Comments on WaPo Article about Deradicalization of Boko Haram Members in Niger

I’m still catching up on important reporting that came out last month and throughout the fall. One such report is the Washington Post‘s November 20 article about deradicalization efforts for former Boko Haram members in Niger. The article, which is very good, focuses especially on the State Department’s role in shaping and possibly, soon, funding the program (see some official background here).

I’m enthusiastic about such programs, not because they’re perfect but because (a) these fighters or ex-fighters are human beings, and maybe they can be redeemed, and (b) concrete non-violent solutions seem more promising to me than just straight counterinsurgency paired with vague talk of socioeconomic reconstruction. If the fighters in the bush hear that they have choices beyond continued combat or unconditional surrender, perhaps more of them will turn themselves in.

No one says this is easy, though. The following excerpt was, for me, the core of the article:

“It was in D.C. that I realized the Americans might suffocate this program, even with good intentions,” [former Diffa Region Governor Dan Dano] Lawaly said. “They would say, ‘These defectors of yours may have committed war crimes, so we have to get the legal framework sorted out.’ And I’d say, ‘They’re abused kids, for God’s sake.’ ”

A legal framework would, however, codify the program, ensuring its survival beyond Lawaly’s tenure. And as it happened, Lawaly was sacked earlier this year when his party pulled out of Niger’s ruling coalition.

“It can’t be a one-man show if this is going to be sustainable,” said [Neal] Kringel, the State Department official. “We have to have a process that categorizes and then deals with each defector appropriately.”

I lean more toward Lawaly’s perspective, but you definitely don’t want hardened offenders slipping through the cracks or taking advantage of the program.

Yet as the article’s anecdotes suggest (and as Sarah Topol’s amazing reporting also suggests), much of Boko Haram’s recruiting was circumstantial and partly coerced. Such recruits came to do horrendous things, but I believe there is a road back for them, albeit one that might fade if authorities (American or Nigerien) place too much emphasis on retributive and punitive justice. That’s a grim thing to say – who wants to choose between justice and peace? This is not my choice to make when it comes to Niger, of course, but I would say that the State Department should heed the voices who prioritize peace.

The other voices who matter, though, include the communities affected by Boko Haram’s violence. This theme comes up in the article, and it came up on my trip to Nigeria last month. It is eminently understandable that survivors and victims may not forgive. In Kano, including in conversations with people from northeastern Nigeria, I heard very different perspectives on what might be done with “rehabilitated” Boko Haram fighters. Some very smart people said that it was impossible for such fighters to go home, given the level of anger and even violence they may face from victims and survivors. Other Nigerians I spoke with even doubted that rehabilitated fighters could successfully integrate in big cities, given that they might somehow stand out and raise questions even in neighborhoods in Kano or Lagos or other cities outside the epicenter of the conflict. But some folks I met did think that big cities might afford a degree of anonymity that would facilitate a new start for the genuinely repentant. In any case, I’m not sure anyone has really worked out a promising solution for the long-term dilemmas about how ex-fighters can lead successful lives – or what compensation the affected communities deserve (a lot) and what they might realistically get (probably much less than what they deserve).

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Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Nigerian Technocrats Revisited

At Africa Is a Country, Omolade Adunbi has written an incisive review of former Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s newest memoir, Fighting Corruption Is Dangerous. An excerpt from the review:

What becomes clear is that Okonjo-Iweala sees every disagreement with her economic policies as an attack on her person because of her gender, ethnic identity or her previous role as a World Bank employee.

[…]

it is hard to find any evidence of the fight against corruption by Okonjo-Iweala in the entire book. She presided over the economy under two administrations adjudged to be some of the most corrupt in the history of the country. For example, electricity is a major challenge in the country and the $16 billion that Obasanjo administration under which Okonjo-Iweala served spent on the power sector was mismanaged and power is still at the level it was before the administration came to power in 1999. Over $32 billion was said to have been lost to corruption during the Jonathan administration because state coffers were turned into personal coffers by the president and his cronies and it is hard to fathom that a Finance minister who coordinates the economy can feign ignorance of the monumental fraud that took place under her watch. At best, the book highlights how narratives can be reconstructed in ways that turns principled opposition into personal attacks in an attempt to provide cover for someone who might be seen as culpable in the mismanagement of Nigeria’s wealth for about 16 years. If anything is dangerous, it is not admitting to one’s culpability in the scheme of monumental fraud in the history of Nigeria.

Adunbi’s review, I think, goes well with my article “The Politics of Technocracy in Fourth Republic Nigeria.” Okonjo-Iweala was a key character in that article as well, and I drew heavily on her earlier memoir, Reforming the Unreformable. My basic argument in the article is that technocrats such as Okonjo-Iweala are essentially politicians and should be understood as such. And my basic motivation for writing the article was a lingering frustration from my time at the State Department (2013-2014), when various American officials seemed quiet enamored with Okonjo-Iweala and wondered how someone “good” like her could tolerate serving in the corrupt atmosphere of the Jonathan administration. Again, the short answer is that she is a political actor who is interested in power, and cultivating a “reformer” image is part of her pursuit of power. Adunbi’s review, in my reading, confirms and extends these arguments. Particularly troubling is his convincing case that Okonjo-Iweala’s political outlook runs in a strongly authoritarian direction: In the memoir, Adunbi observers, “Every invitation to the [National Assembly] to give account of the stewardship of her ministry is considered an attack on her person such that the reader might be convinced that she would rather serve under a dictatorial government than a democracy.”

Nigeria: Options for Freeing Ibrahim al-Zakzaky?

I am in Kano this week for a conference, and last night I had an exchange (off the record, I believe, so I won’t mention my interlocutors’ names) about the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, or IMN, a Shi’i group. The IMN’s leader Ibrahim al-Zakzaky has been detained since 2015, following a clash between the IMN and the Nigerian military in Zaria. Al-Zakzaky’s detention has sparked numerous IMN protests.

My interlocutors mentioned two potential ways to resolve the problem: exiling al-Zakzaky to Iran, or placing him under house arrest. Each path would have pros and cons, of course. The voice favoring exile said that one benefit of that path would be clarifying the nature of al-Zakzaky’s relationship with the Iranian government; if Iran tried to use him for propaganda purposes, the speaker said, Nigeria could respond by asking for international diplomatic support.

For my part, the issue of due legal process is vital. He should get a fair trial. But in terms of the ultimate outcome, the Nigerian government has options beyond the binary choice of letting al-Zakzaky go completely free or detaining him until he dies. The government would be wise, in my view, to choose a path other than indefinite detention.

Islamic Movement in Nigeria Leaders Beyond Ibrahim al-Zakzaky

The Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), the country’s mass-based Shi’i organization, is back in the news amid a crackdown against it by Nigerian security forces. The current cycle of conflict between authorities and the IMN revolves around the imprisonment of the IMN’s founder and longtime leader Ibrahim al-Zakzaky. But with al-Zakzaky in detention since 2015, who leads the IMN?

In a sense, the IMN is so closely identified with al-Zakzaky that there is not room for another leader of his stature within the movement. If you go to the movement’s website, the only biography listed under the “biography” tab is al-Zakzaky’s, and his image is plastered across the website. The group’s Twitter account primarily foregrounds al-Zakzaky or ordinary followers who have died, rather than other group leaders.

I’ve made a preliminary effort to find names of other leaders. It’s surprisingly difficult, given the extent to which the press has associated the IMN almost exclusively with al-Zakzay. Here are a few names I found, though:

  • Ibrahim Musa, IMN spokesman and president of the Media Forum
  • Abdullahi Musa, secretary of the Academic Forum
  • Dauda Nalado, chairman of the Academic Forum, whose daughter was killed in 2017; he is also on the faculty of technology at Bayero University Kano
  • Sanusi Abdulkadir, Kano-based IMN leader
  • Kasimu Tawaye, Sokoto-based IMN leader who reportedly died earlier this year
  • Sidi Munir Sokoto, another Sokoto-based IMN leader
  • Adam Tsoho Jos, a Plateau-based IMN leader

 

US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Tibor Nagy in Europe and West Africa

It took the Trump administration an unusually long time to appoint an Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. When the nominee was ultimate chosen, it was Tibor Nagy, a retired Foreign Service officer who had served as ambassador to Guinea and Ethiopia. His swearing-in took place in September (see his remarks from that ceremony here).

Nagy is now on his first trip overseas (I think) since taking his post. Lasting from 29 October to 10 November, the trip will take him to the United Kingdom, France, Togo (November 1), Guinea (November 2-4), Mali (November 4-7), and Nigeria (November 7-10). From the official statement, let’s just excerpt the part about Mali and Nigeria:

In Bamako, Mali on November 4-7, Assistant Secretary Nagy will hold meetings with Malian government officials, host a trade and entrepreneurship roundtable, and meet with YALI alumni.

The final stop on the trip will be Abuja, Nigeria. Assistant Secretary Nagy will have meetings with government officials, members of the American business community, religious leaders, civil society organizations, youth groups, and he will deliver a speech at Baze University on U.S.-Africa relations.

I was not previously familiar with Baze University, which is located in Abuja. Its website is here.

Nagy laid out more of his agenda in a blog post. After describing his past experiences in/with Africa, he wrote:

On this trip, I have set out four themes as part of my engagement. The first is to promote stronger trade and commercial ties between the United States and Africa by creating a level playing field across African markets for all companies, regardless of where they come from.

This means placing an emphasis on rule of law, transparency, recourse for investors, and fighting corruption.

My second priority is harnessing the potential of Africa’s youth as a force for economic ingenuity and prosperity.

[…a section on demographics follows…]

My third goal is to advance peace and security through partnerships with African governments and regional mechanisms. The transnational challenges of terrorism and extremism in the Sahel, Northern Nigeria, Somalia, and now in Central Africa, and the rise of Boko Harem [don’t blame me – AT], Al Qaeda in the Magreb, ISIS West Africa, and Al Shabaab, require new, determined regional approaches to counteract these groups. This includes better-trained and paid African security and law enforcement.

I look forward to engaging productively with the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States, and what I hope will be an inclusive and re-energized Intergovernmental Authority for Government.

Finally, I want to set the record straight – the United States has an unwavering commitment to the continent and its people. From the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief to Power Africa, to the African Growth and Opportunity Act, Feed the Future, the Young African Leaders Initiative, and numerous other development and exchange programs, the United States has stood side-by-side with African nations since de-colonization to improve livelihoods, increase life expectancy, open our markets to African exports, promote democracy and human rights, and elevate Africa’s place in the world.

If you’re eager too more information on the trip, Jeune Afrique interviewed Nagy about his intentions for the trip, and about his views on the recent Cameroonian presidential elections, the upcoming presidential elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the role of China in Africa, and other issues – but honestly, I found nothing of great interest in the interview.

Nagy has gotten some good will from the Africanist community in Washington so far, including this glowing write-up of his swearing-in remarks. That write-up was penned by former a Ambassador to Botswana and Senior Africa Director at Obama’s National Security Council, Michelle Gavin, who almost certainly would have had a high Africa-related post in a hypothetical Hillary Clinton administration. For me, though, this is part of the problem – U.S. Africa policy is often so blandly articulated, and so focused on the recurring themes of stability, security, and development, that it can seem like a mere technocratic exercise, rather than a set of political choices. Those choices should be controversial (it’s politics!), but somehow U.S. Africa policy (more than for other regions, I think), seems to be structured around cliches. So I don’t have high expectations for what this trip will yield.

 

A Few Comments on the Clashes Between the Nigerian Army and the Islamic Movement in Nigeria

In December 2015, Nigerian authorities arrested Ibrahim al-Zakzaky, longtime leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), a Shi’i Muslim organization whose antecedents emerged around 1980. The arrest followed clashes between the IMN and the Nigerian Army in Zaria, the IMN’s headquarters; the military accused the IMN of attempting to assassinate Chief of Army Staff Tukur Buratai. Since that time, al-Zakzaky has remained in detention, despite reports of ill health, and the IMN has continued to agitate for his release.

This week, the Nigerian Army has cracked down on IMN protests in Nigeria’s capital Abuja.

The Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) said on Wednesday that security forces opened fire with live ammunition on members who had marched in the hundreds to demand the release of their leader Ibrahim Zakzaky.

The number of people killed since Saturday in the protests hit at least 48, according to the IMN, contrasting with the military’s official death toll of six.

Clashes erupted between soldiers and IMN supporters in Abuja on Saturday, Monday and Tuesday, said Ibrahim Musa, according to an IMN spokesman.

The protests are timed to coincide with Arba’in/Arbaeen, a major Shi’i pilgrimage and commemoration (see here).

As with many other conflicts, there has been a war of words and information raging as well. Both sides have presented themselves as the victims, with the Nigerian Army highlighting images of wounded soldiers and the IMN highlighting the military’s violence and presenting its fallen comrades martyrs. The IMN has also accused the army of “commission[ing] its men and paid agents to massively infiltrate the Arbaeen procession scheduled to hold in Abuja in the coming days to induce violence with the view to smearing the movement in the eyes of the world once and for all.” It’s hard to credit some of what the IMN says; although I do not consider the IMN a terrorist group, the IMN’s insistence that “there is no single Shia group that is in any way linked to terrorism across the world” is a bit much.

But if both sides have acted aggressively and have framed events in one-sided ways, that does not mean that “both-sidesism” should be our main framework for understanding these events. You’re probably not going to be inviting the IMN to your next birthday party, but that does not mean that the Nigerian military has acted with respect to human rights and freedom of religion.

In that vein, the analyst Matt Page rightly took U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Tibor Nagy to task for deploying “both sides” rhetoric to avoid a more meaningful intervention:

Amnesty International (which is openly despised by the Nigerian military, we should note) made a similar point:

An investigation by Amnesty International shows that the horrific use of excessive force by soldiers and police led to the killing of at least 45 supporters of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) over two days, as the Shi’a Muslim group held a peaceful religious procession around Abuja.

Amnesty researchers visited five different locations in Abuja and Nasarawa state where wounded IMN supporters were receiving treatment, including two locations where bodies were deposited. Researchers spoke with victims, eyewitnesses and medical practitioners, and analyzed videos and photographs of those injured and killed during the protests, which took place on Saturday and Monday.

“We have seen a shocking and unconscionable use of deadly force by soldiers and police against IMN members. Video footage and eyewitness testimonies consistently show that the Nigerian military dispersed peaceful gatherings by firing live ammunition without warning, in clear violation of Nigerian and international law,” said Osai Ojigho, Director of Amnesty International Nigeria.

“Those injured were shot in different parts of the body – head, neck, back, chest, shoulder, legs, arms – and some of them had multiple gunshot wounds. This pattern clearly shows soldiers and police approached IMN processions not to restore public order, but to kill.”

The Nigerian Army should show restraint, but Nigerian authorities also need to move to address the most prominent issue: the continued detention of al-Zakzaky. He should either be tried, speedily, or released. An editorial in the Nigerian newspaper This Day makes the case well:

Given that the continued detention of Sheikh Ibraheem El-Zakzaky, leader of the Shi’ite Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) has given rise to repeated protests in Abuja, the federal government should be held responsible for the violence in which innocent bystanders are getting caught. That lives are now being lost in what started as a civil action to compel respect for the rule of law is an indication that the crisis is getting out of hand. That also signposts the security implications of a situation in which El-Zakzaky is allowed to die in incarceration that has been deemed illegal by our courts.

[…]

If there is anything that the crisis has proved, it is that without justice, there can be no peace and that the flagrant disregard to court orders [a court ordered al-Zakzaky’s release in 2016 – AT] which has become the hallmark of this administration is dangerous for the health of our society.

There’s a lot more to say, but I’ll leave it there for now. The situation is bad and the authorities should move to defuse it.

Quick Background and Analysis of a Video Report on Nigeria’s Operation Safe Corridor

TVC Nigeria has an interesting video report on Nigeria’s Operation Safe Corridor – a program for processing the surrenders and rehabilitation of Boko Haram members. The video focuses more on the program’s architects and overseers than it does on Boko Haram members themselves, but it is still well worth a watch:

A bit more background on some of the figures mentioned and interviewed in the video.

  • T.Y. Danjuma is a retired Nigerian general and active philanthropist. He is perhaps the best-known living ex-general who has not served as head of state. He is currently the chairman of the Presidential Committee on the North East Initiative (PCNI). In the meetings portrayed in the video he is represented by Asmau Joda, a longtime civil society activist and herself a PCNI member. Here is an interesting 2005 interview with Joda about Islam, women, and sharia in Nigeria.
  • Major General Bamidele Shafa is the Coordinator of Operation Safe Corridor.
  • The video has footage from Yola, Adamawa State, whose governor is Jibrilla Bindow.  In the meetings shown in the video, the governor is represented by Christian Pastor Agoso Bamaiyi.

The newscasters and several interviewees stress the idea that many Boko Haram members joined under duress – which I think is likely true, although I think sometimes that ideological recruitment gets overlooked. But the emphasis on duress may be intended to make the idea of forgiveness and reintegration more palatable to the Nigerian public.