While I’m traveling at the moment, I wanted to send a quick update on one of 2015’s steadily developing stories.
As Boko Haram gobbles up more airtime and political talking points, interested readers should keep their eyes in the upcoming AU Summit in Addis Ababa. Defense One has a helpful overview here.
For context on point three (AU efforts to address Boko Haram) Defense One also has a recent discussion with AFRICOM’s commander on the potential role for US forces in the battle to contain the regional terrorist group, with leadership calling for a full counterinsurgency plan.
This, however, comes just two weeks since my last piece tackling the changing role of US engagement in West Africa. Read the full treatment here.
With the Nigerian elections just over two weeks away, there is much more to come.
The piece starts by opposing the knee-jerk reactions committed by some academics eager to conflate the presence of a failed states (the vacuum of power) with the birth and growth of terrorism.
The authors assert that all regions —even perceived vacuums— are governed by a variety of actors with interlocking and overlapping claims to power. Ignoring these informal structures leaves policymakers and practitioners reliant on pithy press statements and poorly-oriented policies, instead of actual strategies for confronting groups who react violently towards those who oppose their authority.
In the decade since America first declared its “Global War on Terror”, violence in terror’s name has defined our coverage of conflict, framed our understanding of ‘the enemy’ and pervaded our conversations about security.
Faced with the threat of Boko Haram, now labeled by the United States as a “terrorist organization”, perhaps it is time to to rethink how we address the cause, persistence and spread of modern terrorism.
The piece continues through the three phases of the epidemiological approach (Contain, Protect, Remedy) , before adding a final thought:
Finding a balance between securing territory and engaging with disillusioned communities lies at the heart of today’s fight against terrorism: Even the smallest steps towards improving the provision of basic services (between the government and its people) will knit individuals into the political landscape instead of marooning them outside of it. Expanding this kind of participation will likely open the well-spring of political dissent, but neither Goodluck Jonathan’s administration nor neighboring countries can afford the cost of Nigeria’s violent descent.
In the summer of 2012, mere months after graduating from Columbia, I was honored to publish my first story —in print— for The New York Times. The piece, Soccer’s Lost Boys, which looks at the award-winning photography series by Jason Andrew, ran full page in the Saturday sports section with a longer article published on the New York Times’ Lens Blog.
In January 2014, nearly a year and a half later, Andrew’s work will be published in LFI Magazine, an imprint run by Leica. For the updated spread, the editors asked if I would expand the text version of the piece. At nearly 3,000 words, the story —and never-before-seen photographs— tries to provide additional detail to what has now been a four-year battle by a small group of Nigerian soccer players in pursuit of a dream that, each day, slips further and further away. I’ve posted a short excerpt below:
As the plane’s landing gear struck the smooth runway of Istanbul’s Ataturk airport in August 2010, Akeem looked around the cabin at the 60 other young African players, dressed in matching adidas track suits and toting their cleats. Akeem had paid for his flight, visa, and – more importantly – the opportunity to try out for Turkey’s professional clubs. As he glanced out of the plane’s small, fogged window onto a city which has served as the heart to four world empires, Akeem wanted to believe that his future started here.
*The January issue is available for download or purchase here.
With higher numbers of displaced people fleeing to the DRC and Cameroon, continued inter-ethnic conflict, and a rise in criminal opportunism, the CAR is on the verge of unraveling. Oh, and Nigeria’s newly designated terrorist organization, Boko Haram, might join the mix.
Hour-long drives through series of empty villages; an abandoned baby, left by parents who fled too quickly in fear of rebels: these are just two of the observations from the deteriorating Central African Republic. In a Foreign Policy article by Peter Bouckaert, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, CAR appears lost to violent rebel forces —known by their name, Séléka— since their overflow of the government last spring.
According to UN Dispatch, the violence has left 1.1 million struggling to meet basic needs (30 percent of the total population), 400,000 people waging the war of survival in the CAR’s dense forest, and have stewarded instances of “genocide talk” from a number of observers. The genocide tag, grows out of concern that Séléka —whose members are Muslim— has aggressively targeted civilians (Christian or otherwise). Others are quick to note that all parties have avowed violence, and that using the genocide label (for political purposes or otherwise) isn’t as important as preventing it all together.
Throughout the slow-burning conflict, many prominent talking heads have called for international response —Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, Former Sec. General Kofi Annan, French President François Hollande, and US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, have all expressed impatience with the continued instability in the country. Ambassador Power, speaking in September, discussed the potential consequence of inaction:
“My government views recent events in the Central Africa Republic with anguish at the horrific degree of suffering, and we are deeply angered by the atrocities perpetrated by Séléka rebels against innocent civilians, including many children. We are also deeply alarmed by the prospect of CAR becoming a safe haven for violent extremists.”
In light of the recent US Department of State designation of Boko Haram and Ansaru, Nigerian-based extremist groups, as “terrorist organizations,” the crisis in the CARis even more important. With Boko Haram inciting “states of emergency” in Nigeria’s north, bleeding instability over into Chad, which is currently being affected by continued conflict in The CAR and Sudan, as Mali appears to serve as “safe haven” for violent, non-state actors in West Africa, we might be watching the dominos fall.
The question that remains, is what the US/Western response will be, given an tentative rapprochement with Iran (which is sucking-up valuable diplomatic resources), and the stale human disaster of Syria (which continues to generate little more than Tweets from Ambassador Samantha Power).
Washington-bound for Defense One Summit, just a few developments I’ll be charting today:
Implications of U.S. State Departments classification of Nigeria-based Boko Haram / Ansaru as terrorist organizations. While Defense One reported on the importance of the action, citing increased US policy tools to confront and erode these group’s power, The New York Times’ Eric Schmidt warned that the designation might further legitimize both groups who are allegedly tied to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Boko Haram’s latest kidnapping victim might be a French priest taken from northern Cameroon, according to Reuters.
Questions re: the future of asymmetrical warfare (by land, air, and sea). Reflections from the summit.
In a state where political leadership has been subject to cyclical coups, where power is expressed primarily through the financial means to arm, train and sustain violence, stability will only be found through tortured battle.
That battle, however, was quick to impact nearly all of the country’s 4.4 million people. When I asked the local U.N. representative, Babacar Gaye, about the current state of affairs, his response was dire:
We are in a situation of lawlessness. You have the appearance of power, you have the appearance of a country, but the government has no authority.
Soon, some international actors were calling for action. France, specifically, noted that the CAR was on the brink of “Somalization”, an ode to same condition of lawlessness McConnell alludes to with the title of his new piece. And yet, after the Syrian chemical weapons crisis of August and September, Hollande seemed to walk-back a previous claim that French troops were at the ready. McConnell writes today (my emphasis):
France, which has about 400 soldiers in CAR, is pushing most strongly for moves to stabilize its former colony. But France says it has no intention of deploying thousands of its own troops there, as it did in Mali at the start of the year when it was feared Al Qaeda aligned militant groups were poised to overrun the country.
Finally, McConnell’s notes that CAR’s disintegration has led to further instability, and perhaps a new safe haven, for extremist forces from Chad and Sudan to the east and Mali and northern Nigeria to the west.
Long-term, however, the fractured nature of the rebels should be a warning. In the closing moments of my interview with Mr. Gaye last month, I asked his opinion of Séléka, the coalition group now working to dethrone the CAR’s new government.
“There is always risk of implosion of a coalition,” Mr. Gaye said. “A revolution always eats its own babies like that.”
The question now is how many lives will be eaten in the process.