Boko Haram/ISWAP Roundup for July 30, 2020

I’m considering doing a weekly roundup on Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). Here’s my first stab at it:

United Nations Security Council, Report of the Secretary-General, “Children and Armed Conflict in Nigeria” (July 6, posted to Relief Web July 24). The report covers January 2017-December 2019. One excerpt (p. 6):

According to information gathered and verified by the country task force, the recruitment and use of children accounted for the greatest number of verified violations in north-east Nigeria. A total of 3,601 children (780 girls, 2,820 boys, 1 sex unknown) aged between 6 and 17 years were verified to have been recruited and used by CJTF [Civilian Joint Task Force] (2,203), followed by Boko Haram (1,385) and the Nigerian Security Forces (13). Of the total attributed to CJTF, 41 children were recruited and used between January and September 2017 while the remaining 2,162 were recruited and used between 2013 and 2016 but verified as such during the reporting period. Within the framework of its action plan, CJTF granted access to the country task force to carry out extensive verification of children formerly associated with the group.

On Wednesday, July 29, gunmen attacked the convoy of Borno State Governor Babagana Zulum as it was returning from Kukawa to Baga, northern Borno – see The Cable‘s report and video:

Some of the latest violence by ISWAP:

Issue 244 of the Islamic State’s al-Naba’ newsletter is available here (with registration). Page 7 discusses ISWAP operations in Nigeria and Chad, while page 9 features a brief (and quite generic) biography of a slain company commander.

Kingsley Omonobi, Vanguard, “Chaos as Boko Haram/ISWAP executes its own ‘governor of Lake Chad’ in power struggle” (July 28). I’ve been tinkering with a separate post about all these reports and rumors of internal violence, and how difficult it can be to verify any of what’s reported.

Channels Television, “601 Repentant Boko Haram Members Graduate From DRR Camp Set For Integration” (July 26).

On the other hand:

More on Ndume’s comments here.

Shola Oyepipo, This Day, “In Buratai’s Nigeria, Insecurity Now ‘Under Control’” (July 26).

Finally, here is the latest weekly roundup from the Council on Foreign Relations’ Nigeria Security Tracker, covering July 18-24.

Trends in Political Violence in the Sahel for the First Half of 2020: A Few Comments

The analyst José Luengo-Cabrera periodically posts graphics capturing different trends in violence and displacement in the Sahel; these graphics are indispensable for thinking about conflict in the region, and I really respect his work. He recently posted graphics for the first half of 2020. I want to briefly comment on some of the trends here.

Let’s start with the regional picture:

In addition to the points Luengo-Cabrera makes, here are a few other basic observations:

  • It’s worth repeating often that even though the current wave of crisis in the Sahel began with the 2012 rebellion in northern Mali, most of the intervening years and particularly the last three and a half have been more violent than 2012. Mali is not in a “post-conflict” phase, despite the signing of a peace agreement called the Algiers Accord in 2015.
  • It also bears repeating that northern Mali has, for some time now, not been the most violent zone in the conflict. Kidal, the heartland of the 2012 rebellion, is not even mentioned in Luengo-Cabrera’s breakdown of violent regions. The most violent areas of the current conflict are central Mali (note that Mopti is the most violent region on his list, and that adjacent Ségou is eighth on the list – more violent than Timbuktu) and northern Burkina Faso (note that while eastern Burkina Faso is heavily affected by insecurity and jihadism, it is the north that is substantially more violent).
  • What appears to propel mass violence, in my view, is multi-directional conflict where the key protagonists/decision-makers are not well-known elites. Why is northern Mali less violent than central Mali? Northern Mali has no shortage of militias – but they tend to be led by seasoned politicians and fighters, in some cases by figures who have been political fixtures since the 1990s. In contrast, in central Mali and northern Burkina Faso one finds the violence is often led by people who have emerged as key actors only during the conflict itself, and who were relatively unknown before.
  • The trend lines, particularly for Mali and Burkina Faso, are horrific. In my view much of the increase in violence stems from the compounding effects of previous violence – as I have said before here on the blog, I am skeptical about the idea that COVID-19 on its own triggered major spikes in violence and/or decisively empowered jihadists in the region.

Let’s now turn to country-specific graphics. Here is Luengo-Cabrera’s graphic for Mali:

A few thoughts:

  • The fine print is important here, namely that the fatalities shown for Gao are actually for both Gao and Ménaka; the latter, still-emergent region is obviously part of the tri-border zone that is now the epicenter of the whole Sahel conflict.
  • Note too that within Mopti, the deadliest region, the east (or non-flooded zone) is substantially more violent than the west. Among the factors here may be that according to some Malian experts I’ve talked to, jihadist control is much more consolidated in the west (in cercles/districts such as Tenenkou and Youwarou) than in the east. I think Stathis Kalyvas’ model about contested control driving violence is too schematic (see Laia Balcells’ Rivalry and Revenge, for example, for a more complex view), but this issue of fragmented control certainly seems to be one element in making the east more violent than the west. Additionally, inter-ethnic tensions have repeatedly boiled over into mass violence in eastern Mopti – it is there that the most infamous massacres of the conflict (Ogassagou March 2019, Sobane-Da June 2019, Ogassagou February 2020, etc.) have occurred.
  • Why was 2017 the real turning point to mass violence? Some analysts may immediately answer “JNIM,” referring to Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, an al-Qaida-sponsored coalition that was announced in March 2017). But the constituent elements of JNIM were all present in the conflict before their formal grouping under that umbrella. Other factors, then, include the spread of the central Malian conflict into eastern Mopti, the emergence of ethnic militias such as Dan Na Ambassagou (which was formed in the final months of 2016), and an escalating cycle of abuses by both the militias and the state security forces (and the jihadists, obviously). This is not an exhaustive list of the forces driving a really complicated conflict, of course. But perhaps in sum one might say that 2017 is the year that various trends really collided to produce an accelerating downward spiral.

Here is Luengo-Cabrera’s graphic for Burkina Faso:

My comments:

  • The puzzle we have in explaining why things really deteriorated in Mali in 2017 is, mutatis mutandis, the same puzzle we have for 2019 in Burkina Faso. Again, one could posit the same basic collision of factors: jihadist violence, inter-ethnic tensions, and security force abuses. A symbol for all of 2019 could be the massacre at Yirgou that opened the year; in that event you have all the elements for multi-directional violence – a (presumed) jihadist assassination, a collective reprisal against an ethnic group, impunity for perpetrators of violence, etc.
  • Another puzzle that I’ve meant to work on is why the Nord region is not more violent. Note that the Sahel Region accounts for over 1,000 fatalities but that the Nord Region has little more than 150. Yet the Nord Region is actually closer to eastern Mopti than is the Sahel Region. One lesson here, then, is that Burkina Faso’s conflicts are not merely a spillover of central Mali’s conflicts.

Here is Luengo-Cabrera’s graphic for Niger:

Remarks:

  • Luengo-Cabrera notes in a follow-on post that it is 66%, rather than 86%, of the fatalities for the first half of 2020 that occurred in Tillabéri. Still, Niger’s trends are fundamentally different than neighboring countries’ because Niger’s deadliest zone used to be far in the southeast, in other words in the zone affected by Boko Haram and its offshoots. 2015 was a bad year in Diffa, as southeastern Niger experienced a wave of attacks, partially representing Boko Haram’s reprisals against Niger for Niger’s participation in the joint Chadian-Nigerien-Nigerian campaign that broke up Boko Haram’s formal territorial enclave in the first several months of 2015. Diffa was already under a state of emergency by February 2015, and has remained under one ever since. In contrast, it was not until March 2017 that the Nigerien authorities declared a state of emergency in parts of Tillabéri and adjacent Tahoua. Things have only worsened since then, and this year looks to be the rough equivalent for Niger of 2017 for Mali and 2019 for Burkina Faso. Meanwhile Diffa is relatively calm compared to the situation there in 2015, or the situation in Tillabéri now.
  • The best thing I’ve read on Tillabéri recently is this Crisis Group report.

Finally, here is Luengo-Cabrera’s graphic for Chad (Mauritania is relatively calm, so I won’t cover it here):

A brief comment is that the areas affected by Boko Haram and its offshoots are deadlier than whatever rebellion(s) are simmering in the north. Daniel Eizenga’s briefing on Chad and Boko Haram from April of this year remains highly relevant for understanding the situation there.

I don’t have much to offer for a conclusion except that things are quite bad, especially in the tri-border zone. I don’t think counterterrorism operations are really helping that much. And in addition to the violence, you have mass and growing displacement (for which Luengo-Cabrera has also made graphics, but I’ll leave that for another time), food insecurity, and many other factors contributing to a really nightmarish picture for millions of people.

A Cabinet Reshuffle in Chad

On 14 July, Chadian President Idriss Deby announced a cabinet reshuffle. As Le Monde noted, this move comes roughly nine months before the next presidential elections, which the electoral commission recently set for 11 April 2021. Le Monde and others regard it as a near-certainty that Deby will run for another term.

Le Monde further notes that the post of prime minister was eliminated in 2018, so this reshuffle does not involve a change of prime minister. For context, Chad adopted a new constitution in May 2018 inaugurating the Fourth Republic and greatly expanding Deby’s powers. The elimination of the prime minister post was part of that expansion (Chad also has no Vice President).

The new government comprises 35 members versus 31 in the old government.

Three notable points:

  • The appointment of Amine Abba Sidick, Chad’s ambassador to France, as the new Minister of Foreign Affairs (replacing Mahamat Zene Chérif, now Minister of Communication). As the analyst Flore Berger commented on Twitter, “I guess the relationship with France and international partners will be as important as ever for Chad.” Jeune Afrique profiles Sidick (also sometimes spelled Siddick) here.
  • The withdrawal from government of Deby’s longtime ally Delwa Kassiré Koumakoye, probably for reasons of age and health.
  • The new Health Minister is Abdoulaye Sabre Fadoul, most recently (from what I can tell) chief of staff for the civilian side of the presidency. He’s a veteran of several of Deby’s governments. He’s been called “the brain of the Fourth Republic.”

Here is the official presidential decree with the full list, which I’ll translate here:

  1. Minister of State, Minister Secretary-General of the Presidency of the Republic: Kalzeubé Payimi Deubet
  2. Minister of Foreign Affairs, African Integration, and Chadians Abroad: Amine Abba Sidik
  3. Minister of Public Security and Immigration: Mahamat Tahir Orozi
  4. Minister for the Administration of the Territory and Autonomous Collectivities: Mahamat Ismael Chaibo
  5. Minister of Communication, Spokesman of the Government: Mahamat Zene Cherif
  6. Deputy Minister for the Presidency, Responsible for the Armies, Former Combatants, and Victims of War
  7. Minister of Public Health and National Solidarity: Dr Abdoulaye Sabre Fadoul
  8. Minister of Justice, Guardian of the Seals, Responsible for Human Rights: Djimet Arabi
  9. Minister of Higher Education, Research, and Innovation: David Houdeingar Ngarimaden
  10. Minister of the Economy, Development Planning, and International Cooperation: Dr Issa Doubragne
  11. Minister of Finance and the Budget: Tahir Hamid Nguilin
  12. Minister of the Post Office and the Digital Economy: Dr Idriss Saleh Bachar
  13. Minister of Infrastructure and Transportation: Ahmat Abakar Aguid
  14. Minister of National Education and Civil Promotion: Aboubakar Assidick Tchoroma
  15. Minister of Energy: Ramatou Mahamat Houtouin
  16. Minister of Public Employment, Dialogue, and Social Employment: Ali Mbodou Mbodoumi
  17. Minister of Professional Training and Trades: Achta Ahmat Breme
  18. Minister of Industrial Development, Sales, and the Promotion of the Private Sector: Lamine Moustapha
  19. Minister of Urban and Rural Hydroelectric Power: Tahani Mahamat Hassan
  20. Minister of Youth and Sports: Routouang Mohamed Ndonga Christian
  21. Minister of Oil and Mines: Oumar Torbo Djarma
  22. Minister of the Organization of the Territory, Housing Development, and Urban Planning: Amina Ehemir Torna
  23. Minister of Agriculture: Abdoulaye Diar
  24. Minister of Civil Aviation and National Meteorology: Sebgué Nandeh
  25. Minister of Livestock Farming and Animal Production: Ahmat Mahamat Bachir
  26. Minister of the Environment and Fishing: Brahim Mahamat Djamaladine
  27. Minister of Tourist Development, Culture, and Crafts: Patalet Geo
  28. Minister of the Woman and the Protection of Small Children: Amina Priscille Longoh
  29. Minister Secretary-General of the Government, Responsible for Relations with the National Assembly and the Promotion of Bilingualism in the Administration: Mariam Mahamat Nour
  30. State Secretary for Foreign Affairs: Evelyne Fakir
  31. State Secretary for Health and National Solidarity: Dr Djiddi Ali Sougoudi
  32. State Secretary for National Education and Civic Education: Moustapha Mahamat Talko
  33. State Secretary for Finances and the Budget: Alixe Naimbaye
  34. State Secretary for the Economy, Development Planning, and International Cooperation: Dr Abderahim Younous
  35. Deputy Secretary-General of the Government: Lucie Beassemda

Roundup of Recent Reports on Boko Haram, Ansaru, ISWAP, and the Surrounding Conflict

Philip Olayoku and Bassim Al-Hussaini, Spoor Africa, “Beyond the Decade of Boko Haram Insurgency in Nigeria: Counterinsurgency through the Eyes of Key Stakeholders.” For me, the most interesting part was Chapter 4, “Multi-Stakeholder Counterinsurgency Approaches in Nigeria’s Northeast.” An excerpt (pp. 12-13):

Abiola Sanusi, the Chair of the Safe Schools Declaration Sub-Committee of the Education in Emergencies Working Group Nigeria emphasised the fact that women and children remain the worst sufferers as they constitute 79% of the IDPs. Overall, women make up 54% of the total IDP population as most of them have become household heads resulting from death of or separation from their spouses. In giving the statistics of the impacts on these vulnerable groups, wom- en and children in the base states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa, about 2.7million women and children need nutrition, out of which around 350, 000 children suffer from severe acute malnutrition (SAM) and 250,000 others from moderate acute malnutrition (MAM). Children victims include at least 3,500 recruits by the insur- gents while young girls have been most targeted as human bombs numbering up to 136 from 2017 according to the available data. Education has also been un- der severe attacks with 867 schools reportedly closed, leading to at least 390,150 children out of school and 19,000 teachers displaced. Also, 645 teachers have been killed and 1,500 schools destroyed or occupied (by the insurgents, military or IDPs). There is however the effort to create safe schools through the develop- ment of the Policy on Safety and Security in schools to ensure minimum stand- ards for ensuring that school children, teachers and administrators are protected from harm in schools. Edwin Kuria, Director of the Humanitarian Programmes at Save the Children, Nigeria puts the total number of people in need of assistance in affected communities at 7.1million across Borno, Yobe and Adamawa States, with about 930,000 people in very remote areas that are hard to reach resulting in very minimal or no access to aids by humanitarian actors, and 230,000 pregnant and breastfeeding women acutely malnourished. 2.8 million children reportedly out of school in Borno State alone while children constitute 58% of the total num- ber of 5.8 million people in need of assistance. He therefore advanced the need for the special protection of children facing grave human rights violations to avert a lost generation of children.

Zoë Gorman, Aspenia Online, “Chad: Extremist Violence and Recession in the Wake of the Pandemic.” A quote:

[Chadian President Idriss] Déby, who has held office since 1990, is struggling to balance a need to confront internal vulnerabilities with external military engagements critical to his continued political longevity.[6] Home to 60 million people from more than 200 ethnic groups, Chad is surrounded by conflict states — Libya, Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR), as well as the Lake Chad states, Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria.[7] Against a highly variegated security landscape and a faltering oil-dependent economy, Chad faces internal insurgency and youth unrest. Elections for the national assembly have been repeatedly postponed or cancelled since 2015 with security concerns cited, and soldiers are increasingly frustrated with rampant corruption and ethnic discrimination concerning the payment of military salaries and access to medical care.[8]

Abdullahi Murtala, The Republic, “The Resurgence of Ansaru.” I wasn’t convinced by this one. From the article itself:

Ansaru claimed responsibility for the 17 January attack on a convoy in Kaduna State. This was the group’s first attack since 2013. Through Al Qaeda’s Al Hijrah Media, Ansaru stated that it targeted a military convoy and destroyed several vehicles along the Kaduna-Zaria road. It was later revealed that the military contingent attacked was escorting the convoy of the Emir of Potiskum, the northeastern town. In response, the Nigerian Police Force conducted a raid that supposedly killed 250 Ansaru members in the group’s Birnin Gwari camp in Kaduna. The 17 January attack is a disturbing signal that Ansaru is resuming its activities. Furthermore, the group is currently exploiting ungoverned spaces, vulnerable rural communities, and the existing climate of insecurity in the North, a region that has been plagued by kidnappings, armed rural banditry, and violence.

That’s the contradiction that runs through so much of the writing on Ansaru (and other jihadist groups) – any time they make a public statement or claim an attack, it’s supposedly a sign of their resurgence; but then they’re treated as super insidious because of all their supposedly unclaimed attacks. Which is it? If they’re dangerous because they’re in the shadows, then why is it a big deal when they make a statement? And if they only claim a few attacks, then how can we be confident they’re so powerful in the shadows?

One could ask related questions about the new International Crisis Group report on violence in northwest Nigeria. An excerpt (p. 12):

Many Nigerian security and other independent local sources interviewed by Crisis Group corroborate that amid the breakdown of stability in Zamfara and elsewhere, two Boko Haram offshoots are making inroads into the region, where they are forging tighter relationships with aggrieved communities, herder-affiliated armed groups and criminal gangs. The first is Jama’atu Ansarul Muslimina Fi Biladis Sudan (or the Group of Partisans for Muslims in Black Africa), better known as Ansaru, an al-Qaeda-linked group that declared itself independent from Boko Haram in 2012 and was operating in north-western Nigeria until it was largely dismantled by security forces by 2016. Now it seems to be making a comeback. Secondly, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) – another splinter of Boko Haram in Nigeria’s North East zone – has forged links to communities in the north-western region on the border with Niger, which is separately in the throes of fighting its own local Islamic State insurgency. Ansaru, which has a long history of operating in the North West (where it engaged in the high-profile kidnapping of expatriate engineers between 2012 and 2013), is forging new relationships with other smaller radical groups in Zamfara state, particularly in the areas around Munhaye, Tsafe, Zurmi, Shinkafi and Kaura Namoda. The group has also deployed clerics to discredit democratic rule and the state government’s peace efforts, a “hearts and minds” campaign aimed at winning support from rural communities. It is also wooing some of the armed groups to its ranks, including by offering or selling them AK-47 rifles supplied by its allies in the al-Qaeda-linked Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), at lower than the prevailing market price. Security officials say it has been recruiting members, and that it previously sent some recruits to Libya for combat training.

First, why should these statements from security officials – or even from ICG’s other interviewees – be accepted uncritically? And second, if Ansaru is so embedded in the conflict that it traffics arms, allies with other groups, and operates a preaching network, why does it not announce these activities? Are they shy? Again, you see this pattern throughout much analysis of jihadism. “The group made a statement! Drop everything!” and then in the next breath “This group is too clever to proclaim themselves publicly! Drop everything!”

Finally, Folahanmi Aina, Wilson Center Africa Up Close, “Re-Engineering Counter-Terrorism Efforts in Nigeria’s North East: The Pursuit of Peace.” Aina discusses what he calls “mutuality”:

Let us consider two levels of mutuality, using the case study of Nigeria’s North East region. The first level is international—the Nigerian state and its neighbors and partners under the umbrella of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJT)—which can be seen as the two ends of the same cord. For peace to be nurtured and achieved, it has to be rooted in mutuality between the two actors as distinct political entities. This requires their respective political leaders to commit to upholding agreements and commitments in the common war against the region’s insurgencies.

A second level of mutuality needed to nurture and achieve lasting is internal: each state must be able to secure mutuality with its own society in attaining shared goals. This internal mutuality is what this essay focuses on. This essay argues that the chances of ensuring lasting peace are better when this second level of mutuality (internal) is pursued alongside the first level (international), rather than being completely ignored.

Roundup of IMF Statements on Disbursements to Sahelian Countries amid COVID-19

On April 15, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved six-month debt service relief for twenty-five low-income countries, including the Sahelian countries Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, and Niger.

The IMF has also given disbursements to each of those countries to help offset the impact of COVID-19.

Burkina Faso ($115.3 million, approved April 14):

The immediate challenge is to contain the spread of COVID-19, strengthen medical care, implement the social distancing and other containment measures, and mitigate the socio-economic impact of the pandemic, especially on the most vulnerable.

[…]

The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in Burkina Faso is rapidly unfolding, with the short-term outlook worsening quickly. The pandemic comes at a time when Burkina Faso was already gripped by a heightened security crisis. The authorities responded by putting in place measures to help contain the spreading of the virus, including by closing schools and universities, banning mass gatherings, and suspending international travel. Though absolutely needed to contain the outbreak these measures, together with the global response, have significantly worsened the economic outlook in the near term, with real economic growth declining substantially, and both the fiscal and balance of payments deficits widening significantly.

Chad ($115.1 million, approved April 14):

Due to a significant deterioration of the macroeconomic outlook and weakening of fiscal situation, urgent external and fiscal financing needs have emerged. The IMF’s support will make a substantial contribution to filling immediate external needs and preserving fiscal space for essential COVID-19-related health expenditure. It is also expected to help catalyze additional donor support.

Mali ($200.4 million, approved April 30):

This assistance will help support urgent spending on health services and assistance to affected firms and households, while preserving overall social spending.

[…]

The COVID-19 shock hit the economy hard amid an already challenging social and security situation. The economic outlook has deteriorated significantly, and growth is expected to slow to below 1 percent, increasing already high unemployment and poverty.

Mauritania ($130 million, approved April 23):

The COVID-19 pandemic is having a dramatic human, economic, and social impact on Mauritania. The short-term economic outlook has deteriorated rapidly and growth is expected to turn negative this year, with severe hardships for the population, and the outlook is subject to considerable uncertainty. These developments have given rise to urgent balance of payment and fiscal financing needs.

[…]

The IMF’s financial assistance under the RCF will provide a sizable share of the financing needed to implement the anti-crisis measures. Additional concessional and grant financing from the international community will be critical to close the remaining financing gap and help Mauritania respond effectively to the COVID-19 crisis.

Niger ($114.5 million, approved April 14):

The COVID-19 pandemic is having a pronounced negative economic impact on Niger and downside risks are significant. The economic downturn, fiscal pressures, and tightening financial conditions are giving rise to large financing gaps in Niger’s public finances and balance of payments this year.

[…]

A substantial widening of this year’s budget deficit is appropriate, reflecting unavoidable revenue shortfalls and pressing spending needs for health care, social protection, and support for hard-hit businesses.

Senegal ($442 million, approved April 13):

The Covid-19 pandemic is hitting Senegal hard. The sharp global economic downturn and domestic containment measures have led to a substantial reduction in economic activity, with sectors such as tourism, transport, construction, and retail particularly hard-hit, and the pandemic in Europe is also translating into lower remittances. As a result, the short-term economic outlook has deteriorated significantly, with large uncertainties surrounding the duration and spread of the pandemic.

 

COVID-19 and Jihadists, Part Two

See part one here, where I lay out a few reasons to be skeptical of the now widespread media/think tank narrative saying COVID-19 benefits jihadists. I’m going to revisit this as necessary because I think the narrative is still very flawed. It’s still too soon to tell.

For example, last week saw a piece from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) entitled “Extremist Groups Stepping up Operations during the Covid-19 Outbreak in Sub-Saharan Africa.”

The piece opens with a seemingly strong argument, seemingly backed by data:

Sub-Saharan African extremist groups are poised to make strategic gains during the Covid-19 outbreak, outmaneuvering distracted and overstretched domestic and foreign security forces. Violent attacks in the region’s hotspots rose by 37 percent between mid-March and mid-April, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) database, and groups have begun to release pandemic-related propaganda. Meanwhile, African states—like governments worldwide—are shifting military resources to the pandemic response, potentially undercutting counterterrorism operations.

On closer examination, though, there are problems:

  1. The individual attacks and incidents discussed in the piece don’t fit the supposed pattern. In one paragraph, the authors cite three incidents: the March 19 attack on a Malian army base; the March 25 kidnapping of Malian opposition politician Soumaïla Cissé; and the March 22-23 attack by Boko Haram on Chad. At the time of all of these incidents, however, confirmed case counts in Mali, Nigeria, and Chad were very low. Mali didn’t even confirm its first two cases under March 25; Nigeria’s first confirmed case was reported on February 27, but Nigeria only reported its first COVID death on March 23; and Chad’s first official case was on March 19. One could make the argument that the global pandemic and/or the response to it was already emboldening jihadists and constraining security responses in the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin by mid-March, but I think even that is a tough sell. When we look at the kidnapping of Cissé, moreover, it could arguably be blamed not on jihadists being emboldened by the pandemic but on Malian authorities’ decision to press ahead with legislative elections despite the pandemic – Cissé was kidnapped while campaigning in the ultra-dangerous southern Timbuktu Region. And the reality may be even murkier than that; one account (French) says that Cissé had actually brokered a deal with local jihadists to campaign in their area, but was then kidnapped by a rival jihadist group. Assessing the causal role of COVID-19 in any of these incidents is pretty difficult, to say the least, and there are a lot of grounds for blaming other factors.
  2. The trend lines were already bad. The ACLED numbers quoted by the authors sound bad, but they do not unpack them – and they do not contextualize them. 2017-2019 were already very bad and worsening years for Mali and Burkina Faso, and the Boko Haram/ISWAP insurgency in northeastern Nigeria/Lake Chad has been quite bad for some time as well. A 37% jump in violent attacks sounds bad (and again, the authors don’t unpack this – attacks by whom?), but consider that Burkina Faso had a 25% jump in displacements from January to February 2020, or that there was a roughly 57% increase between December 2019 and January 2020 in what the Council on Foreign Relations’ Nigeria Security Tracker calls “incidents” in the Boko Haram conflict – meaning, to put it less dramatically, that there were 19 incidents in December and 30 in January. So for one thing, the numbers concerning attacks, deaths, and displacements are just bad all around; and for another, there is significant variation in levels of attacks even without a pandemic around. Certainly COVID-19 must be having an impact on these conflict zones, but in complex ways and in combination with other factors.
  3. Jihadist governance can be brittle. I wrote this in the last post, but it’s worth revisiting here. The authors argue that jihadist propaganda and service delivery will win them support while governments stumble. But it is not at all clear that jihadists are skilled at managing humanitarian emergencies – in fact, they often create humanitarian emergencies around them, and many, many people simply flee jihadist control. The authors of the CSIS piece write, “Al-Shabaab, for example, took advantage of the famine in Somalia three years ago to publish photos of its fighters distributing food and medical supplies to needy families, blaming the crisis on regional and international governments.” But this is not evidence of success, it is only evidence of propaganda; meanwhile, various experts have argued that al-Shabab grossly mismanaged the 2011 famine in Somalia. Here is one quote from a study: “Al-Shabaab has poorly managed the famine crises. The Famine Early Warning Systems (FEWS) has declared that the crisis broke in several southern regions of Somalia. Al-Shabaab had expelled most of the intergovernmental and non-governmental relief organizations. They have also denied that there was a famine in the country. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people were forced to seek food and shelter in TFG- controlled Mogadishu and neighboring countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya. To the victims, al-Shabaab was complicit in their suffering” (emphasis added, because that’s a crucial point – jihadists’ propaganda can be clumsy, it’s not always masterful). If jihadists botch their pandemic response through inflexibility, lying, and harsh treatment of civilians, it could be a setback for them in various ways.
  4. African militaries are not necessarily pulling back yet. Here, the authors seem to conflate possibilities with actualities. They write, “A memo from Nigeria’s army headquarters called on soldiers to be on ‘maximum security alert and be ready for deployment’ and suspended leave passages for all personnel.” But suspending leaves doesn’t mean that counterterrorism is slackening (it might be, it might not be!). A glance at the Nigerian Army’s Facebook page shows them heralding supposed counterterrorism successes as recently as April 29. There are a lot of competing claims and counter-claims to sort out when it comes to the Nigerian military’s own propaganda, obviously, but one shouldn’t assume that militaries will pull back. In fact, recently there have been several excellent (and disturbing) Twitter threads (see below) from experts pointing to patterns of severe and persistent security force abuses in the Sahel. Will CSIS write a piece arguing that COVID-19 is emboldening security forces to commit abuses? It seems to me you could make that case just as easily as the case that the pandemic is emboldening jihadists.
  5. International forces are not yet pulling back majorly. The authors even note this themselves, despite the title of the relevant section of their piece – and furthermore, Irish troops coming back from peacekeeping in Mali, and the British suspending a training mission in Kenya, do not add up to a major shift. And as I said in the last piece, it’s way too soon to tell with some of these supposed trends. And one might even wonder whether international forces pulling back a bit – say, if AFRICOM did ease up on drone strikes – might not improve the overall situation a bit in Somalia and elsewhere.
  6. The policy recommendations are thin and predictable. “Enhance civilian outreach,” “uplift religious leaders,” and “exploit insurgent missteps.” None of these ideas are new, and there is a particularly unfortunate line saying “Somali imams and teachers, in collaboration with Somali government ministries, have been broadcasting best practices for staying safe during the pandemic—tying them to Koranic dictates.” The authors act surprised that imams would try to keep people safe (!), and act as though this basic function of religious leaders should be harnessed to some kind of counterterrorism agenda. But most Muslim clerics around the world have been trying to protect their co-religionists (and their societies more broadly) while remaining true to their visions of what authentic Islam is. In fact, it’s probably better to let religious leaders speak for themselves rather than trying to “uplift” them, because there are substantial dangers into trying to fashion clerics into the mouthpieces of some kind of “official Islam” – governments trying to co-opt clerics can even inadvertently undercut them. Finally, one irony in the “exploit insurgent missteps” is that the point the authors are making is both obvious and in some instances already happening. The authors write, “if extremists attempt to launch operations beyond their capabilities and overextend themselves, security forces should retaliate, hitting poorly defended bases and safe havens.” This is effectively what Chad has done, although there are real limits to what Chad’s offensive is likely to accomplish. In any event, it’s odd that if the authors consider the situation so scary, that they didn’t put more effort into the policy recommendations.

Relevant Twitter threads on security force abuses:

Chad’s Big Anti-Boko Haram Campaigns Are the Exception to the Rule

After Boko Haram killed some ninety-two Chadian soldiers at the Boma/Bohoma peninsula on March 23, Chad launched a reprisal operation called the “Anger of Boma” on March 29. The background to these incidents, the course of the operation itself, and Chadian President Idriss Deby’s open frustration with his Nigerian and Nigerien counterparts, are covered in depth by Le Monde here (French), and by Dan Eizenga here.

I have four brief thoughts:

  1. Chad has impressed observers again and again with its military capabilities, but Chad does not appear willing or able to sustain operations like this for long. My assumption is that if Chad could maintain an operational tempo that would permanently disrupt Boko Haram’s activities in Chadian territory and on Lake Chad, it would do so – which means that a burst of activity like this is at least partly intended to show strength and beat Boko Haram back for the medium term, but not to establish a new normal for the long term.
  2. I do not think that a fundamentally greater level of regional cooperation and integration in the fight against Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) is forthcoming. I can certainly sympathize with the chorus of voices urging Chad and its neighbors to take full advantage of this moment, consolidate the gains Chad has made, and use regional frameworks (i.e., the Multi-National Joint Task Force) to begin decisively encircling and defeating Boko Haram and ISWAP. But I think if that was going to happen, it would have already happened.
  3. If Chad’s big military campaigns against Boko Haram (2015 and 2020) are the exceptions to the rule, and if Nigeria, and to a lesser extent Niger and Cameroon, are visibly slow to take advantage of the resulting opportunities, then that reinforces what I am far from the first to say – the governments of the Lake Chad Basin region, Chad included, can tolerate a certain and even a high level of Boko Haram activity. I don’t mean that in a conspiratorial sense, in terms of government actively abetting Boko Haram; I mean it in the more passive sense of governments having multiple priorities and of top leadership not always seeing Boko Haram as a key threat, especially to themselves. If Chad intervenes massively when they feel the situation has gotten out of control, then the corollary to that is that authorities in all four countries may regard certain levels of violence as still being “under control” – from their own perspective.
  4. The idea that a certain level of insurgency/violence can be tolerated by the governments of the region can help to explain why the insurgency has persisted so long. Imagine for a moment that there was complete and effective regional coordination, and that all four militaries (plus Benin, if you like) really were prepared to hunt down Boko Haram and ISWAP throughout the entire region, somehow avoid unwittingly angering civilians in the process, then hold all the territory they had retaken, and then implement massive programs of economic and physical reconstruction, victims’ justice, post-conflict social contracts, etc. How much would that cost? How long would it take? I don’t know for certain, of course, but I imagine some policymakers in Abuja, Niamey, N’Djamena, and Yaoundé have taken a hard look at the situation and decided that it’s not worth it. By no means do I point that out to justify or excuse such decisions – my point is rather than Chad’s operation appears to me less like turning the page, and more like a familiar part of an extended cycle whose end I, for one, cannot foresee.

 

Chad: Notes on Ben Taub’s Recent New Yorker Piece

I like the journalist Ben Taub’s work a lot, and there is much to like in his latest, on rebellions in Chad, for the New Yorker. Taub gets into the politics of the recent rebel advance – and the French airstrikes that followed – in northern Chad, developments I have covered a bit here.

The central argument of Taub’s piece is one that I agree with, and that I rarely see stated so bluntly in the American media: propping up dictators is bad.

After decades of supporting Sahelian strongmen, and turning a blind eye to their abuses, Western countries have been unable to devise any regional strategy except one that conflates the strength of a regime with the stability of a country, and which brings about neither stability nor strength.

Taub falls into the occasional cliché – “jihadi groups thrive in the margins of broken states” – but he also sees through the current rhetoric about “terrorism” coming from both Chad and France. What follows that line about “broken states,” for example, is very good:

and, where there are no terrorists, [Chadian President Idriss] Déby has seen it as politically advantageous to fabricate them. In the aftermath of the French air strikes, his forces arrested some two hundred and fifty rebels and announced that they would be tried as “terrorists,” without the veneer of judicial protections typically afforded to criminals, traitors, or whatever category would normally apply to political opponents and army defectors who have attempted a coup. The designation is convenient for France, too; the legal mandate for Operation Barkhane is counterterrorism, not killing men who have had enough of Déby’s rule. But the facts are being obscured amid staged cries of victory.

Taub goes on to make some very grim predictions:

Absent radical changes in local Sahelian governance and priorities, no humanitarian crisis in Africa’s recent history will compare to the hell to come. What is likely doesn’t have to be inevitable. The question for Western governments is whether they will be complicit in its acceleration.

There are huge questions to ponder here. Is demography destiny in the Sahel? Is the most likely future one of brittle (or collapsing) regimes, with popular desires for change channeled largely or solely into violence? Will the Sahel of 2050 be the frontline of climate apocalypse? There is definitely good reason to think so. But in addition to highlighting the agency of Western governments, one should also keep in mind the agency of Sahelians themselves. Multiple futures are possible for the region, and who knows – maybe increasing crisis and fragility will elicit not just chaos but also creativity.

Recent Media Quotes/Review

I’ve been quoted in a few media reports recently, and a new review of my book on Boko Haram came out.

Media:

  • 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!

Chad: Rebel Advances and French Airstrikes in the North

Reuters:

French warplanes struck a rebel convoy in northern Chad on Sunday, helping local troops repel an incursion across the border from Libya…

Mirage jets struck a column of 40 pickups carrying armed groups from Libya deep into Chadian territory, the French army said in a statement…

The Union of Forces of Resistance (UFR), a rebel Chadian coalition created in 2009 after almost toppling Deby, said it was behind the offensive. [The Military Command Council for the Salvation of the Republic or] CCMSR is a splinter group of the UFR.

Let’s add a bit more context. The French military’s statement is brief and vague, saying merely that some Mirage 2000 fighter jets took off from Chad’s capital N’Djamena at the request of the Chadian government. One fighter jet patrol made a “show of force” to warn the rebel convoy; the rebels did not halt, so a second patrol conducted two strikes on the convoy. In terms of the rebel groups, it’s worth noting that the CCMSR was often in the news (and on this blog) in the second half of 2018, but they have been relatively quiet of late, including in the media sphere.

RFI gives a few more details on the French airstrikes, namely (a) the convoy had been frustrating Chadian forces’ attempts to destroy it for two days before the strikes, (b) the strikes occurred at least 400km from the Chadian border with Libya,* and (c) the French forces were part of Operation Barkhane. That operation is widely understood as a Sahelian counterterrorism force, but last August’s transfer of a Barkhane base from N’Djamena to Wour (map) was, perhaps, a signal that Barkhane was making itself available to Chad as an anti-rebel force. There is a much longer history of French support to Chadian President Idriss Deby, including amid rebellions that have threatened his power in the past, so these dynamics extend well beyond just Barkhane.

For a bit of the UPR’s perspective, here is an interview with a UPR spokesman on TV5.

As several colleagues have pointed out, there are more questions than answers here:

*Le Figaro adds, imprecisely, that the strikes fell “between Tibesti and Ennedi,” which doesn’t quite make sense to me.