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.

 

Nigeria: Key Statements on the Postponement of the Elections

Late on Saturday, February 7, Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) Chairman Attahiru Jega announced the postponement of the country’s national and state elections. Originally scheduled for February 14 (national) and 28 (state), the dates will now be, respectively, March 28 and April 11. The Constitution sets May 29 as inauguration day, which many Nigerians view as “sacrosanct” – so further delays could be even more contentious.

The administration of incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan began to press for a delay on January 22. National Security Advisor Sambo Dasuki recommended a delay on two grounds: the incomplete distribution of Permanent Voters’ Cards and the security situation in northeast Nigeria, where the Boko Haram sect is based. These two issues are not entirely linked: card distribution has lagged in Lagos, which is about as far from the northeast as one can get and still be in Nigeria. As late as February 5, Jega asserted INEC’s readiness to proceed with the vote as scheduled.

The postponement has occasioned outcry within Nigeria and abroad. Rumors are swirling that the administration may move to force Jega out. The international media generally feels that the delay benefits Jonathan by giving him more time to make a tangible improvement in the security situation as well as to strengthen his re-election prospects (through various means). The administration, however, has denied pressuring Jega to delay.

I’ve rounded up a few key statements with excerpts and commentary:

  • Jega: “Our level of preparedness, despite a few challenges, is sufficient to conduct free, fair and credible elections as scheduled on February 14th and February 28th…But as I mentioned earlier, there are some other variables equally crucial for successful conduct of the 2015 general elections that are outside the control of INEC. One important variable is security for the elections…Where the security services strongly advise otherwise, it would be unconscionable of the Commission to deploy personnel and call voters out in such a situation.” (For me, the takeaway here is that Jega is placing responsibility for the call onto the security chiefs.)
  • Jonathan campaign/People’s Democratic Party (PDP): “With this decision, INEC has allayed the fears of many of our citizens that they may not have had the opportunity to vote for the candidates and parties of their choice on Election Day…We are constrained to take this opportunity to wholeheartedly condemn the opposition APC [the All Progressives Congress, the major opposition coalition) for its paranoid delusions and its far-fetched and childish conspiracy theories when it comes to the issue of poll shift. By insisting that the elections should be conducted on February 14th the opposition was not only dangerously flirting with chaos but was also putting our country firmly on the path of confrontation, division, injustice, disaster and destruction.” (This gives a sense of how sharp the rhetoric is, and how the postponement has become a partisan issue.)
  • Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (APC candidate and Jonathan’s main challenger): “As a Nigerian and a presidential candidate in the elections, I share in the disappointment and frustration of this decision. This postponement coming a week to the first election has raised so many questions, many of which shall be asked in the days ahead. However, we must not allow ourselves to be tempted into taking actions that could further endanger the democratic process. Our country is going through a difficult time in the hands of terrorists. Any act of violence can only complicate the security challenges in the country and provide further justification to those who would want to exploit every situation to frustrate the democratic process in the face of certain defeat at the polls. If anything, this postponement should strengthen our resolve and commitment to rescue our country from the current economic and social collapse from this desperate band. Our desire for change must surpass their desperation to hold on to power at all cost.” (For me, the takeaway here is the effort that Buhari is making to project calm leadership. Buhari has sometimes been portrayed in the international and Nigerian media as a strongman former military ruler and a pro-Northern Islamist, and here as elsewhere he is trying to undo that image.)
  • U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry: “The United States is deeply disappointed by the decision to postpone Nigeria’s presidential election, which had been scheduled for February 14. Political interference with the Independent National Electoral Commission is unacceptable, and it is critical that the government not use security concerns as a pretext for impeding the democratic process. The international community will be watching closely as the Nigerian government prepares for elections on the newly scheduled dates. The United States underscores the importance of ensuring that there are no further delays.” (The U.S. is being clear that it sees the postponement as a political, rather than a logistically necessary, move. The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office statement is similar, though a notch softer in tone.)
  • The BBC has some “man on the street” reactions and some coverage of anti-postponement protests by the APC.

Finally, Karen Attiah of the Washington Post has a good piece laying out why this delay is problematic: it is unlikely to bring a rapid improvement in the security situation, which is a long-term challenge; and it undermines the credibility and independence of INEC, which could exacerbate already strong mistrust of the process among many Nigerian voters.

Writings/Podcast/Event on Nigeria’s Elections

Nigeria will hold elections on March 28 and April 11. I’ve done a few things recently on the elections and related topics. I will appear on a panel at the Wilson Center on Wednesday, February 11 to discuss the state of play, including the recent postponement. Here are links to some recent writings and a podcast:

  • Background to Nigeria’s 2015 Elections” (.pdf). This paper, written for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), gives an overview of the processes, parties, and candidates. It also takes a look at some state-level developments and contests. The paper’s purpose is to offer the non-specialist an informational introduction. More subtly, the paper seeks to remind readers that there is more to this election than just Boko Haram.
  • Don’t Ignore Nigeria’s Gubernatorial Elections.” This blog post at the Washington Post‘s Monkey Cage builds on the CSIS report by calling attention to some of the dynamics that receive little attention in the U.S., but that will have major consequences for many Nigerians’ lives – namely, the outcomes of gubernatorial elections. Again, this piece highlights developments beyond Boko Haram, specifically by examining governors’ races in Lagos, Kano, and Rivers.
  • The Logic Behind Boko Haram’s Brutal Attacks.” This briefing for World Politics Review argues that there is a logic behind Boko Haram’s violence against civilians in northeastern Nigeria, and that Boko Haram’s attacks are only partly related to the elections – in other words, I expect Boko Haram to trouble Nigeria for some time to come, no matter who wins.
  • Boko Haram and the Nigerian Elections.” This podcast with UN Dispatch explores some of the ways in which Boko Haram’s violence is intersecting with the campaign.

If you read or listen to any of these pieces, I welcome your thoughts in the comments.

Turning the Lights Back On

After an eighteen-month break, now seems like a good time to start blogging again. Nigeria’s elections (although postponed) are approaching, conflict in northern Mali is escalating, Burkina Faso is working through a transition, and the wider Sahel region is dealing with a number of interrelated crises.

To give a brief professional update, I spent the 2013-2014 academic year as an International Affairs Fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. The program, which aims in part to give scholars a hands-on experience in government, placed me in the Department of State as a Desk Officer for Nigeria. After wrapping up the fellowship, I started at Georgetown University’s African Studies Program as a visiting assistant professor. I am teaching courses there on Islam and politics.

I have done some writing during my absence from the blog. I published two academic journal articles, one with African Affairs and another with the Journal of Religion in Africa. In fall 2014, I began writing monthly for the Global Observatory of the International Peace Institute, and I also resumed contributing periodical briefings to World Politics Review. I’ve been doing some writing about the upcoming elections in Nigeria (March 28 and April 11), and I’ll post those pieces separately. I have also completed a book manuscript on Salafism in Nigeria.

The purpose of this blog has not changed – I aim simply to provide informative commentary on current events in Nigeria and the Sahel, and to a lesser extent the Horn of Africa. I do not know that I’ll be able to maintain the pace I set before; my students and my academic research are and must be higher priorities than blogging. I may welcome a few guest bloggers from time to time in order to bring new perspectives.

What may change slightly in this new incarnation is my tone. I want to be more explicit about my values – my effort to write about people in the Sahel as real human beings, not just objects in geopolitical dramas; my distaste for analysts who write breathlessly and speculatively about Africa in order to put forth the most nightmarish picture of global terrorism possible; my opposition to targeted killings, to the West’s strategy of short-term airstrikes followed by long-term neglect (see: Libya), to the shoot-and-vote model, and to unimaginative “train-and-equip” efforts that just flood the world with more weapons; and my impatience with those who can only see Islam in Africa through the lens of “good Sufis” and “bad Salafis.”

The world has enough voices pushing simplistic narratives, quick fixes, and counterproductive violence – let this blog be an advocate for more constructive and promising paths toward peace.

Africa News Roundup: Mali, Algeria, Senegal, and More

Reuters: “Mali’s interim government has removed General Amadou Sanogo, who led a coup last year, as head of a military committee tasked with reforming the West African country’s armed forces, a government statement said.” For more on Sanogo’s promotion to general, see here.

On Friday, Mali’s President-elect Ibrahim Boubacar Keita visited Cote d’Ivoire (French).

Magharebia: “Algeria is offering pardons to thousands of armed extremists, provided their hands are unstained with citizens’ blood…Army units are distributing leaflets and flyers in Tlemcen, Sidi Bel Abbes and Ain Témouchent, urging extremists to lay down arms and benefit from the 2005 Charter for Peace and National ReconciliationEnnahar daily reported this week.”

Imams in Touba, Senegal (French) complain of a lack of water, electricity, and other amenities, and cast blame on political authorities.

Reuters: “Nigerians Seek Refuge in Niger.”

Moulid Hujale: “My Journey Back to Somalia.”

What else is happening?

A Northern Nigerian Prediction about Syria, Validated

In late 2011, in Kano, I was talking about Syria’s crisis with a friend of mine. “Soon America will bomb them,” he said. At the time, I thought his prediction was wrong. But his tone – which conveyed his sense that the bombing was inevitable – stayed with me. Time has proven him right, and me wrong.

I am not a pollster and I cannot say how a billion Muslims feel about anything. But I think my friend is not alone. I think that many Muslims, and not just Arab Muslims, look at American military actions in the Middle East as habitual, predatory, and destructive. My friend also said that “men with long beards” would eventually rule Libya, and that the U.S. had not understood this when it intervened there. We’ll see if he is right about that as well, and we’ll see what unintended consequences stem from American strikes in Syria.