Biographies of Contemporary Sahelian Ulama 2: Shaykh Ibrahim Saleh

(This is a series of short biographies of Sahelian and nothern Nigerian ulama from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and may broaden later to include some nineteenth-century figures. The selections and order are determined entirely by whim. See below for previous entries.)

Last month, BBC Hausa put out an interview with Shaykh Ibrahim Saleh, sometimes called Shaykh Sharif Ibrahim Saleh al-Hussaini, who is from Borno in northeastern Nigeria.

The clip provides a good opportunity for me to do a second entry in this nascent series.

Shaykh Saleh is extremely prominent within Nigeria and within various parts of the Muslim world, including Morocco and Egypt, and he has been discussed in some Western academic literature (as I note below) – so I will not try to reconstruct his whole biography here. What stood out to me most about the interview was the range of educational experiences he has had, especially two features of his career and profile that have not been given much attention in other biographies I’ve read of him: (1) his formidable expertise in the study of Hadith, or narrations of actions and statements attributed to the Prophet Muhammad; and (2) his connections to scholarly circles in Mecca, including West African and North African scholars there. For further context, Hadith was often not the central subject in West Africa’s classical Islamic centers of learning, where the study of Fiqh (jurisprudence), grammar, biography, and other subjects was often more central. So being a muhaddith (expert in Hadith) gives Shaykh Saleh a kind of profile that not every senior scholar in West Africa has. Another part of the context, then, is that I’m increasingly struck by how reductive it is, in the Western study of Islam in Africa, to gloss figures such as Saleh as Sufis. Of course he is Sufi and this is arguably the defining aspect of his career and profile – yet when looking at those Meccan networks, for example, at least from the names, what stands out is the shared affiliation to the Maliki legal school (widespread in West and North Africa), rather than the Sufi connection. Worth noting is that Salafis do not have a monopoly over the study of Hadith – indeed, Malikis will often brag (not without justification!) that their founder was distinct in being equally strong in fiqh (jurisprudence) and Hadith.

Turning to the interview, the interviewer asks the shaykh about his biography and his career (as well as some lighter questions such as “What is your favorite food?”). To start with his name, as one often finds in northern Nigeria, what might at first look like a surname (Saleh) is in fact his father’s name – using the Arabic style, he introduces himself as Ibrahim bin Saleh, or “Ibrahim, son of Saleh.” Ethnically, he is Shuwa Arab, a group that is a minority but significant group in his home state of Borno, where he was born in 1938.

He began his education by studying the Qur’an with his father. After his father passed, he studied with his father’s students. He studied with many shaykhs, partly in order to collect salasil (singular silsila), or chains of oral transmission stretching back to the Companions of the Prophet and thus to the Prophet himself – he mentions a book he wrote later detailing more than 100 such chains reaching from Nigerian scholars back to the Prophet. After completing the memorization of the Qur’an, he turned to what is called in Hausa “karatun ilimi,” or Islamic education. He names numerous teachers, among them Abu Bakr al-Waziri and Ahmad Abulfathi (d. 2003), both in Borno. Shaykh Ibrahim Saleh refers to the latter as “my teacher (malamina).” He was a major figure in Borno, and you can read his biography here. Both Saleh and Abulfathi are known as shurafa’ (singular sharif), meaning descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. Shaykh Saleh also studied with some of the most prominent scholars of the mid-20th century in Kano, namely Shaykhs Tijjani Uthman (d. 1970) and Abu Bakr ‘Atiq (d. 1974). To some extent one can see the outlines of a Borno-Kano axis here, given that Shaykh Tijjani Uthman was of Kanuri descent, the Kanuri being the dominant ethnic group in Borno. Many of Shaykh Saleh’s teachers, meanwhile, were leading figures in the Tijaniyya order, specifically the branch associated with the Senegalese Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse (1900-1975); with the two Kano teachers he studied Sufi texts. Shaykh Saleh is himself a major leader within the Tijaniyya and perhaps, along with Shaykh Dahiru Usman Bauchi, one of the two most famous living leaders of the order within Nigeria.

Shaykh Saleh also spent time, as I mentioned above, in Mecca, largely focusing on the study of Hadith or narrations of actions and statements attributed to the Prophet. There he first studied with Shaykh ‘Alawi bin ‘Abbas al-Maliki (d. 1970, per my conversion from the hijri date listed on his Wikipedia page). That Saleh could travel to Saudi Arabia and study with a Maliki shaykh is a reminder to me, and perhaps to readers, that one could find major non-Hanbali scholars in contemporary Saudi Arabia and especially in the Hijaz. He then studied with the Algeria-born, Mecca-based Shaykh Muhammad al-Arabi al-Tubbani (d. 1970 as well; see his Wikipedia page here, where ‘Alawi al-Maliki is listed among his students). Interestingly, one of his teachers in Mecca was the Nigeria-born Shaykh Abu Bakr al-Kashnawi (d. 1977), who came to Mecca in 1922/1923 and studied with the previously-mentioned al-Maliki, among others; Kashnawi is the Arabic adjective for “from Katsina,” and al-Kashnawi was from Kusada, Katsina according to this biography. Relevant here is Chanfi Ahmed’s book on West African shaykhs in the Hijaz, though I do not recall Ahmed discussing these figures in particular. The list goes on from there…Egyptian scholars, Pakistani scholars, and more. Turning back to the question of the silsila, Roman Loimeier writes a great deal about different Nigerian shaykhs’ efforts to collect salasil in his book Islamic Reform and Political Change in Northern Nigeria; Loimeier discusses some of Shaykh Saleh’s salasil, particularly within the Tijaniyya Sufi order, on p. 272.

Saleh also did some correspondence courses with Imperial College London, to improve his English,

In terms of his institutional roles, they are almost too many to list, both in Nigeria and at the level of the Muslim world as a whole. Three stand out to me (and here I am drawing on this essentially official biography, along with some background knowledge):

  • Chairman, Fatwa Council, Nigerian Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs (NSCIA, an umbrella body for Nigerian Muslims);
  • Chairman, Fatwa Council, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam (The Society for Victory of Islam, another umbrella body, though more northern-focused);
  • A prominent member of the Mohamed VI Foundation of African Oulema, a Moroccan governmental effort. You can read the Shaykh’s speech at the Foundation’s launch here.

He also comments frequently in Hausa, English, and Arabic media.

Shaykh Saleh is mentioned in numerous Western academic works but the main references that come to mind now are the following:

  • Rudiger Seesemann’s article “Three Ibrāhīms: Literary Production and the Remaking of the Tijāniyya Sufi Order in Twentieth-Century Sudanic Africa,” in which the other two Ibrahims are Ibrahim Niasse and Ibrahim Sidi (d. 1999) of Sudan.
  • Gunnar Weimann’s book Islamic Criminal Law in Northern Nigeria, where Saleh and one of his books are the subject of Chapter 4.
  • John Hunwick’s compilation Arabic Literature of Africa, Volume 2, where he comes up frequently. The biographies of Shaykh Ahmad Abulfathi, Shaykh Tijjani Uthman, and Shaykh Abu Bakr ‘Atiq can also all be found in this volume.

Previous Entries in the contemporary Sahelian ulama series:

  1. Shaykh Mohamed Salim Ould Addoud of Mauritania.

Roundup of Recent Writing on Jihadism in the Sahel, and Comments on ICG’s New ISWAP Report [Updated]

Héni Nsaibia and RIda Lyammouri, “Digital Dunes and Shrublands: A Comparative Introduction to the Sahelian Jihadi Propaganda Ecosystem,” Global Network on Extremism and Technology, October 27. You cannot ask for a better duo of authors for this topic. An excerpt:

The Sahelian propaganda ecosystem could be divided into two spheres: the global and the local. The global sphere includes the propaganda intended for the international community broadly, and consists primarily of ‘official’ public messaging in the form of claims of responsibility for military operations, videos, and audio-visual statements. Media products are communicated in world languages: Arabic, French, and English. The local sphere encompasses propaganda for local consumption and is disseminated in local languages: Hassaniya Arabic, Tamashek (or Tuareg language), Fulfulde (or Fulani language), Bambara, Songhai, Zarma, and other local languages and dialects. Locally-oriented items often come out as low-quality videos and audio diffused via closed local WhatsApp groups, including community-focused platforms, and as printed statements handed out to residents. The linguistic barriers and limited accessibility to locally-distributed items represents a gap that should not be neglected in terms of our understanding of these groups.

Luca Raineri, “Explaining the Rise of Jihadism in Africa: The Crucial Case of the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara,” Terrorism and Political Violence, published online October 22. The abstract:

While jihadism appears to be on the rise in Africa, the explanations of violent extremist groups’ capacity to foment jihadi insurgencies and mobilize recruits remain poorly understood. Recent studies have challenged the assumption that the rise of jihadism in Africa is the result of poor governance in areas of limited state reach, highlighting instead the significance of the (perception of) abuses perpetrated by state authorities. Looking at collective action and its structural determinants, it is rather state action—and not the lack thereof—that best explains the capacity of mobilization of jihadi insurgencies in African borderlands. In order to test this theory in a least-likely case, the article explores the genealogy and evolution of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), mobilizing extensive qualitative evidence. Borrowing the analytical framework from civil war studies, it argues that the contentious political dynamics observed in Niger’s borderlands amount to a case of symmetric non-conventional warfare, where abuses perpetrated by state proxies trigger an escalation of homegrown terrorism. It therefore supplies a further specification of the theories investigating the complex interplay between the processes of jihadi mobilization/rebel governance and the practices of counter-terrorism in weak states.

I like that approach.

[UPDATE – November 2, 2020]: Because it fits so well with this roundup, I’m adding Anouar Boukhars’ new article “The Logic of Violence in Africa’s Jihadist Insurgencies,” out at Perspectives on Terrorism. An excerpt (p. 119):

Two implications can be drawn from the relative target preferences of IS affiliates in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin. First, if insurgent groups are dependent on support from local populations, they may exercise restraint in their violence against civilians. Second, in multi-actor conflict environments, locations marked by intense in-group–out-group divides—a dynamic that comes about because of pre-conflict tensions and tensions endogenous to the conflict—tend to be places of violent attacks against civilians, as out-group members are suspected of being sympathizers of VE groups or collaborators with the government and allied ethnic militias.

For RFI, Kaourou Magassa reports from Bamako, Mali on the trial of Fawaz Ould Ahmed or “Ibrahim 10,” a Mauritanian who killed five people at a Bamako bar in March 2015. He also helped plan the even more infamous attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako later in 2015. He and a co-defendant have now been sentenced to death. He was initially reported in some accounts to have been among those prisoners released earlier this month in Mali – but, obviously, he wasn’t, and perhaps the timing of the trial (pure speculation on my part!) is meant to make that very clear.

Finally, International Crisis Group has an important new report out on the relationship between Abubakar Shekau’s Boko Haram, the Islamic State, and what became the breakaway Boko Haram faction now known as the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). [Note that the report sometimes uses ISWAP to refer to Boko Haram during the period between Shekau’s pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State in March 2015 and the split within Boko Haram in August 2016, so the meaning of ISWAP within the report can depend on where in the chronology you are. This usage accurately reflects how the name ISWAP was applied both pre-August 2016 and post, but can be confusing for the reader.] The report is based on interviews with sixteen defectors, the last of whom left the group in 2018 – and so the report mostly only transmits other analysts’ perspectives when discussing post-2018 Islamic Stat influence on ISWAP.

I found the report pretty balanced in how it assesses the relationship and the evidence. On the one hand, the report contains major findings pointing to substantial Islamic State influence, such as the reported presence of a group of Islamic State trainers in Nigeria’s Sambisa Forest who arrived after Shekau’s pledge. Here though it is important to underline that the report’s account adds weight to something that I have argued before, namely that the decisive factor in the timing of Shekau’s pledge was the military pressure Boko Haram was under in early 2015. Note then that the Islamic State, as the relationship is described in the report, does not appear to have played any significant role in Boko Haram’s conquest of territory in northeastern Nigeria in 2014 or even early 2015. And even the most bullish accounts of Shekau’s relationship with al-Qaida tend now to acknowledge that his relationship with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb had frayed well before 2014. So at its peak, Boko Haram was more or less independent.

The report also details what are, to my mind, surprisingly complex financial processes: “Assistance [this is 2015 and perhaps early 2016, if I’m reading correctly] came at least every two weeks in amounts varying from $10,000 to $100,000 via occasional transfers to associated individuals or companies in Nigeria or deliveries by Nigerian couriers who would visit Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates to collect the cash on ISWAP’s behalf.” There are a lot of explosive claims here, and whereas the account of the trainers I can accept without pause, the description of the transfers – if it rests solely on the testimony of defectors, even if they corroborate each other’s accounts – would need to be corroborated by some other source, in my view. This is not because of the amounts involved,* but not so much that I doubt them; it is more the asserted mechanisms that give me a bit of pause.

There, then, are some of the report’s most serious details concerning the Islamic State’s impact. On the other hand, the report points out some serious instances of parochialism and idiosyncrasy on Boko Haram’s part that made it hard for the organization to maximize and sometimes sustain what the Islamic State had to offer. Weak internet connections, inconsistent application of the trainers’ teachings, Shekau’s resistance to directives and his suspicion of the on-site trainers, etc.

Speaking of parochialism, one detail that surprised me, though maybe it shouldn’t have, was that Shekau submitted the 2009 manifesto of the late Muhammad Yusuf as part of the vetting process for the Islamic State; the 2009 manifesto is certainly a crypto-jihadist document, but it was written under far different circumstances, still in the context of an above-ground movement rather than an underground, full-blown insurgency. It points to Shekau’s and Boko Haram’s sloppiness that in the roughly six years between the writing of that manifesto and the pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State, the group could generate no fresher manifesto. Shekau killing some of the top clerics within the group circa 2011-2012 didn’t help with ideological production, obviously, but still, the group seems to have suffered from a lack of talent in that department.

More importantly for the purposes of assessing Islamic State influence, we see that the most fundamental decisions, even among Shekau’s internal rivals, were taken locally: “The breakaway group [now known as ISWAP] only informed ISIS [sic] of its decision once the split [announced in August 2016, but undertaken months earlier] was a fait accompli.” The Islamic State central leadership apparently bowed only reluctantly to realities on the ground in northeastern Nigeria, trying to reconcile the two factions before eventually backing the breakaway group.

Given its own findings, moreover, the report’s framing that “ISWAP [i.e., post-split] has continued to progress in adopting the global movement’s doctrines on governance and other matters” is too simplistic. The idea that ISWAP’s efforts at administrative sophistication and military professionalism reflect Islamic State influence makes a lot of sense; the report is less persuasive when it suggests that Islamic State guidance spurred ISWAP’s overall efforts “to mend fences with Muslim civilians in the areas under its influence.” If concerns with Shekau’s bloodthirstiness, capriciousness, predatoriness, etc. were what prompted a split that was a “fait accompli” before the Islamic State was informed, then it stands to reason that ISWAP’s political orientation towards Muslim civilians largely reflects the core impetus for the split in the first place. And again, according to the report that impetus came out of facts on the ground first and foremost. If you break with your emir because he kills everyone who disagrees with him and hoards money, and if you’re eating leaves and bark in the forest after getting routed by multiple armies and South African mercenaries, you don’t need some guy in Syria to tell you it’s time to try something new. But you would probably take their money and their tips on administration.

So, in short, a very mixed picture of Islamic State influence over ISWAP emerges – stronger than I would have thought in many dimensions, but even I, a perennial skeptic about global jihadist influence in West Africa, was equally surprised by some of Boko Haram’s parochialism as described in the report, as well as by the ways the Islamic State was either ignored or rebuffed at key moments in this history. My main critique would be that I wish the author/s would have more systematically compared the account from defectors to the account in ISWAP’s book Removing the Tumor; I will have to compare at some point myself, but if memory serves there are some interesting parallels, as well as some key details mentioned in this report that are not mentioned at all in Removing the Tumor (the trainers and the money, for example, if memory serves), and then perhaps some instances of contradictions. Anyways, the Crisis Group report is worth reading in full, as are the other pieces mentioned above.

*Is the amount of money described here large or small? At first it sounded huge to me – a steady flow of sizable chunks of money. But if you do the math over a year, it actually starts to sound smaller. Assume for example that we take an estimate toward the high end of the numbers and frequency described above, and we say that $100,000 arrived every two weeks for a year, or $200,000 a month: that’s $2.4 million in the first year. But on the sending end, this seems to have represented a tiny portion of the Islamic State’s wealth and income circa 2015-2016, and on the receiving end, I wonder how far the money went. Just a few years earlier, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb was collecting that kind of sum per hostage in some of its biggest ransoms, and yet such cash infusions only went so far – and AQIM had fewer fighters than Boko Haram at their respective peaks, most likely. How far does $2.4 million go in terms of paying fighters and buying loyalty? I’ll have to think about it more. Not saying the money doesn’t matter, but even the high end estimate may be relatively modest even in the context of African jihadist groups’ budgets. Or one could say the money had a much greater impact because of the tough circumstances Boko Haram was in when the money started flowing. Or one could say the money’s impact was less than it might have been, because Shekau may have hoarded some of it…etc. The point is, it’s easier to argue that ties between jihadist groups occurred than it is to say exactly what those ties meant.

From the DRC, A Serious Warning for and about Aid Workers Elsewhere

The New Humanitarian last month published the results of their investigation, conducted jointly with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, into a ghastly story involving international aid workers pressuring Congolese women for sex:

In interviews, 51 women – many of whose accounts were backed up by aid agency drivers and local NGO workers – recounted multiple incidents of abuse during the 2018 to 2020 Ebola crisis, mainly by men who said they were international workers.

The majority of the women said numerous men had either propositioned them, forced them to have sex in exchange for a job, or terminated their contracts when they refused.

The organizations named in interviews are huge ones: “UNICEF, Oxfam, Médecins Sans Frontières, World Vision, ALIMA, and the International Organization for Migration.” The New Humanitarian’s writeup also

The scandal (I am searching for a stronger word, actually – “outrage” comes to mind) reminds me, as it may remind you, of a sexual abuse scandal uncovered (and arguably very poorly handled) involving United Nations Peacekeepers in the Central African Republic.

The implications for the region this blog covers, the Sahel and Nigeria, should be clear. I talk about jihadism a lot here at the blog, and one way this post could go would be to spin out the implications of this for the counter-jihadism fight and the perceptions of humanitarian workers in conflict zones. But I think that line of argument – while perhaps valid – might be too securitized for my taste (“don’t exploit women, it hurts the counterterrorism fight” is a crude and even offensive argument).

Rather, what I want to really emphasize is that incidents where trust is broken can leave long, long memories. In 1996, Pfizer was accused of killing 11 children and disabling others in Kano, Nigeria through a meningitis drug trial. The aftermath of the incident included widespread suspicion about polio vaccination campaigns in subsequent years. Pfizer paid compensation ($175,000 each to four families) in 2011. People often remember the harm caused by those who came (purportedly) to help. And as seen with the Kano example, one actor’s choices can affect myriad other actors carrying out seemingly unrelated projects.

I guess if someone is so depraved that they would attempt to coerce women living through a public health emergency, then they probably wouldn’t be receptive to these warnings about unanticipated consequences of abuse. But their bosses are a different story. The problems described in the DRC seem systemic, and organizations and supervisors clearly have some real soul-searching to do, if they have the courage to do it:

Aid sector experts blamed the failures on a male-dominated operation with little funding to combat sexual abuse; income and power inequalities that opened the door to abuses; and poor communication with local residents – mirroring problems they said they had seen in numerous other emergency responses.

I hope the branches of these organizations that work in the Sahel and Nigeria are paying attention and are scrutinizing their own accountability mechanisms. There are ongoing investigations – I hope they are substantive.

Nigeria: In Edo State, an Off-Cycle PDP Victory Raises Questions for the APC

The People’s Democratic Party (PDP) held the presidency and many governorships in Nigeria from 1999, when the country returned to civilian rule under the Fourth Republic, and 2015, when current President Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) defeated a PDP incumbent. Since 2015, the PDP has been Nigeria’s main opposition party, registering its strongest performances (both at the presidential and gubernatorial levels) in what Nigerians call the South East and South South geopolitical zones. When Buhari was re-elected in 2019, the PDP swept those zones and took two states each in the North Central and North East zones. With a few exceptions, the 2019 election map was essentially a diagonal line drawn across the country, with the APC taking almost everything north and west of that line and the PDP taking everything south and east of the line (see the map at the link).

Nigeria’s main election cycle for federal and state elections occurs every four years, but some gubernatorial elections have moved to different four-year cycles because of the cumulative impacts of past court decisions and re-run elections. One such state is Edo, at the western edge of the South South geopolitical zone – right next to the South West zone, a core APC stronghold. Edo held its gubernatorial election on September 19.

As with many other Nigerian elections and especially gubernatorial elections, party proved fluid and complex, and intra-party power struggles mattered, at some moments, more than inter-party struggles. Thus in Edo you have the incumbent governor, Godwin Obaseki, winning re-election, but as the candidate of a different party than the one he came to power with. In other words, Obaseki won in 2020 as the PDP’s candidate after originally winning in 2016 as the APC’s candidate. His margin of victory was decisive – nearly 80,000 votes out of roughly 530,000 votes cast for him and his APC rival.

The background to this outcome involves intra-APC power struggles at the level of both Edo State and Nigeria as a whole. Key players include the APC power broker, ex-Lagos State Governor, and likely 2023 presidential aspirant Bola Tinubu, as well as ex-Edo State Governor Adams Oshiomhole (in office 2008-2016). To summarize what I wrote here, the initial “godfather-godson” relationship between Oshiomhole and Obaseki, his chosen successor, deteriorated completely by 2019 – and that falling-out intersected with national-level infighting within the APC, resulting in Oshiomhole eventually being stripped of his National Chairmanship in a series of maneuvers beginning in March 2020. Meanwhile, Obaseki was blocked from the APC primary in Edo State, allegedly due to Oshiomhole’s influence, and so Obaseki defected to the PDP. As all this was going on, many Nigerian observers felt that, as I summarized back in July, “The situation in Edo is now becoming a test of Tinubu’s influence as well, and a loss for the APC in September would be seen by many as damaging Tinubu personally.”

So now we will see what the damage is, especially to his standing within the APC and to his 2023 prospects. This Day has a quick (and perhaps slightly PDP-leaning) tour of “winners and losers” from the election. The paper places Tinubu firmly in the losers’ camp for what the paper says is many Edo voters’ resentment at Tinubu’s perceived political overreach in their state. Interestingly, though, the paper places President Buhari among the winners:

The successful conclusion of the 2020 Edo governorship election is a big plus for President Muhammadu Buhari, both locally and internationally. For ensuring that a level playing field was provided for the conduct of the election, even his ardent critics are persuaded to acknowledge this gracious deed. To his credit, the much feared deployment of an amorphous ‘federal might’ by the main opposition party was absent.

Questions for Tinubu, then, are (1) whether this loss is part of a pattern of political mismanagement (even before the election, some observers were connecting the APC’s problems in Edo to the party’s gubernatorial losses in 2019 and to earlier defections of sitting governors from the APC to the PDP), or whether this is just part of the ebb and flow of Nigerian politics, where party-switching is common if not routine; (2) whether Tinubu faces limits to his reception as a national, rather than merely southwestern, political leader; and (3) how his relationship with the president evolves from here, and how much that matters for 2023. On the other hand, This Day also muses about whether the PDP victory in Edo is simply a return to a norm of PDP control there and across the South South zone – so perhaps there are limits to what one should extrapolate from a single election.

Boko Haram/ISWAP Roundup for September 17, 2020

Previous roundup here.

The Emir of Biu Umar Mustapha-Aliyu, an important figure in Borno State’s hierarchy of hereditary Muslim rulers, passed away on September 15 at the age of 80. He had been emir since 1989.

Amnesty:

In this open letter to the President, Amnesty International urges the Nigerian government to ensure all children detained in Giwa Barracks, Kainji military base, Maiduguri Maximum Prison, the Operation Safe Corridor facility outside Gombe, and other detention facilities associated with the conflict in Northeast Nigeria are immediately released, or are only detained as a very last resort and held in humane conditions in a civilian facility. The organization also calls for the immediate release of these children and access for them to education and psychosocial support.

Some of the latest violence:

  • An ISWAP attack at Wasaram, Kaga Local Government Area, killed 8 on September 15. “The insurgents had accused the villagers of alerting troops about their movement on their way to rob traders in the nearby town of Ngamdu…Soldiers intercepted the jihadists and engaged them in a gun battle.” ISWAP also reportedly killed 3 others in Auno, another village.
  • Here is the Council on Foreign Relations’ Nigeria Security Tracker for September 5-11.
  • The Islamic State’s Al-Naba’ 251 (10 September, p. 6, available for registered users at the Jihadology website) briefly describes some attacks in Borno, Yobe, and Chad.

UNHCR has published its August 2020 “North-East Situation Update.” An excerpt:

The volatile security environment in North-East Nigeria continues to hinder the provision of Protection and Multisectoral assistance to the affected population in the States of Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe (BAY States). In August, Non-State Armed Groups (NSAG) officially declared humanitarian actors a legitimate target, increasing the risk in the humanitarian delivery programme. In Borno State, indiscriminate attacks against civilian and military targets continued with NSAG mounting illegal vehicle checkpoints to rob, abduct and kill; other incidents have been recorded such as abduction of civilians during daily activities in their farmlands or while fetching firewood in areas outside the safe perimeters in the deepfield locations in Bama, Gwoza, Gubio, Dikwa, and Mungono. In addition, there has been raids on health facilities in Magumeri. In Adamawa and Yobe States several incidents of armed robbery, kidnapping, abduction for ransom, and killing were reported. NSAG attacks and threats of imminent attacks on the communities in North-East is causing widespread fears amongst the civilian population.

Adedigba Adebowale, Premium Times (September 13), “How Boko Haram Insurgency Worsened Malnutrition, Immunisation in Nigeria’s Northeast.”

On September 11, Borno State Governor Babagana Zulum visited refugees in Diffa, Niger and then visited displaced persons in Damasak, Borno. More here about plans to return refugees from Niger to Nigeria.

Boko Haram/ISWAP Roundup for September 10, 2020

Previous roundup here.

Here is the Council on Foreign Relations’ Nigeria Security Tracker for August 29 – September 4.

This Day: “Keeping up with NAF’s Counter Insurgency Operations in the North-East.”

A leaked memo, attributed to the Nigeria Customs Service but whose authenticity is unclear, warned of a jihadist presence in Nigeria’s North Central geopolitical zone, specifically in Kogi and Nasarawa States and around the Federal Capital, Abuja. The leak kicked off a major conversation – see here and here for samples of that debate.

AFP:

Boko Haram jihadists killed 10 civilians in attacks on three villages in restive northeast Nigeria, local security officials said Monday.

Babakura Kolo, the leader of a government-backed anti-jihadist militia, said the insurgents had carried out the assaults on Sunday.

Kolo said they raided the village of Kurmari, 40 kilometres (25 miles) from regional capital Maiduguri, late Sunday, killing four residents as they slept.

VOA: “Cameroonian villagers along the Nigerian border need humanitarian aid after deadly Boko Haram attacks displaced at least 7,000 people, authorities and rights groups say. Villagers have been fleeing their homes since early August because of attacks, which killed at least  22 people and wounded 29.” See also UNHCR, “Hunger and Fear Stalk Survivors of Attack in North Cameroon.”

Reuters:

Humanitarian affairs minister Sadiya Umar Farouk on Sunday [September 6] told reporters in Maiduguri, capital of the conflict-ravaged Borno state, that Nigerian Air Force helicopters and planes would be used to drop food supplies and items such as blankets.

“There has been an issue of inaccessible areas where humanitarian workers cannot reach the people,” she said at a news conference on Sunday. “Air drops are especially good for areas we cannot access by road,” she added.

Al Jazeera: “What’s Being Done to Keep Learning Going in Northern Nigeria?”

REACH, “Humanitarian Needs and Conflict Dynamics in Hard-to-Reach Areas of Borno State.” Covers the period April-June 2020. An excerpt (p. 4):

In all assessed LGAs [Local Government Areas], an incident of conflict resulting in the death of a civilian/civilians had reportedly taken place in at least 10% of assessed settlements. The highest proportion of assessed settlements where this was reported was in Jere (100%) and Konduga (100%). An incident of looting where most of a household’s property was stolen was reported to have occurred in at least 20% of assessed settlements in each LGA. Looting was most commonly reported to have happened in assessed settlements in Bama (93% of settlements), Jere (100%) and Konduga (100%). IDI [in-depth interview] participants reported additional protection concerns, including abductions, forced/early marriage, forced recruitment, and other forms of attacks and violence.

[…]

The reporting of severe protection concerns by KIs [key informants] and IDI participants from all LGAs suggests that the conflict continues to have negative consequences on the lives of people remaining in H2R [hard-to-reach] areas. Jere and Konduga had some of the highest proportion of assessed settlements reporting protection concerns. Although their proximity to Maiduguri and major roadways would generally be considered a positive factor for these areas, with regards to protection concerns being in the vicinity of an area of major concern for parties to the conflict may increase their risk.

See also my notes on the REACH report here.

Notes on REACH’s Overview of Hard-to-Reach Areas in Borno State, Nigeria

I’ve been thinking recently about how difficult it is to get an even broadly accurate sense of conflict dynamics in Borno State, Nigeria, the state that is the continuing epicenter of the Boko Haram crisis. That crisis, broadly defined, includes not just the activities of Boko Haram and its splinter group the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), but also internal and external displacement, vigilantism, security force abuses, multiple forms of war economy, etc.

What makes analysis so difficult is that all the major sources of information are fraught: journalists and analysts rely on questionable sourcing and often contradict one another’s accounts; the military sometimes lies and exaggerates; civilian authorities sometimes contradict military statements; and Boko Haram and ISWAP propaganda is highly selective.

One of the most useful channels of information, then, is the humanitarian community (this is not primarily how they conceive of their own role, of course). I am particularly interested in which areas of Borno humanitarians considerable accessible or inaccessible at given times. The resulting portrait can differ somewhat from the military’s triumphalist narratives, from the somewhat scattershot image that emerges through the flow of jihadist attack claims, and even from the civilian authorities’ presentations of their own movements within the state.

Here are my notes on a recent report from REACH, titled “Situation Overview: Humanitarian Needs and Conflict Dynamics in Hard-to-Reach Areas of Borno State.” REACH is a humanitarian data-gathering and analysis initiative created by the think tank IMPACT, the French NGO ACTED (formerly the Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development), and the United Nations Operational Satellite Applications Programme. The report covers the period April-June 2020 and is based on interviews with 1,372 key informants regarding conditions in 558 hard-to-reach settlements. These key informants were based in and/or were recent arrivals to “garrison towns” in different parts of the state such as Maiduguri, the state capital; Monguno and Guzamala, in the north; Ngala, in the east near the border with Cameroon; and Gwoza, in the south.

For context, the government’s strategy of grouping people in “garrison towns” – and implicitly, partly ceding control of the countryside to jihadists – dates to 2017. As Médecins Sans Frontières wrote in a reflection on ten years of the Boko Haram crisis (August 2019), “Humanitarian workers can only work in so-called ‘garrison towns’ (enclaves controlled by the Nigerian military) and cannot access other areas outside military control. Yet people’s needs remain unmet even within these garrison towns. This has forced some people to leave the relative safety of the camps, risking their lives to seek food and firewood outside the security perimeter.” As of June 2020, there were more than 1.5 million internally displaced persons in Borno, of whom 54% were living in camps or “camp-like settings.” Some of the most recent population movements (August 24-30) are described here.

For further context, here is a detailed map of Borno State and its 27 Local Government Areas (LGAs), and here is a map that’s a bit easier to read, with senatorial zones color-coded. Boko Haram and ISWAP are sometimes described as having a rough territorial division, with ISWAP in the north and Boko Haram further south, and with both groups present (and sometimes with conflicting reports about who is the author of what attack) in the east.

A few highlights from the REACH report:

  • There are four fully inaccessible LGAs (p. 2, footnote 5): Abadam, Guzamala, Kukawa, and Marte. All of these are in far northern Borno; Abadam is the northernmost LGA in the state. The first three LGAs are contiguous, and Marte is separated from Kukawa and Guzamala, both to the north of Marte and the south of Abadam, only by a relatively thin strip of Monguno LGA. So the far north and particularly the far northeast of the state is the most inaccessible zone.
  • The most inaccessible zone is not necessarily the most dangerous zone. From p. 4 of the report: “In all assessed LGAs, an incident of conflict resulting in the death of a civilian/civilians had reportedly taken place in at least 10% of assessed settlements. The highest proportion of assessed settlements where this was reported was in Jere (100%) and Konduga (100%). An incident of looting where most of a household’s property was stolen was reported to have occurred in at least 20% of assessed settlements in each LGA. Looting was most commonly reported to have happened in assessed settlements in Bama (93% of settlements), Jere (100%) and Konduga (100%). IDI [in-depth interview] participants reported additional protection concerns, including abductions, forced/early marriage, forced recruitment, and other forms of attacks and violence.” Jere and Konduga are not in the far north, but are rather in the center of the state, in the immediate vicinity of Maiduguri – Jere, relatively small by landmass, nearly encircles Maiduguri to the north, east, and south; while Konduga, much bigger by landmass, completes the circle around Maiduguri to the east and then also partly encircles Jere from the south (if that makes sense – it’s probably just easier to look at the map). As the report further comments (p. 4) regarding Jere and Konduga, “Although their proximity to Maiduguri and major roadways would generally be considered a positive factor for these areas, with regards to protection concerns being in the vicinity of an area of major concern for parties to the conflict may increase their risk.”
  • The map on p. 3 confirms the impression that the hard-to-reach areas are primarily located in the far north, the far east (along the border with Cameroon), and to the immediate/near south of Maiduguri. A corollary to this is that western LGAs, far southern LGAs, and Maiduguri’s “near north” appear to be a bit calmer. Speaking of western Borno, some recent claims that Yobe State (to the west of Borno) is “peaceful and calm” are clearly overblown – but one does get a sense from the REACH report and other data that violence is more severe close to Maiduguri, and to the city’s east, rather than further to its west.
  • The map on p. 3 of the REACH report also gives the impression that when people flee conflict, they often flee to major cities/”garrison towns” within their own LGA, except in the very far north where they leave the LGAs altogether; and if they head to a city outside their LGA it is typically either Maiduguri or to a few other hubs. For example, Monguno (the town) is a key destination for people coming from the far north and the far east, and Bama and Gwoza pull in pull from around much of the state.
  • People are moving not just because of violence but also because of food insecurity (p. 3), which of course can be closely related to conflict. Many people (70% of assessed settlements) are subsistence farmers (p. 4), and the conflict has severely affected agricultural and commercial activities in many parts of the state. Here is a disturbing and striking paragraph from p. 4: “Most people were reported to not have access to their usual livelihoods in the majority of assessed settlements in Bama (97%), Damboa (83%), Dikwa (100%), Gwoza (97%), Jere (100%), Kala/Balge (100%), Konduga (86%) and Ngala (97%). On the contrary, a smaller proportion of assessed settlements in Abadam (30%), Guzamala (32%), Kukawa (44%) and Marte (40%) reported that most people did not have access to their usual livelihood.” It’s also striking to see the relatively smaller percentages reporting lack of access to usual livelihoods in the four fully inaccessible, northern LGAs; perhaps people leaving those areas are most motivated by security concerns or even by what we might call political concerns, in other words difficulties living under what is often reported as strong ISWAP influence/sway in the far north of Borno (see pp. 12-13 here for a discussion of ISWAP in the far north, although the linked content is a bit dated).
  • Another notable finding of the REACH report is that movement itself is dangerous.  From p. 3: “IDI [in-depth interview] participants reported challenges during their journeys related to fear of being attacked while en-route, thirst, hunger, snake bites and other injuries. All of the IDI participants reported making some or the entire journey on foot, with most reporting they spent between one to three days walking. After completing the journey to the garrison town, IDI participants reported that they did not intend to return to visit or move back to the H2R [hard-to-reach] settlement because returning to the settlement would not be safe.” It’s going to be a while before most of these citizens go home.
  • There are a number of other key sections in the report – water, health, education, etc. – but this post is getting long. Notably although not surprisingly, in remote parts of the state one finds LGAs where fewer than half the population appears to be even aware of COVID-19’s existence, a finding that should reinforce skepticism about any official COVID-19 counts from Nigeria (or nearby Niger, Cameroon, and Chad, for that matter).
  • I leave you with REACH’s conclusion (p. 9): “The findings in this situation overview are indicative of severe humanitarian needs in the H2R areas of Borno state, related to the reported impact of the protracted crisis and suggested historical lack of access to services. Continued monitoring of these areas is required to provide the information needed to inform the humanitarian response.”

Muhammadu Buhari’s Comments on Third Terms Underline ECOWAS’ Credibility Gap on Democracy

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari was in Niamey, Niger on September 7 for an ordinary summit of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). He made headlines for the following comment:

More of his remarks quoted here:

As leaders of our individual Member-States of ECOWAS, we need to adhere to the constitutional provisions of our countries, particularly on term limits. This is one area that generates crisis and political tension in our sub-region.

Related to this call for restraint is the need to guarantee free, fair and credible elections. This must be the bedrock for democracy to be sustained in our sub-region, just as the need for adherence to the rule of law.

The obvious though unnamed targets of these remarks are Guinea’s Alpha Condé and Cote d’Ivoire’s Alassane Ouattara, both of whom are seeking third terms in elections that fall, respectively, on October 18 and October 31 of this year. One could also, although I’m not sure that this was Buhari’s intention, read his remarks as applying to other leaders in the region who have not sought third terms but who made the electoral playing fields very uneven when running for re-election – I am thinking of Senegal’s Macky Sall and Niger’s Mahamadou Issoufou, both of whom jailed their main opponents while running for (and winning) second terms. And then there is perhaps the most egregious anti-democratic case in the whole region – Togo’s Faure Gnassingbé, who won a fourth term this past February and whose family has been in power since 1967.

Buhari has many faults, but I think he has credibility on this issue of third terms – I do not expect him to seek a third one when his time is up in 2023, and he has repeatedly pledged not to do so. You never know, of course.

The context for Buhari’s remarks about third terms was the ongoing ECOWAS response to the August 18 coup in Mali, which removed second-termer Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. ECOWAS leaders’ domestic efforts to bend and extend rules have implicitly weakened their credibility in negotiating with different actors in Mali – first the anti-Keïta protesters who threw Bamako’s politics into turmoil from June until the eve of the coup, and then more recently with the junta (the National Committee for the Salvation of the People, French acronym CNSP).

Newsworthy though Buhari’s remarks are, I don’t see pressure from him or others resulting in a course change for Condé or Ouattara. Once presidents start down the third term route they are usually (although not always, as the cases of Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo and Mauritania*’s Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz exemplify) determined to go through with it.

I should probably do a separate post on the ECOWAS summit’s conclusions regarding Mali, but the final communiqué is here (French). The key paragraph on Mali is paragraph 16, page 6, where ECOWAS calls for a 12-month transition back to an elected president, and demands that the CNSP designate an interim president and prime minister, both of them civilians, by September 15. I wouldn’t hold my breath.

*Not an ECOWAS member currently.

Boko Haram/ISWAP Roundup for September 3, 2020

Previous roundup here.

Here is the Council on Foreign Relations’ Nigeria Security Tracker update for August 22-28.

Some recent ISWAP claims:

The U.S. Department of Defense Inspector General published a quarterly report covering U.S. counterterrorism in East, North, and West Africa for the period April-June 2020. From the section on ISWAP (p. 44):

ISIS-West Africa was responsible for some of the deadliest attacks during the quarter. According to USAFRICOM, ISIS-West Africa claimed responsibility for an attack on June 10 in Nigeria’s Borno state that killed 81 civilians.

ISIS-West Africa claimed 67 attacks during the quarter against partner military installations or their forces, although some of the attacks may have been conducted by ISISin the Greater Sahara, which does not have an official media outlet that publicly claimsresponsibility for attacks. SOCAFRICA assessed that, based on the location of the attacks, at least 10 of the attacks claimed by ISIS-West Africa were perpetrated by ISIS in the Greater Sahara.

SOCAFRICA reported that, while ISIS-West Africa mostly keeps to its base in the Lake Chad region, there was limited reporting to indicate that the group has the intent and capability to expand operations beyond the region. In addition to the June 10 attack in Nigeria’s Borno state, ISIS-West Africa was also likely responsible for a series of attacks a few days later in Monguno and Nganzai that resulted in the deaths of 20 Nigerian security personnel and 40 civilians, according to SOCAFRICA.

A Nigerian Army Facebook post from September 1 says, in part, “The Chief of Army Staff, Lt Gen TY Buratai has congratulated and commended the Commander, Officers and all the gallant troops of the Nigerian Army 4 Special Forces Command Doma Nasarawa State for their gallantry and patriotism that manifested in the destruction of Darul Salam/Boko Haram terrorists’ Camps in Kogi and Nasarawa States recently.” Press coverage here and here.

See also Bulama Bukarti’s thread on Dar al-Salam/Darul Salam/Darus Salam:

Borno State Governor Babagana Zulum recently “inaugurated a 23- member committee for relocation of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) to Baga town…The Chairman of the Committee is headed by the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Barrister Kaka Shehu Lawan, while the Permanent Secretary Ministry of Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (RRR), Engineer Abba Yusuf is to serve as Secretary.”

Human Rights Watch (August 31), “Nigeria’s Rising Number of Missing Persons.”

Punch (September 1):

The Shehu of Borno, Alhaji Garbai Elkanemi, has lamented that 13 district heads and several ward heads (Bulamas) have been killed in his emirate at the peak of the ongoing crisis by the Boko Haram terrorist group.

The monarch made the disclosure in Maiduguri during a courtesy visit by a delegation of the Senate Committee on Special Duties, led by Senator Abubakar Yusuf, who were in Borno State to assess the performance of the North-East Development Commission.

Olivier Guiryanan at Just Security, “Counterterrorism Assistance to Chad for the Sahel: The Price the People Pay.”

Boko Haram/ISWAP Roundup for August 27, 2020

Previous roundup here.

Politics

Recent activities and remarks by Borno State Governor Babagana Zulum:

  • Isa Lameen, governor of Niger Republic’s Diffa Region, led a delegation to Maiduguri, Borno’s capital, on August 21 to offer sympathy regarding the recent attack on Zulum’s convoy in Baga, Borno. See press coverage of the visit here, and Zulum’s Facebook post on the meeting here.
  • In an interview with BBC Hausa published on August 21, Zulum said that Boko Haram has recruited internally displaced persons (IDPs) who are frustrated at the lack of opportunity to go home and resume farming. See English-language coverage of his remarks here.
  • Zulum visited Magumeri (map), site of a recent attack, on August 25. His Facebook post on the visit, with excerpts of remarks he gave in Magumeri, is here.

Senator Ali Ndume (Borno South) spoke on August 26 to the Senate Committee on Special Duties and the North East Development Commission at a stakeholders’ meeting in Maiduguri. He emphasized Boko Haram’s impact on his constituents, particularly in his hometown of Gwoza (map).

“Even as a serving senator, I still cannot go to Gwoza my home town because it is not safe,” he said.

“Our security operatives are trying their bests, and we have to give it to them. But the situation is overwhelming. People are dying every day, either from attacks or by hunger. We have lost many lives here.

“There was a time in my home town Gwoza, that about 75 elders most of whom I know personally were dragged by Boko Haram to the town’s abattoir and slaughtered like animals. Only two persons survived because their bodies were covered with other people’s’ blood and the assailants thought they were dead.

“In the same Gwoza, Boko Haram had in a single day lined up young men and summarily shot them dead. These were just some stand out cases.”

The Nigerian human rights activist Chidi Odinkalu, however, poses some critical questions regarding Ndume’s remarks:

Attacks

Here is the Council on Foreign Relations’ Nigeria Security Tracker update for August 15-21.

Punch (August 27):

Jihadists have killed 14 people on a Cameroonian island on Lake Chad near the border with Nigeria after their town decided to block food supplies to the insurgents, security sources said Thursday.

Fighters from the so-called Islamic State West Africa Province landed on the island of Bulgaram aboard speedboats from an enclave on the Nigerian side late Tuesday, they said.

Reports are still emerging about the mass hostage-taking by ISWAP in its August 18 attack on Kukawa, Borno (map).

Nigeria’s The Guardian (August 21):

Jihadists linked to an Islamic State insurgency group have registered their presence in Yobe State, despite claims from the Nigeria Army that the state is free of terrorists.

Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) terrorists Thursday [August 20] dropped leaflets in Buni Gari region of the state [approximate map here] threatening to attack security officials in the region. ISWAP is a splinter group of Boko Haram.

The Boko Haram splinter group Ansar al-Muslimin, commonly known as “Ansaru,” has claimed a few attacks so far in 2020. Here is one, in Kaduna State:

Publications and Reports

The Church of the Brethren is publishing a book of testimonials by members who were victimized by Boko Haram, based on interviews in February-March 2017.

Human Rights Watch (August 25):

Boko Haram used apparent child suicide bombers in an unlawful attack on a site for displaced people in the Far North region of Cameroon, Human Rights Watch said today.

The attack, carried out overnight between August 1 and 2, 2020 in the town of Nguetechewe, killed at least 17 civilians, including 5 children and 6 women, and wounded at least 16. There was no evident military objective in the vicinity.

Here’s one I don’t believe I included in previous roundups – a new factsheet (French) from UN OCHA on Diffa, Niger, covering the period April-June 2020. Among other important details, the factsheet estimates that some 28,000 were displaced in Diffa between December 2019 and June 2020. The factsheet estimates that there are over 125,000 refugees in Diffa and over 100,000 IDPs there, and 740,000 inhabitants. The factsheet further notes a spate of kidnappings by non-state actors (presumably they mean jihadists) and bandits, often targeting women and children.