Niger: President Issoufou’s Trip to Saudi Arabia

Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou and a delegation of cabinet ministers and other senior government officials traveled to Saudi Arabia from approximately May 10-12. The visit is not unusual, but in light of Senegal’s recent decision to send troops to support Saudi Arabia in its military venture in Yemen, there has been more attention to Saudi-Sahelian relations. So it is interesting to look at the content of Issoufou’s trip, which centered on themes of Saudi investment in Niger and Islamic solidarity between the two countries.

Upon his arrival in Riyadh (French), Issoufou met King Salman. This was Issoufou’s first visit since King Salman took the throne in January, so Issoufou gave both condolences on the death of King Abdullah and congratulations on King Salman’s coronation. In addition to meeting the Foreign Affairs and Education Ministers, Issoufou met (French) Finance Minister Ibrahim bin Abdulaziz bin Abdullah Al-Assaf as well as Hajj Minister Bandar al-Hajjar. With al-Assaf, Issoufou discussed the Saudi Fund for Development and its projects in Niger.

(Unfortunately the Fund’s website does not have a country page for Niger, but the Saudi embassy in Niger provides a few details here, writing that the Fund works in “health, education and the construction of dams, as the fund is now building seven health centers in seven regions in Niger and the [sic] of 150 primary schools project. You can also read about a dam project in Mali here [Arabic].)

Issoufou’s other meetings concentrated on spurring greater Saudi investment in Nigerien businesses and development.

After his stop in Riyadh, Issoufou visited (French) the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina and made ‘umra (lesser pilgrimage) in Mecca. He then met the Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Jeddah. (Niger was a founding member of the OIC and hosts the Organization’s Islamic university for Francophone Africa, located in Say near Niamey.) Issoufou also sat down with the vice president of the Islamic Development Bank, and the Bank and the Government of Niger signed a financing agreement for a road between Tébaram and Tahoua. See the Bank’s announcement here.

It’s a busy travel season for Issoufou – this week he is in Ghana for a summit of the Economic Community of West African States.

Recent and Upcoming Workers’ Strikes in the Sahel

Sahelian countries are typically in the international news for elections or insecurity, but it’s interesting to follow labor issues there as well. Public employees’ syndicates in particular can be strong enough to mount newsworthy strikes. Here are a few recent and upcoming workers’ strikes:

  • Senegal, May 19-20: The Sole Syndicate of Health and Social Action Workers plans to strike. Points of contention include alleged government plans to remove certain allowances that health workers receive – see some background here (French).
  • Mali, April 21-23: Transport workers in Gao, who work on the Gao-Bamako route, struck over safety conditions.
  • Niger, April 8-10: Mine workers at two Areva uranium mines struck over non-payment of part of their bonuses.
  • Burkina Faso, April 8: The Coalition against the High Cost of Living called for a general strike, but it was only partly followed in the capital and elsewhere. The Coalition has a complex set of demands for the government, including demands for investigations into the deaths of former military ruler Thomas Sankara and murdered journalist Norbert Zongo.
  • Chad, early April: Schoolteachers struck over the government’s delayed payments of salaries.
  • Burkina Faso, March 31-April 1: The National Union of Truck Drivers of Burkina struck to demand the implementation of a 2011 convention containing provisions on salaries, allowances, and other matters.

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.

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.

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.

Mapping Boko Haram’s Attacks

Ryan Cummings recently wrote about several myths surrounding Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect. To his list one could add others, including the claim that the geographical range of Boko Haram’s attacks is always expanding. Of course, it is self-evidently true that if one looks at the group’s entire career, their range does indeed expand every time they strike a new location. But the idea that the trend is always toward expansion is not necessarily true.

In the current environment, with Nigeria’s neighbors fighting Boko Haram, there is a trend toward Boko Haram strikes in their territory – as demonstrated by recent incidents in Diffa, Niger; Waza, Cameroon; and Ngouboua, Chad.

Yet within Nigeria, the overall trend may be towards contraction of the group’s attacks. Davin O’Regan has published a rich and interesting set of maps, together with analysis, that show a more concentrated, higher intensity battle zone in 2013-2014 versus 2012. O’Regan writes,

Boko Haram’s brutal wave of attacks seemed unstoppable in 2014. Deaths from the Islamic extremist group’s campaign of violence in Nigeria more than doubled 2013’s toll, surpassing rates seen during the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.surpassing levels of violence seen in Afghanistan and Iraq. The group overran military bases and circulated footage of a Nigerian Air Force jet it claimed to have shot down. By August, Boko Haram announced an “Islamic State” in northern Nigeria, eliciting comparisons to ISIS’s sweeping seizure of vast territory in Iraq and Syria. Some reports have claimed that Boko Haram controls up to 20 percent of Nigerian territory.

An analysis of the geographic distribution of the group’s attacks and movement in recent years suggests more limited and shifting territorial ambitions, however. Despite Boko Haram’s growing lethality and tactical sophistication, the group appears to be concentrating larger proportions of its resources in Nigeria’s more remote border areas.

This analysis suggests that rather than representing “new fronts,” Boko Haram’s attack in Lagos last year was an aberration.

Are O’Regan’s data reliable? That depends on the quality of the primary source data. But the real point is the trend. I have heard former Ambassador John Campbell say of his Nigeria Security Tracker that its individual casualty counts (drawn from press reports) are hard to verify, but that the trends in these counts likely give us an accurate picture of whether violence is rising or falling. The same may well hold true for geographic trends.

The implication of O’Regan’s data is that Boko Haram is a northeastern Nigerian group with a limited but real capacity to project violence into other areas – other northern cities (including Abuja), border areas of nearby countries and, rarely, southern Nigeria.

O’Regan’s whole post is worth reading. He gives possible explanations for the contraction (and you can find others here, particularly the idea that by pushing Boko Haram out of Maiduguri, the government-backed Civilian Joint Task Force inadvertently contributed to a wave of extreme rural violence). O’Regan also offers thoughtful policy recommendations, namely a suggestion to contain Boko Haram in the northeast.

Of course, one further lesson from his maps is Boko Haram’s adaptability. Efforts by Nigeria’s neighbors to destroy Boko Haram are already starting to change its range and targets. The map for 2015 may well end up looking different than either the 2012 map or the 2013-2014 map.