Month: March 2017

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.

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).