Thinking Aloud: “Understanding Boko Haram and the Terror in Nigeria”

Mar. 28, 2015 by Darius

Today, Nigerians go to the polls (for real this time) to choose their next president.  One of the biggest issues in the race is the fight against Boko Haram and if that fight is being waged competently and effectively by President Goodluck Jonathan’s government.

Last week, I saw a presentation by Hilary Matfess tracing the history of Boko Haram and social violence in Nigeria.

Matfess defined social violence as any violence that is not criminal in motivation.  Although Boko Haram was founded in 2002, as a movement opposing government corruption and Western (and Christian) education in Nigeria’s Muslim north, it did not kill anyone until 2005.  Even then, between 2005 and mid-2009, only five deaths were directly attributed to Boko Haram.  During this period, Boko Haram acted like a dissident sect, rather than a terrorist insurgency, targeting local politicians and imams who disagreed with its views but not taking its campaign to the national level.

In the second half of 2009, this paradigm changed.  Boko Haram staged a few major attacks, killing 22 people.  In response, the Nigerian government launched an offensive against Boko Haram.  The Nigerian government killed nearly 800 people.

In 2009, Boko Haram’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf, died in Nigerian police custody.  Abubaker Shekau, who remains Boko Haram’s commander, took charge of the group and, by 2010, Boko Haram’s activities took a much more lethal turn.  In addition, Boko Haram began targeting the Nigerian state rather than local leaders who opposed it.  Attacks increased in frequency and  deadliness.  As a result, social violence, previously spread quite equally around Nigeria, became concentrated in three northeastern provinces where Boko Haram operates.

In 2013, the Nigerian government declared a state of emergency in these provinces.  In response, Boko Haram’s fundamental character shifted again.  Boko Haram was displaced from urban areas by the government offensive.  For the first time, Boko Haram became primarily rural and began controlling and holding territory.  Boko Haram continues in this phase today.

According to Matfess, the results of Boko Haram’s rise and the Nigerian government’s response have been devastating to the northeast.  Of the three provinces affected by the state of emergency, 80% of businesses have closed in Borno Province, 70% of businesses have closed in Adamawa Province, and 50% of businesses have closed in Yobe Province.  Such basic economic disruption has caused a major regional increase in food prices and sent millions fleeing to other parts of Nigeria.

Matfess said there are between two and three million internally displaced persons and another million refugees created by Boko Haram.  In many cases, these IDPs have come into conflict with host communities because the host communities are often no better off economically, leading to an expansion of social tension and violence.  The Nigerian government, for its part, has responded incompetently to the problem of IDPs.  No records exist, and few IDPs get any government services.

For the two main Nigerian presidential candidates, the fight against Boko Haram is a major campaign issue.  Supporters of Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, believe it is not a good idea to change leaders in the midst of the campaign against Boko Haram.  Jonathan’s opponent, Muhammadu Buhari, a former military ruler of Nigeria, has campaigned on promises to bring his military experience to bear on Boko Haram.

Matfess feared the election itself, even if free and fair, will lead to more strife.  And as for the millions of Nigerians actually displaced by the fighting?  They won’t get to vote at all because Nigerian law requires people to vote in the town in which they registered, even if that town is no longer there.

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News You Really Need To See: “Battling Boko Haram, Chad’s Strongman Pleases the West”

“Battling Boko Haram, Chad’s Strongman Pleases the West”

The New York Times, March 28, 2015, p.A4

“Chad’s president, Idriss Déby, speaks in a soft mumble, wears spectacles and an immaculate white robe, and is to be found in the quiet inner recesses of a gilt-edged, marble presidential palace — under crystal chandeliers and vaulted arches that seem part Renaissance, part Vegas — at the dusty center of his country’s capital.  Yet he is undeniably one of Africa’s most formidable strongmen.  His men once whipped Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s fighters in a desert battle, and he has survived numerous rebel assaults and coup attempts.  More recently, his forces have successfully battled the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram and Al Qaeda’s regional affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, shoring up his credentials as the West’s favorite African autocrat. … The president says he took up the war against Boko Haram reluctantly, and mostly as a bid for economic survival: Chad is a landlocked country, dependent on land trade routes through the militant group’s territory.  In the process, he has embarrassed Nigeria — a small-country president cleaning up a far bigger and richer one’s mess — and he has overshadowed the militaries of neighboring Cameroon and Niger that are less well equipped, while earning the gratitude of Western leaders.  Those leaders once shunned him for his shaky human rights record, low corruption ranking, nepotism and brutal police force.  In fact, those conditions have not changed.  His country ranks fourth from the bottom on the United Nations Human Development Index of 187 nations, with rock-bottom life expectancy and schooling levels.  The Chadian elite connected to him enjoy gargantuan villas, looming above the battered one-story dwellings of ordinary people.  Last week, clandestinely recorded video images showed his police officers whipping half-naked student demonstrators.  And his military forces were accused of serious human rights violations during their intervention in the Central African Republic last year.  Yet Mr. Déby, 62, is a pariah no more.  Now the French foreign minister smiles at him in photographs.  Although he insists he is not ‘Africa’s policeman,’ the West is only too happy to call on his forces in a region seething with Islamist terrorists.”

Quickie analysis:  The article doesn’t mention that the CIA sponsored the coup that brought Déby to power in 1990.  Nice to see an investment paying off, eh?

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Thinking Aloud: A History Lesson for Egypt

Mar. 27, 2015 by Darius

Today, the Egyptian government announced that it is willing to send ground troops to Yemen to fight the Houthis.  This wouldn’t be the first time an Egyptian military government sent troops to fight Zaydi tribesmen in Yemen.  Let’s have a look at how the first time worked out.

In 1962, a military coup in Yemen toppled the ruling Imam (effectively a monarch).  The resulting government modeled itself on that of Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser.  Quickly, though, fighting broke out between the new Yemeni government and northern tribes who supported the Imam’s return.  The Yemeni government appealed to Nasser, who dispatched Egyptian troops to Yemen.

The Egyptians hoped to do exactly what other nations have tried since: use airpower to batter guerilla fighters while not committing many ground troops.  That strategy didn’t work any better for Egypt in Yemen than when the US tried it in Vietnam, the USSR tried it in Afghanistan, or the US tried it in Afghanistan.  Soon, the Egyptians held only the major cities, while the royalist tribesmen roamed at will in the countryside.  Egypt began to commit more and more ground troops.  By 1965, there were 70,000 Egyptian soldiers in Yemen.

By the time Nasser pulled out of Yemen completely at the end of 1967,  tens of thousands of Egyptian soldiers were killed and tens of thousands more had been tied down in Yemen during Egypt’s humiliating war with Israel earlier that year.

There are a few important differences between the Yemeni conflict of the 1960s and the present, the most important of which is the role of Saudi Arabia, which supported the Shia rebels financially and militarily in the 1960s.  (Saudi Arabia always prefers to see a monarch installed when given a choice.)  However, given how disastrous the last Yemen expedition was for Egypt, one would think this history should give the current Egyptian government pause before sending troops.

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News You Really Need To See: “Iraqi Militias Balk at U.S. Strikes in Tikrit”

“Iraqi Militias Balk at U.S. Strikes in Tikrit”

The Washington Post, March 27, 2015, p.A1

“Iraqi militia forces that have led the fight against Islamic State militants in Tikrit balked at U.S. intervention Thursday, saying that they would stop thousands of fighters under their influence from joining an offensive on the city.  Though the militia leaders said they would remain in their positions around Tikrit, their refusal to continue fighting raises the question as to whether regular Iraqi troops can continue the battle on their own.  The largely Iranian-backed paramilitary groups reacted with fury Thursday after coalition planes launched 17 airstrikes on Tikrit during a first wave of attacks. … The discord has the potential to undermine Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s authority while drastically cutting the number of pro-government forces at Tikrit from as many as 30,000 to around 4,000. … Citing the widely held belief in Iraq that the United States has been dropping supplies to Islamic State militants, [miltia] Kitaeb Hezbollah said it would consider any plane from the U.S.-led coalition a target.”

Quickie analysis:  In the Middle East, the enemy of my enemy is often also my enemy.

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Thinking Aloud: J.S. Mill and Today’s Headlines

Mar. 26, 2015 by Darius

I recently read John Stuart Mill’s 1859 essay “A Few Words on Non-Intervention.”  Although I wanted to like the essay, I found most of it to be a racist rationalization of the British Empire.  However, there were two passages that caught my eye as all too applicable to current events.

The first: “A government which needs foreign support to enforce obedience from its own citizens, is one which ought not to exist; and the assistance given to it by foreigners is hardly ever anything but the sympathy of one despotism with another.”

It’s hard not to think of Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s recent request for foreign intervention to stop the advance of the Houthis and of the Saudi-led “assistance” today.

It may be useful to note that although Hadi is frequently referred to in the press and by the Saudis as the rightful leader of Yemen, he was never elected.  He just happened to be vice president when his boss, Ali Abdullah Saleh, agreed to leave office in the wake of Arab Spring protests.  Hadi became “acting president” and was supposed to see Yemen through a transition to a national unity government.  That was in 2011.  Long transition, apparently.

The second passage from Mill: “[If a people] have not sufficient love of liberty to be able to wrest it from merely domestic oppressors, the liberty which is bestowed on them by other hands than their own, will have nothing real, nothing permanent.  No people ever was and remained free, but because it was determined to be so…”

Iraq instantly came to mind.

I don’t mean to insult the Iraqi people, but let’s take a look at history.  Prior to the US invasion, Iraq had been ruled by Saddam Hussein since 1968.  In that time, there were major rebellions against Hussein’s government by the Kurds and by Shia sections of the population.  These rebellions failed to attract popular support outside their sectarian groups and were ultimately crushed.  In 2003, the US invaded, deposed Hussein, and tried to set up a government in which everyone could get along.  By 2005, Iraq was close to all-out sectarian civil war.  More US soldiers and changing counterinsurgency tactics brought some peace.  Then the US left, and Iraq went to hell in a handbasket again.  Now Iran is deeply involved in Iraq, for better or for worse, and yesterday, the US reluctantly began launching airstrikes in support of the Shia militias and Iraqi troops trying to take the city of Tikrit back from ISIS.

Saddam Hussein was an international pariah for most of his rule and cannot be said to have been kept in power by a foreign power.  Yet he was never overthrown, in part because his domestic opponents could never put aside their differences any better than they have been able to do since then to “wrest” their freedom from him.

Iraq’s government and citizens have yet to put any emphasis on achieving or maintaining when “bestowed on them by other hands” anything that resembles J.S. Mill’s idea of liberty—namely, a pluralistic, restricted government.

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News You Really Need To See: “Obama’s Pragmatism, Convictions Collide in Two Wars”

“Obama’s Pragmatism, Convictions Collide in Two Wars”

The Washington Post, March 26, 2015, p.A10

“For a president committed to ending two of America’s longest wars, it has been a rough few days.  First, on Tuesday, President Obama said he would freeze U.S. troop withdrawals in Afghanistan, acknowledging that Afghan forces still lack the firepower and training to hold off the Taliban.  Then on Wednesday, the Pentagon said it had begun dropping bombs in support of a stalled Iraqi offensive in Tikrit, edging the United States deeper into Iraq’s largely sectarian war.  The decisions highlight a tension at the heart of Obama’s wartime presidency between a pragmatic need to limit the chaos in the two battle-scarred countries and the president’s strongly held desire to get the United States out of its longest wars. … But as the end of Obama’s presidency draws closer, his pragmatism is increasingly colliding with his strongly held belief that U.S. military power will never be able to fix the problems in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Without a clear end date, senior White House officials warn that the U.S. role in the wars will go on forever. … For this week, at least, Obama’s pragmatism trumped his deep convictions.  The combat and surveillance sorties in Tikrit effectively put the U.S. military in the middle of a messy civil war that Obama thought he had ended when he ordered the withdrawal of the last U.S. ground troops in late 2011. … In Afghanistan, Obama froze U.S. troop levels at 9,800 through the end of this year, amid worries that Afghan army and police deaths had spiked to unsustainable levels.  The extra 5,000 troops will allow the United States to keep open bases in Kandahar and Jalalabad, where the Taliban remains strong.  U.S. forces based near the two cities will advise the Afghan troops and call in U.S. airstrikes to help fend off Taliban assaults. Central Intelligence Agency drones will continue secret counterterrorism strikes from the two bases.”

Quickie analysis:  It’s hard to see either of these actions doing much except delaying the inevitable.

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Thinking Aloud: “Evaluating” US-Israeli Relations?

Mar. 25, 2015 by Darius

Following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s comments towards the end of his re-election campaign that there would not be a Palestinian state as long as he is prime minister, the Obama administration has directed plenty of criticism Netanyahu’s way.  Prospective 2016 US Presidential candidates are finding themselves forced to take a position on this rift.

Within the Republican Party, it seems that even the smallest and most rational criticism of Israel is now anathema.  Former Secretary of State under George H.W. Bush, James Baker III, said in a speech to the liberal Jewish organization J Street that Netanyahu had made “diplomatic missteps” and engaged in unhelpful politicking.  Coming from the person who almost single-handedly dragged the Israeli government and Palestinian delegations together at the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, one would think these criticisms, if you can call them that, are reasonable, politic, and delivered by someone with the context to appreciate the significance.  Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush, though, put aside his respect for his father’s former right-hand man to distance himself from the slightest criticism of Netanyahu.  Jeb Bush’s spokesperson quickly reassured the world that Bush’s support for Netanyahu is “unwavering.”

However, Bush’s defense of Netanyahu was completely blown away by that of Texas Senator Ted Cruz.  In the speech in which he announced his candidacy, Cruz laid into Obama for “boycotting” Netanyahu, accused Obama of trying to undermine Netanyahu’s re-election campaign, and sucked up to Netanyahu’s capabilities as a leader for good measure.

On the Democratic side, things are a bit more complicated.  Obviously, Obama’s Democratic administration has made its feelings on Netanyahu’s latest comments crystal clear.  However, Hillary Clinton, widely assumed to be the main Democratic candidate, has traditionally taken a more hawkish and conservative position on foreign policy than Obama.  More important, the Democratic Party, and particularly Hillary’s husband, Bill, consider Jewish Americans to be a core constituency.  There is certainly more flexibility on the Democratic side of the aisle, though: many American Jews are no friends of Netanyahu and, in any case, polling has shown that American Jews put less emphasis on US-Israel relations in choosing whom to vote for than many assume.

Other than the usual partisan need to stake out one’s space in the political arena, the responses to any perceived criticism of Israel reflect what has become a fundamental divide between the views of Republican primary voters and the views of Democratic primary voters.  About 40% of Republican primary voters are born-again or Evangelical Christians, a group that feels a strong religious duty to support Israel.  In fact, recent polling data shows that born-again or Evangelical Christians are more likely to feel a religious obligation to support Israel than American Jews do (see  As more Republicans announce their Presidential ambitions, it is probably safe to assume they will have an informal contest to see how pro-Israel they can get.

Among Democratic primary voters, on the other hand, human rights concerns are more central to their views on Israel and US policy towards Israel.  (See, for example, This gives any Democratic Presidential candidates far more leeway in crafting a position on US-Israel policy in general or on Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership specifically.

For the time being, though, we can expect one Republican aspirant after another to pledge his fealty to Mr. Netanyahu, right or wrong.

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