Is Boko Haram spreading to Lagos?

On the morning of 31 august, the British Broadcasting Corporation ran with the rather ominous headline that Nigeria’s Boko Haram Islamist sect was ‘spreading to Lagos’. The attention-grabbing caption accompanied an article which detailed how several Boko Haram insurgents had been arrested by the Nigerian government in the country’s densely-populated commercial capital.  The content of the BBC article was based on a 30 August communique released by the Department of State Services (DSS) spokesman, Tony Opuiyo, who claimed that as many as 20 senior Boko Haram operatives had been arrested by security forces in the states of Lagos, Kano, Plateau, Enugu and Gombe between 8 July and 25 August this year.

Reports of Boko Haram arrests in Lagos may come as an unwanted surprise to many observers of the security dynamics underpinning the Nigerian. While the Islamist extremist sect has been unable to execute acts of gratuitous violence with regularity in major cities in northern and central Nigeria, the sect has seemingly lacked the operational capacity to strike in Nigeria’s economic heartland. Could the recent militant arrests suggest that Lagos was fortunes was about to change?

In assessing the recent evidence, it is important to note that this is by no means the first occasion that Boko Haram suspects have been remanded in Lagos.  In July 2013 for example, General Officer Commanding (GOC), Major General Obi Umahi, claimed that as many as 42 Boko Haram members had been arrested in the Lagos and Osun states. According to Umachi ‘A large cache of weapons and explosives the sect had imported into Lagos with a plan to simultaneously bomb 16 landmarks in the state, were also recovered.’ The mass Boko Haram detentions came a year after a suspected member had been arrested in the city’s Ikorudu area in April 2012 while allegedly attempting to a church in the area. Moreover, even the recent revelations of Opuiyo are not as new as mainstream media would make us believe. Reports of Boko Haram arrests in Lagos and other states were initially made on 10 August when General Officer Commanding (GOC) 81 Division Nigerian Army Major General Tamunomiebi Dibi initially suggested that tracking down and subsequent arrest of suspected Boko Haram operatives in the states of Lagos and Enugu.

And while the aforementioned incident debunks suggestions that a presumed Boko Haram presence in Lagos is a novel development, it is also worth noting that the sect may have already conducted an attack in the city. On 25 June 2014, two large explosions were reported at a fuel depot in the industrial Apapa area of Lagos. Initially, authorities ruled the blasts as accidental and rebuked any suggestions that the explosions were in any way an act of terrorism. However, subsequent reports would suggest otherwise. Bob Seddon, an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran and a specialist in improvised explosive devices (IEDs), examined pictures of the blast site and categorically confirmed that the incident involved the use of ‘high explosives’. Seddon, who was requested to examine the pictures of the blast site by the AFP media network, concluded that “the type of blast effects and fragmentation pattern you would get from a gas explosion are quite different,” and further asserted that 25-50 kilos (55-110 pounds) of improvised high explosive were likely used to catalyse the explosion at the Apapa fuel depot.  Further to this, Boko Haram’s firebrand leader, Abubakar Shekau, would himself claim responsibility in a video communique released on 14 July.

But while Boko Haram may have long considered Lagos to be a high value target, and may have even conducted a rather unsuccessful attack in the city, this does not preclude the sect from being more motivated than ever to Africa’s most populous urban centre.

By recent pledging allegiance to the Islamic State (IS), Boko Haram has undoubtedly become the Levant-based group’s largest and deadliest affiliate.  However, while Boko Haram has and continues to exact massacre after massacre against civilian targets in Nigeria and, more recently, in neighbouring Niger, Chad and Cameroon, the sect has yet to achieve an act of violence which would simultaneously strike at the very foundation of the Nigerian state and its partnership with the West. An attack on the scale of Souse attacks in Tunisia, or that of the kidnapping and subsequent stylized execution of an expatriate in the Egyptian capital of Cairo, has yet to be replicated by the newly-christened Islamic State in West African Province. A large-scale and mass-casualty attack in Lagos, particularly in the city’s foreign-populated commercial districts, however, would most certainly achieve this.

That said, the ability of the sect to achieve such a feat will continue to be hampered by the dominant demographic of the Lagos population which is both ethnically and religiously diverse from the typical Boko Haram combatant. As is the case for any terrorist organization, their ability to pose a pronounced and sustained threat in any area of interest is generally dependent on the grassroots support structure they possess within such a locale. I remain highly sceptical than Boko Haram enjoys such a support structure in the city of Lagos.

The Paradox of the Democratic Alliance

Sorting through my PC article database, I came across this piece I wrote, but never published, ahead of South Africa’s general elections. The crux of the article is why I personally feel South Africa’s largest opposition political party continues to resonate among South Africa’s majority black population even amid the governance deficiencies of the African National Congress (ANC). Since my political loyalties is often question (or in many cases assumed) due to what some observers claim to be anti-DA rhetoric, I thought i would publish this post to give better insights to my political psyche. Please don’t judge me on this….

With general elections less than 12 months, political fervour is steadily increasing across South Africa. Political parties, both old and new, are peddling their wares and inevitably politicizing any notable civil grievance to their advantage. A party which has been particularly busy is the Democratic Alliance which officially launched the second-phase of its two-pronged ‘Know Your DA’ campaign on 10 August. What can best be described as a crusade of political enlightenment, the ‘Know Your DA’ campaign aims at educating black South Africans about the role the DA played in the apartheid struggle and, more importantly, dispelling the idea that the party seeks to reinstitute apartheid. Apart from obvious politicking by the African National Congress (ANC), I was left pondering as to why the DA continues to be viewed with so much mistrust and scepticism by many black South Africans as to compel the party to dedicate an entire campaign to changing such perceptions. Here are some of my thoughts.

One answer to this quandary is rooted in the immaturity of South Africa’s democracy. As Professor Jacques Rousseau articulated, South Africa has yet to reach a level of democratic maturity where political choices are necessarily made as a result of a careful weighing of options. Instead, many South Africans continue to base their decisions on perceptions and prejudices. In the case of the DA, the party’s lack of popular appeal could be explained as a result of its political opponents confirming a prejudicial fallacy that the party is a ‘shrill, reactionary and white political party’

It’s difficult to disagree with Rousseau’s assertion; the legacy of apartheid continues to be evident in the social and economic stratification of our society and it would naive to suggest that it does not continue to permeate on a political level. Nonetheless, I am of the opinion that the DA itself also needs to shoulder some responsibility for the negative perceptions that many black South Africans have about the party.

The paradox of the DA is that despite the party branding itself as a liberalist and non-racial political organization, much of its core constituent continues to harbour a very conservative mind-set. As much as the party has denied this claim, the DA benefitted from the dissolution of the New National Party (NNP) and much of the party’s initial political success can be attributed to its inheritance of the NNP’s conservative electorate. From the launch of the DA’s 1999 ‘Fight Back’ campaign, dubbed ‘fight black’ by the ANC government of the time, the party has provided political solace for many South Africans who have failed to reconcile with the country’s ongoing democratic transition. While the leadership of Hellen Zille has made strides in broadening the party’s racial appeal, the DA’s consciousness of the political whims of its conservative mind-set, and its subsequent appeasing thereof, is skewing the party’s attempts at being viewed as an inclusive and multi-racial political organization. Underscoring this claim was the launch of a recent billboard in downtown Johannesburg which depicted the party’s support of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) initiatives. Reading “”We (DA) support BEE that creates jobs, not billionaires”, many South Africans viewed the message as clumsy and insulting, with some even claiming that the billboard suggested that the party sees blacks as labourers and not as owners of the means of production.

Instead of using the opportunity to be unequivocal in its stance on an issue which remains intrinsic to economic transformation, it seems that the main purpose of the billboard was to sugar-coat the DA’s stance on economic reformist policies to a support base which continues to view such policy as being a reverse form of apartheid. The BEE billboard issue is one of many instances where the party has seemingly been cautious in promulgating its stance on issues deemed pro-black out of concern that this may be an affront to its conservative support base. If this trend continues, I fear the party is neither going to appease the voter it seeks to placate, nor will it convince the electorate it seeks to attract.

The DA’s historical revisionist tendencies is another issue which I feel is doing more harm than good in increasing the party’s popular appeal. Apart from highlighting its role in South Africa’s struggle for liberation, a claim which still remains open to contention, the DA has also resorted to associating itself with a number of South Africa’s struggle icons. Perhaps most disconcertingly, the party recently laid claim to former President Nelson Mandela by making him the face of its social media profile and including his image in promotional pamphlets. While I can understand that Mandela is a national treasure which belongs to all of South Africa, attempts to disassociate Mandela from the ANC is a matter of political deviance which only creates resentment among even the most disillusioned of ANC supporters. The party’s use of historic revisionism also speaks to a wider problem that the DA continues to encounter in its lobbying — its failure to disassociate its criticism of the South African government with that of ANC as a political party.

While the two are interlinked, the DA needs to realise that most South Africans are not going to change their political choices due to the development of a sudden abhorrence to the ANC but will rather do so upon finding a disconnect between the core tenets of the political party and its governmental leadership. The sooner the DA finds commonality with its vision for South Africa that is outlined, and perhaps left unfulfilled, within the ANC constitution, the greater the party’s message may resonate among South Africa’s black population. However, such commonality will never be achieved if the party continues to selectively memorialize South Africa’s history by overstating the role it played in our liberation and, as a consequence, undermine the legacy of South Africa’s true liberators.

Despite the nature of my rhetoric, I remain hopeful that the DA continues to strengthen as a political party. This is not due to me being a closet DA supporter, nor is it indicative of any antagonism I may harbour toward the ruling party. I am merely hopeful that, as the country’s largest opposition party, a strengthening of the DA would lead to the maturing of our democracy and create an environment where any elected government is compelled to be more accountable to its citizenry. But to get to this juncture, there are some difficult choices the DA needs to make in ensuring that the party is viewed as a feasible political option for South Africa’s black electorate. I am yet to be convinced that the party is in a position where it is willing to make such decisions.

Strategic shifts and strategic talks in the Boko Haram insurgency

Was asked a few questions regarding the progression of the Boko Haram insurgency and the nature of the talks currently being held between Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and Cameroon’s Paul Biya. I have added my musings for your consideration.

Has there been a shift in Boko Haram’s strategy?

Following a multilateral counterinsurgency campaign which dislodged Boko Haram from areas under its control in north eastern Nigeria, there has been a discernible shift in the sect’s strategy. We have seen Boko Haram revert to an expansive and resource-light asymmetric armed campaign, using suicide bombings in urban centres whilst targeting isolated settlements in hit-and-run raids. The current modus operandi employed by the sect mirrors the tactics used by Boko Haram prior to mid-2014 when it begun capturing and holding territory in rural north eastern Nigeria.

If there has indeed been a change of strategy, can the conventional troops on the ground address this?

While Nigeria and her allies have proven that the use of conventional warfare was effective in dislodging Boko Haram from areas they had captured, such tactics may be problematic in countering a force primed at asymmetric warfare. With Boko Haram reverting to acts of terrorism and hit-and-run armed raids, both of which leverage off their unpredictability, Nigeria and her allies will need to secure a reliable and extensive local intelligence network to counter such acts of violence. A major concern, however, is that the Nigeria’s counterterrorism strategy to date, which has been mired in claims of human rights abuses, has fostered a degree of distrust in local communities and is serving as a significant barrier to the local intelligence gathering. Such problems are also likely to be countered by the both the armies of Cameroon, Niger and, to an extent, Chad who themselves will need to leverage off local intelligence as a means of responding to Boko Haram’s regional contagion within their own respective borders. Moreover, while conventional tactics may have proved effective in sparsely populated rural areas in Nigeria’s north east, replicating such strategies in heavily populated urban settings where Boko Haram possesses an operational presence may prove difficult.

Is the regional fight against Boko Haram faltering?

In my humble opinion, the regional fight against Boko Haram has yet to commence. While we have seen greater cooperation between Nigeria and her Lake Chad neighbours, the major problem is that the Boko Haram insurgency continues to be defined as a Nigerian problem and is being treated as such. To date, counterinsurgency operations have been generally limited to north eastern Nigeria with minimal punitive measures being taken against the sect in neighbouring countries. Boko Haram’s recent spate of attacks in Cameroon, Niger and, most recently, Chad, is suggestive of a regionalization of the Boko Haram insurgency and that a regional response is required to address the problem.

Could the Buhari-Biya meeting lead to a more concrete cooperation and coordination of their actions?

The efficacy of Buhari’s meeting with Biya in terms of the fight against Boko Haram will be dependent on the Cameroonian statesman acknowledging that Boko Haram is as much of a threat to the Cameroon State as it is to that of Nigeria. To date, Biya has not explicitly acknowledged an established Boko Haram presence in northern Cameroon and has limited his response to the sect by deploying additional forces to the country’s north western border with Nigeria. This strongly suggests that Biya continues to view the Boko Haram threat in Cameroon as being rooted in neighbouring Nigeria, implicitly dispelling claims that Boko Haram could have grassroot levels of operational and logistical support in Cameroon. The fact that Cameroon is calling for the ability to conduct hot pursuit operations in Nigeria further reinforces the narrative that the solution to the Boko Haram paradox is limited to the actions (or inaction) of the Nigerian government.

Has Cameroon left it too late to wake up to the seriousness of the security challenge it now faces?  

I do not think that it’s too late for Cameroon to respond to the security challenge posed by the Boko Haram insurgency; however, the fact that the Biya administration allowed the problem to fester for so long will complicate the efficacy of counterinsurgency initiatives.  Boko Haram activity in Cameroon can be traced as far back as 2011, when President Paul Biya raised concerns about the presence of Nigerian Islamist extremists, who were proselyting in Cameroonian mosques. However, for several years the Biya administration has resisted claims that the sect has established an operational presence in the country. During this time it is believed that Boko Haram may have even established its primary bases on the Cameroonian side of the Mandara Mountain range, which serves as a natural border between Nigeria and Cameroon, and is actively recruiting among communities who are socially, politically and economically marginalized by the Yaounde-based administration. For Cameroon to make headway against Boko Haram in its Far North region, which is believed to be the sect’s operational stronghold in northern Cameroon, the Biya regime needs to make a better offer to local communities than Boko Haram can and build a rapport based on trust and good governance which can translate in actionable intelligence and cooperation.

Boko Haram, Ballot Cards and Bunkering: Security challenges facing the Nigerian elections

On 28 March, an estimated 68 million people will cast their ballots in what are likely to be the most fiercely contested elections in post-independent Nigeria. Initially scheduled to be held on 14 February, the ballot was postponed by Nigeria’s Independent Electoral Commission (INEC) amid security concerns, to allow military operations to be intensified against the violent Islamist group Boko Haram in the country’s north-east.

The ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which has governed Nigerian since the country’s return to civilian rule in 1999, faces its first challenge from the All Progressive’s Congress (APC) opposition coalition. Opinion polls indicate that PDP candidate and incumbent Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, is running neck and neck with the APC’s presidential nominee and former military ruler, Muhammadu Buhari. The parliamentary and state gubernatorial legs of the ballot are also expected to be tightly contested.

Although increased political competition could theoretically strengthen Nigeria’s relatively young democracy, acrimonious and divisive politicking by the rival parties has increased the potential for violence. Indeed violence between supporters of rival parties has already begun.  Clashes have so far been sporadic and mostly not fatal, but they have sounded a clear warning that political scores could be settled even more violently.

Nigeria’s voters are roughly divided in half, between a pro-government and Christian-dominated south and a Muslim-dominated and pro-opposition north, so any outbreak of political civil unrest could easily become ethnic and religious.

Any perception that the elections are not transparent, inclusive, free and fair would be an obvious trigger of violence. Worryingly, several technical problems could cast a dark shadow over the credibility of the elections.

The most obvious of these is the INEC’s lack of preparedness. As of 15 March, INEC had only managed to deliver about 82 percent of the biometric cards which voters will need to cast their ballots. Failure by the organisation to deliver the remaining 13 million voter cards could seriously undermine the inclusiveness of the election. That could be particularly dire in electoral constituencies which will be tightly contested and where margins for victory are likely to be slim.

Another logistical quandary centres on the use of smart card readers for the first time. The INEC says these devices will help combat electoral fraud by verifying the legitimacy of the biometric voter cards. However several political parties, including the ruling PDP, have publically opposed the use of the smart card readers because they say they have not been thoroughly tested and adequate contingency measures have not been put in place where they are found to be faulty. The ruling party had also raised concerns about the distribution of the devices and whether INEC officials are competent to use them. Any problems encountered with the smart card readers on Election Day could raise serious concerns about the consistency of the voting process.

History warns that a rejection of electoral results, based on perceived lack of inclusivity, transparency and fairness of the ballot, could incite significant outbreaks of politically motivated unrest. During Nigeria’s 2011 presidential elections as many as 1,000 people were killed following accusations that the election had been rigged in favour of the ruling party.  The politically-polarised Middle Belt region, most notably the states of Kaduna and Plateau, were at the heart of the spontaneous and protracted political violence and remain susceptible to it still.

Of course Boko Haram could also seriously undermine the credibility of the elections. It has ideological and strategic motives for wanting to disrupt the voting violently.  Ideologically, it abhors elections as they are the cornerstone of Western-styled democracy which it detests. Moreover it  blames such elections for producing secular Nigerian governments which are exploitative and morally corrupt.

Strategically, Boko Haram may also attack the elections to ferment a political crisis in Nigeria. The electoral constituencies in north-eastern Nigeria, which are most at risk from the Boko Haram insurgency, are also the strongholds of Nigeria’s major opposition parties. As many as two million potential opposition supporters there will be unable to cast their ballots either because they have already been displaced by Boko Haram’s violence or because they will too scared to vote on Saturday. So even a definitive electoral victory by the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) could be rejected by the APC on the grounds that a substantial number of its supporters were disenfranchised.

The north eastern states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe, where Boko Haram is most entrenched, are most at risk of its electoral violence. However, the threat is also likely to extend to neighbouring states including Bauchi, Gombe, Kaduna, Kano, Kebbi, and Plateau. And a major attack somewhere well beyond its home turf – perhaps in the political capital Abuja or the commercial capital Lagos- also remains a credible threat because it would emphasise the extent of Boko Haram’s reach.

The potential for Boko Haram-related election violence is not just supposition. On February 18, Boko Haram released a video recording in which its leader Abubakar Shekau was quoted as saying “Allah will not leave you to proceed with these elections even after us, because you are saying that authority is from people to people, which means that people should rule each other, but Allah says that the authority is only to him, only his rule is the one which applies on this land.

“And finally we say that these elections that you are planning to do, will not happen in peace, even if that costs us our lives.”

Boko Haram is, however, not the only non-state armed group which might seek a stake in the elections. In recent weeks, several former Niger Delta militant commanders have increasingly threatened violence if their preferred candidate, President Jonathan, is not re-elected. Many argue that an electoral victory for the APC would end the amnesty programme which has given former militants state patronage and vocational training in exchange for laying down their arms.

There are also concerns that a northern-dominated opposition government might clamp down on oil bunkering- or theft – in the Niger Delta — a burgeoning industry which sustains many communities. Some former commanders have even threatened to disrupt oil production and expel northern-owned companies from the Niger Delta if Jonathan does not win the elections. The rhetoric of these decommissioned militants raises concerns that voting in the Niger Delta might occur in an intimidatory and hostile environment — raising further questions about the fairness of the elections.

The primary oil producing states of Delta, Rivers and Bayelsa, could be the main flashpoints for politically-motivated violence if Jonathan loses, particularly in the main cities such as the respective state capitals of Asaba, Port Harcourt and Warri, where decommissioned militant commanders continue to exert significant influence.

So the potential for election violence exists in the north, the south and the middle of the country, though for different reasons.

The elections could be a watershed moment for the country’s seemingly maturing democracy.  But if that is to be so, concerted efforts will have to be made to ensure that voting is inclusive, fair and transparent. That will brand the ensuing government with the same virtues.

Conversely, of course, an election fraught with irregularities, exclusivity and a lack of transparency could well produce a government burdened from the start with a reputation for those same vices.

A turning tide? The recapture of Dikwa and MNJTF sanction

On 2 March, Chadian authorities confirmed that the country’s military had recaptured the town of Dikwa, Borno State, which had fallen under Boko Haram control in September 2014.  Dikwa is of strategic importance given the town’s location at the confluence of three major highways which not only provides access to the Borno State capital, Maiduguri, but which also facilitates access to both the Borno North and Borno South administrative zones. By liberating the town, Chadian  forces have not only secured the western approach to Maiduguri from Boko Haram eastern strongholds, but  has also secured access routes to insurgent strongholds  toward Lake Chad and southward toward the Mandara Mountains.

Cognisant of its strategic importance, the Nigerian army had itself launched a number of unsuccessful counteroffensives on the settlement. I believe the major challenge that the Nigerian army faced in reclaiming Dikwa was that the town served as forward base for Boko Haram. Its resilience was likely due to the fact that it was garrisoned and enjoyed a rich supply of combatants and resources from Boko Haram’s alleged logistical bases along the Cameroonian border via the town of Gamboru.

However, with Chadian forces launching its counterterrorism operations from Cameroonian territory, its liberation of Gambaru had effectively cut supply lines to Dikwa thus weakening Boko Haram’s ability to defend the town. The situation which existed in Dikwa serves as a microcosm of the Boko Haram insurgency where the Nigerian government struggled to make inroads against the sect from its western positions due to the location of suspected Boko Haram logistical and operational bases along the Nigerian/Cameroonian border. These had been left relatively untouched until the commencement of multilateral military operations against the sect launched in late January 2015.

Reports of Dikwa’s liberation also coincided with reports that the African Union had formally backed the 8700-strong Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) which have been mandated with further countering the Boko Haram threat. While undoubtedly a positive development, we should remain considered that the MNJTF will yield significant results in the fight against Boko Haram. As reported by the BBC, the MNJTF force will only operate between the outskirts of Niger’s Diffa border town, and the towns of Baga and Ngala in Nigeria. In summary, the composite force will only be mandated with securing the Nigerian side of the Lake Chad region which, according to an undisclosed military source, comprises a”only 10 to 15% of the entire area where Boko Haram operates”.

MNJTF operations against the sect also face myriad operational and logistical challenges. For one, regional and domestic power dynamics could pose an obstacle to the unfettered cooperation on which success depends. Nigeria’s ruling People’s Democratic Party is already under domestic pressure due to the presence of foreign forces on its soil, with opposition candidate and former military leader, Muhammadu Buhari, describing it as a “disgrace.” With elections looming, the government is no doubt keen to counter such accusations by dictating the rules of engagement and asserting its primacy in any definitive victories scored against Boko Haram. Such posturing may not, however, be welcomed by the country’s alliance partners, who may themselves want to claim any victories.

From a wider geopolitical perspective, decades-old territorial disputes between Nigeria and its neighbors, particularly over ownership of the resource-rich Lake Chad, could also foster mutual distrust that could compromise cooperation. Unanswered questions regarding the financing, logistics, and coordination of the multilateral force might also threaten its efficacy.

Even if the combined forces are successful in dislodging Boko Haram from its regional strongholds, this may not bring about immediate stability. It is worth noting that the group’s recent strategy of capturing and holding territory is a novel development in its decade-long insurgency. Prior to July 2014, when it seized its first town, the sect effectively operated as a guerrilla force waging an urban terror campaign that spread as far west as the city of Sokoto and as far south as the capital, Abuja. During this time, suicide and car bombings, targeted assassinations, kidnappings, armed ambushes, and coordinated raids became a near daily occurrence across parts of Nigeria. Indeed, as noted by a spate of recent attacks in Potiskum, Biu and Jos, it appears that Boko Haram reverting to an asymmetric armed campaign appears to be in full swing. This poses some serious concerns regarding the security climate in which Nigeria’s ballot is set to take place and could potentially place millions of voters at risk.

Nevertheless, the gains being made against the Boko Haram Islamist extremist sect should not be understated. Less than three months ago, Boko Haram appeared to be an indomitable force to which the beleaguered Nigerian government and its army had no answer. Today the sect is being dislodged from towns and cities which had fallen under its brutal control with the same rapidity which underpinned their initial capture. While the war against Boko Haram may still be far from over, the tide may be ever so slowly turning…

The Boko Haram Insurgency: Separating fact from fiction

It has killed as many as 10,000 people, displaced an estimated two million others, and seems set to spread beyond the confinement of Nigeria’s borders. One would now be hard-pressed to deny that the Boko Haram insurgency is fast becoming the preeminent threat to stability both within Nigeria and among its bordering neighbors. However, despite the magnitude of the threat, a lack of independent reporting and oversight has left much information related to the insurgency rooted in suppositions and conjecture. We know little more about the extremist sect today than we did when Boko Haram made the transition from an evangelical civic movement to a fully-fledged militant group at the turn of the decade. Unfortunately, this paucity of verifiable information has blurred the analytical line between what can be considered fact and what can be considered fiction in the Boko Haram discourse — a line which I myself have crossed on occasion. In this briefing, however, I hope to redeem myself by dissecting some of the common claims being made about Boko Haram and attempt to provide some clarity to the issues at stake.

Did Boko Haram declare a caliphate?

A common misconception pertains to the sect’s purported declaration of an Islamic caliphate in northeastern Nigeria, comparable to that professed by the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). These suggestions can be linked to a video released by the sect on August 24, 2014, following its capture of the town of Gwoza. Over the course of the 52-minute video it is claimed that Boko Haram’s firebrand leader Abubakar Shekau had, in his native Hausa dialect, declared “thanks be to Allah, who gave victory to our brethren in Gwoza and made it part of the Islamic caliphate.” The English translation of Shekau’s speech, which was widely circulated by Western media, was flagged as incorrect by various sources, most notably the US government’s Open Source Center and Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Dr. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, who claimed Shekau had not once used the Hausa or Arabic term for caliphate, khilafah, much less declared one. It seems that confusion had arose with Shekau’s use of the word ‘Dawlah’ which denotes a state which is governed under Islamic law.

Is Boko Haram copying ISIS?

A growing number of people have suggested that Boko Haram may be copying ISIS and could even be operating as the group’s Nigerian proxy. Suggestions of synergism between Boko Haram and ISIS were ostensibly driven by the aforementioned mistranslation which suggested that Shekau had declared his own Islamic Caliphate. But even if Shekau did in fact declare the existence of a caliphate in north eastern Nigeria, this would not be tantamount to Boko Haram being linked to, or even emulating, ISIS.

From its inception, Boko Haram’s raison d’etre has been to create a state in northern Nigeria that would be governed under sharia law. As such, Boko Haram’s intention of forming a sovereign Islamist state predates even the formation of ISIS.

That said, linkages between Boko Haram and ISIS cannot be discounted entirely. In a recent briefing, Boko Haram analyst Jacob Zenn provides compelling evidence to suggest that, at the very least, Boko Haram was mimicking ISIS. Zenn argues that Boko Haram’s use of the ISIS rayat al-uqab flag and national anthem in its videos, and Shekau’s lauding of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may be indicative of a growing relationship between the jihadist organizations. More recently, founder of the Jihadology think tank and Richard Borrow fellow, Aaron Y Zelin, also presented evidence of possible linkages between Boko Haram and ISIS. In his piece, entitled The Clairvoyant: Boko Haram’s Media and The Islamic State Connection, Zelin analyses how Boko Haram’s newly created media outlet, ‘Urwah al-Wuthqa (The Indissoluble Link), was releasing propaganda videos which mirrored those released by ISIS in terms of both production quality and methodology. Zelin also highlighted how media content released by Boko Haram’s media wing was being endorsed and disseminated by vetted ISIS social media accounts. Nonetheless, both Zenn and Zelin fall short of suggesting that linkages between ISIS and Boko Haram were definitive.

Does Boko Haram control an area the size of Belgium in Nigeria?

Another claim worth investigating is whether Boko Haram had  captured a land mass in northeastern Nigeria comparable to that of several Western states.

For example, The Telegraph suggested that Boko Haram controls an estimated 52,000 square kilometers, (20,077 square miles) equivalent to the landmass of Costa Rica or Slovakia. The Guardian’s estimation of Boko Haram’s territorial appropriation is more conservative at about 20,000 sq km (7,722 sq m) – comparable to that of Wales or the US state of Maryland. The Wall Street Journal’s estimate seems to find a middle ground by suggesting that Boko Haram has assimilated an estimated 30,000 sq km (11,583 sq m) of territory, or an area equivalent to the size of Belgium. But which of these figures, if any, are correct?

I tracked the first mention of the extent of Boko Haram’s territorial expanse to an article by Nigeria’s Daily Trust. Published on November 3, 2014, it claims Boko Haram had captured 10 local government areas in Nigeria’s northeastern Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states, cumulatively amounting to 21,546 sq km (8,318 sq m) of land. By January 2015, however, it was claimed that Boko Haram captured as many as 24 local government areas in north eastern Nigeria or an estimated 30,000 sq km (11,583 sq m) of territory.

But a major problem problem with these figures, however, is that they may be rooted in a flawed conceptual definition of what can be classified as captured territory’. Eyewitness accounts have confirmed that Boko Haram does not operate as a quintessential occupying force. Many settlements claimed to have been attacked by the sect are often raided, abandoned and left to be repopulated by displaced communities. In many cases, existing governance structures uprooted in these areas are not restored. This may be creating the perception that all ungoverned spaces in north eastern Nigeria have fallen under Boko Haram rule. A claim which, like many other associated with the insurgency, may not represent the reality on the ground. In February 2014, US intelligence estimated that Boko Haram had a fighting force of around 4,000 to 6,000 fighters. A rather sparse number for a force entrusted to govern, protect and expand a land mass comparable to the size of a medium-sized European nation

Did Boko Haram kill 2,000 in Baga?

Boko Haram has been accused of committing several mass atrocities, but no claim was as stark as the one that the sect may have killed as many as 2,000 people in the city of Baga and its environs in early January of this year. But how credible is the death toll? In my column for Daily Maverick, I argued that issues such as eyewitness reliability, relative population density, and incident chronology raised serious questions regarding the veracity of the casualty numbers. A similar argument was also presented by the Africa-focused fact-checking NGO, Africa Check. Although satellite imagery acquired by Human Rights Watch supported eyewitness accounts that acts of mass violence were perpetrated in Baga, there is still little evidence to either confirm or refute the 2,000 death toll.

Is Maiduguri being surrounded? 

A claim which has been circulating for a while now is that Boko Haram has captured the city of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno. Suggestions of the besiegement of Maiduguri gained further traction in January 2015 when the sect launched successive attacks on the city, both of which were repelled by Nigerian security forces. On January 25, further credence was given to these claims when Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth claimed that “Boko Haram had completely surrounded Maiduguri”.

Again, there were some doubts around this claim. According to local reports, Boko Haram had secured control of 13 local government areas in Nigeria’s northeastern states of Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa. Plotting these areas on a map delineates that Boko Haram had indeed taken up positions along Maiduguri’s eastern, southern and northern borders.  However, it also indicated that the city’s western front, which links Maiduguri to Yobe’s capital, Damaturu, remained accessible for movements in and out of the city. In an article published in January, journalist Simon Allison suggested that four of the main roads leading to and from Maiduguri had fallen under the control of Boko Haram, but the western approach to Maiduguri remained in government hands. Whether Maiduguri was indeed being encircled is likely to become less relevant to the Boko Haram discourse, however, amid evidence that Nigerian army is successfully dislodging the sect from areas near the Borno State capital.

Is Nigeria relying on foreign forces to beat Boko Haram? 

The answer to this question is “yes and no.” It is obvious that the Nigerian government has struggled to contain Boko Haram. The reason for its inadequate response is rooted in claims of chronic corruption, a lack of political will, and a reliance on an under-resourced military. But Nigeria is not solely to blame for Boko Haram’s preeminence. Evidence dating as far back as 2011 suggests that Boko Haram was in the process of establishing an operational presence outside of Nigeria’s expansive and poorly policed borders. This cross-border expansion is intrinsic in explaining both the sect’s ascendency and the failure of Nigeria’s counterterrorism strategy.

By infiltrating neighboring countries such as Cameroon, Niger and, to a lesser extent, Chad, Boko Haram not only established an operational platform from which to execute cross-border attacks, but had also garnered a safe haven, which it utilized to evade intensified counterinsurgency operations undertaken by the Nigerian government. By constantly denying that the group was operating within its borders, Nigeria’s neighbors further allowed the problem to fester. Consequently, while Nigeria is in dire need of regional assistance in its fight against Boko Haram, the actions of its neighbors should not be framed as an act of altruism. Instead, it should be presented as an admission that the Boko Haram threat is one of regional proportions and desperately requiring a regional response.

What is the meaning of the name Boko Haram?

Undoubtedly, the most common misrepresentation of Boko Haram concerns its name. The preferred name of the group among its members is Ahl al Sunna li al Da’wa wa al Jihad, loosely translated as “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad.” The origins of the appellation Boko Haram is as widely disputed as its actual meaning. According to Nigerian journalist Andrew Walker it was coined by residents of Maiduguri, who mocked the sect for its eccentric proselytization and aggressive anti-Western rhetoric – an assertion that has gained credence by the sect’s frequent rejection of the name Boko Haram.

As mentioned, the exact meaning of the term Boko Haram is also subject to contention. Although widely translated as meaning “Western education is sinful”, religious scholars and linguists continue to debate the denotation of the term. Alex Thurston, an Assistant Professor in the African Studies Program at Georgetown University, has cited the research of Hausa linguist Dr. Paul Newman that the term boko is not etymologically derived from the English term book. The researchers instead claim it is a native Hausa word, originally meaning sham, fraud or inauthenticity. Both Newton and Thurston conclude, however, that the name Boko Haram is still rooted in the sect’s belief that Western education and institutions are deceitful.

Why all the misinformation?

So why is there such a large amount of misinformation around Boko Haram? Agence-France Press West Africa Bureau Chief Phil Hazlewood offers a possible explanation, by detailing the myriad challenges media agencies face when trying to provide accurate reportage on the insurgency. Destroyed telecommunications infrastructure, a hostile government, and an even more inimical than usual subject in Boko Haram, are but a few of the obstacles journalists covering the issue encounter on a daily basis. Hazlewood’s thoughts have been echoed by BBC Nigeria correspondent Will Ross.

And by no means is this briefing aiming to trivialize the complexities outlined by Hazlewood and Ross. As mentioned, misperceptions about Boko Haram is not only limited to the field of journalism but has permeated to all disciplines discussing and theorizing on the myriad aspects of the group and its brutal insurgency. On the contrary, this briefing responds to the very problems encountered by seasoned professionals and argues that we should be more considered when digesting information related to a crisis that has become as deadly as it is misunderstood.


South Africa and the curious case of the EITI

From 9 to 12 February 2015, Cape Town once again played host to the 21st session of the annual Africa Mining Indaba. Billed as the largest mining investment event in the world, the Africa Mining Indaba provide its estimated 8,000 participants with the opportunity to share ideas, discuss industry trends and either strengthen or forge new cross-continental business relationships.

This year’s events are being held against the backdrop of growing difficulties within the global mining sector with labour tensions, commodity price volatility and strike action prevailing as the sector’s primary quandaries. These issues have proven to be particularly pervasive within the South African mining context. As was the case in previous years, South Africa’s mining sector has continued to be impacted by widespread labour agitation which is placing further strain on an already faltering industry. Of particular concern, however, is the possibility that ongoing mining sector agitation could precipitate levels of violence witnessed during an August 2012 wildcat strike at the Lonmin-operated platinum mine in Marikana, North West province. At least 47 people, most miners, were killed over a 48-hour period between 14 and 16 August.

But what are the factors which continue to catalyse such strike action within South Africa’s mining sector? Without question, the variables precipitating labour agitation within South Africa’s extractive industries are highly complex and multi-layered and, consequently, one dimensional analysis could generate superficial responses. Nonetheless, explanations provided by workers for their grievances expose systemic problems which have and continue to exist within the sector.

For one, South Africa’s mining industry has long been subject to lax regulation and exploitative behaviour which stemmed from the apartheid era. Attempts by South Africa’s post-democratic government to implement sector reforms have been marred by accusations of maladministration, corruption and a lack of transparency. Of particular contention, are claims that policy reforms within the sector were often created and implemented without the consultation of mining communities who also continue to be marginalized from deriving any tangible benefits from the country’s extractive industries. In addition to haphazard policy implementation, the South African government has also been accused of engaging in cronyism and having vested personal interests within the sector which is further hampering much needed industry reforms. However, it is not only mining firms and government which should shoulder the blame for the sector’s problems. Once heralded for its collective bargaining abilities and inclusiveness, South African labour unions are increasingly being accused of assuming a more authoritarian guise and having leadership structures which are failing to engage its membership in key decision-making. Competitiveness between rival unions seeking to dominate the sector has also sowed division which has further complicated negotiations within bargaining chambers.

So how do we go about remedying the situation? Well, it is no coincidence that one of the core themes of successive this and previous AMI’s has been focused on creating greater transparency within the mining sector. Such is its perceived importance that in 2002, an Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) was launched during the World Summit for Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg, South Africa, The aim of the EITI is to generate increased transparency of financial flows between mining companies and governments, in addition to fostering dialogue between these role players and civil society. In summation, the EITI was created to allow citizens to see for themselves how much their government is receiving from the extraction of their country’s natural resources. Since its launch, the initiative has been touted as being intrinsic to the reformation of several mining sectors across much of the African continent which was once considered to be poorly regulated and exploitive.

However, despite the aforementioned problems related to the extractive industries sector within South Africa, the country has refused continued to calls to join the EITI. Suggestions by government that South Africa has a redistributive fiscal regime which has implemented adequate systems of governance and accountability, thus negating the need for EITI compliance, has drawn widespread criticism from opposition parties and civil society organisations alike. Such sentiments of scepticism have further been reinforced by international corruption watchdogs such as Transparency International and the Anti-corruption Business Portal which have both cited the existence of bribery, intimidation, non-compliance, and poor cooperation within South Africa’s mining sector.

With labour agitation increasing, and the countries extractive industry dwindling, the need for South Africa’s mining sector to be subject to greater reform and transparency is becoming a necessity. Not only will such transparency increase South Africa’s attractiveness for foreign direct investment but it will also hopefully create the necessary conditions which will no longer see the mining industry being viewed as a microcosm for exploitation and unequal wealth distribution.

Boko Haram and the measure of Maiduguri

In the past week, Boko Haram has launched two major offensives on the city of Maiduguri, the administrative capital of Nigeria’s north eastern Borno State. Both attacks were successfully repelled by Nigerian forces and their Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) allies. Although unconfirmed, it is reported that Boko Haram suffered significant losses of equipment, weaponry and personnel during the aforementioned incursions.

For the past 12 months, much of Boko Haram’s operations in Maiduguri have been limited to acts of urban terror, generally taking the form of suicide bombings targeting both government and civilian interests. The last major offensive against the city occurred in March 2014 when Boko Haram stormed the city’s Giwa barracks, seizing weaponry and freeing scores of detained militants in what was likely a resource-gathering exercise. The attack followed a similar incursion targeting the Maiduguri International Airport and the nearby Composite Group AirForce Base which took place in December 2013. The motivation for this attack was likely focused on disabling fighter jets which had for several months pounded Boko Haram positions in and around its purported base camps in Sambisa Forest.

But what may have been motivations for the latest insurgent raids against Maiduguri?

For one, the uptick in violence could be linked to the forthcoming elections. Given Boko Haram’s abhorrence of Nigeria’s secular government, which is underpinned by democratic processes such as general elections, one would assume that the ballot would be a high value target for the sect. Given that Maiduguri is one of the few areas in Borno state where elections could still feasibly be held, Boko Haram may be attempting to destabilize the city and perhaps stymie voting from taking place. For further background on why Boko Haram may be motivated to disrupt Nigeria’s forthcoming general elections, see my piece for the Tony Blair Foundation on this issue.

Secondly, the spate of Boko Haram attacks on Maiduguri could be an attempt by Boko Haram to absorb and occupy military resources. This hypothesis was perhaps best exemplified by the 25 January offensive against the city. Initially described as an attempt by the militant group to seize control of the state capital, it became more apparent that the offensive may have been a diversion to occupy security assets, while a larger and more coordinated attack was taking place in Monguno — the site of the Nigerian military’s last remaining forward base outside of Maiduguri. But such misdirection may not only be servicing Boko Haram’s offensive stratagem.  As is becoming more apparent, Boko Haram is coming under pressure from Chadian and Cameroon forces from the east which has created a new war front for the sect. Boko Haram may be concerned that the Nigeria government could advance on their positions from the west, pulling them into a two-front conflict which would be resource draining. By attacking Maiduguri, Boko Haram forces the Nigerian army into defensive positions which subsequently allows Boko Haram to focus on defending its eastern front.

A third explanation could be that the recent attacks may be the preamble to a more coordinated and large-scale incursion against Maiduguri. In this regard, Boko Haram may be orchestrating these offensives as a means of testing city’s peripheral defences, thereby gauging the requisite blueprint and resources it will require to actually capture the city.

Boko Haram currently finds itself in its most advantageous position to make good on its plans to seize Maiduguri. As mentioned, Boko Haram has assimilated territory to the east of Maiduguri, allegedly capturing and disabling all forward bases between its eastern flank and the boundaries of its own emirate. With the dry season, which occurs between October and March, nearing its end, Boko Haram may be attempting to take advantage of its favourable territorial and climatic conditions to orchestrate one massive push to capture Maiduguri. The fall of Maiduguri would undoubtedly be a significant symbolic victory for the sect given the manner in which it was expelled from the capital following the July 2009 Maiduguri uprising.

However, by capturing the city, Boko Haram would also be a significant operational victory given that it would incapacitate both the army anti-Boko Haram unit, namely the 7th division, and likely ground some of Nigeria’s aerial assets which have and may continue to be pivotal in counterinsurgency operations. Seizing control of Maiduguri also provides Boko Haram access to additional resources in the form of weaponry, supplies, manpower and equipment. Furthermore, controlling a large population centre would also mitigate the use of military tactics by the Nigerian army and its regional counterparts, particularly that of airstrikes or a large-scale ground incursion.

Murder by the numbers: Assessing the credibility of the Baga death toll

On 8 January, reports emanating from Nigeria’s north eastern Borno state indicated that militants of the suspected Boko Haram Islamist sect had launched an attacked Baga, a small fishing village located in the Kukawa Local Government Area. The 7 January attack was the second of its kind to occur in Baga, coming less than four days after insurgents overran a Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) base situated on the outskirts of the town.

Speaking to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), local government officials claimed that as many as 2,000 people had been killed in the most recent raid. Local estimates of the Baga death toll was provided further substance on 9 January when Amnesty International’s Nigeria Analyst, Daniel Ayre suggested that hundreds, if not thousands, had been killed in Boko Haram attack on Baga. In a press statement issued by international human rights watch dog, Eyre noted “The attack on Baga and surrounding towns, looks as if it could be Boko Haram’s deadliest act in a catalogue of increasingly heinous attacks carried out by the group.”

If confirmed as being definitive, Eyre’s assertion that the Baga attack Boko Haram’s deadliest act of mass violence would be subject to little contestation. Highlighting this point, data provided by the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), suggests that in excess of 10,000 people have been killed as a result of the Boko Haram insurgency and concomitant counterinsurgency operations conducted by the Nigerian military since 2003. If the casualty numbers of the Baga offensive is to be believed, Boko Haram would in a single attack have accounted for as much as 20 percent of the total number of casualties it has amassed over the extent of its decade-long insurgency.

But is it credible to believe that Boko Haram had indeed killed as many as 2,000 people in a single act of mass violence?

The first reports of the Baga massacre was published by the BBC on 8 January when the British media service claimed that the Islamist extremist sect had launched a renewed offensive on the village less than 24 hours earlier. Suggestions that as many as 2,000 people were killed in the Baga raid appeared to be ostensibly based on claims made by Kukawa government official, Musa Buka. The official, who was not present in the town at the time of insurgent raid, based his estimates on eyewitness accounts of residents who had fled Baga at the time that it was razed. Those providing testimony had further asserted that they could not return to bury the dead due a pronounced militant presence in the region.  It thus became apparent that the casualty figures had not been subject to any independent or empirical verification. Instead, the death count was seemingly based on the accounts of emotionally and physically distressed civilians who had escaped the carnage.

The chronology of the recent armed raids in Baga may also undermine the credence of the delineated casualty figures. By all accounts, the initial Boko Haram raid on Baga occurred on the morning of 3 January and was seemingly centered on the MNJTF base located on the outskirts of the settlement. It stands to reason that the offensive on military installation, which included the use of semi-automatic rifles and various explosive ordnances, could have provided forewarning to the Baga community of an impending Boko Haram attack. This may have provided a window of opportunity for many of the town’s residents to flee the immediate area.

The hypothesis that Baga residents may have been privy to an impending incursion is ostensibly supported by reports released by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The humanitarian organization confirmed on 9 January that it had received an estimated 7,300 Nigerian refugees in western Chad who had fled Baga and its immediate surrounds since 31 December 2014. The information provided by the UNHRC is elucidating in the sense that it noted large population movements from Baga and the wider Kukawa Local Government Area both prior and during the insurgent incursion in the region. This somewhat undermines implicit assumptions that a large proportion of Baga residents were not aware, and subsequently were unable to evade, the terrorist attack.

The relative population density of Baga town is another factor which raises concerns regarding the credibility of the death toll. According to local officials, it is suggested that the settlement had a population of around 10,000 residents; however, it remains unclear as to whether this number was representative of the town’s population at the time it was attacked. This information is intrinsic in determining the credence of the 2,000 fatality death toll.

It is important to note that the recent Boko Haram offensive was not the first of its kind to target Baga. In April 2013, as many as 200 people were killed in the town following a Boko Haram attack and reciprocal counteroffensive launched by the Nigerian army. It is alleged that the Nigerian military had employed a scorched-earth policy approach in their attempts to retake the Baga, consequently  displacing thousands of residents who had fled to neighbouring Chad.  Further Boko Haram attacks were also reported in Baga on 15 August 2014 when suspected Boko Haram members abducted as many as 100 adolescent males from the town.   In a more recent attack, Boko Haram was suspected to have killed as many as 48 people during an overnight attack on Baga on the evening of 22/23 November 2014.

The April 2013 massacre, in addition to the intermittent Boko Haram attacks in the region, would undoubtedly have led to a significant population displacement in Baga and its immediate surrounds. Thus, if the town’s population of 10,000 was based on figures garnered during Nigeria’s last census in 2006, it would stand to reason that this number would have been considerably lower at the time the settlement was attacked in January 2015 — thus nullifying suggestions that the high death toll in the town was reflective of its relative population density. Nevertheless, even if the population of Baga was 10,000 at the time that it was attacked, Boko Haram would have had to employ significant resources in terms of both manpower and equipment to be able to systematically execute as much as a fifth of the town’s total population.

There have also been suggestions that the quoted death toll of 2,000 may not be specific to Baga alone but rather a cumulative figure derived from a spate of Boko Haram attacks which occurred between 3 and 7 January. According to local reports, as many as 16 villages in the Kukawa local government area came under attack by the Islamist extremist sect over this period. Among those targeted included the settlements of Doron-Baga, Mile 4, Mile 3, Kauyen Kuros and Bunduram. But while a cumulative casualty count does provide greater credence to the demarcated death toll of 2,000, this proposition is also open to contention. Most notably, casualty reporting in multiple locales would be subject to same aforementioned quantification constraints and would similarly be leveraged off unverifiable eyewitness accounts.

It is without doubt that a significant number of people had been slain by Boko Haram in Baga and surrounding areas between 3 and 7 January. Whether this figure had indeed amounted to 2,000 will be difficult, if not impossible, to independently verify. As with the majority of Boko Haram attacks in north eastern Nigeria, a dearth of independent reporting and oversight has rendered the progression of the insurgency as murky and shadowy as the very group perpetrating the violence. It is due to this very information blackout that we should be considered when accepting reportage which appears to be more rooted in sensationalism than fact.

By punting uncorroborated and likely inflated casualty figures, we run the credible risk of quantifying human suffering in a manner which could discourage much-needed international awareness of the Boko Haram conflict. Death tolls which do not tally into the thousands may no longer draw headlines.  Nor will such reports likely evoke the condemnation which accompanied initial reports of Baga and its dead. Instead, Nigerians will continue to die by the scores awaiting help from a world which will only care when they are dying by the thousands.