Niger and Boko Haram: Violence, Refugee Repatriation, and Regional Politics

WFP food distribution in Bosso, funded by ECHO

WFP Food Distribution in Bosso, Niger

 

On April 25, Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect seized the island of Karamga, Lake Chad, leading to a protracted battle with soldiers from Niger. This attack was Boko Haram’s second assault on Karamga, following violence there in February. The aftermath of the recent attack highlights not only Niger’s continued fight against Boko Haram within its territory, but also how the violence is affecting the complicated politics surrounding the displaced.

As part of the response to the violence on Karamga, Governor Yacoubou Soumana Gaoh of Niger’s Diffa Region ordered an evacuation of civilians from the island. As many as 25,000 people may be displaced within Niger as a result of the evacuation. In addition to the scale of the displacement, there is an international dimension. Last week, Niger’s government began to deport some 6,000 Nigerian refugees and migrant workers back to Nigeria, with more likely to follow. At least 4,000 of these were removed from Karamga. Many of the returnees are fishermen and their families who were displaced by Boko Haram’s violence around Lake Chad.

Representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have expressed concern over Niger’s approach. Some refugees have died during the return journey. So far the Nigerian-Nigerien cooperation on the repatriations seems to have been amicable: The Nigerian Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) welcomed the returnees in Yobe State and sent some on to Sokoto, Kebbi, and elsewhere. 1,200 refugees were returned to Borno over the weekend, with another installment of 1,200 coming soon; Borno authorities were reportedly ready to receive them. Nevertheless, there are underlying tensions and conflicting incentives for Nigeria and Niger: Niger is desperately poor and can ill afford to host refugees, especially amid a fight with Boko Haram; Nigeria is re-establishing territorial control in a halting fashion; and Nigeria and its neighbors have had tensions over who bears what responsibilities in the fight against Boko Haram.

Meanwhile, the deportations add to a trend of repeated displacement for victims of Boko Haram, partly driven by the violence inside Niger itself. In February, after violence in Diffa, many of the displaced there fled north, or headed west to Zinder and other regions in Niger. Diffa itself became a “ghost town” at points. For those civilians who have been displaced multiple times, rebuilding could be even harder, especially given food insecurity in Niger.

Finally, one important detail: Reuters reported on Friday that Boko Haram had attacked a village in the Dosso Region of southwestern Niger. If true, that would mark one of Boko Haram’s furthest attacks west – even in Nigeria, the center of gravity for violence has been the northeast, and attacks anywhere west of Abuja have been somewhat rare. If Boko Haram is now raiding in southwestern Nigeria, that might – as with the attack on Karamga – reflect that the group is becoming scattered and desperate. At the same time, though, it might mark a stage of further unpredictability in the conflict.

Debt Relief for Chad

On April 29, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank announced $1.1 billion in debt relief for Chad under the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative. The Initiative works by means of a two-step process that involves first, meeting certain eligibility criteria including the development of a Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP); and second, showing progress on reforms (as determined by the IMF and the Bank) and on implementation of the PRSP. Chad has now reached the second stage, called the “completion point,” which allows a country to “receive full and irrevocable reduction in debt.” The Initiative aims to allow governments to spend more money on reducing poverty.

You can read Chad’s first (2003) PRSP here, and its second (2008) here. The second paper placed greater emphasis on alleviating rural poverty, and it responded to a context in which oil sector growth was a less dominant aspect of the economy.

You can read more about Chad and IMF here, and about the IMF’s Extended Credit Facility arrangement for Chad here. The three-year arrangement, which began in 2014, aims to “ensure fiscal sustainability, strengthen fiscal institutions and governance, promote sustained and inclusive growth over the medium term, and facilitate the move to the Highly Indebted Poor Country Completion Point.”

For the perspective of the Chadian government, you can look to this interview (French) that RFI conducted with Chadian Finance Minister Bédoumra Kordjé. RFI asks some tough questions, including whether Chad’s military participation in different conflicts in Africa (Mali, Nigeria, CAR) was part of the equation – i.e., whether the French pleaded Chad’s case to the IMF as a reward for Chad’s military assistance. Kordjé thanks the French without responding specifically to the question. Kordjé also discusses, in response to a question about late payments of salaries for Chadian bureaucrats, how the Boko Haram crisis in Nigeria and the Lake Chad region is straining Chad’s budget. You can find the 2014 budget, in French, here.

Writings Elsewhere, April 2015

I’ve written a few things that have appeared elsewhere in the past few weeks:

  • A new collection came out last month called Shaping Global Islamic Discourses: The Role of al-Azhar, al-Medina and al-Mustafa, edited by Masooda Bano and Keiko Sakurai and published by Edinburgh University Press. I have a chapter in the volume that deals with non-violent Salafi networks in contemporary northern Nigeria – i.e., not Boko Haram, but a rather more influential group of graduates of the Islamic University of Medina, many of whom have staunchly and publicly opposed Boko Haram.
  • I discussed what Nigerian President-elect Muhammadu Buhari’s cabinet might look like at World Politics Review.
  • I analyzed Boko Haram’s brand of religious exclusivism for Oxford University Press’ blog.
  • I wrote for Global Observatory about hunger in Niger, especially as the hunger crisis relates to displaced persons and Boko Haram.
  • I couldn’t hold back from writing something about ISIS, even though it’s a bit out of my lane. I talked about ISIS’ intellectual genealogy for the Social Science Research Council’s The Immanent Frame blog.

Chad: A Snapshot of Intra-Muslim Tensions Around Boko Haram

A brief report from a Chadian online source caught my eye yesterday. It relates (French) how a prominent Chadian Muslim shaykh “opened fire on the Wahhabis whom he branded Boko Haram members, even terrorists.” This incident occurs in a context where Chadian forces are fighting Boko Haram, including inside Nigerian territory (read about Chad’s latest advance here [French]). The shaykh’s equation of “Wahhabis” with Boko Haram raises questions about how Boko Haram’s violence and Chad’s involvement could affect intra-Muslim relations inside Chad – an overwhelmingly Muslim country.

The Chadian shaykh in question is Shaykh Hassan Hissene, better known as Shaykh Husayn Hasan Abakar. He serves as president of the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs in Chad, a state-sponsored body that regulates some religious and educational matters in the country. Similar councils exist or have existed in other Sahelian countries.

Abakar has been called one of the 500 most influential Muslims in the world, and is a signatory to the Amman Message, a 2004 declaration calling for Muslim unity and tolerance. He is thus a respected figure in Chad and around the world. He has paid particular attention to questions of extremism in Chad; in a 2010 interview (Arabic) with an Egyptian newspaper, he said, “These extremists and zealots don’t appear in a country except through negligence and in the absence of rigorous rules, or when they incorrectly use the freedoms provided. Chad, thanks to Allah, works to prevent the spread of the factors that lead to the appearance of such elements.”

His accusations against other Chadian Muslims have drawn hostility and charges that Abakar plays sectarian and partisan politics (the Council is seen as favoring the Tijaniyya Sufi order, a widespread order in West and Sahelian Africa). Critics (French) in the Chadian online press have called Abakar a stooge of President Idriss Deby, a “hysterical mullah of the MPS [the Patriotic Salvation Movement, Deby’s party].” The piece that triggered this blog post takes a similarly critical tone and suggests that Abakar is using this moment of tension around Boko Haram to “settle his scores” with movements like Ansar al-Sunna, a Salafi organization with branches in Egypt, Sudan, and Chad. (Find one snapshot of the Chadian Ansar al-Sunna in Arabic here.)

It’s important to point out that just because an organization is Salafi does not mean it would support a movement like Boko Haram – there are Salafis around the world who vehemently reject jihadism. Indeed, the most prominent Nigerian Salafis have condemned Boko Haram. Moreover, Ansar al-Sunna is widely considered to represent a quietist form of Salafism. Given that, it will be important to see how Abakar’s accusations play out in Chad, and how the Salafi movement there responds to charges that it is linked to Boko Haram. In any case, this incident sheds light on rhetorical struggles that are playing out far from the battlefield.

On Weak States and Threats to the U.S.

Stanford’s Dr. Amy Zegart has written an important piece for Foreign Policy in which she argues that the threat of weak states has been over-hyped. I agree with the first half of the piece, in which she takes down the common arguments about why weak states threaten the United States.

To take a brief tangent that goes beyond the scope of this blog, I disagree with parts of the second half, in which Zegart argues that other states – Russia, China, and Pakistan, etc. – are the places with real potential to threaten the U.S. For me, the real threats to the U.S. are (1) climate change and (2) our political elites’ lack of alarm in the face of (a) widespread poverty and suffering, (b) a health care system that is still largely broken, (c) inadequate and crumbling infrastructure, and (d) under-regulated industries that expose Americans to diseases. Of course the thought of nuclear war or wars between great powers frightens me – but the disconnect between our politicians and the ongoing problems in this country scares me more.

Returning to the topic of weak states, Zegart rebuts three arguments often made by those alarmed about weak states. First, she writes, is the argument “that fragile states can become terrorist strongholds that pose existential threats to Western ways of life.” Second is the claim “that poorly governed spaces function as incubators for other global ‘bads,’ like disease, conflict, human rights violations, drug and human trafficking, and criminal networks.” Third is the contention “that globalization connects citizens throughout the world in unprecedented ways, binding the fates of strong states to weak states.”

I won’t rehearse all of Zegart’s arguments, but her counter-arguments to the idea of weak states as terrorist strongholds are worth quoting:

Terrorism experts have found that the vast majority of terrorist attacks strike local targets, not foreign ones. What’s more, the world’s weakest states have not produced the world’s most or worst international terrorists. Foreign Policy’s 2014 Fragile States Index listed five countries in its worst-of-the-worst category: South Sudan, Somalia, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan. None are major inspiration bases, training centers, breeding grounds, or exporters of terrorism directed at Western cities.

Now, it’s true that Somalia’s al-Shabab recently urged its supporters to attack Western shopping malls, including the Mall of America. I agree with Slate, however, that it’s not that scary of a threat.

While clearly a bid for publicity after a year of headlines dominated by ISIS, Boko Haram, and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the video does comes with some weight, given that al-Shabab actually did attack the Westgate mall in Nairobi in 2013, killing more than 60 people. There’s also evidence that Shabab has actively recruited fighters from Minnesota’s Somali community. But Shabab has never carried out an attack outside East Africa and it seems unlikely that they would warn their targets to step up security before launching the first one.

The U.S. government doesn’t seem that concerned, though with a potential shutdown looming, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson couldn’t help noting that this sort of vague threat is the reason his department needs a budget.

It’s also worth differentiating, as Zegart does, between threats and existential threats. Even Westgate did not pose an existential threat to Kenya.

The idea of weak states as threats to the U.S. has gained such currency in large part because of the structuring metaphor of Afghanistan. Commentators invoke Afghanistan as a metaphor for every country in Africa where a jihadist movement gains ground: Mali, Somalia, Libya, and so on. There’s even a Twitter account called “Bokostan,” referring to Nigeria’s Boko Haram. But the conflicts in each of these places have specific features that are irreducible to Afghanistan’s experience with al-Qa’ida and the Taliban. Even Afghanistan’s experience is often misunderstood. It’s worth pointing out, yet again, that the 9/11 attacks were planned in various places, including Afghanistan but also Germany.

Analysts can always come up with ways that terrorism in Nigeria (which I wouldn’t call a weak state, though some do), Mali, or Somalia might threaten the West. And the possibility is always there – after all, even one Western sympathizer could do a great deal of harm. But Zegart is right that the threat of weak states has been over-hyped. For example, in thirteen years of existence as a movement and five years as a consistent insurgency, Boko Haram has not attacked the United States; nor has al-Shabab, in its at least nine years of existence; and although Algerian militants carried out attacks in France in the 1990s, since Algeria’s civil war ended (circa 2000-2002) al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghrib has been a threat primarily to Western tourists in northwest Africa, rather than to Europe itself. It’s worth keeping this background in mind when evaluating the threats that weak states, whether in Africa or elsewhere, might pose to the U.S.

Roundup of Recent Writing on the Humanitarian Fallout from Boko Haram

The violence by and against Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect has had a tremendous impact on non-combatants. Northeastern Nigeria and surrounding countries (Niger, Cameroon, and Chad) have experienced waves of displaced persons. Here is some recent writing on the humanitarian aspect of the conflict:

Accounts about surrounding countries:

  • World Food Program: “WFP Resumes Food Distributions in Diffa, Niger”
  • AFP: “Refugees in Niger Live Under Shadow of Boko Haram”
  • VOA: “Humanitarian Crisis Looms at Cameroon Refugee Camp”
  • ICRC: “Chad: Fallout from Escalating Violence in North-Eastern Nigeria”
  • UNHCR: “As Violence Spills Over to Countries Neighbouring Nigeria, UNHCR Calls for Urgent Humanitarian Access to the Displaced”

Accounts about Nigeria:

  • NEMA: “There Are 981,416 IDPs in Nigeria”
  • BBC: “Doctor on the Frontline”
  • IRIN: “For Boko Haram Victims, Charity Begins at Home”
  • IRIN: “Tackling the Trauma of Boko Haram”
  • Doctors Without Borders: “The Fighting Gets Closer and Closer”
  • ICRC: “Nigeria: ICRC Steps Up Aid as Situation Worsens in North-East”
  • NEMA: “Baga Relief Intervention”
  • Joshua Meservey: “Nigerian Refugees Fleeing Boko Haram are a Crisis in the Making”

On the Bombardment of Abadam, Niger

On February 17, an airstrike killed an estimated thirty-six people in the village of Abadam, Niger (map showing the closest nearby town, Bosso). Although the author of the airstrike remains unconfirmed, most coverage has pointed to Nigeria as the likely candidate.

The strike on Abadam comes amid three interrelated trends: (1) violence by Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect is increasingly spilling over into Nigeria’s neighbors as they move to fight the sect within their territory and even within Nigeria; (2) the Nigerian military is facing international and domestic pressure to demonstrate rapid progress against Boko Haram; (3) Nigeria’s neighbors seem frustrated with Nigeria’s performance against the sect. Although it was an accident, the strike shows how these different trends exist in tension with one another. Put differently, it shows how Nigeria’s aims, incentives, and actions may conflict with those of its neighbors.

Back to the incident itself:

At least 36 civilians were killed when a military plane bombed a funeral party in a Niger border village, the government said, in an incident its deputy mayor blamed on the Nigerian air force.

The air crew was likely to have mistaken the villagers, who had gathered near a mosque, for Boko Haram militants, Niger military sources in the nearby town of Bosso said.

[…]

Abadam lies on the border with Nigeria around 13 kilometres (eight miles) southwest of Bosso, where thousands of soldiers from Chad and Niger are massed in preparation for operations against Boko Haram.

The best commentary I’ve seen on the strike has come from RFI (French). RFI focuses on the operational, rather than the political, difficulties with such strikes:

The bombardment of Abadam brings to light the limits of resorting to airstrikes against Boko Haram. The Cameroonians have only used their Alpha Jet with caution. They have only done so one time, to liberate one of their bases briefly occupied by Boko Haram at the end of December. [RFI is referring to this incident – Alex.] As for the Chadians, they strike military targets with their Sukhoï in support of or in preparation for an operation on the ground. African military personnel generally agree in thinking that their fighter planes are too imprecise and thus too dangerous in the zones where members of Boko Haram are mixed into the civilian population.

These points take on added importance as Nigeria turns to airstrikes within its own territory. Just yesterday, the Nigerian military bombed suspected Boko Haram positions in the Sambisa forest in northeastern Nigeria.

The operational dangers feed into the potential for political problems, both within Nigeria and with its neighbors. Authorities in Niger have reacted calmly in public to the strike on Abadam (see the government’s statement in French here), declaring three days of national mourning and promising an investigation into the identity of the aircraft. Nevertheless, if it does turn out that Nigeria was responsible, this episode may foreshadow how a search for quick fixes as the clock ticks down to March 28 (the date of Nigeria’s once-delayed presidential elections) could put Nigeria at odds with the surrounding countries.