Roundup of Important Writing on Nigeria’s Presidential Elections

Nigeria is holding presidential elections on 16 February and state elections on 2 March. Here are some important pieces I’ve seen:

  • At Quartz, Stephen Onyeiwu has the bluntly but appropriately titled, “Nigeria’s president Buhari failed to fix Nigeria’s economy, but still has the edge this election.”
  • At Reuters, Paul Carsten has a good overview of the contest and the context.
  • The main challenger, former Atiku Abubakar, laid out his economic vision at Al Jazeera.
  • Crisis Group notes “Six States to Watch” in both the presidential vote and the state contests to follow two weeks later. The states are Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Kaduna, Kano, Plateau and Adamawa. In a similar vein, at USIP Oge Onubogu and Idayat Hassan write, “The Risk of Election Violence in Nigeria is Not Where You Think.”
  • At the BBC, Mayeni Jones explores the influence of “godfathers” over politics and elections.
  • A Vanguard editorial examines the suspension of Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen and calls on the president to reinstate him. Jibrin Ibrahim goes even deeper into the situation, writing, “Walter Onnoghen put Nigeria along the path to constitutional crisis by seeking to act as if he was above the law and President Muhammadu Buhari worsened the situation by suspending him without the accord of the National Judicial Council and swearing in Justice Tanko Muhammad as his interim replacement without allowing the National Judicial Council and the Senate play their constitutional roles.”
  • At African Arguments, Idayat Hassan looks at “fake news” and its political impact.
  • At This Day, Olusegun Adeniyi writes, despairingly, “Neither of the two candidates is offering ideas on how to resolve this nagging problem [of university staff strikes] or any of the other contradictions that define our nation today. Aside the tantrums, abuses and disinformation being exchanged in the social media by supporters of these two leading candidates, one cannot ascertain where they stand on critical national issues.”
  • At The Guardian, Feyi Fawehinmi gives satirical “Political Season Awards” to Nigerian politicians – but closes with the following ultra-serious, and now oft-cited, advice: “Get your PVC. Go out and vote your conscience. And please stay safe – no Nigerian politician is worth your life.”

Nigeria Elections Preview at World Politics Review

Yesterday, World Politics Review published a piece I wrote about Nigeria’s 16 February presidential elections. Long story short, I predict a win for Buhari.

Nigeria: Notes on Recent Boko Haram Violence

In Nigeria, Boko Haram and its offshoot Islamic State West Africa (ISWA) have perpetrated several major attacks and a number of micro attacks recently. Here are some of the most prominent incidents in recent weeks:

  • An ISWA attack on a military base in Baga (map), 26 December
  • An ISWA attack on Rann (map), 14 January
  • An ISWA attack on Geidam (map), 23 January,
  • Attacks attributed to Boko Haram, targeting two military bases/outposts at Pulka (map) and Logomani (map) on the Nigeria-Cameroon border, 26-27 January
  • A second attack on Rann, attributed by some reports to Boko Haram rather than ISWA, 28 January

Some of these places are small cities – the number of displaced from Rann alone is estimated at 30,000. Most of these towns/cities have been previously, even repeatedly, exposed to Boko Haram and ISWA violence. Much of Borno State remains extremely dangerous for civilians and soldiers; all of the attacks mentioned above occurred in Borno save the one in Geidam, which is in neighboring Yobe State.

Reporting on these attacks also emphasizes the unpreparedness of the Nigerian military. See the following thread:

The assault on Geidam also shows how individual attacks can build momentum for future violence, as fighters seize weapons and equipment and as the attacks shake soldiers’ and even officers’ confidence. The accounts about Geidam do not all agree on the details, but different reporters and ISWA’s own readout all say that ISWA took supplies in Geidam, perhaps including fuel, a tank, other military vehicles, and weapons. Meanwhile, the attack seems to have caught the military by surprise:

In separate interviews with PREMIUM TIMES under anonymity on Friday morning, military officers were troubled by Boko Haram’s ability to inflict such damage on an area that had long been fortified to serve as a buffer against unchecked movement of insurgents south of River Komadougou-Yobe.

Geidam has been regularly targeted since November 2011 when Boko Haram launched a string of deadly assaults on residents in the community and Damaturu, the state capital. The military, however, moved swiftly to frustrate easy movement of the insurgents by setting up bases in the communities near River Komadougou-Yobe, which is a minor tributary of the Lake Chad.

While other Yobe communities, especially Buni Yadi, live in fear of regular Boko Haram attacks, Geidam was relatively calm, which security analysts credit to the military’s ability to prevent terrorists from using the nearby river.

But the military base in Geidam, which sits near the border with Diffa, Niger Republic, was perhaps the first target of the latest deadly raid, according to military sources.

Amnesty International’s report on the second Rann attack offers an even more damning portrait of military unpreparedness – or outright fear of Boko Haram/ISWA:

Disturbingly, witnesses told us that Nigerian soldiers abandoned their posts the day before the attack, demonstrating the authorities’ utter failure to protect civilians.

Alleged withdrawal of troops, triggered a massive exodus of civilians to Cameroon, as fear spread that Boko Haram would take advantage and attack the town. At around 9am on 28 January, a group of Boko Haram fighters arrived on motorcycles. They set houses ablaze and killed those left behind. They also chased after those who attempted to escape and killed some people outside the town. Eleven bodies were found within Rann town, and 49 bodies were found outside.

Another theme worth noting about recent violence is that even micro attacks can have wide impacts. For example, recent ambushes and abductions on a road running from Damaturu (Yobe) to Biu (Borno) caused widespread disruption:

The road which is about 120 kilometres has remained the only safer means as linkage to people living in southern Borno senatorial district reach Maiduguri, the state capital following closure and danger posed on other closest roads.

Sources said, after the abduction, security forces had to close down the road for motorists and passengers. A driver who plies the road on daily basis, Mallam Ali Isa told our Correspondent that he had to follow through 400km Gombe-Potiskum- Damaturu- Maiduguri road after the news filtered that the road was not safe on Friday. His words: “The Damaturu-Buni Yadi- Biu Road was not safe. Today is Buni Yadi Market where thousands of people from the surrounding communities come for business, unfortunately, there was an attack on the road which led to abduction of unspecified number of travellers with looting of foodstuff, and this warrant the military to close down the road including the market,” Isa learnt.

As a closing thought, a lot of the reporting has discussed these incidents in the context of Nigeria’s approaching presidential (February 16) and state (March 2) elections. But I am not sure that the electoral calendar is uppermost in the minds of either Boko Haram or ISWA. I think they operate on a longer timeline and that electoral disruption is a lower priority for them than (a) military positioning, (b) keeping fighters happy/occupied, and (c) obtaining or expanding their supplies and their overall political, economic, and religious influence.

On the Nigerian Military Expelling UNICEF from the Northeast [Updated]

Reuters, today:

The Nigerian military on Friday accused United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) staff of spying for Islamist militants in northeast Nigeria, and suspended the agency’s activities there.

Sahara Reporters has more. They quote Colonel Onyema Nwachukwu, Deputy Director of Public Relations, Theatre Command:

It is baffling to note that some of these organizations have been playing the terrorists’ script with the aim to continue demoralizing the troops who are doing so much to protect the lives of victims of Boko Haram Terrorism and safe guard them from wanton destruction of property and means the of livelihood. The Theatre Command considers the actions of these organizations as a direct assault and insult on the sensibilities of Nigerians, as they tend to benefit more from expanding the reign of terror on our people.

[…]

“This has become inevitable since the organization has abdicated its primary duty of catering for the wellbeing of children and the vulnerable through humanitarian activities and now engaged in training selected persons for clandestine activities to continue sabotaging the counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency efforts of troops through spurious and unconfirmed allegations bothering on alleged violations of human rights by the military.

The move is not surprising, given the military’s repeated expressions of open contempt for other international humanitarian and human rights organizations, particularly Amnesty International. The military is highly, and it seems increasingly, sensitive to outsiders’ criticisms of its human rights abuses.

My main comment on all this is that the military is playing politics here in a big way. The military is obviously well aware of allegations, by its own soldiers as well by journalists and other critics, that the fight against Boko Haram is not going well. The problems include not just brutality against civilians, but also lack of proper equipment for frontline soldiers. The military is likely aware, moreover, that even among many civilians there is a strain of suspicion toward Western NGOs, the United Nations, foreign development and humanitarian agencies, and so forth. The politics of this announcement, then, in my view includes an effort to cater to this strain of suspicion while deflecting attention away from the military’s own serious problems.

Or, as Brandon Kendhammer puts it:

[Update, December 17]: I tweeted this out when it happened, but I want to link to it here as well. Late on Friday, the Nigerian military reversed itself and canceled the expulsion of UNICEF from the northeast. See their statement here.

Now, of course, they’re back to going after Amnesty.

 

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).

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.