A Visit to the Paden Collection at George Mason University

Today I had the chance to do a few hours of reading and research in the John N. Paden Papers collection, which is held at George Mason University’s Fenwick Library. The guide to the collection is here. Professor Paden is the foremost American expert on northern Nigeria, and he donated a massive collection of books, sources, and notes to George Mason when he retired last year. Prof. Paden has been an extremely generous mentor to several generations of Nigerian and American researchers, including me.

My own academic research of late has mostly focused on the Sahel, but over the long term I hope to get back to one of my abiding interests: Muslim intellectuals in Northern Nigeria during the period of decolonization. Visiting the Paden collection today was a chance to re-immerse myself in that period and to discover reams of new material.

Picking a bit at random from my notes today, here is a quotation from an article by the northern Nigerian author, publisher, and politician Abubakar Imam, writing in the official magazine of Jama’at Nasr al-Islam, Nur al-Islam, in 1965:

In February, 1960, The Honourable Premier, Alhaji Sir Ahmadu Bello, Sardauna of Sokoto, appointed a committee to investigate the ways and means of assisting the vast number of Koranic and Islamic Schools existing in Northern Nigeria so that their standard may improve in accordance with the needs of the modern age.


In light of the recommendations of this Committee, the Government approved the following measures for assistance to these Schools and Islamic Education in general: (a) That more Islamic Schools be assisted financially as has already been done in the case of Islamic Schools in Sokoto and Zaria. (b) That subsidy be made towards the printing of cheap Islamic Religious Knowledge books for use by Koranic, ‘Ilmi and Islamiyya Schools; and contemporaries for the development of Northern Nigerian Islamic Culture. (c) That a Teacher Training College for Islamic Education be established for the training of Teachers of Primary Islamic, Koranic and ‘Ilmi Schools. (d) That Native Authorities be encouraged to establish Schools for Higher Muslim Studies and that Government Grants be paid to assist these projects; and (e) That Government Supervision and financial assistance be given to Koranic Schools, but as a first step a team be sent to Moslem countries, e.g. Egypt and the Sudan, to study the organisation of Koranic Schools prevailing in those countries.

If you are doing research on northern Nigerian history, the collection is well worth a visit.


Quick Thoughts on the VOA Interview with Abubakar Shekau’s Mother

Recently Voice of America’s Chika Oduah found the mother of Abubakar Shekau, the long-time leader of Boko Haram who continues to act as head of one of its two principal factions (here is a photo of Oduah and Shekau’s mother together).

A quick note on surnames in northern Nigeria might be useful – many surnames are either the person’s father’s name (i.e. Muhammad Yusuf was most likely, “Muhammed, son of Yusuf”) or the place where the person is from. Shekau’s surname is the latter – “Abubakar, from Shekau.” So VOA found his mother, or a person claiming to be his mother, in – you guessed it – the village of Shekau, which is located in Yobe State, northeastern Nigeria. To an extent I am surprised that it took journalists this long to speak with her; and one hopes that Nigerian authorities had thought, long before, to interview her as well…

The interview does not shed much light on Shekau’s biography, perhaps because his parents lost track of him some fifteen years ago. And the few details in the interview raise many unanswered questions. For example, his father was “a local district imam before passing away a few years ago” – although, as is so often the case, it is hard to know what journalists (or their interlocutors) mean by “imam.” Was he the imam of a mosque? Or just a man with some religious learning? Did he have a school?

We read further that Shekau “left Shekau [village] as a boy to continue his Islamic education in Maiduguri, a center of religious studies for hundreds of years.” Crisis Group (.pdf, p. 19) places Shekau (the man) in Maiduguri’s Mafoni Ward as of 1990, when he was in his teens or early twenties (I’ve seen estimated birth dates for Shekau that range between 1967 and 1976). Shekau’s mother told Oduah that the turning point in his life was meeting Muhammad Yusuf, who is widely considered the founder of Boko Haram. Various analysts (including me) believe that by 2009, when Yusuf was killed by security forces in the aftermath of Boko Haram’s mass uprising that summer, Shekau was more hardline than Yusuf – but in the beginning it seems plausible that Yusuf heavily influenced Shekau. It would be extremely interesting, of course, to know exactly when the two men met – again, in Crisis Group’s account, Shekau enrolled in the Borno College of Legal and Islamic Studies in the 1990s, met Mamman Nur (another future Boko Haram leader) there, and then met Yusuf through Nur. But the meeting could have occurred at any point in the 1990s or even in the early 2000s.

Being a student at the College, of course, meant that Shekau was exposed to some degree to the very “boko” (Western-style education) that Boko Haram later declared haram. The College was meant to be a bridge for people coming from a classical Qur’an school background and seeking to enter into formalized study in the state system and from there to enter the salaried economy. I have never found confirmation of how long Shekau attended or whether he attained a degree there.

At Premium Times, Oduah provides more details about Shekau’s mother’s life in recent years – including how Boko Haram’s attacks have forced her to repeatedly relocate. Of course I’m always hungry for more information, but I should say that I’m really impressed by how Oduah speaks about this woman – Oduah displays an exemplary sensitivity to the complexities of her life and her context.

As for why Ms Oduah wanted to get the story, she told PREMIUM TIMES, “It is important to know that members of Boko Haram come from somewhere. They have parents and siblings and hometowns. This woman’s voice is crucial in understanding the man who plays a major role in this insurgency, which is entering ten years.

On a final note, I’m reminded of the story (I can’t remember where I read it, possibly in Lemine Ould M. Salem’s book on Mokhtar Belmokhtar) that Algerian authorities somehow set up a meeting between Belmokhtar and his mother, who had not seen him for many years. According to the account, Belmokhtar wept when he saw her and said her would leave armed jihadism – but then, after the meeting, went back to his ways.

The 25th Anniversary of June 12, 1993

Today marks the 25th anniversary of June 12, 1993, a date with tremendous significance in Nigeria. On that day, Nigeria held a presidential election that was supposed to help bring the country out of military rule. Instead, the administration of military ruler General Ibrahim Babangida annulled the election. In the ensuing crisis, Babangida stepped down, a civilian caretaker regime was established, and another military coup occurred – bringing another officer, Sani Abacha, to power in November 1993. In 1994, the Abacha regime imprisoned the man widely considered to have won the 1993 elections, MKO Abiola, after Abiola declared himself Nigeria’s rightful president. Both Abacha and Abiola died, the latter in prison, in 1998, in circumstances that remain disputed in both cases. Nigeria ultimately transitioned back to civilian rule in 1999 and has not had a coup since.

This year’s anniversary has attracted even larger than usual symbolic actions. For example, current President Muhammadu Buhari shifted “Democracy Day” from May 29 (Inauguration Day) to June 12, in honor of Abiola. The presidency also “said Mr Abiola will now be conferred with nation’s highest honour, the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic, GCFR. The honour is exclusively conferred only on presidents and former presidents.” There is also pressure from the Senate on the Independent National Electoral Commission to finally declare official results from the 1993 election.

If you see any noteworthy commentary or have any of your own reflections and memories to share, please comment below.

My New Article on Nigerian Technocrats in African Studies Review

A bit belatedly, I want to mention that I published an article in African Studies Review back in April. It’s called “The Politics of Technocracy in Fourth Republic Nigeria.”

The article grew out of my frustration, circa 2014 or so, with how some Washington policymakers and think tankers talked about figures such as Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, then Coordinating Minister of the Economy in then-President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration. Some in Washington wanted to classify Okonjo-Iweala as a technocratic reformer while portraying Jonathan as a corrupt bumbler, and they wanted to make a neat separation between the two figures. I repeatedly heard people wonder aloud how Okonjo-Iweala could stand to serve in Jonathan’s administration. For me, though, the whole idea of the technocrat is suspect.

Whether they like it or not, I argue in the article, technocrats find themselves caught up in a web of politics. Politicians use them, and/or they allow themselves to be used. Publics get angry at them. And technocrats are often tempted to enter electoral politics themselves, with varying degrees of success. Moreover, the technocrat doesn’t devise policies in a vacuum. Instead, many technocrats become the representatives of and vehicles for neoliberal capitalism – that is, for privatization, jobless growth, and slashing public sector jobs and expenditures. I see this pattern as a worldwide trend, but in the article I delve into the case of Fourth Republic Nigeria, especially the years 1999-2015.

I focus on six figures who have become famous in Nigeria and around the world. Here I’ll mention two. The first is Okonjo-Iweala, who served twice as finance minister, and who also had a career at the World Bank. The second is Nasir el-Rufai, who oversaw privatization efforts early in the Fourth Republic, then fell out of favor and went into exile, and ultimately returned to Nigeria as a politician.

The trajectories these figures followed show how technocracy is wrapped up in politics. One example comes from Okonjo-Iweala’s involvement, under President Olusegun Obasanjo (served 1999-2007), in creating a document called NEEDS (National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy). Although presented as a Nigerian-led effort, the document was created partly to satisfy the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as part of Obasanjo’s campaign to secure debt relief for Nigeria. In her memoir, Okonjo-Iweala acknowledged that the ostensibly technocratic exercise of drafting NEEDS became politicized. The document, she said, required “marketing” to the public in order to counter its “many critics, including those who felt that the strategy had too much of what they termed a ‘neoliberal’ Western flavor.” Later in her memoir, she wrote,

It was clear to me from the outset of the reform process and the formation of the Economic Team that President Obasanjo saw the team as technocratic and wanted to keep it that way…[But] as the reforms moved along, the idea that economics could be separate from politics and that the reform team could remain as technocratic as it was became increasingly untenable. We needed to explain NEEDS and the economic reforms to the lawmakers so they could understand and back the reforms.

Technocrats run into politics on multiple levels: their policies are political, their relationship with the public is political, and their interactions with politicians are political. There is no such thing as apolitical technocratic governance. You cannot simply ask experts to devise the “correct” solutions according to some economic orthodoxy, and then implement those solutions, without engaging politics. If would-be technocrats such as Okonjo-Iweala don’t have their eyes open when they go into government, harsh realities will soon compel them to open their eyes to the intermarriage between their own work and politics.

El-Rufai’s case is even more dramatic. Initially a protégé of Obasanjo, El-Rufai began to lose favor when he opposed Obasanjo’s bid for an extra-constitutional third term. When Obasanjo shifted his strategy, selecting a northern candidate (in keeping with Nigeria’s rotational politics) as a successor, El-Rufai found himself in a sensitive position. As a high-profile northerner himself, El-Rufai was seen – rightly or wrongly – as a potential rival to the new president, Umaru Yar’Adua (served 2007-2010). El-Rufai left Nigeria, positioning himself as a critic of Yar’Adua. During this time, El-Rufai acknowledged the limits of the technocratic illusion:

I think we all [on Obasanjo’s economic team] made two huge mistakes. First, we failed to appreciate that the political leadership never really bought into the economic reforms we championed, and accepted them only out of necessity. Second, by insisting that we were technocrats, we failed to get deeply involved in the political process and therefore got easily marginalized and policy directions reversed. Clever as we were deemed to be, we failed to realize that politics trumps everything, everyday!

El-Rufai did not make those mistakes again. Instead, he implicated himself more deeply in electoral politics, siding with the opposition in the 2011 presidential election. Between 2011 and 2015, he became a key opposition figure, helping to stitch together the coalition that ultimately brought current President Muhammadu Buhari to power in 2015. In his incarnation as a politician, El-Rufai won office himself, as governor of Kaduna. His tenure there has been full of controversy, but he has been more successful than some of his fellow technocrats who tried to convert their technocratic credentials into electoral success without getting their hands dirty in the real substance of campaigning, coalition-building, and deal-making.

The Nigerian case, then, shows that there is no such thing as an apolitical technocrat at senior levels of government. Voters should keep this in mind when they hear promises of salvation through technocracy, and Washington elites should keep this in mind when they are tempted to put technocrats on a pedestal.

Blog Post for RESOLVE Network on the Dapchi, Nigeria Kidnapping

Over at RESOLVE Network, I have a blog post on the kidnapping of over 100 schoolgirls in Dapchi, Yobe State, Nigeria.

Here’s an excerpt:

The students Boko Haram often targets are those who come from relatively more privileged backgrounds, and in contrast to its effort to entice and coerce young men into joining in other settings, it is striking that Boko Haram often chooses to simply slaughter the young men it finds in boarding schools. If Boko Haram’s treatment of the Chibok girls is any indication, the group relishes having power not just over girls in general, but particularly over girls from families with means and mobility that are poised to go on to university or to independent careers.

A Response to a Review of My Book on Boko Haram

Sam Wilkins, a U.S. Special Forces officer who deployed to Nigeria earlier this year, has written a fairly negative review of my new book on Boko Haram. Most of Wilkins’ review reacts to one section dealing with the Islamic State and Boko Haram, and to a second section discussing how the War on Terror has shaped Nigeria’s responses to the group.

Wilkins makes some good points, but he also attributes positions to me that I do not hold:

  • “Thurston’s treatment of the CJTF [Civilian Joint Task Force, the civilian vigilantes] mirrors his treatment of the Nigerian military as a whole. He dismisses the contributions of both groups due to human rights concerns.”
  • “A policy of humanitarian assistance without military assistance, as advocated by Thurston and others…”
  • “[Thurston] posit[s] a false equivalence between the security forces and the insurgency.”

Wilkins misinterprets analytical points as moral judgments. In the book, when dealing with the Nigerian military and the C-JTF, I try to explain unintended consequences. The Nigerian military’s heavy-handed approach exacerbated and prolonged the conflict. The C-JTF partly secured cities but ended up pushing Boko Haram into the countryside, contributing to Boko Haram’s bid to take mass territory in 2014. I suppose there is an implicit moral judgment in those arguments, but the point is to explain what happened. On p. 13, however, I do say that I “unequivocally condem[n] Boko Haram.” The book contains no equivalent statement directed at the Nigerian military or the C-JTF.

Wilkins says that because he’s been in Nigeria, he can determine where my arguments are “theoretical and divorced from the reality on the ground.” But many foreigners have been “on the ground” in Nigeria, and then there are obviously the millions of Nigerians who live in Nigeria and whose perspectives must also be taken seriously. To say the least, all of these people often disagree with one another about how to interpret events. Nigeria is a complicated place.

Wilkins says, “During my time in Nigeria, I learned to see the CJTF as the Nigerians saw it.” This is a red flag. If he feels that “the Nigerians” see anything in just one way, then he is being overconfident about his experience. For what it’s worth, in my fieldwork in Kano for my first book – when I was speaking with people in Hausa and Arabic, when I met leading religious figures, and when I was an independent researcher unaffiliated with any government – I always knew that I had only gotten part of the story. You have to triangulate between your experience and other points of view, and even then you will not get everything right.

Wilkins also, I think accidentally but also revealingly, puts some of Amnesty International’s words in my mouth when he dismisses my writing on the U.S.-Nigeria security relationship. Obviously, I agree with Amnesty and quoted them for that reason (p. 287). But Wilkins’ mistake matters: Amnesty has researchers “on the ground” in Nigeria, so Wilkins’ rhetorical strategy wouldn’t work as well against them. Easier, perhaps, to attribute Amnesty’s words to me, and then dismiss me.

Notably, two pages before, I discuss the Nigerian military’s open hostility toward Amnesty. I write, “The War on Terror has given Nigerian military and political hardliners a set of rhetorical tools with which they can easily rebut and undermine criticism: Boko Haram or ‘the terrorists’ are depicted as purely evil, Nigeria’s government is presented as a heroic participant in a global struggle, and all critics are cast as either deliberately or unwittingly proterrorist.” Is there no relationship between what Wilkins does in his review, where he bristles against criticism of the Nigerian military or the U.S. government, and the way that Nigerian senior military officers castigate Amnesty?

On Wilkins’ other major objection to my book – that I’m not sufficiently alarmed by “Islamic State West Africa” – I have less to say. I take them seriously. I suppose I’m just a bit more cautious than Wilkins about hyping them as a threat, and about reifying their Islamic State ties.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning Wilkins’ plan to defeat Boko Haram (and “ISWA,” if you go for that stark division between the two groups). Here, there is significant common ground between us – we both favor a combination of military and political measures, and Wilkins thoughtfully considers some of the more unattractive but probably necessary political measures I mention, such as amnesties for fighters. But Wilkins emphasizes the military approach more than I do, and he is more optimistic than I am about what will follow military campaigns. Much of the process Wilkins advocates – “a meaningful ‘follow-through’ of governance, pro-government religious messages [seriously?!], and enduring local security” – seems unlikely to happen, or at least to happen cleanly. That’s why I think the government of Nigeria should start, or rather restart, negotiations now, and keep looking for political opportunities even as the military conflict continues. Some of this is already happening, of course, perhaps more in Niger than in Nigeria. The point is that the end of the Boko Haram conflict is probably going to be messy. No one has all the answers, including me.

In any case, I encourage you to read the review. And perhaps read the book as well! There’s a bit more to it than Wilkins lets on.

Global Observatory Piece on Chad and Its Western Allies

I’m up at Global Observatory with a piece on Chad. Here’s an excerpt:

The Chadian government is also asking Western and African donors for more development funding. Chad will hold a roundtable in Paris in September to seek contributions for its newly adopted national development plan. Potential partners have already shown a willingness to participate: Deby recently hosted the vice president of the African Development Bank, which is financing projects in Chad’s electricity sector; the Bank confirmed that it will attend the Paris roundtable. The adoption of the development plan was one factor in the IMF’s decision to grant a new loan. The IMF did not make any allusion to Chad’s role in regional security, but other actors are clearly aware of the bargaining power that Chad has with donors because of its security role. Meeting the committee organizing the roundtable, France’s ambassador to Chad asked the Chadian government—according to the paraphrase of a Chadian news site—“to avoid playing the security card.” But the card has already been played, and with effect.

I welcome any comments you may have.