunately, there was an attack on the road which led to abduction of unspecified number of travellers with looting of foodstuff, and this warrant the military to close down the road including the market,” Isa learnt.
As a closing thought, a lot of the reporting has discussed these incidents in the context of Nigeria’s approaching presidential (February 16) and state (March 2) elections. But I am not sure that the electoral calendar is uppermost in the minds of either Boko Haram or ISWA. I think they operate on a longer timeline and that electoral disruption is a lower priority for them than (a) military positioning, (b) keeping fighters happy/occupied, and (c) obtaining or expanding their supplies and their overall political, economic, and religious influence.
Recently there has been a spate of interesting work on Boko Haram and its offshoot Islamic State West Africa (ISWA) or Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). Here are some links and excerpts. As always, it can be difficult to verify some journalists’ and analysts’ sources, especially when they claim rare of exclusive access to insiders.
- The journalist Ahmed Salkida is covering ISWAP’s military endeavors in northeastern Nigeria. See here and here. An excerpt from the former: “Boko Haram/ISWAP policy with respect to physically holding territories changed after the steady losses they suffered in the run up to general elections in Nigeria in 2014. They do not want to physically hold unto territories anymore than they are determined to ensure that the military does not have any sustainable presence in the territories. Furthermore, ISWAP is paying more premium to wooing local communities to feel more secure with them than they could ever be with the military. That is their strategy…ISWAP is no longer showing interest in taking a formidable military base such as was in Baga and staying put there. It doesn’t apparently serve their tactical and strategic interest well. They are more interested in taking over military hardware and ammunition in those bases while instilling fear on the troops and making it extremely difficult for the military to have the comfort to plan and launch attacks.”
- Babatunde Obamamoye has written an interesting-looking article about negotiating with Boko Haram. From the abstract: “A notable shocking development in the advancement of the Boko Haram terrorist revolt was the abduction of about 276 Chibok girls in April 2014. Shortly afterward, while the terrorists made known their extremist determination to offer the girls for sale, the Nigerian government vowed unconditional rescue of the girls. Notwithstanding the evident opposition of both adversaries to nonviolent engagement, some of the victims were eventually released through negotiations. What then were the rationales that paved the way for negotiations? What are the implications of this approach? This article demystifies the rationales for negotiation between the Nigerian government and the Boko Haram terrorist group over the abducted girls. It argues that nonviolent engagement in this context arose out of intersecting interests but, more important, reinforced the “vulnerability” of the “new” religious terrorists to negotiation when violence proved futile in accomplishing some of their vital objectives.”
- Christian Seignobos has also published a fascinating article (in French) on local dynamics of Boko Haram’s violence and the insurgency’s broader effects in the year 2017. The abstract is available in English: “The 2017 chronicle of events belies the assertions of the concerned governments diagnosing the impending end of the group. In Nigeria and neighbouring countries of Borno State, the bands called Boko Haram are still as active as ever. Fishermen, breeders and traders who want to continue to live of Lake Chad have to live with it, and sometimes take advantage of the chaos to oust their rivals. For its part, Boko Haram had to make choices in its local alliances. The insurgents interests have coincided with those of the Buduma indigenous people: the first wanted to expel the populations who refused to accept to pledge allegiance and pay them taxes, while the latter took the opportunity to try to chase away «foreigners» who had taken over their islands’ lands and pastures. In Cameroon, the «movement» had gradually established itself in the departments of Logone-et-Chari which cover the Kotoko country, and of Mayo-Sava, which includes the former kingdom of Wandala in the foothills of the northern Mandara Mountains. It is currently trying, from its multiple withdrawal sites, to escape the intervention of the army and its auxiliaries.”
The Nigerian military on Friday accused United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) staff of spying for Islamist militants in northeast Nigeria, and suspended the agency’s activities there.
Sahara Reporters has more. They quote Colonel Onyema Nwachukwu, Deputy Director of Public Relations, Theatre Command:
It is baffling to note that some of these organizations have been playing the terrorists’ script with the aim to continue demoralizing the troops who are doing so much to protect the lives of victims of Boko Haram Terrorism and safe guard them from wanton destruction of property and means the of livelihood. The Theatre Command considers the actions of these organizations as a direct assault and insult on the sensibilities of Nigerians, as they tend to benefit more from expanding the reign of terror on our people.
“This has become inevitable since the organization has abdicated its primary duty of catering for the wellbeing of children and the vulnerable through humanitarian activities and now engaged in training selected persons for clandestine activities to continue sabotaging the counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency efforts of troops through spurious and unconfirmed allegations bothering on alleged violations of human rights by the military.
The move is not surprising, given the military’s repeated expressions of open contempt for other international humanitarian and human rights organizations, particularly Amnesty International. The military is highly, and it seems increasingly, sensitive to outsiders’ criticisms of its human rights abuses.
My main comment on all this is that the military is playing politics here in a big way. The military is obviously well aware of allegations, by its own soldiers as well by journalists and other critics, that the fight against Boko Haram is not going well. The problems include not just brutality against civilians, but also lack of proper equipment for frontline soldiers. The military is likely aware, moreover, that even among many civilians there is a strain of suspicion toward Western NGOs, the United Nations, foreign development and humanitarian agencies, and so forth. The politics of this announcement, then, in my view includes an effort to cater to this strain of suspicion while deflecting attention away from the military’s own serious problems.
Or, as Brandon Kendhammer puts it:
[Update, December 17]: I tweeted this out when it happened, but I want to link to it here as well. Late on Friday, the Nigerian military reversed itself and canceled the expulsion of UNICEF from the northeast. See their statement here.
Now, of course, they’re back to going after Amnesty.
I’m still catching up on important reporting that came out last month and throughout the fall. One such report is the Washington Post‘s November 20 article about deradicalization efforts for former Boko Haram members in Niger. The article, which is very good, focuses especially on the State Department’s role in shaping and possibly, soon, funding the program (see some official background here).
I’m enthusiastic about such programs, not because they’re perfect but because (a) these fighters or ex-fighters are human beings, and maybe they can be redeemed, and (b) concrete non-violent solutions seem more promising to me than just straight counterinsurgency paired with vague talk of socioeconomic reconstruction. If the fighters in the bush hear that they have choices beyond continued combat or unconditional surrender, perhaps more of them will turn themselves in.
No one says this is easy, though. The following excerpt was, for me, the core of the article:
“It was in D.C. that I realized the Americans might suffocate this program, even with good intentions,” [former Diffa Region Governor Dan Dano] Lawaly said. “They would say, ‘These defectors of yours may have committed war crimes, so we have to get the legal framework sorted out.’ And I’d say, ‘They’re abused kids, for God’s sake.’ ”
A legal framework would, however, codify the program, ensuring its survival beyond Lawaly’s tenure. And as it happened, Lawaly was sacked earlier this year when his party pulled out of Niger’s ruling coalition.
“It can’t be a one-man show if this is going to be sustainable,” said [Neal] Kringel, the State Department official. “We have to have a process that categorizes and then deals with each defector appropriately.”
I lean more toward Lawaly’s perspective, but you definitely don’t want hardened offenders slipping through the cracks or taking advantage of the program.
Yet as the article’s anecdotes suggest (and as Sarah Topol’s amazing reporting also suggests), much of Boko Haram’s recruiting was circumstantial and partly coerced. Such recruits came to do horrendous things, but I believe there is a road back for them, albeit one that might fade if authorities (American or Nigerien) place too much emphasis on retributive and punitive justice. That’s a grim thing to say – who wants to choose between justice and peace? This is not my choice to make when it comes to Niger, of course, but I would say that the State Department should heed the voices who prioritize peace.
The other voices who matter, though, include the communities affected by Boko Haram’s violence. This theme comes up in the article, and it came up on my trip to Nigeria last month. It is eminently understandable that survivors and victims may not forgive. In Kano, including in conversations with people from northeastern Nigeria, I heard very different perspectives on what might be done with “rehabilitated” Boko Haram fighters. Some very smart people said that it was impossible for such fighters to go home, given the level of anger and even violence they may face from victims and survivors. Other Nigerians I spoke with even doubted that rehabilitated fighters could successfully integrate in big cities, given that they might somehow stand out and raise questions even in neighborhoods in Kano or Lagos or other cities outside the epicenter of the conflict. But some folks I met did think that big cities might afford a degree of anonymity that would facilitate a new start for the genuinely repentant. In any case, I’m not sure anyone has really worked out a promising solution for the long-term dilemmas about how ex-fighters can lead successful lives – or what compensation the affected communities deserve (a lot) and what they might realistically get (probably much less than what they deserve).
On November 24-25, the “Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWA)” faction of Boko Haram attacked the town of Kangarwa in Nigeria’s Borno State, near Lake Chad, and claimed control there on the 25th (see a brief video here). The attack on Kangarwa followed a November 18 assault by ISWA on Metele, also in northern Borno.
Neither Kangarwa nor Metele appears on Google Maps. For context, then, here is a useful map of Borno’s Local Government Areas (LGAs). Kangarwa is in Kukawa LGA and Metele is in Guzamala LGA.
What exactly happened in Metele is unclear, given disputes over how many Nigerian soldiers were killed there, but some kind of major attack or even massacre occurred. The Nigerian Army says that 23 soldiers were killed, but Premium Times (same link) puts the figure at 118 killed and 153 missing in action. As you will see below in the translation of an Islamic State account of what happened at Kangarwa, the Islamic State is claiming that the killings at Metele so frightened the soldiers in Kangarwa that they left without a fight, even though they had previously been determined to hold the town. We should add that soldiers in Metele themselves have complained that their weapons are obsolete and broken down: in the video below, the narrator repeatedly asserts that their equipment dates to the regime of Shehu Shagari (1979-1983):
There are now a lot of moving parts to the equation in northern Borno State.
First, there is the question of what ISWA wants – or even what it is – in the wake of the reported death of Mamman Nur, a longtime senior Boko Haram operative and by some accounts the power behind the throne in ISWA since it broke with Abubakar Shekau’s faction of Boko Haram circa August 2016.
The emerging conventional wisdom (well articulated here, and quite possibly correct) is that ISWA is growing more militarily aggressive and more ideologically hardline, and that Nur’s death was both a result of and a further catalyst for that trend. It is worth noting, however, that some informed observers (notably the Nigerian Colonel Timothy Antigha, whose analysis of Nur’s death I discussed here) present things in a somewhat different light, highlighting ideological changes within Boko Haram but seeming to say that the lines between Shekau’s faction and ISWA are less clear that many think, and that Shekau-like voices are ascendant in ISWA.
Second, the attacks are causing political turmoil for President Muhammadu Buhari – according to one outlet, even the Shehu of Borno recently told Buhari to his face that the government and the military needed to “review the strategies in nipping this lingering crisis in the bud.” Amid growing criticisms of Buhari’s handling of Boko Haram, the media narratives are growing extremely contentious and murky. Take this report, for example, where an anonymous officer in Maiduguri is quoted as saying the following about Nigeria’s military command:
The distrust [among senior officers] arises from the fact that no one knows who among them is giving Boko Haram information because they all know that the terror group has infiltrated the Nigerian Army. Everyone is edgy and suspicious of one another. The situation is really bad. Everybody present in that barracks in Melete was wiped out. Another important point to note here is the massive corruption in the hierarchy. A lot of people are feeding fat from this war.
Some of this is certainly true, above all the “feeding fat” part (why are there Shagari-era vehicles in Metele, after all?). But it is also election season and a moment of mounting frustration, where it becomes even harder than normal to sort out what information is true from the information that is planted or spun to advance certain narratives. Is it true that Boko Haram has infiltrated the Nigerian Army (news that would make the army and the president look bad)? Is it true, as the military now asserts, that Boko Haram/ISWA has a rising number of foreign fighters (news that could absolve the president and the military of some responsibility for the rising violence)? Is it true, as Chief of Army Staff Tukur Buratai recently said (the quote is a paraphrase), that “the troops should be mindful of what they see and read on the social media as most of the stories are either doctored or fake”? There are now serious calls for various heads – Buratai’s, for one – and so everyone, pro or con, will be trying to shape how the media covers these latest attacks.
A lot of this, moreover, feels like a replay of how Boko Haram was discussed by official sources and journalistic outlets circa 2014, as the Goodluck Jonathan administration was facing heavy criticism over its handling of Boko Haram. The same accusations of double agents and massive international backing were very prominent during Jonathan’s time, including in statements by Jonathan himself. Now, this is not to say that Buhari will lose, but it is to say that Boko Haram’s tenacity has now twice posed significant political problems for incumbents – and that affects how politicians and political actors discuss the issue.
To close this post out, let’s look at the brief description of the Kangarwa attack included in the latest issue of the Islamic State’s weekly Arabic newsletter al-Naba’ (p. 7; h/t “Edward“). Here is my translation:
The Islamic State’s Soldiers Control the Town of Kangarwa and Target the Apostates in the Town of Arge
On Sunday, the 17th of Rabi al-Awwal, the soldiers of the Islamic State in West Africa took control, by the grace of God alone, of the town of Kangarwa near Lake Chad following an attack they carried out on the apostates in the town. They also targeted elements of the apostate Nigerian army in the town of Arge with machine guns, which led to hitting many of them.
According to the media office, the soldiers of the Islamic State launched a vast attack on the town of Kangarwa located near Lake Chad, where God cast terror into the hearts of the apostates such that they turned their backs and ran. God protected the muwahhidin [monotheists] in the fighting, and they returned to their positions safely.
The media office added that previously, six battles had broken out between the soldiers of the Islamic State and the apostates for control over this village, but the apostates were defending it desperately due to its importance to them. But they left it and fled from it this time without fighting, due to their fear of the caliphate’s soldiers after they saw what was done to their apostate brothers in the nearby town of Metele and other towns.
[The last paragraph repeats nearly verbatim the above-translated paragraph about Arge, except that it adds “and to God is the praise and the benefit.”]
On the one hand, this is scary stuff. On the other hand, I find it revealing that the so-called master propagandists of the Islamic State chose to write a brief and highly repetitive statement that is, if one looks closely, quite thin on content. What do official proclamations of control (as opposed to unofficial influence or sway) really mean? These statements give little clue, ultimately.