Forecasting Political Instability

What signals indicate the onset of severe political instability, the worst-case scenario being state-collapse or civil war, with enough lead-time to take preventative action?

This question was asked at the end of the Cold War leading to the creation of the Political Instability Task Force (PITF) in 1994, funded by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The goal was to create a model to determine reliable indicators of instability at least two years prior to the onset of a major crisis.

The PITF devised a model for determining the onset of severe political instability by correlating open-source data variables from over 140 episodes of major instability worldwide stretching back to 1955, and claims an 80% post fact success rate. The model categorizes episodes of major instability as Revolutionary Wars, Ethnic Wars, Adverse Regime Changes, and Genocides and Politicides.

The PITF model* examined hundreds of factors including political, economic, demographic, geopolitical, social, and environmental variables to determine an ‘association with vulnerability to political instability’ through correlating data with the historical record. PITF researchers found that “relatively simple models, involving just a handful of variables and no complex interactions, accurately classify 80% or more of the instability onsets and stable countries in the historical data.”

The main independent variables incorporated by the PITF model includes regime type and political factionalism, infant mortality, neighborhood insecurity, and state-led discrimination.

  • Infant mortality figures provide a reliable standard of living indicator as this reflects a country’s level of socioeconomic development and public wellbeing. This is in turn a product of low levels of governmental effectiveness and quality of political leadership. model confirmed that poorer and underdeveloped states are generally at higher risk of experiencing political instability.
  • The neighboring component refers to general regional instability. The model found that regional security has a measurable impact on the stability of states within the regional system. Part of the risk is that conflict spillover from states experiencing violent conflict may aggravate domestic political tensions in neighboring states. The model also includes other geopolitical risks including the security effects of land-locked states and countries with large land masses.
  • State-led discrimination refers to the degree of institutional, or official political and economic discrimination against specific groups within society. This reflects the nature of communal relations and incorporates religious, ethnic and racial components which may prove divisive.
  • Regime-type refers to the type and nature of states, some of which are more prone to instability than others. This includes regimes along the spectrum of full or partial autocracies, to full or partial democracies. Factionalism refers to social and political polarization linked to the degree of inclusive or exclusive political participation – a leading indicator affecting the probability of unrest and violence.

Jack Goldstone, a former PITF team member explains the salience of regime-type, when anticipating political instability, stating “surprisingly few other factors mattered”.

 Regime Type and Factionalism

As stated, the PITF model found that geopolitical stability, including outbreak of revolutions, ethnic wars, and adverse regime changes (defined as abrupt turns from a more democratic system to one that is more authoritarian), is “overwhelmingly determined by a country’s patterns of political competition and political authority”. Economic conditions, the record of prior instability and conflict, ethnic and regional tensions, and regional security remain secondary, yet important independent, and interdependent variables. The PITF model determined three main dimensions affect regime stability (bullets are direct quotes):

  • the degree of openness and electoral competitiveness in the recruitment of the chief executive (Executive Recruitment);
  • the degree of institutional constraints on the authority of that chief executive (Executive Constraints);
  • and the degree to which political competition is unrestricted, institutionalized, and cooperative rather than repressed or factionalized (Political Competition).

These dynamics are relevant when assessing political risk in all types of regimes as they reflect the degree of inclusiveness, and by extension the probability of opposition to the staus quo.

According to the PITF, factionalism has proven to be the ‘most statistically powerful, precursive condition in modeling the onset of serious political instability’ as this influences ‘patterns of executive recruitment and political participation under those regimes’. The model describes factionalism as occurring when “when political competition is dominated by ethnic or other parochial groups that regularly compete for political influence in order to promote particularist agendas and favor group members to the detriment of common, secular, or cross-cutting agendas.”

Figure A demonstrates the relative importance of aforementioned variables in determining the onset of instability, particularly the risks associated with highly factionalized partial democratic states.

Figure A. Goldstone, J.A., and Ulfelder, J. 2004. How to Construct Stable Democracies. Washington Quarterly 28(1):9-20

Jack Goldstone notes in his writings on revolutions that divisions among elites are not enough to generate instability as competing elites can be managed by an authoritarian leader; however, ‘what is crucial for political crises to emerge is for elites to be not only divided but polarized—that is, to form two or three coherent groupings with sharp differences in their visions of how social order should be structured’.  A good current example would be split between the pro- and anti- socialist camps in crisis-ridden Venezuela.

The high correlation between regime type and insecurity relates to the vulnerability or resilience of certain states when confronted by multiple challenges. According to Goldstone, when the resilience of the state is tested, the “most important factor is elite loyalty and commitment to supporting the existing regime”. The model found that full or consolidated democratic, and fully autocratic regimes exhibit greater levels of stability, while partial, or illiberal democratic states, (called anocracies) characterized by factionalism are most prone to instability. The record suggests that anocracies are least able to weather bouts of severe instability; once a social, political, conflict, or economic challenge becomes unbearable, marked factionalism among elite groups may occur as alternative visions of order emerge, leading to infighting, spoiler politics, opposition and regime sponsored violence against opponents, elevated levels of political instability, and state collapse. Anocracies may remain stable depending upon the degree of elite cohesion: the overall unity and loyalty of high-level political and military elites explains how the Mugabe regime remained in power for over a decade after the country’s economy flat-lined, despite widespread  socioeconomic collapse.

Figure B demonstrates level of instability between the range of regime types defined by the PITF.

Figure B. Regimes and levels of political instability.

Politics in quasi-democratic/anocratic states is frequently seen as a winner-takes-all competition, where state control is the ultimate goal due to the party’s ability to capture the state and manage the distributions of spoils, often building extensive patronage networks that strengthen the regime, or the faction within the regime with access to the levers of power.  The regime may limit the ability of the opposition to mobilize support in order to undermine its prospects for inclusion within government. Inconsequential ‘managed elections’may be permitted, but have limited impact on the selection of the prime minster or president. A national leader may enjoys unlimited power due to the absence of institutional or legal constraints. The regime may lock up or kill the opposition, triggering episodes of mass unrest, contained through state violence. This could have the long term effect of fostering a simmering yet intense opposition to the regime, which may result in civil war as armed conflict remains the only viable option for the opposition.

Politics in fully democratic or autocratic states are generally more stable as political competition (or lack-thereof) is institutionalized and at least tacitly accepted by most major players. While the absence of electoral competitiveness, restraints on the leader, and degree of political participation is restricted in an autocratic regime, contributing to its stability by containing all or most power within a clique that has loyalty instilled by fear, or rented, autocracies are nonetheless prone to violent overthrow, as demonstrated by the fall of the Shah in Iran in 1979. Fully democratic regimes by contrast have established avenues for peaceful political competition, yet are also subject to breakdown owing to changes in ideology, elite composition or other internal/external influences.

Regime types and the nature of political participation can thus be seen as structural causes of instability, while immediate causes include a broad range of factors, such as the lifting of fuel subsidies or imprisoning a popular opposition leader, which are able to trigger a crisis.

Visualizing vulnerability

The Center for Systemic Peace (CSP) continues some of the work of the PITF, and publishes occasional reports on global security. The following map from the CSP (Figure C) lists regime types globally. This presents a global spatial risk model, with states colour-coded along a spectrum from democratic to autocratic. One could say this represents a ‘horizontal’ risk map, as it reflects a current, yet dynamic, political topography. Anocratic regimes in grey and purple indicate highest risk areas.

Figure C. Polity IV Individual Country Regime Trends, 1946-2013.

A ‘vertical’ risk map (Figure D) , based on the historical experience, can be found in the study “State Fragility and Warfare in the Global System 2016,” which lists 328 major episodes of political violence from 1946 to 2016 — including over 30 that are ongoing. This map reflects areas of elevated political instability, using the definitions above.

The World Wars are not included in PTIF model, as the model only began measuring politics since 1956 due to the lack of reliable data before this date. These wars occurred in part due to the changing global geopolitical order, what Halford Mackinder called the post-Colombian era. In this regard, the PTIF model measures the post-colonial world order, many parts of which were beset by violent post-independence struggles, including highly destabilizing factional struggles within new democratic and quasi-democratic regimes. According to the data series, Sub-Saharan Africa was the most unstable part of the world during this period, followed by the Middle East and South Asia.

Figure D. Major Episodes of Political Violence 1946-2016.

Figure D. Major Episodes of Political Violence 1946-2016.

One can question the degree of cause and effect in the development of the model as areas characterized by the prevalence of anocratic regimes may have weak or factitious political systems precisely because of post-independence nation-building related conflict. This suggests the possibility of a vicious circle of instability as renewed bouts of conflict undermine the development of effective governance and elevate militarily successful groups to high office, perhaps the exclusion of others, producing factionalism. Nevertheless, the model attempts to use current indicators to anticipate future instability, and appears well founded in this regard.

The components of the PITF model are useful for gauging country risk conditions by giving the analyst a credible methodology for anticipating bouts of severe political instability. While the model has predictive capacity, it is not able to predict the duration or intensity of conflict or political crisis. It is less useful as a barometer of real-time fluctuations in political risks, which require a more nuanced and complex index or methodology. In this regard, a fusion between the PITF and the World Bank’s 300 odd factor Worldwide Governance Indicators (WGI) could be useful. Experts agree only a combination of matrices, together with the contribution of expert opinion or subject-matter expertise is required to accurately gauge political and country risk.

*The “PITF global model uses a triple-matched, case-control methodology and a conditional logistic regression statistical application to specify key, precursive factors that characterize the imminent risk of the onset of a political instability (state failure) condition in any of 163 countries in the world”. One of the few semi-official publications of the PITF, describing the workings of the model is available here.

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Global Trends

Intelligence analysts have long debated whether their discipline is an art or a science.  For the most part, forecasting remains an exercise in structured analytic reasoning. Analysts have to factor in past and present dynamics to sketch out possible and probable future trends, to guide clients such as policymakers. This also requires imagination and factoring in unknowns. In as much as geopolitical risk analysis uses the history of the present to set the tone for the immediate future, thinking through a vision of the future also helps to illuminate the present. In this regard, much value can be derived by studying strategic forecast analyses, specifically those by national intelligence agencies that have the resources to employ worthy minds to this end.

The US National Intelligence Council’s (NIC) report Global Trends: The Paradox of Progress, offers fascinating insights into possible and probable geopolitical, social and economic trends. The report explores “how the changing nature of power is increasing stress both within countries and between countries” and tries to understand what transformative impacts these stresses will have.

Global Trends notes that the next five years will see an increase in tensions between and within countries, and that the future will likely be marked by greater conflict risks of due to “diverging interests among major powers, an expanding terror threat, continued instability in weak states, and the spread of lethal, disruptive technologies”. Cooperation on global issues is likely to be hampered by ‘veto power’ due to competing strategic visions and the expanding interests of the great and regional powers and their UNSC allies (think Syria in recent years). Conflict prevention norms and human-rights provisions will be weakened, including by states such as Russia and China, leading to more violent localized conflict, while preventing multilateral diplomatic solutions. Conflict will also move away from traditional defeat of the enemy on battlefield towards disruptive attacks targeting critical infrastructure and undermining social cohesion to secure advantage and force an opponent’s hand.

The report notes that the lines between war and peace will be blurred through these increasing range of tools that actors may employ, ‘undermining old norms of escalation and deterrence’. Deniable state-sponsored cyberattacks on an opponent’s electricity infrastructure during an election period to sway the vote may be a good example here. Terror attacks may become more consequential due to the spread of lethal and disruptive technologies, including precision weapons, robotic systems and cyber arsenals. State sponsored sabotage could employ these same tool, likely in the targeting of enemy industrial infrastructure. The report also notes that noncombatants will increasingly be targeted, perhaps to incite disruptive intra-state tensions and conflict. Long-distant and remote attacks will become increasingly possible, risking escalation due to the temptation to engage in preemptive attacks. This includes attacks on enemy communication technology such as military satellites. There may also be greater doctrinal acceptance of using low-yield tactical nuclear weapons.

Political stability may be affected by increasing bouts of populism and nationalism, partly in response to disillusionment with failing economic policies, and against established political institutions and the elites that maintain them. Populist and nationalistic leaders may increasingly use democratic legitimacy to consolidate executive power, while quashing domestic opposition, leading to an erosion of civil society and the rule of law. Politically convenient waves of anti-immigrant and xenophobic sentiment are possible. Global Trends notes that “exclusionary religious identities will shape regional and local dynamics in the Middle East and North Africa and threaten to do so in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa between Christian and Muslim communities.” Political stability may be further threatened by mass protests as public distrust and expectations with authorities erode, compounded by the inevitable corruption scandals amid political polarization and fiscal constraints on effective governance. The report also notes that governance will become more challenging due to the multiplicity of influential actors, such as NGO’s, corporations, powerful individuals, that must be co-opted or whose interests need be taken into account.

Global Trends outlines three scenario-based models of the future which may emerge in response to certain trends in the decades ahead. These scenarios involve national (Islands), regional (orbits) and sub-state & transnational (communities) level scenarios.

Islands – This scenario ‘investigates a restructuring of the global economy’ as states attempt to become self-sufficient ‘islands’ in a slow process of rejecting globalization. Measures could include protectionist economic policies and retreating from multilateral cooperation. This process could be in response to bottom-up pressure from a domestic audience disillusioned with globalization and wealth inequality, seeking new forms of economic and social security, perhaps a result of long periods of weak or no economic growth, compounded by the disruptive role of automotive and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies. Changing regional and global trade patterns could result, as well as renewed local entrepreneurship amid a slowdown in global economic integration.

Orbits: The great powers, and increasingly, powerful regional states, will carve out territorial spheres of influence where they will enjoy political hegemony. Factors such as rising nationalism, domestic insecurity, conflict and strategic trends, disruptive technologies, and a weakening of multilateral cooperation will increase the risk of interstate conflict. The scenario envisages the use of a nuclear weapon by a belligerent, highlighting the danger of new weapons technologies, such as a possible use of low-yield tactical nuclear weapons. Non-state actors assume increasing power and influence, including terrorist and criminal groups.

Communities: This scenario sees non-state and private actors, including nonprofit organizations, multinational corporations and religious groups increasingly assume responsibility for service provision due to the failure of, and despite the resistance of, national governments who are unable to provide due to fiscal constraints or political ineffectiveness. This is an era of new public-private relations. This scenario also sees as enhanced role for local governments as they negotiate greater concessions from the national regime. Information technologies, including expanding social media penetration will give these actors increasing social and political influence, able to shape public opinion. As in Orbits above, the corporation and the terrorist emerge as two non-state actors on different sides of the spectrum, although both can be seen as deeply intertwined with, or in opposition to the state.

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Geopolitical Risk Analysis

Geopolitical risk analysis is the attempt to quantify internal and external risks to the state by assessing the local, regional and global security framework. A range of interdependent factors affect political and strategic stability including local and transnational actors, economic and political geography, regional geopolitics, and complex social and cultural  forces. Lebanese political stability for example, is as much dependent on its unique social and political composition, influenced by a divisive physical geography, as it is by the influence of outside powers, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Political factors include the degree of democratic representation and popular support, character of political competition, government effectiveness, the record of political transitions and political violence. The security environment depends on factors such as internal and external conflict, the strategic role and role of foreign powers, terrorism, ethnic or religious tensions, levels of civil unrest, crime and kidnapping. Political, human, and economic geography forms the backdrop to this type of risk analysis. In the tradition of classical geopolitics, even physical geography has a measurable political impact .

Geopolitical risk occurs at multiple levels, including at the global,  country,  and operational level. Global-level risk refers to those processes which affect multiple countries, or events that have global implications. A conflict in the Persian Gulf leading to the blocking of the Straits of Hormuz would be felt worldwide as international crude oil prices presumably soar. Country-level risk refers to challenges affecting a particular country, typically related to issues such as political instability or conflict. Operational-level risks are industry-specific challenges that organizations face; the crucial role of community politics in Shell operations in the Niger Delta, for example.

Global-level risks have been on the increase in recent years owing to an increase in the ambition and reach of both state and non-state actors. Great power competition, as well as the assertiveness of regional powers, has become more visible amid the rise of a multi-polar world and the unraveling of the post-Cold War order of hegemonic stability which pundits called the Pax Americana.  The relative US share of global power, expressed in economic and strategic terms, has been steadily declining amid the growth of emerging powers, particularity in East Asia. Political history suggests that as rising powers challenge the stability of an international system, the risk of interstate conflict increases. This occurs as a rising power pursues its national interests, challenging other power’s with established claims, or shaping the overall rules of the game if it powerful enough. ‎

A persistent idea views globalized economic integration as a restraining factor on harmful state competition: countries plugged into, and benefiting by the global trading system are prone to limiting their strategic behavior in the interests of both short- and long-term economic gain, the theory holds. These paradigms are at best unreliable, and at worst harmful insofar as the economic deterministic approach creates a flawed model of strategic behavior.

Conflict is driven by various factors, including political ambitions, economic motives, and ideological imperatives. The actors include states, parties within states, and transnational non-attendance actors. Increasing nationalism in recent years increases conflict risks through discriminatory politics, and the propensity towards military adventurism as means of directing and consolidating domestic politics.

Multi-polarity, specifically the rise of powerful regional actors mean the world is undergoing an incremental yet consistent revision of political relationships. Rising powers are altering the form and substance of world order through revising political and strategic norms and values. The annexation of Crime from Ukraine by Russia in 2014 was a clear challenge to the prevailing rules of territorial sovereignty, and the limitation of military aggression as an instrument of national policy. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was equally destructive insofar as it was based on false pretexts and essentially illegal under international law.

Map of Interstate Conflict Risk Cambridge Centre for Risk Studies & Cytora Ltd.

The decline of US power relative to the rise of other major powers, mainly in Eurasia, is resulting in increasing instability as regional powers take active steps to shape their respective geopolitical environments. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and proxy wars in Ukraine, China’s island building activities in the South China Sea, on territory illegally claimed, as well as the expansion of Iranian influence throughout the Middle East since 2003 are examples. Regional hegemons inevitably develop overlapping spheres of interest and influence with other regional, as well as extra-regional powers, increasing the risks of miscalculation and conflict, increasing geopolitical risk. These rivalries also impact the domestic politics of weak states caught in-between competing spheres of influence. Instability generated by regional and extra-regional powers is especially apparent in eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, South and East Asia. Sub Saharan Africa remains highly unstable, due in part to domestic tensions aggravated by weak and ineffective governments.

The danger of strategic competition is that rivalries play out in the domestic politics of targeted states. This has the capacity to encourage and aggravate factionalism among elites, undermine political cohesion, and reduce effective governance, increasing the risk of policy paralysis or at worst, state failure. Lebanon in 2017, caught between Saudi Arabia and Iran, runs the risk of government destabilization, or at worst civil war if competing internal factions once again take up arms. Syria is an example of a politically motivated uprising turned civil war, where the interests and active support of various regional and extra-regional powers have contributed greatly to the extent and duration of the conflict.

Proxy warfare will likely be the weapon of choice between the great and regional powers, as it was during the Cold War. Nuclear weapons will continue to act as a restraint on conventional hot wars between great powers; however, brief skirmishes between these states, such as naval confrontations in the South China Sea, or a clash in the Baltic’s, are not unthinkable.

It is noteworthy that no great power war has broken out since the second world war; this has been attributed to the stabilizing bipolar Cold War order where nuclear weapons, in the words of Martin van Creveld, “cut the link between victory and survival”. The post-Cold War era, described as ‘unipolar’ due to US strategic preponderance, saw a continuation of restraint on the part of the great powers and lower levels of interstate war; however, civil war, insurgency, asymmetrical warfare, political violence and state collapse will remain distinct challenges in the years ahead.

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Iran: Rouhani’s election

Iran’s Guardian Council confirmed the reelection of incumbent President Hassan Rouhani on 30 May. Elections were held on 10 May, with Rouhani receiving 57% of the vote, beating the conservative Ebrahim Raisi – the ayatollah’s pick – who received 38.5%.

The contentious campaign period, which included extraordinary remarks by Rouhani as well as criticism by Ayatollah Khamenei, indicate that ultra-conservative factions remain strongly opposed to Rouhani’s reelection, as well as the policies he presents, the most important of which is the 2015 nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Hardliners called for an investigation following the polls, citing alleged voting irregularities, however, this tactic is now moot following the Guardian Council decision on 30 May. Despite Rouhani’s popular mandate, it is unclear whether the 2nd term win will allow greater room for manoeuvre and reform: ultra-conservative elements are expected to significantly increase their opposition to Ruhani and his reform policies.

Powerful factional rivalries are emerging as groups seek placement ahead of succession negotiations which will follow the death of ailing Supreme Leader Ali  Khamenei, now 77. The electoral win marks an important yet incipient step in the internal balance of power against hardline influence within the state, and society at large. However, structural factors, namely the entrenched power of the revolutionary elite, including the subjection of policy changes to the Supreme Leader for approval, who takes into consideration the vested interests of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), will limit Rouhani’s freedom of movement in actualising much-needed reform.

Thorough economic and political patronage networks underpin the regime, the most powerful organs of which include the office of the Supreme Leader, the executive council and the IRGC, whose business interests control an estimated 30% of the overall economy. Rouhani essentially owes his position to this regime; however, his apparent liberal bent is a hedged bet on the long-term outlook for the country, which includes a gradual opening up of Iranian society. The IRGC fear that liberalisation and foreign investments will threaten their vested commercial and political interests, built out of and in the isolation of the post-1979 Islamic Republic. Rouhani will retain considerable political influence in the meantime, due to his centrist coalition’s majority in parliament, and is expected to primarily pursue economic liberalisation as a means to leverage political and social reforms, supported by a grassroots majority that indicated in the recent polls that the revolutionary era has outlived its usefulness.

This ground level change rooted in Iran’s youthful demography threatens the revolutionary-conservative consensus but is also driving a gradual liberalisation of the political sphere, as evidenced by the comprehensive victory of reformist candidates during city council elections, including in Tehran and in Mashhad – Raisi’s hometown. In the long run, the IRGC is expected to retain the upper hand due to its increasing institutional penetration, allied with hardline conservative factions.

Furthermore, the election of Donald Trump, along with inflammatory remarks against the Islamic Republic will give the hardliners the ammunition needed to take aim at Rouhani, and the nuclear deal which promised greater economic rewards through the lifting of investment barring sanctions, in exchange for limitations on Iran’s nuclear program – rewards which have thus far been disappointing. The IRGC have returned Trump’s bellicose remarks by engaging in provocative actions in recent months. This includes both ballistic missile tests which violate UN resolutions, and the harassment of maritime vessels in the Persian Gulf. These actions compromise the detente with the West advocated by Rouhani, which may undermine the president and his reform agenda.

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Burkinabe militants

Militancy has been on the increase in northern Burkina Faso since late 2016. Over a dozen attacks have been attributed to or claimed by a new militant group, Ansaroul Islam, and operational in the Soum province which borders Mali and Niger. The group is led by Boureïma Dicko, a Peulh (Fulani) imam from the northern town of Djibo. The group has repeatedly targeted security force personnel, as well as municipal assets. Burkina Faso has long suffered the insecurity linked to events in neighbouring Mali; armed groups conduct occasional cross-border attacks, targeting Burkinabe troops and security outposts in the northern provinces of Oudalan, Soum and Loroum. The north is economically important due to the number of active mining operations, primarily for gold. As elsewhere in West Africa, economic and political neglect in the north appears to have crystallised opposition along ethnic and religious lines. Dicko calls for a Peulh emirate in the north, echoing the separatist – Fulani ideology of the Macina Liberation Front, a Mali-based militant group which has since joined a powerful regional militant coalition known as the Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen, which counts al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib among it’s ranks. Meanwhile, Ansaroul Islam have reportedly made overtures to the Islamic State (IS). Authorities have since launched military operations targeting the Ansaroul Islam group, including Operation Panga in March. This was followed by an offensive involving Operation Barkhane in late April against militant camps in the Fhero forest located along Burkina Faso’s Soum province and Mali’s Mopti region. These military operations have resulted a decline in attacks, allowing schools and other state institutions to reopen in recent weeks; however, intelligence failures due to poor civilian-military relations, along with the porous border with unstable Mali which allows easy movement by armed groups, means the security environment may be undermined with little to no warning. Retaliatory attacks on official targets in Soum are also possible. Meanwhile, the G5 Sahel countries-Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso in February announced increased security cooperation through a joint force to combat terrorism and drug-trafficking in the Sahel. Initiatives include joint training and intelligence sharing, and the formation of rapid intervention forces.

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Nigeria: the Boko Haram attack on Magumeri

Nigerian local media reported that dozens of people died in a Boko Haram Shekau-faction led assault on the town of Magumeri, which lies roughly 50km north west of Maiduguri, on 15 and 16 March. The attack was an interesting one as it was surrounded by a fair bit of controversy according to statements by the Nigerian military who suggested that the townsfolk of Magumeri had an “understanding” with the militants. According to a statement signed by Brigadier-General Sani K. Usman:

“It should also be noted that the village was never attacked throughout the period of the insurgency for some inexplicable reasons. The terrorists and their collaborators hibernating in the area were never exposed. There seems to be an unholy alliance between the terrorists and the villagers.”

The militants arrived in Magumeri after dark on 15 March in vehicles and motorcycles. Carrying Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades, the militants intended to level the entire village and its inhabitants, according to the Nigerian military. They succeeded somewhat; the militants burnt homes and the local police station, attacked a Nigerian army position in the town, killed dozens of people, many of whom were attempting to flee, and looted food supplies.

“They broke into shops and homes and took away every food item they came across,” said local resident Kulo Sheriff, and that “Boko Haram are starving in the bush, they live on very little food,” said Babakura Kolo.

That the townspeople had actionable intelligence that the military reportedly chose to ignore (by not bolstering defences) gives weight to allegations that collusion was ongoing. The episode is typical of rural insurgencies; militia are often dependent upon clandestine networks that run through familial and local connections for supplies and military intelligence. The attack may well have been the result of intelligence passed by Magumeri townsmen to the authorities. In any event, local intelligence gathering efforts will be crucial if authorities are to locate Boko Haram positions. Perhaps successful Nigerian military offensives will embolden locals to provide intelligence in the hopes that the militant group will finally be defeated; however, the record of rural insurgencies suggests that villages only surrender information and support local authorities if they assess that they would be defended against militant reprisal attacks.

The Sambisa Forest

‘Camp Zairo’, a key Boko Haram operations base located deep within the Sambisa Forest, Borno State, was finally captured by the Nigerian army, according to President Muhammadu Buhari on 24 December. Located some 65 km SW of Maiduguri, the Borno state capital, Camp Zairo was crucial to Boko Haram operations in north east Nigeria. This region, particularly Borno state, experienced the highest levels of militant conflict in 2016, including a fresh wave of suicide bombings targeting civilian and security assets in late 2016. Since the Boko Haram insurgency began in northeastern Nigeria in 2009, at least 2.5 million people have been displaced, and over 30,000 killed. Today, some 5.8 million people are in dire need of humanitarian aid, a crisis linked to both drought conditions, and the ruthless insurgency.

In 2015, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS), which was followed in August 2016 by IS demoting Shekau and promoting Abu Musab al-Barnawi as leader, or wali of the group, which was renamed Islamic State West Africa province (al-Wilāyat al-Islāmiyya Gharb Afrīqiyyah). Shekau rejected the change and the militant group split into two main factions, although fighting between them has been limited. The Barnawi faction operates along the border with Niger, near Lake Chad, while the Shekau faction, apparently called Jamaat Ahl al-Sunna li Dawa wal-Jihad, remains operational within swathes of rural areas in Borno State, in the Lake Chad Basin, and in the Far North Region of Cameroon.

The capture of Camp Zairo by the Nigerian Army are likely to impact the regional security environment according to statements by Buhari, who warned that militants may increase their operational presence in neighbouring states. Many of these, particularly Adamawa, Gombe, and Yobe states, have been badly affected by Boko Haram violence since the insurgency escalated in 2013. Nigerian media reported the arrest of a Boko Haram commander in Lagos on 26 December, who had recently fled the Sambisa forest area.

Interestingly, Deutsche Welle reported in January that Boko Haram militants may be “regrouping in Taraba and Bauchi states… taking advantage of a long-running conflict between mainly Muslim nomadic cattle herders and sedentary Christian farmers.” This is a worrying development in that a campaign of small arms attacks against sensitive locations, such as houses of worship, could lead to a destabilisation of the ethnically fragile “Middle Belt”. Boko Haram may see value in fostering polarisation, allowing it to position itself as a protector of Muslims in any resultant ethnoreligious backlash. In this regard, the cities of Jos and Kaduna would be at particular risk, due to their geopolitical split between Muslim and Christian zones, with precedent suggesting that future conflict is more likely than not. This scenario echoes the Barnawi factions calls for attacks against Christian targets partly to distinguish the group’s modus operandi from the brutality of the Shekau faction, which has disproportionately targeted Muslims in its campaign of violence in the north east.

The key issue now will be how the Nigerian army conducts follow-up operations. While the army is reportedly pursuing Boko Haram militants, it is unlikely that successful tactics employed by the 72 Mobile Strike Group in 2015, for example, will be replicated. The Nigerian army, plagued by a poor command structure, equipment shortages, and aware of the ferocity of Boko Haram, are likely to proceed cautiously, aware of successful and bloody BH counterattacks in the past, and will thus fail to exploit current weakness of the group, including factionalism and infighting amid losses, assumed loss of morale, and disruptions to resources and supply networks.

Boko Haram will likely maintain a flexible and decentralised operations structure throughout the northeast, including in the  Lake Chad Basin.  Militant operations are likely to remain concentrated in Borno State; however, due to famine conditions in the state, it appears possible that the Shekau faction may be forced, like everyone else, into moving greater distances for supplies amid the famine, or in the militant’s case- to carry out raids.

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Kenya: Politics and security

The Republic of Kenya faces an uncertain risk outlook ahead of the 2017 general elections on August 8. President Uhuru Kenyatta faces a probable 2nd term win; his powerful Kikuyu base has been expanded to include the vote of Deputy President William Ruto’s United Republican Party (URP) Kalenjin constituency following the September merger of The National Alliance (TNA) party and Ruto’s URP into the Jubilee Party Kenya (JPK). Ruto will in turn receive Kenyatta’s support in the 2022 polls.

Five major opposition parties in turn formed a coalition on 11 January called the National Super Alliance (NASA). Raila Odinga is likely to be nominated as party chief, however other party leaders are also vying for the position.

Political violence remains a significant risk the country, particularly during election periods. Over 1,200 people were killed, and over 600,000 displaced as a result of politically motivated violence during and after the 2007 general elections. Elections in 2013 were relatively peaceful. Violence related to the outcome of the 2017 presidential election is not expected to be severe or widespread, however, this may change should presidential candidates engage in ethnic populism and divisive campaign rhetoric ahead of the polls.

Demonstrations against the JPK, along with opposition to the controversial Electoral Laws (Amendment) Act, which was recently passed, are expected to increase ahead of and following the elections, particularly in the event of a narrow, and likely JPK victory. Raila Odinga has campaigned on an anti-corruption platform, aimed at the JPK, and is expected to cry foul in the event of his defeat (should he be nominated to lead Nasa), as he did against President Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, in 2007.

Current Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) travel security map of Kenya.

County level polls are at a greater risk of politically motivated violence in 2017. The devolution of power to local counties since 2013 was meant to reduce competition at national level; however, due to the intense competition for access to lucrative political offices, these counties risk becoming flashpoints for violence.  These seats command greatly expanded county budgets, along with influence over lucrative infrastructural projects, and the like. Tensions at a national level are also being replicated at a county level.

The National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) has identified nineteen counties as election violence hot spots in 2017. These include the counties of Nairobi, Kisumu, Mombasa, Nakuru, Eldoret, Narok, Kericho, Kisii, Homabay, Isiolo, Turkana, Bungoma, Kiambu, Kilifi, Lamu, Migori, Baringo and Pokot. The bulk of these belong to the Rift Valley Province, a key constituency from where Ruto is expected to deliver a sizeable vote.

In rural areas, competition over resources, land demarcation disputes, cattle rustling, and banditry, together with local political rivalries, mean that localised outbreaks of ethnic and communal violence will remain present through 2017. Clashes commonly occur in the Rift Valley and Coast provinces and are usually contained by police or army units within a few days.

Al-Shabaab is likely to maintain pressure on Kenya through 2017. The majority of Al-Shabaab attacks take place in the northeastern border counties of Mandera, Wajir, and sometimes Garissa. The militant group also poses a risk to both inland and coastal urban hubs Attacks are usually carried out by small groups of fighters armed with assault rifles and the occasional bomb or rocket. Communication towers are also targeted, mainly to disrupt communications, but possibly linked to unreported extortion attempts, as is the case in Somalia.  The risk increased following the deployment of Kenyan Defence Forces (KDF) to Somalia in late 2011 as part of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

 

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