Roundup of Recent Writing on the Humanitarian Fallout from Boko Haram

The violence by and against Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect has had a tremendous impact on non-combatants. Northeastern Nigeria and surrounding countries (Niger, Cameroon, and Chad) have experienced waves of displaced persons. Here is some recent writing on the humanitarian aspect of the conflict:

Accounts about surrounding countries:

  • World Food Program: “WFP Resumes Food Distributions in Diffa, Niger”
  • AFP: “Refugees in Niger Live Under Shadow of Boko Haram”
  • VOA: “Humanitarian Crisis Looms at Cameroon Refugee Camp”
  • ICRC: “Chad: Fallout from Escalating Violence in North-Eastern Nigeria”
  • UNHCR: “As Violence Spills Over to Countries Neighbouring Nigeria, UNHCR Calls for Urgent Humanitarian Access to the Displaced”

Accounts about Nigeria:

  • NEMA: “There Are 981,416 IDPs in Nigeria”
  • BBC: “Doctor on the Frontline”
  • IRIN: “For Boko Haram Victims, Charity Begins at Home”
  • IRIN: “Tackling the Trauma of Boko Haram”
  • Doctors Without Borders: “The Fighting Gets Closer and Closer”
  • ICRC: “Nigeria: ICRC Steps Up Aid as Situation Worsens in North-East”
  • NEMA: “Baga Relief Intervention”
  • Joshua Meservey: “Nigerian Refugees Fleeing Boko Haram are a Crisis in the Making”

Nigerian Elections: Goodluck Jonathan and the Southwest

While many eyes are fixed on the violence in Nigeria’s northeast, the country’s approaching presidential election (March 28) will hinge on what happens elsewhere. One critical zone is the South West, a base of strength for the opposition coalition the All Progressives Congress (APC). The South West is majority-Yoruba, and its most populous city (which is also Africa’s most populous) is Lagos, which has been governed by opposition parties since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999.

The South West voted for the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in each of the last four presidential elections. Indeed, the 2011 elections featured a fairly straightforward electoral map. Of Nigeria’s six geopolitical zones, President Goodluck Jonathan won four of them – the North Central, the South West, the South East, and the South South. His challenger, General Muhammadu Buhari, won the North West and the North East. In 2015, the same two men are competing again, but the map could look quite different. Few doubt that Jonathan can hold most or all of the South East and the South South. But Buhari is more competitive in the North Central and the Southwest than he was four years ago. In 2011, the rumor goes, APC leader and former Lagos Governor Bola Tinubu (then of the ACN, one of the APC’s constituent parties) made a deal with Jonathan to support his presidential bid if Jonathan’s PDP left several South West governorships to the ACN. Whatever the truth of that allegation, this time could be different. Tinubu backs Buhari (unless something changes!), and other South West leaders seem fed up with Jonathan – hence former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s recent endorsement of Buhari.

This dynamic helps explain why Jonathan recently undertook a high-profile, four-day sweep through the South West. His campaign was especially eager to highlight his meetings with traditional rulers, such as the Alaafin of Oyo, the Soun of Ogbomoso, and the Alara of Ilara Epe. Jonathan also met Muslim leaders in the South West. (Although the international media is quick to talk of Nigeria’s “Muslim North” and its “Christian South,” there are many Muslims in the South West, and a sizeable Christian minority in much of the North.) The Punch quotes one purported insider account of behind-the-scenes deal-making:

A former Minister of Works, Chief Adeseye Ogunlewe, told one of our correspondents on the telephone on Saturday that the Yoruba elders lamented that the people of the South-West had been marginalised in the Jonathan administration.

He said the Yoruba leaders asked Jonathan to put into writing that if he wins the March 28 elections, Yorubas would be given key positions in his government.

The Punch goes on to report that the APC has mounted a political counter-offensive.

Which way will the South West go? I would be foolish to offer a prediction. On the one hand you have the power and charisma of the presidency and the PDP, and on the other you have the APC’s impressive coalition and its fierce criticisms of the President’s performance. And one should not minimize the agency of the voters, whose behavior may defy the will of political giants (from either party). In any case, the South West is a zone to watch.

On the Bombardment of Abadam, Niger

On February 17, an airstrike killed an estimated thirty-six people in the village of Abadam, Niger (map showing the closest nearby town, Bosso). Although the author of the airstrike remains unconfirmed, most coverage has pointed to Nigeria as the likely candidate.

The strike on Abadam comes amid three interrelated trends: (1) violence by Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect is increasingly spilling over into Nigeria’s neighbors as they move to fight the sect within their territory and even within Nigeria; (2) the Nigerian military is facing international and domestic pressure to demonstrate rapid progress against Boko Haram; (3) Nigeria’s neighbors seem frustrated with Nigeria’s performance against the sect. Although it was an accident, the strike shows how these different trends exist in tension with one another. Put differently, it shows how Nigeria’s aims, incentives, and actions may conflict with those of its neighbors.

Back to the incident itself:

At least 36 civilians were killed when a military plane bombed a funeral party in a Niger border village, the government said, in an incident its deputy mayor blamed on the Nigerian air force.

The air crew was likely to have mistaken the villagers, who had gathered near a mosque, for Boko Haram militants, Niger military sources in the nearby town of Bosso said.

[…]

Abadam lies on the border with Nigeria around 13 kilometres (eight miles) southwest of Bosso, where thousands of soldiers from Chad and Niger are massed in preparation for operations against Boko Haram.

The best commentary I’ve seen on the strike has come from RFI (French). RFI focuses on the operational, rather than the political, difficulties with such strikes:

The bombardment of Abadam brings to light the limits of resorting to airstrikes against Boko Haram. The Cameroonians have only used their Alpha Jet with caution. They have only done so one time, to liberate one of their bases briefly occupied by Boko Haram at the end of December. [RFI is referring to this incident – Alex.] As for the Chadians, they strike military targets with their Sukhoï in support of or in preparation for an operation on the ground. African military personnel generally agree in thinking that their fighter planes are too imprecise and thus too dangerous in the zones where members of Boko Haram are mixed into the civilian population.

These points take on added importance as Nigeria turns to airstrikes within its own territory. Just yesterday, the Nigerian military bombed suspected Boko Haram positions in the Sambisa forest in northeastern Nigeria.

The operational dangers feed into the potential for political problems, both within Nigeria and with its neighbors. Authorities in Niger have reacted calmly in public to the strike on Abadam (see the government’s statement in French here), declaring three days of national mourning and promising an investigation into the identity of the aircraft. Nevertheless, if it does turn out that Nigeria was responsible, this episode may foreshadow how a search for quick fixes as the clock ticks down to March 28 (the date of Nigeria’s once-delayed presidential elections) could put Nigeria at odds with the surrounding countries.

Mapping Boko Haram’s Attacks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nigeria’s Elections: Beyond “The Bumbler vs. the Thug”

Since the two major parties nominated their presidential candidates, Nigeria’s presidential election (now scheduled for March 28, following a six-week delay announced earlier this month) has been, effectively, a two-man race. These two men are incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan and former military ruler General Muhammadu Buhari. Jonathan represents the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), while Buhari is the candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC), a coalition of opposition parties.

In much international coverage of the race, whether by non-Nigerian journalists or Nigerians speaking to international audiences, the two candidates have been presented in crude and one-dimensional ways. The narrative at work in such commentaries says that Jonathan is a bumbler – a nice guy perhaps, but ultimately an “accidental president” who is in over his head, too incompetent to deal with problems like corruption or the violence caused by Boko Haram in the northeastern part of the country. Meanwhile, the same narrative tells us that Buhari is a thug – an essentially military man whose record is fatally tarnished by his regime’s actions in the 1980s, and whose prospects for winning the presidency have grown only because of Nigerians’ anxieties about Boko Haram. The narrative goes on to say that Nigerians face two very bad choices for president – perhaps implying that “the devil they know” is the better choice.

Some critical omissions have led to this distorted narrative of “the bumbler vs. the thug.” Not only does the narrative misrepresent both men, it obscures shifts at work in Nigerian politics. It may be a two-man race, but there is a larger cast of characters involved in deciding who will be Nigeria’s next president.

Jonathan as a Deliberate Choice and a Deliberate Policymaker

Nearly every profile one reads of Jonathan in the international media calls him the “accidental president.” The idea of Jonathan’s accidental rise fits neatly with the idea of him as an incompetent bumbler. He just kind of ended up in his position, we hear, so it’s no surprise that he has trouble dealing with the country’s major problems.

And indeed, Jonathan was twice elevated to higher office by accident – first from Deputy Governor to Governor of Bayelsa State in 2005, when his predecessor was impeached on corruption charges; and second from Vice President to Acting President and then President in 2010, when his predecessor Umaru Yar’Adua fell ill and then passed away.

Jonathan was not, however, an accidental vice president, and that fact is often forgotten. After President Olusegun Obasanjo (served 1999-2007) lost his bid to engineer constitutional changes that would have permitted him a third term, he handpicked a ticket he believed would be politically effective and biddable. Yar’Adua was the brother of Obasanjo’s deceased former second-in-command from Obasanjo’s time as a military ruler (more on this below). Yar’Adua hailed from the north, thus fulfilling a PDP internal agreement to rotate the presidency back to that region. Jonathan was (and is) an Ijaw from the Niger Delta, an oil-producing region where militants, many of them Ijaw, had recently begun a wave of attacks on government and oil industry targets. There was nothing accidental about Jonathan’s selection.

The other problem with the “bumbler” narrative about Jonathan is that it overlooks the sophistication of his team. Jonathan’s Finance Minister is Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former Managing Director of the World Bank (and also Finance Minister under Obasanjo). Jonathan’s Central Bank Governor (until they fell out in 2013-2014) was Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, a Northern aristocrat and banker who won international acclaim for his response to the aftermath of the 2007-2008 financial crisis. Jonathan’s National Security Advisor is Colonel Sambo Dasuki, the son of a former Sultan of Sokoto (the pre-eminent hereditary Muslim ruler in the North) and a professional military man. One could point to current and former members of the team with less stellar reputations – but the point is that the president or his handlers have deliberately chosen a number of figures who are both (a) recognized experts in their fields and (b) exciting and credible to international observers. Ultimately, I think it’s immaterial whether Jonathan himself is a highly capable individual or not; what matters is the administration as a whole.

I see two views one could hold about this team. The charitable view would credit them with rapid economic growth and offer a list of their accomplishments in infrastructure development and other fields. The charitable view would say that the team is doing the best it can in difficult economic and security circumstances. In contrast, the uncharitable view would argue that the administration has deliberately ignored key problems in its approach to Boko Haram (problems such as corruption and systemic human rights abuses by security forces) and has deliberately chosen economic policies that leave poverty and inequality untouched. Whether one is charitable or uncharitable, it is hard to say that the president is a bumbler – either he and his all-stars are doing the best they can in trying times, or he and his all-stars are making choices that privilege certain regions and social groups over others.

Buhari as a Seasoned Politician Assembling a New, Geographically Diverse Coalition

Many profiles from the 2014-2015 campaign discuss Buhari as though he has never run for president before – as though he is a former military ruler who exploded back onto the political scene in response to Nigerians’ anxieties about Boko Haram. The narrative of “Buhari as thug” is perpetuated by thinning his resume, decontextualizing former military rulers’ continued role in Nigerian politics, and misreading the Nigerian political map of 2015.

On the topic of Buhari’s resume, the first thing to note is that he was the runner-up in the past three elections – to Obasanjo in 2003, to Yar’Adua in 2007, and to Jonathan in 2011. So he has been running seriously for president as a civilian for over six times as long as he ruled the country as a military dictator (1983-1985). The other thing to note about Buhari’s resume is his long experience in the petroleum sector, both in the 1970s and the 1990s. This experience should not be invoked to minimize the serious allegations of human rights abuses and violations of civil liberties stemming from his time as military ruler, but the experience does round out the portrait of Buhari as a multi-faceted candidate.

On the subject of Buhari’s military past, the implication that he is an anomaly among current Nigerian politicians – or that his candidacy’s strength is primarily a result of current insecurity – is ludicrous. Since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999, many leading politicians have either been former military rulers or figures closely connected to them. Obasanjo was military ruler from 1976-1979. Yar’Adua was the brother of Obasanjo’s second-in-command. Former military ruler General Ibrahim Babangida has sought the presidency. Former Vice President Atiku Abubakar (served 1999-2007) was close to (Shehu) Yar’Adua. At the state level, various governors and former governors (for example Jonah Jang of Plateau and Murtala Nyako of Adamawa) were military governors prior to 1999. Even Jonathan has connections (as noted above, he was Obasanjo’s pick for Yar’Adua’s Vice President in 2007) to former military rulers. In this context, Buhari’s candidacy is not anomalous – and it does not automatically make him a thug.

Finally, Buhari’s candidacy in 2015 is a different thing than his candidacy in 2011. His campaign has certainly gained strength from anxieties about security – but I would argue that it has gained far more from the skillful politicking of APC leaders, particularly former Lagos Governor Bola Tinubu.

In 2011, the electoral map in Nigeria looked simple: Buhari won twelve northern states, Jonathan won the rest of the country. The 2011 map fit the international media’s narrative of Nigeria as divided into a “Muslim north” and a “Christian south.” Buhari appeared to be the Northern Muslim candidate, end of story.

That map and that narrative may not work in 2015. The APC’s path to victory involves holding the northern vote but also expanding it to make gains in the southwest (the home turf of Tinubu and many other APC leaders, as well as Obasanjo, who recently endorsed Buhari) and the Middle Belt (an ethnically and religiously diverse section of the old “Northern Region” from the early days of Nigerian multiparty politics). Buhari may be the face of the APC, but the party has sought to turn its state-level strength in the southwest (where it holds several governorships, including Lagos) into a core element of a presidential victory. It is no accident that Buhari’s running mate is Yemi Osinbajo, Tinubu’s former attorney general and a friend of an influential Christian pastor in the southwest.

Conclusion

The trope of “the bumbler vs. the thug” distorts understanding of the two leading candidates in Nigeria’s presidential elections. Moreover, the “bumbler vs. thug” narrative directs our attention to the far northeast as though Boko Haram is that only force that matters in Nigerian politics, and thereby distracts us from the evolving and contested electoral map.

Thoughts on Chad in Nigeria

Bloomberg published an article yesterday on dynamics surrounding Chad’s involvement in fighting Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect. I am quoted in the article, and I thought I’d expand on my comments here.

First, some context: in 2014 and into this year, Boko Haram has sought to hold territory in the northeastern part of Nigeria, even as the sect continues to perpetrate urban terrorism and extreme violence against rural populations. Nigeria’s neighbors to the north and east – Niger, Cameroon, and Chad – are directly affected by the violence. Boko Haram has disrupted trade and sent thousands of refugees fleeing across borders. Increasingly, Boko Haram has affected the security of its neighbors, with attacks in northern Cameroon and more recently in southeastern Niger.

Nigeria’s neighbors have become more and more frustrated with Nigeria. Boko Haram’s current campaign of violence began in 2010, and as the violence has dragged on, nearby African countries have pressured Nigeria to cooperate with them, including at major multilateral meetings last year in Paris and London.

Cameroonian soldiers began to clash regularly with Boko Haram last year, but it is only this year that Chad (and now Niger, as part of an African Union-backed regional force that will also include Nigeria’s western neighbor Benin) has become heavily involved in the fighting. In the past few weeks, Chad has reportedly pushed Boko Haram out of several towns and villages on the border and inside Nigeria.

Chad’s role in the fight against Boko Haram deserves special attention for a few reasons, including the Chadian military’s reputation for toughness and the Chadian government’s multifaceted incentives for participating in the fight. Another reason is the juxtaposition of Nigeria’s wealth and Chad’s poverty. As Bloomberg points out, Chad is one of the poorest countries on the planet (while Niger is, by the same measure, the poorest). Hence Bloomberg’s headline, “African Giant Relies on Poorer Chad to Fight Boko Haram.”

In terms of toughness, Chadian soldiers most recently distinguished themselves in northern Mali in 2013 as participants in the French-led intervention against a coalition of jihadists. Although Chad ultimately partially withdrew its troops, during the initial fighting they joined in some of the toughest combat. Chad’s strong performance in Mali partly reflected Chadian soldiers’ experience fighting in desert conditions, but Chad has also projected military power into non-desert areas like the Central African Republic (where they were, however, accused of taking sides in the civil conflict). Despite some complications, Chad has become a valued partner for the United States and particularly France, with the latter basing its Sahel-wide security mission Operation Barkhane in Chad – for both logistical and political reasons.

Chad’s incentives for fighting in Nigeria are simple. First, Chad has genuine security concerns. An escalation in Boko Haram attacks in northeastern Nigeria and surrounding areas spells trouble for Chad.

Second, there is a political dimension. Chad can hope to continue to distinguish itself as a partner for the West by asserting a role as a guarantor of regional security. Chadian President Idriss Deby, who took power in 1990, needs France’s support – when he faced severe rebellions in 2006 and 2008, France’s help was reportedly critical to his ability to weather those storms. Deby may have partly re-consolidated his grip on power since 2008, but he remains vulnerable. Protests last year in Chad did not rock the regime, but the fall of Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaore last year can only make Deby nervous – and armed rebellion still looms as a possibility.

Chad’s involvement in the fight against Boko Haram, it should also be added, parallels France’s increasing engagement with Nigeria – France’s President Francois Hollande, on a visit in February 2014, told Nigerians that “your fight against Boko Haram is also ours.” So Chad’s involvement in Nigeria helps to support French policy as well – and the French are supporting Nigeria’s neighbors logistically.

Where is all this headed? So far, Nigerian authorities have presented Chad’s presence on their soil as part of a larger, well-coordinated plan. But Nigeria, like many other countries, is keen to protect and assert its sovereignty. Nigeria and its neighbors – for example Cameroon – have disagreed in the recent past about just how it should work when one country pursues Boko Haram fighters into another’s territory. We will see how the African Union-backed regional force shapes up; the idea of a multinational force is not new, but the level of urgency the players feel is. In the short term much of the spotlight might be on Chad.

Key Economic Debates in Nigeria’s Election

Nigeria’s national and state elections are approaching (now March 28 and April 11). Many journalists and commentators have depicted them largely – sometimes exclusively – in terms of security and the violence by the Boko Haram sect. That perspective misses a great deal of the picture. For example, the campaign has sparked important debates about the state of Nigeria’s economy – debates that have particular resonance in the context of falling oil prices, which have hurt government revenues and weakened the naira.

The economic debates going on in Nigeria are sophisticated, and they involve real issues. The debates challenge the often-heard narrative that African elections are about personalities and networks, not issues. I’m not saying personalities won’t matter; I am saying that the campaign is not issue-free.

To get a sense of the economic debates, I’d recommend two pieces – or rather, one piece and one conversation.

First is former Lagos Governor Bola Tinubu‘s “Slum[p] in Oil Prices: A Progressive Way Out.” Tinubu is a key leader in the opposition coalition the All Progressives Congress (APC), which has nominated former military ruler General Muhammadu Buhari as its candidate. In this piece, Tinubu articulates his opposition to austerity. He argues for decoupling the naira from the dollar and running a deficit into to fund projects (especially infrastructure) that will put large numbers of people to work.

Second is former Central Bank Governor Charles Soludo’s debate with Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (h/t Zainab Usman). Soludo served from 2004 to 2009 (under Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Umaru Yar’Adua, but not under incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan).

In his first piece, “Buhari vs. Jonathan” Soludo stated that he was an undecided voter and wrote, “The two main parties talk around the major development challenges—corruption, insecurity, economy (unemployment/poverty, power, infrastructure, etc) health, education, etc. However, it is my considered view that none of them has any credible agenda to deal with the issues, especially within the context of the evolving global economy and Nigeria’s broken public finance.” Soludo directed attention to what he called historically unprecedented poverty and unemployment rates (71% and 24%).

Soludo’s essay provoked a response from Okonjo-Iweala, which in turn drew a reply from Soludo. Beyond the personal invective, there is a deadly serious struggle over statistics – whose are accurate, and even whose are genuine. The APC’s Kayode Fayemi (who was voted out as governor of Ekiti State in the southwest in an off-cycle election last June) also joined the debate. The full exchange is worth reading.

With over six weeks left in the campaign (due to the postponement of the elections), it will be worth watching how these debates continue to play out. It is also worth noting the role of the Finance Minister as a participant, but even more importantly as a symbol, in these debates – opponents and critics of Jonathan’s regime have focused on her and her credibility as they make the case that Jonathan’s administration, despite having an internationally-known economist as a core part of the team, has failed to make the economy work for ordinary Nigerians. We’ll see, then, what kind of economic arguments the Jonathan team puts forward in this final stretch of the campaign.