Nigeria: Notes on Recent Boko Haram Violence

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.

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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.

Nigeria: Developments in Gubernatorial Contests in Osun, Kano, and Borno

Nigeria is in full-blown election mode in advance of the 16 February* 2019 presidential vote. Some of the most consequential political developments are taking place in the states. Here we look at three states: Osun, in the southwest, where a contentious gubernatorial election result is raising questions about ruling party interference and electoral officials’ biases; and two key northern states, Kano and Borno, where gubernatorial primaries are approaching.

Osun

Last week I wrote about the off-cycle gubernatorial election in Osun, which I believe is the last major election before the presidential vote. In Osun, incumbent governor (and member of the ruling All Progressives Congress or APC) Rauf Aregbesola is stepping down due to term limits, and so the race is between his chief of staff Gboyega Oyetola and Osun West Senator Ademola Adeleke. The latter represents the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which ruled Nigeria from 1999-2015.

Osun’s election took place on 22 September, but problems occurred at seven polling units. The election was re-run at those units on 27 September, and the returns from those units changed the overall outcome. After the 22 September results, the PDP’s Adeleke had a lead of 353 votes; after the 27 September results were added to the tallies, the APC’s Oyetola had a lead of some 482 votes and was declared the winner.

The close margin, and the reversal in the party’s fortunes, has led to outcry and concern not just from the PDP, but also from other observers. The Nigerian Civil Society Situation Room released a statement critical of the process and questioning the integrity of the final result. The Centre for Democracy and Development in West Africa’s statement similarly concluded (see second tweet in thread) “that the conduct of some key stakeholders clearly ran contrary to democratic norms & standards, as well as best practices in the conduct of credible elections.”

And here is part of the joint statement from the European Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States:

In contrast to our overall findings on the vote of September 22, we were concerned to witness widespread incidents of interference and intimidation of voters, journalists, and civil society observers by some political party supporters and security agencies.  Many of our findings mirror those of leading civil society groups that observed the election.

We commend the work of INEC leadership during both elections. But it is clear that the neutrality of the security services and responsible conduct by party agents, both inside and outside polling units, will be essential to ensure free, fair, credible and peaceful elections in 2019.

For both the APC and the Independent National Electoral Commission, then, there is skepticism in the air about their ability to conduct a successful and open process in February.

Kano

Back in August, I took a look at party shifts and realignments in Kano, the most populous state in northern Nigeria. Four prominent personalities are fighting for influence over the upcoming gubernatorial election. Most gubernatorial votes will take place (or are scheduled for) 2 March 2019. So here are the major players in Kano:

  • Former Governor (and current Senator) Rabiu Kwankwaso (served 1999-2003, 2011-2015)
  • Former Governor Ibrahim Shekarau (served 2003-2011)
  • Current Governor Abdullahi Ganduje (took office 2015)
  • Ex-Deputy Governor (as of August) Hafiz Abubakar (in office 2015-2018)

The latest big news is that Kwankwaso is backing Abba Yusuf to win the PDP gubernatorial nomination. Nigerian media (corporate and social) has been buzzing with the news that Yusuf is Kwankwaso’s son-in-law, although Kwankwaso himself has sought to correct (or spin?) the perception of nepotism by arguing that Yusuf is not married to one of his daughters but rather to someone from his extended family.

Kwankwaso also reportedly sought to arrange a game of musical chairs that would place Yusuf in the governor’s seat while placing Abubakar and long-time Shekarau ally Salihu Takai (who has, however, so far not followed Shekarau’s lead in defecting to the APC after Kwankwaso defected to the PDP)** into Senate seats. Here is a paraphrase of what Kwankwaso said about the proposal he made to Abubakar and Takai:

He also explained his reasons for not anointing the former Kano deputy governor, Prof Hafiz Abubakar, and a prominent politician in the state Alhaji Sagir Takai. He said he had known Prof Hafiz for over 40 years and has assisted him wherever necessary. The Prof was asked to contest for the Kano Central senate seat, a seat currently occupied by Sen Kwankwaso, in the coming 2019 election but he showed no interest. Likewise Sagir Takai had also been asked to contest for the seat of the southern Kano senatorial zone but had also declined to the arrangement, Sen Kwankwaso explained.

Within the PDP, then, you have a major contest for the nomination brewing – and then the nominee will face off against Ganduje, who remains in the APC and remains governor. Part of Kwankwaso’s ambition, of course, is to win the PDP nomination for the presidency and then bring Kano into his column in the general election.

Borno

Borno is the largest state in Nigeria by landmass and is the epicenter of the Boko Haram crisis. Incumbent Governor Kashim Shettima of the APC is term-limited and will likely seek the Borno Central Senate seat. As in other states, outgoing governors can wield tremendous influence in picking a successor (Shettima himself was hand-picked in 2011 by then-outgoing Governor Ali Modu Sheriff after Sheriff’s initial pick, Modu Gubio, was assassinated, likely by Boko Haram).

The big news out of Borno, then, is that Shettima has endorsed Babagana Zulum for the APC nomination. Zulum is a professor and the former state commissioner for reconstruction, rehabilitation and resettlement. (Here, if you are interested, are micro-bios of the other candidates.)

In Shettima’s endorsement statement, he focused on how Zulum’s professional experience will be crucial for Borno as it focuses on post-conflict reconstruction. But other parts of the statement allude, cryptically, to intra-party conflicts:

We cannot pretend not to be aware that an otherwise leader in our party, the APC, has deliberately created an unnecessary division within its membership in the state. This has led, to borrow from the satirical wisdom of Distinguished Senator Mohammed Ali Ndume, the existence of what is akin to a match between “home based players” in the majority and with local support and a minority “foreign based players”. Four months ago, when we received some fleeing leaders back into the APC fold, I had thought that those who choose to work against the majority have learned lessons. I had expected us to once again, fuse into one indivisible family so that together, we could give our party a direction and confront our opponents as a united force. How wrong I was! Perhaps, I ignored the common saying, that a leopard does not change its spots.

This is, of course, a reference to Shettima’s difficult relationship with Sheriff, who rejoined the APC in a May 2018 “peace deal” with Shettima. Since then, however, political conflict between the two has flared up again.

There is also a hint, in Shettima’s endorsement statement, that Zulum is something of a consensus candidate:

Of our 21 aspirants, if I were to support and hand pick what some people might call any of my closest boys as successor; I most certainly would go for Barrister Kaka Shehu Lawan or Adamu Lawan Zaufanjimba. If, on the other hand, public service is the only consideration, none of the aspirants can be more qualified than our elder statesman, Ambassador Baba Ahmed Jidda. If loyalty to political association is my main consideration, Distinguished Senator Abubakar Kyari has proved unalloyed loyalty to political association with me. If years of sincere and mutual friendship are my main consideration, Distinguished Senator Baba Kaka Bashir Garbai and Alhaji Mai Sheriff are my closest friends amongst all our aspirants. If the consideration is about humility and ability to carry people along, His Excellency Shettima Yuguda Dibal is legendary. I have relationship and so much respect for majority of the aspirants, the likes of Hon. Umara Kumalia, Makinta, name them. In fact, two of the aspirants, Mustapha Fannarambe and Umar Alkali are my relatives. All aspirants have divergent qualities. However, because of the situation we found ourselves, considerations for the next Governor of Borno State requires specific quips tailored to our needs for now.

Perhaps I am too cynical, but it also seems to me that Zulum may be a somewhat technocratic choice who lacks a constituency of his own and therefore may be seen as pliable by Shettima and his team. But I welcome readers’ thoughts and corrections on this point in particular.

So there you have it – three crucial states, one of whose governorships has been held for the APC in a potentially ugly way (Osun), one of whose governorships is increasingly contested (Kano), and one whose governorships may pass smoothly from incumbent to successor (Borno). In any case, these remain three states to watch, especially in terms of how gubernatorial politics interact with presidential politics in the lead-up to 2019.

*Delays are always possible, although the constitution requires that the next presidential term start by 29 May 2019.

**No one said this was easy to follow!

Roundup on the Recent Boko Haram Attacks in Borno and Yobe

Two significant Boko Haram attacks occurred in recent days, one in Borno State and the other in Yobe State. Amid conflicting accounts, it’s difficult establishing exactly what happened.. In place of an analytical post, then, here’s a roundup:

Borno (Bama Local Government Area, likely 13 July)

Reuters: “About 20 Nigerian soldiers are missing after a clash with Boko Haram militants in the northeast of the country, security sources said on Monday, though the military denied reports that some troops could not be found. The confrontation between militants and troops took place on Saturday in the Bama area of Borno…An army spokesman said suspected Boko Haram militants had tried to seize military vehicles in an attempted attack on troops in Bama but they had been repelled by troops backed by the air force.” For more statements from the Nigerian Army, see here.

Daily Trust: “One of the sources told Daily Trust on Sunday that the troops who were based in Bama town in central Borno, were ambushed around 2pm Friday near a village called Bulagallaye,  while moving in a convoy  of 16 Hilux trucks loaded with soldiers  and vigilantes. ‘They were on their way for an operation in Bulagallaye along Bama /Dikwa axis when the assailants ambushed them…You know this is raining season and operations along that axis are increasingly becoming tough because of the terrain. One of the trucks in the convoy got stuck in the muddy area and while efforts were being made to pull out the truck, the terrorists attacked’.”

Punch: “A source close to Bama, said, ‘The update is that 10 corpses of soldiers ambushed in Borno have been recovered. The army is still looking for the rest of them. The terrorists are said to have links with ISWAP [Islamic State West Africa Province] and they are from the [Abu Mus’ab] Al-Barnawi faction. The army cannot sweep these attacks under the carpet because there were eyewitnesses to the two attacks in Borno and Yobe which happened on Saturday and Sunday.’ But the army spokesman, [Brigadier General Texas] Chukwu, said the troops repelled the terrorist attack on Bama, adding that only two personnel were injured. He said, ‘The army wishes to state categorically that the report is not true. There was an attempted attack on troops at Kwakwa and Chingori communities in the Bama area by suspected Boko Haram terrorists as a result of the difficult terrain where our vehicles became bugged [sic] down’.”

Yobe (Geidam Local Government Area, 14 July)

Punch: “ ‘Boko Haram terrorists attacked troops of the 81 Division Forward Brigade at Jilli village in Geidam district. The terrorists came in huge numbers around 7:30 pm (1830 GMT) and overran the base after a fierce battle that lasted till 9:10 pm,’ said the military source. ‘The base had 734 troops. Currently the commander of the base and 63 soldiers have made it to Geidam (60 kilometres away) while the remaining 670 are being expected,’ he said.”

Daily Trust: “A soldier who survived the attack told our correspondent that the terrorists went to the military facility in fleet of military painted vehicles with camouflage colours. ‘There was trench around the base, but they confidently approached the gate and we opened it thinking they were troops from Gubio. They started shooting and we engaged them before they overran us,’ he said. ‘About 10 of us ran to Ngilewa village where a Good Samaritan drove us to Damakarwa village and handed us to the troops from Geidam,’ he said.”

Blueprint: “The Chief of Army Staff, Lt.-General Tukur Buratai yesterday held a crucial meeting with the Theater Commander of Operation Lafiya Dole and other top military officers at the Military Command and Control Centre, Maiduguri, Borno state.
Although the outcome of the meeting was not made public, a military source said the meeting was to review and re-strategise the ongoing operations, especially Operation Last Hold in Northern Borno and Lake Chad fringes.”

For further context, it’s worth reading this thread from Ahmad Salkida and this report by Omar Mahmood and Ndubuisi Ani, and it’s worth watching this video from al-Barnawi’s faction.

Nigeria: Boko Haram Assassinates Another Key Religious Personage

Boko Haram, the Islamist rebel movement in Nigeria’s North East, has assassinated a number of people: policemen, prominent politicians, and even imams who disagree with their doctrine of rejecting the secular state and Western-style education. But in the past weeks Boko Haram has apparently killed two members of the leading religious family in the North East: including, yesterday, the brother of the Shehu of Borno.

Northern Nigeria has a number of Islamic leaders who occupy hereditary and very influential posts. The Sultan of Sokoto, heir to the rulers of the nineteenth century Sokoto Caliphate, is often reckoned to have the widest geographical influence in Nigeria. But the Shehu of Borno has the highest stature in the North East, parts of which Sokoto never controlled (and this influence extends even into surrounding areas of Niger and Cameroon). For Boko Haram to assassinate the Shehu’s relatives sends a message that the movement has decisively rejected the religious establishment in their area. Even more significantly, the act may reveal important intra-Muslim splits in the North East. This killing could cost Boko Haram many supporters – or it could show that the Shehu and his circle have lost standing among a major segment of the population. Whatever the case, the news is sure to be on many people’s lips. If BBC Hausa, where the story was one of the top headlines yesterday, is any indication, Northern Nigerians will be following the news closely.

AFP provides more details on the assassination:

Abba-Anas Umar Garbai was shot by gunmen outside his home in the city of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, late Monday.

“He was about to enter his house to retire for the night when some gunmen suspected to be Boko Haram members accosted him and shot him at close range,” said state police spokesman Lawal Abdullahi.

[…]

It was the second attack on the Shehu’s siblings in two months. Another sibling was shot and killed early in April, also by suspected Islamists, according to police authorities.

In addition to revealing and exacerbating religious cleavages in the North East, the killing could also increase pressure on authorities to deal more effectively with Boko Haram. I imagine that the Shehu’s family, in addition to the grief they must be feeling, will ask that security forces take action to find the killers and prevent such a killing from happening again. Whether or not the security forces can stop Boko Haram is another question – the movement is out to demonstrate that no one, even someone highly placed, is safe from their violence.