A Sinkhole Sucking in Failed States: jihad in Africa

Collapse formed by rainwater leaking through pavement and carrying soil into a ruptured sewer pipe. Image from wikipedia

The number of violent incidents involving jihadist groups in Africa has increased by more than 300% between 2010 and 2017… Many Western officers are despondent. Without more troops “there is no question we will lose”, says a senior French officer.

In the potpourri of jihadist groups, many pledge their loyalties to al-Qaeda or IS. They include al-Shabab in Somalia, Boko Haram and its factions in Nigeria, and Jama’a Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin in Mali. In each country, conflict may be fuelled largely by local grievances. But the insurgents share some ideological traits. Many have been strengthened by the breakdown of Libya after the downfall of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in 2011. Weapons spilled out of Libya’s armouries, and smuggling networks for everything from people to drugs developed across the Sahara. There are signs that the jihadists are learning from one another and sucking money and support from militant groups in the Middle East

The most important of the battles is Nigeria’s campaign against Boko Haram. ..A retired general who once held a senior post at AFRICOM, America’s military command for Africa, puts it thus: “If Nigeria goes down it would make a giant sinkhole that would suck in six or seven other countries.” Nigeria’s difficulties, moreover, offer sobering lessons to many other African countries, and their Western allies.

Maiduguri (Nigeria) was the birthplace of Boko Haram, whose factions make up the world’s deadliest terrorist group. It is so extreme that it sickens even IS and al-Qaeda. The group was founded by the followers of a charismatic Islamic preacher, Mohammed Yusuf, who had started a religious school and mosque in Maiduguri in 2002… Among his demands was a ban on secular schooling (the group’s name, Boko Haram, means “Western education is a sin” in Hausa).

The Nigerian police arrested and then killed Yusuf in front of a crowd outside the police headquarters in Maiduguri (the government insisted he was shot while trying to escape). Yusuf’s followers went into hiding before emerging under the command of Abubakar Shekau. In 2011 they blew up the headquarters of the Nigerian police and a UN building in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. By the end of 2014 they had overrun large parts of three states in north-eastern Nigeria, gained international notoriety after kidnapping almost 300 schoolgirls from Chibok and were fighting their way into Maiduguri. Nigeria’s army, hollowed out by corruption, was in disarray. Units were filled by ghost soldiers whose pay was being pocketed by their commanders. One Western officer recalls how a company that should have had 100-150 soldiers consisted of just 20 men.

Boko Haram did not at first try to govern…. It preferred chaos. It bombed mosques and markets, massacred villagers and abducted women and children. Some girls were enslaved and sold. Others were pressed into being human bombs. A study by the Combating Terrorism Centre at West Point, a military academy, found that more than half of 434 such human bombs the group used between April 2011 and June 2017 were female.UNICEF, the UN children’s agency, says that last year Boko Haram strapped bombs to at least 135 children.

Mr Shekau’s brutality proved too much even for IS, to which he had sworn allegiance in 2015, changing Boko Haram’s name to Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). In 2016 IS named Abu Musab al-Barnawi the leader of ISWAP, splintering the group into two factions.  Meanwhile, thousands of villagers and residents of Maiduguri took up machetes or handmade muskets and joined a self-defence militia, the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), that held the gates of the city. The new president of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, a northerner and former military dictator, ordered his generals to move their headquarters to Maiduguri. Neighbouring states such as Chad, Niger and Cameroon contributed troops to a multinational force. Within months the army had recaptured most big towns, pushing the insurgents into forests or Lake Chad, a mass of swamps where the borders of four countries meet.

Since then, though, stalemate has set in…The ISWAP has learned how to make roadside bombs and has become more skilled in conducting attacks.  …It levies “taxes” on locals and erects roadblocks to extort money from passing traffic… It is building a proto-caliphate. 

Nigeria’s generals talk about “winning hearts and minds” but they are doing the opposite. The army has systematically cleared people from the countryside, burning their villages and packing them into squalid camps in Maiduguri and other “garrison towns”. In all, some 2.4m people have been displaced by the fighting in Nigeria and neighbouring countries. T  Most observers think that indiscriminate killings by the army and the forcing of people into garrison towns are fuelling the insurgency. There are almost no jobs in the camps. Access is through checkpoints manned by the army and CJTF, who demand bribes. Amnesty International, a human-rights group, says many women and girls have been raped in the camps and that hundreds if not thousands of people confined in them have died of starvation or a lack of medical care. … “It is like a factory for jihadis.”

The Nigerian state’s failure extends far beyond the camps. In  In effect, Nigeria’s north-east is a failed state within a dysfunctional one.

Excerpts from Jihad’s Next Battleground,  Economist, July 14, 2018, at 41

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