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The dangerous mix of terrorism and political power struggle in Nigeria, by US Prof. Richard Joseph

Unveiling Nigeria’s Top 100 Companies: Militant Islamism has expanded in northern Nigeria over decades. Its trajectory can be traced because of the central role played by Wahhabi religious institutions in Saudi Arabia in the propagation of Salafist Islam. This process has included the training of clerics, the funding of mosques and schools, and the cultivation of dynamic leaders. The gifted scholar and preacher, Ja’far Mahmoud Adam, became the prime propagator in this network in the mid-2000s. He was killed on April 13, 2007 after virulently denouncing the more extreme views of his protégé, Mohammed Yusuf. When Yusuf and hundreds of his followers were killed by Nigerian police forces in July 2009, the movement went underground. It re-emerged in 2010, popularly referred to as Boko Haram, ready to wage jihadist war against the Nigerian state, Western education, and national and international institutions. It has since adopted every tactic available to contemporary insurgent and terrorist organizations. There are no limits to its brutality as it has targeted school children and very ordinary folk. Its vociferous leader, Abubakar Shekau, taunts the Nigerian government for its inability to crush his movement.New and sustained reflections are needed about a movement that now poses a dire threat to the Nigerian nation, its federal democracy, and neighboring countries. It has become part and parcel of militant global Islamism. To this end, AfricaPlus makes available the second and final part of a November 3 interview of Richard Joseph, a professor of international history and politics at Northwestern University, the United States, US, by Jerome McDonnell of WBEZ, Chicago, followed by responses from Akin Osuntokun and Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi.

What do you make of the situation in Nigeria?

Nigeria is in a very critical situation and Americans and others need to pay closer attention. The Obama Administration is very focused on Iraq and Syria, and on combating the Islamic state. But there is now an avowed Islamic state in Africa.

And this is the Boko Haram “state” in northern Nigeria?
Correct. They have declared a caliphate, with Gwoza as its capital. They control an estimated 8,000 to 9,000 square miles of territory. That would be equivalent to the American state of New Jersey, or Massachusetts. They’ve not only kept the Nigerian military at bay but many Nigerian soldiers are terrified of their fighters. It seems increasingly clear that the Nigerian military is not able to defeat Boko Haram on its own. Nigeria is in pre-electoral mode with national elections coming up in February, so this is a very critical period for the nation.

It seems that Goodluck Jonathan is not the candidate you would want to back if you sought a change in the situation in northern Nigeria. He’s not from the region. The country used to take turns with leadership, with people from the North and South. Now it seems like that tradition is busted.

That is right. America has been fortunate with wartime presidents. We had Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the Second World War. When he died, his vice-president, Harry S. Truman, took over. Truman turned out to be a darned good president, and also superb in international affairs. Goodluck Jonathan, like Truman, is an accidental president, who follows an ineffective president, Umaru Yar’Adua. Yar’Adua was not only politically but physically weak. The person responsible for their elevation to high office was Olusegun Obasanjo. Obasanjo was twice Nigeria’s head of state, as a military ruler in the late 1970s and as an elected president from 1999 to 2007. He spent most of his second term trying to get rid of the two-term constitutional limit. When he had to leave, he ushered in Yar’Adua from the far North as president and, for the vice presidency, Goodluck Jonathan, from the South-south, that is, the Delta oil-producing region. Yar’Adua was critically ill for several months in 2009-2010 but wouldn’t hand over power to Jonathan. He was finally forced to do so on February 9, 2010 and died shortly thereafter, on May 5. Jonathan completed his term and then ran in 2011 and won. Following that election, violent and highly destructive rioting took place in northern Nigeria.

The North has been in decline and its residents are generally disenchanted. It must be understood that the Boko Haram insurgency is taking place in a region of about 80 million people in a country about twice that size, about 170 million. Goodluck Jonathan is looked upon by many in the North as having taken over the North’s term in office. Because of Yar’Adua’s weakness and his uncompleted first term, they feel their “turn” in the presidency was usurped. Jonathan stated that he would only run for one term. To no one’s surprise, he has recently announced his decision to run again in 2015. He is competing for the presidency at a time when oil prices have dropped sharply. Nigeria doesn’t have much financial reserves. The Excess Crude Oil Account is largely depleted. Reserves from petroleum revenues have been drawn to maintain political support. Nigeria is therefore entering a period of great uncertainty.

The United States seems to have taken a serious interest in Boko Haram and put them in its security framework. I was surprised when I heard the Head of Central Intelligencetalking about Boko Haram and drone strikes. It’s a situation that they appear to take very seriously.

Yes, they take it seriously, but there are a number of problems. The first is that it’s difficult dealing with the Nigerian government and also the Nigerian military. There is also the disturbing fact of publicized atrocities, human rights abuses, conducted by Nigerian security forces. This makes it difficult, given American law, to cooperate with them.
The other problem is that Nigeria is a very nationalist country. Nigerians consider their nation to be a major one. It is not like Sierra Leone, where the British intervened in May 2000 and drove back the militias. Or Mali, where the French did the same to the jihadists in January 2013. So the question is: Will Nigeria be able to work with external help, and will it accept that help? It does not appear able to defeat Boko Haram on its own, in the same way that Iraqi forces cannot defeat the Islamic State. So how is Nigeria going to get the necessary external assistance? What the US and coalition forces are doing in Iraq and Syria is what is needed in Nigeria. Nigeria needs a higher level of intervention, and I don’t see how that will happen.

Is there a non-military way to do it? Everybody looked at the military solution in Iraq and said “this isn’t really going to work, but we’re going to do it anyway”. It would seem that there would be a political avenue to take in Nigeria with the coming presidential election. It presents an opportunity to create more political space for people in the North to feel included in what’s going on..

Let me touch on the military aspect before moving on to the political. As President Barack Obama said in his speech at the U.N. on September 24, there has to be a military response to violent jihadists. The same is true with regard to Boko Haram in Nigeria. A month ago, there were supposedly talks taking place in the Chadian capital, N’Djamena. We were told that the release of the Chibok girls and a ceasefire were imminent. All that evaporated and the warfare has intensified.
Getting to the political side, you do have a point. There is an opening for Nigeria. Discussing this opportunity puts me in an odd position. I have no intention of seeking to influence Nigerian electoral politics. A few major parties enjoying control of state governments have come together and formed an opposition coalition, the All Progressives Congress (APC). Its likely candidate for the presidency, unless for some reason he decides to step aside, is Muhammadu Buhari. Buhari has run for the presidency a number of times and also served as a military head of state, 1984-85. Assuming he is the APC presidential candidate, and has a respected southerner as his running mate, the APC could mount a major challenge to Jonathan and the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP).

Nigeria has a highly presidential system, but this is combined with a sub-regional or zonal approach to national politics. When Goodluck Jonathan moved from acting to official president on May 6, 2010, his presence helped tamp down the long-running armed insurgency in the Niger-Delta. For the combatants, and regional politicians, their man was now in control in Abuja, with access to abundant government resources. It would be understandable if some Nigerians, especially northerners, believed that the only way to mobilize the needed forces to defeat Boko Haram would be to bring a northerner to power.

There are two further relevant points. One of the greatest failures in Nigeria has been the failure of northern political (including military) leaders to enact a modernizing project for their region. They did not develop the North when they had privileged access to enormous financial resources. The second point concerns the military establishment. What are senior Nigerian officers thinking? Earlier, matters would not have reached this point. Nigerians would have already heard martial music on the radio and television, followed by announcements that the military had resumed control. During his term as an elected president, Obasanjo, as a military man and former coup-leader, succeeded in weakening the military’s threat to civilian government. But how long is the military going to allow this situation to persist?

Do you have any advice for the United States and what it should do? It rushed into Liberia at the pleading of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to combat Ebola. You would need to drag the United States into serious military involvement in West Africa. But could it play any kind of role here that would be beneficial?

If I had to imagine an American role, it would look as follows. We are dealing with African geopolitics and global geopolitics. The African geo-political situation concerns a band of insecurity, instability and insurgency from the Northeast to the North-west of the continent.  What is taking place in northern Nigeria connects with what occurred in Mali and southern Algeria. The Boko Haram insurgency also involves northern Cameroon, Niger, and Chad. This is the regional African geo-political dimension.

Second is global geo-politics in terms of global Islamism. Goodluck Jonathan went to Paris in May 2014 to attend a meeting convened by the president of France, François Hollande, of regional African presidents. It seemed a little odd because, why couldn’t Jonathan just invite those leaders to Abuja for such a meeting? But it gives a sense of what we’re dealing with in terms of regional leadership. What the U.S. must do is work more effectively with the French, the British, and other European partners. They need to put together a coalition, because coalitions have worked well in support of peace efforts and democratic transitions in Africa. We’ve seen this in Mali, Niger, the Ivory Coast, and even Somalia.

There’s a need to put together one of these coalitions, bring together African leaders, executives of the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and others and sit down with Goodluck Jonathan and his advisers. He has to be told, if he doesn’t acknowledge it, that Nigeria is not winning the struggle. It had thirty-six states; it now has a thirty-seventh, a rogue state. Is Nigeria going to accept this loss of sovereignty? If not, a Western and African coalition must work with Nigerians to reverse this alarming situation.


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