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Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari
Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari (Photo by Kola Sulaimon/via AFP)

In Lagos, twenty-five anti-government protesters arrested on Wednesday were released after appearing in court, where they were cautioned against unruly and unlawful behavior. They were arrested during peaceful demonstrations—organized under the aegis of the #RevolutionNow movement and tagged “national day of action”—across major cities. The protestors are demanding better governance from the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari.

Wednesday was the one-year anniversary of a failed protest called by the journalist and activist Omoyele Sowore, who was arrested as a result and charged with treason, money laundering, and cyberstalking. He was freed in December, but he still faces trial.

The Coalition of United Political Parties (CUPP), an alliance formed in 2018 by Nigeria’s main opposition People’s Democratic Party and dozens of other parties, has condemned the crackdown on #RevolutionNow activists during Wednesday’s demonstrations.

 

Government Priorities

The arrest of the twenty-five protesters in the Ikeja suburb for unlawful protest and disregarding COVID-19 social distancing measures elicited stronger reactions than usual, as it occurred around the same time as a deadly attack on a community in Kaduna State, allegedly by a Fulani militia group. The authorities appeared to be more preoccupied with clamping down on protestors violating interim measures than acting against violent bandits, which has prompted rising anti-government sentiment.

 

Logos

As access to Internet services grows across Africa, the continent is realizing the potential economic benefit from taxing the multinational tech companies that provide digital services. The only problem is that there is very little existing legislative framework to do so.

Although Africa remains a very small slice of the total market that technology-based service providers cater to, companies like Uber, WhatsApp, Spotify, and Facebook are positioning themselves to capitalize on Africa’s expected population boom and rapidly growing youth population. Recognizing this trend, Kenya and Nigeria have begun to take steps to put legislation in place that would allow them to earn tax revenue from digital services.

On June 30, Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta enacted the Finance Act 2020, which introduced a tax of 1.5 percent on the gross transactional value of income derived from digital trade and services, set to go into effect in January 2021.

And the Nigerian Finance Act 2019 that passed into law earlier this year makes provision for taxing non-resident companies with a “significant economic presence”, which includes businesses using digital transactions or providing local services without a bricks-and-mortar address in the country.

 

An aggressive tax policy could ultimately prove to be counterproductive

 

A potential downside to these laws is the prohibitive restraints it places on African tech start-ups, as some face the risk of being doubly taxed or unable to compete against Silicon Valley juggernauts that can weather such tax policies. And although Africa is in dire need of increasing its tax collection capabilities, an aggressive tax policy could ultimately prove to be counterproductive. It could be a disincentive to investment by global tech companies, which might prefer to rather invest in countries with much more favorable tax laws or those that lack any such legislation.

 

Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank (AfDB)
Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank (Riccardo Savi/via AFP)

Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank (AfDB), has been cleared of corruption following the conclusion of a second ethics probe, which the United States had insisted on. A three-person team found insufficient evidence to prove allegations of corruption and nepotism that whistleblowers had leveled against Dr. Adesina, and found his submission to be persuasive.

A report by the AfDB’s Ethics Committee and Board of Governors had cleared him of misconduct in April, but the US, which is the second-largest AfDB shareholder, rejected the internal investigation and insisted that an independent panel review the case. The panel, led by former Irish president Mary Robinson, reviewed all the evidence and agreed with the earlier finding.

The Americans’ demand for a second investigation into Dr. Adesina’s conduct sparked outrage among African states that hold shares in the AfDB, with Nigeria in particular pushing back against what they perceived as an imposition on the bank by a non-African nation.

 

Dr. Adesina is free to pursue his re-election bid for president of the AfDB

 

The AfDB has been a key financier of major infrastructure projects, such as Mozambique’s liquid natural gas plant in Cabo Delgado province and the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Inga III hydropower project. The AfDB has also committed US$10 billion in funding to assist in the fight against COVID-19 on the continent.

With his name cleared, Dr. Adesina is free to pursue his re-election bid for president of the AfDB in August, running as the only candidate for the position and generally supported by the Bank’s African shareholders.

The full report of the auditors can be read here.

 

A gas flare burns at the Batan flow station, operated by Chevron under a joint-venture arrangement with the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. (Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP)
A gas flare burns at the Batan flow station, operated by Chevron under a joint-venture arrangement with the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. (Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP)

Nigeria’s Niger Delta has some of the world’s richest oil reserves and largest petroleum exportation terminals. Oil has generated spectacular wealth for some, but has also drastically impoverished people of the region who live and work in one of the most polluted places on the planet.

Young men in particular find themselves in an untenable position of economic exclusion and persistent militant violence, conditions that feed a cycle of poverty and violence.

 

Limited Prospects

Modesta Tochi Alozie, as part of her research at the University of Sheffield’s Urban Institute, explored this relationship and how it directly impacts the lives of young men. Broadly speaking, Nigerian men are expected to obtain a steady paying job, marry, and provide for the household. However, more than half of all Nigerians aged fifteen to thirty-five are unemployed, and for those living in the Niger Delta, the paradox of being poor in a region that produces the majority of Nigeria’s wealth helps to sustain a resentment that has developed into a full-on insurgency.

Starting in 2003, militias began attacking oil pipelines and kidnapping employees for ransom, sometimes even launching assaults against Nigerian military forces protecting drill sites. A Post-Amnesty Program launched in 2009 provided monthly payments of US$400 in exchange for disarmament, which helped to reduce the violence somewhat, but also incentivized more young Nigerian men to become militants and entrenched the power of militia leaders.

The prospects for those who avoid the violent route remain rather dim. Some relocate to cities in search of a better life, and others become activists campaigning for tighter regulation, for companies to be held to account for livelihoods lost due to oil spills, and for restoration of polluted land. This environmental injustice is rarely addressed by Nigeria, the United Nations, or oil industry watchdogs.

 

Nigeria President Muhammadu Buhari attends the fifty-sixth ordinary session of the Economic Community of West African States in Abuja on December 21, 2019.  Kola SULAIMON / AFP
Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari attends the fifty-sixth ordinary session of the Economic Community of West African States in Abuja on December 21, 2019. (Kola Sulaimon/AFP)

Earlier this week, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari announced the launch of the US$2.8 billion Ajaokuta-Kaduna-Kano (AKK) Gas Pipeline project, which he promised would significantly improve power generation for domestic use and gas-based industries. In addition, the pipeline is anticipated to bring both greater infrastructure investment and employment to towns along the pipeline’s route, benefitting the provinces of Kano, Kaduna, Niger, Abuja, and Kogi State.

Nigeria has begun work on the first 200 kilometers of the 614-kilometer-long AKK pipeline route, which forms part of the planned 1,300-kilometer-long Trans-Nigeria Gas Pipeline, a project largely financed by China Export & Credit Insurance Corporation and several Chinese banks.

 

Nigeria formally joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative in February 2019

 

Buhari’s promise of economic prosperity arising from this project underscores Nigeria’s slumping energy industry and regular power outages despite being Africa’s largest oil producer. The COVID-19 pandemic in particular took a heavy toll on the industry: at the conclusion of the first half of the 2020 fiscal year, oil and gas companies listed on the Nigerian Stock Exchange reported a loss of about US$457.8 million.

China’s strong presence on this project reflects its broader infrastructure diplomacy in Africa, enacted through its Belt and Road Initiative, which Nigeria formally joined in February 2019.

 

Niger Niamey Billboard G5
A billboard in Niamey, Niger, announcing a summit of heads of state of the G5 Sahel regional security forum. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

 

In the intensely hot, semiarid Sahel zone that bridges the climatic transition from lush West Africa bordering on the Atlantic Ocean to the rocky deserts of North Africa, a deep ideological schism has emerged between competing Salafi-jihadi fighting groups. This rancorous divide, once a topic of speculation, has been manifested in declared pitched battles. The local militants who have sworn an oath to either al-Qaeda or the Islamic State (IS) in the Sahel are openly competing for influence within the Salafi-jihadi thought spectrum, geopolitical and matériel resources, and additional followers to replenish their ranks.

Kalashnikov-tipped sparring between the two absolutist movements has already been reported from Syria to Yemen, and it should not come as a surprise that such clashes are taking place in the impoverished Sahel. It has been speculated that there was some level of cooperation between al-Qaeda and IS factions in West Africa, but the relationship between the otherwise peer competitors has been far from clear.

 

The Salafi-jihadi competitors are trading barbs usually reserved for secular Muslims involved in state bureaucracies or non-Muslim populations

 

On May 7, 2020, the IS weekly publication al-Naba described clashes with al-Qaeda’s current incarnation in the Sahel, an umbrella organization known as Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimeen (Group to Support Islam and Muslims, commonly reported by its transliterated Arabic acronym JNIM). IS characterized its antipathy toward JNIM as a betrayal, which may indicate that some form of modus vivendi existed between the two groups, as has been speculated by Sahel security analysts for some time. If this were in fact the case, it certainly is no more by IS’s own description. This allegation of betrayal does not, however, indicate that the two groups in fact ever collaborated on the battlefield. It more likely means they coexisted without clashing. IS makes an implicit accusation that JNIM may in fact be collaborating with counter-terror elements in an effort to diminish IS, a grievous slander in jihadi circles. The Salafi-jihadi competitors are trading barbs usually reserved for secular Muslims involved in state bureaucracies or non-Muslim populations. Terms such as “apostates,” “hypocrites,” and “dogs,” have been hurled across social media platforms in recent months by these two now bitter opponents.

 

Ideology, Ungoverned Spaces, and French Intervention

The instability in the Sahel today is rooted in a convergence of three key events occurring in the past three decades: the Algerian Civil War turned insurgency, which was triggered in late 1991 following an Islamist electoral victory annulled by the military; the Libyan revolution turned civil war, which began in February 2011; and a hybrid Salafi and ethno-nationalist Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali that sparked a coup d’état in the capital Bamako in April 2012.

The events in Mali in 2012 whereby the country’s already lightly governed north was lost to the aforementioned rebellion led to large-scale foreign military intervention led by France in 2013, soon joined by other extra-regional state military actors. In the post-colonial context, French forces have been continuously present in the wider region since at least 1986, when Operation Épervier was launched in Chad to halt the creeping expansion of Libyan forces below the 16th parallel in that country. French troops remained in Chad for decades, long after the conflict with Libya concluded. Such policies of heavy economic and political engagement in Francophone Africa are known derisively by the controversial portmanteau “Françafrique.” Deep-seated resentment toward Françafrique across the Francophone Sahel has been seized upon by Salafi-jihadi leaders since French boots-on-the-ground overtly returned to Mali and across the Sahel region in the name of aggressive counter-terror operations.

 

Macron Flight to Mali
French president Emmanuel Macron, pictured arriving at Modibo Keita International Airport in Bamako, Mali, on July 2, 2017. Macron traveled to Mali to consolidate Western backing for a regional anti-jihadist force as France beefed up its counter-terror operations in the area. (Luc Gnago/Pool/AFP)

 

When Paris made the move for a hard power intervention in central and northern Mali, it easily siphoned off men and resources from its existing Operation Épervier to begin Operation Serval in January 2013. This mission was a casus belli for the then triumvirate of Salafi-jihadi groups al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM); Ansar Eddine; and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, commonly known by its French acronym MUJAO, which ruled for the better part of a year roaming freely in Mali’s Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao regions as well as parts of the Mopti region, implementing their interpretation of Sharia. The scope of the French mission in Mali quickly escalated and morphed into a vast international project bringing in multiple supranational bodies—including the United Nations, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the European Union, and the African Union—in addition to American military partners who have maintained a presence in the region since the launch of the Pan-Sahel Initiative in 2002 and currently maintain two known drone bases in Niger.

 

The militant movements are now more difficult to pursue, as their action space has greatly metastasized since 2013

 

Though Operation Serval was initially quite effective in dislodging Salafi-jihadi fighting groups from the capitals of Mali’s restive regions, the intervention ultimately had the effect of dispersing the then ensconced militants, making them more fluid across regional nation-state borders, even while they are not yet considered a threat to the global order like their equivalents in Yemen. Militant violence quickly seeped into neighboring Niger and Burkina Faso, which, like Mali in 2012, have sparsely populated, under-governed spaces that had been neglected for decades by their respective central governments. The militant movements are now more difficult to pursue, as their action space has greatly metastasized since 2013. Though the French-led intervention restored the territorial integrity of Mali, it can be argued that the wider Sahel has become less stable in the ensuing years.

 

Operation Barkhane
A soldier bearing the insignia of Operation Barkhane on patrol in Mali on November 1, 2017. (Daphné Benoit/AFP)

 

The French troop presence in the Sahel fluctuates between 4,500 and 5,000, under the rubric of Operation Barkhane, established in August 2014. Barkhane is the current counter-terror initiative that succeeded Operation Serval and inherited the infrastructure of Operation Épervier, and is chiefly staged out of N’Djamena, the Chadian capital.

Concomitantly, in 2014, the G5 Sahel was formed in the Mauritanian capital during a summit of five Sahel countries: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. The goal was to enhance cross-border security cooperation among these countries, all grappling with the threat posed by transnational terrorism as well as deeply entrenched criminal networks involved in human and drug trafficking. The G5 Sahel Joint Force, launched in 2017, is meant to include about 5,000 soldiers, cooperating with both Operation Barkhane and the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali—known in security parlance by its French acronym MINUSMA—to secure the Sahel.

 

Salafi Schisms

The contested realm of jihad in North and West Africa is a densely convoluted one. Fighters defect from one outfit to another, leaders shame each other for being too extreme or insufficiently hardline in the face of the enemy, and oaths are pledged to faraway central leaderships in the Levant or South Asia. JNIM, the al-Qaeda wing of the region’s Salafi-jihadi fighters, has effectively capitalized on historical discontent dating to well before independence, as it has made dislodging the “crusader” French presence its most vociferous goal. While a French departure on JNIM’s terms may seem preposterous, it demonstrates that the al-Qaeda-aligned fighters are being pragmatic in their approach, at least in terms of their statements, though its attacks have not abated. The fact that JNIM is demanding the French leave Mali specifically seems to indicate that its leadership recognizes the undeniable reality of modern Mali as a nation-state. In stark contrast, IS holds the worldview that erasing borders drawn in the colonial era is one of its core tenets in order to “remain and expand.” Therefore, it views JNIM’s position as an unacceptable capitulation that deviates from Salafi ideology to the detriment of the ummah, the global Muslim community it claims to represent, while seeking to purify the faith by violent means.

The presence of foreign armies, including the regional contingents of the G5 militaries that operate in tandem with the French and MINUSMA, acts as a magnet for militant attacks. These vulnerable bases populate a more target-rich environment for marauding groups. Despite backing by Paris, its partners in Berlin, and the EU more broadly, the G5 is woefully underfunded to combat the numerous militant groups in theater. State fragility is on the rise in many rural regions where JNIM and IS currently compete.

 

That they can attack local and foreign militaries while mustering the manpower to simultaneously fight one another shows how permissive the war fighting environment has become

 

The recent clashes between JNIM and IS groups there emphasize this point. The internecine violence between competing Salafi-jihadis is a symptom of this increased destabilization. That they can attack local and foreign militaries while mustering the manpower to simultaneously fight one another shows how permissive the war fighting environment has become. The core focus of France, its G5 partners, and the United States in the jihadi cauldron the Sahel has become has been primarily manifested through a hard security paradigm. What this counter-terror model lacks is an equally robust component for bolstering local governance and addressing serious humanitarian concerns like food security for populations affected by the spread of violence, not to mention the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

While not often making front-page headlines in the Western Anglophone press, Mali is now home to the fifth-deadliest military intervention in the history of UN peacekeeping efforts since the first mission in 1948. MINUSMA has lost some 209 Blue Helmets to insurgent violence out of a force ranging between 11,000 and 12,000 members. The regional militaries comprising the G5 coalition have also sustained heavy losses from both local al-Qaeda and IS groups successfully staging mass casualty attacks on their bases and remote outposts.

 

Al-Qaeda-aligned and IS fighters are competing over interpretations of radical Sunni jurisprudence and territory as well as recruits 

 

While these intensely violent hardline groups were ostensibly established to dismantle the secular post-colonial order that exists between the Sahara and Equatorial Africa, it has become evident that they have turned their Soviet-engineered weaponry on one another in a clash over legitimacy as viewed through the Salafi prism. Both groups see this kind of legitimacy as crucial to achieving primacy on the ideological battlefield. Al-Qaeda-aligned militants and IS fighters are competing over interpretations of radical Sunni jurisprudence and territory as well as recruits. Salafism at the point of a gun has made deep inroads in Mali and its neighbors by exploiting local grievances regarding the endemic corruption of the post-colonial state’s power structure and its ties to Françafrique legacy policies.

 

Ag Ghaly
A still image made on June 25, 2016, from a video released by Iyad Ag Ghaly, leader of the Islamist group Ansar Eddine, showing him making threats against France and the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission in Mali. (AFP)

 

JNIM is led by Iyad Ag Ghaly, a former ethnic-Tuareg secessionist leader and one-time Malian diplomat in Riyadh turned violent Islamist. The formation of JNIM was declared in March 2017 by four al-Qaeda-aligned constituent groups: the Saharan branch of AQIM; Ansar Eddine, of which Ag Ghaly is the chief; al-Mourabitoun; and the lesser-known Katibat Macina, led by Amadou Kouffa, a staunch ally of Ag Ghaly.

JNIM portrays itself as a primarily indigenous movement with more localized aims, such as evicting French troops from Mali and the wider region, while it is theoretically willing to negotiate with the secular government in Bamako. The regional IS affiliate abhors this stance as betraying more globalized Salafi-jihadi principles, and would rather destroy state institutions than cooperate with them under any circumstances. JNIM draws ideologically from a more timeworn jihadi narrative of ending military occupation by non-Muslim military forces or secular state militaries such as those taking part in Operation Barkhane and the G5 Joint Force. JNIM is Salafi-jihadi with very a localized agenda and characteristics. 

 

Jihadi Geography

In the wider Sahel, IS has two groups operating, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). It remains not entirely clear whether ISWAP and ISGS are operationally distinct outfits, have an occasional degree of overlap, or are in fact one and the same by mid-2020. ISGS stems from Saharan radical roots more broadly and Algerian militancy more specifically, whereas ISWAP has Nigerian origins with a Sahelian focus in terms of its area of operations. ISGS’s primary focus has been the tri-border area where Niger’s Tillaberi region, Mali’s Menaka region (formerly part of Gao region), and Burkina Faso’s Sahel region roughly intersect.

ISWAP is an outgrowth of the fissured Nigerian movement Jamaat Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Dawah wa’l Jihad, almost always referred to by the informal name Boko Haram, a Hausa and Arabic term meaning “Western education is impermissible.” ISWAP, the IS-ordained faction of Boko Haram reportedly led by Abu Abdullah Ibn Umar al-Barnawi, is most active in the greater Lake Chad Basin area. This is where Nigeria’s Borno state, Cameroon’s Extreme North region, Niger’s Diffa region, and Chad’s Lac and Hadjer-Lamis regions intersect to form a zone of deadly militancy irrespective of nation-state boundaries. It may be that ISWAP, as a dedicated wilaya (province) ordained by IS’s central command in the Levant, has absorbed ISGS at least in terms of branding, which, while being an affiliated group, is or was not a designated wilaya likely owing to its past lesser importance in the global IS hierarchy. 

 

Though the schism between al-Qaeda and IS fighters is rooted in ideology informed by their own official narratives, clashes among egos carved out this violent chasm

 

The opaque relationship between ISWAP and ISGS remains open to analytic interpretation for the time being. ISGS is led by Adnan Abou Walid Sahraoui. Sahraoui’s militant origins, like his Tuareg rival Ag Ghaly’s, lay not in a doctrinal Salafi movement but in a secular ethno-nationalist one. Though he began with the POLISARIO Front, an avowedly secular Algerian-supported national liberation movement in Western Sahara, Sahraoui fell into Islamism and quickly rose up through various al-Qaeda-aligned groups in Mali before defecting and swearing allegiance to IS in 2015. With the infighting among Salafi-jihadis in the Sahel, it must be remembered that among the leadership, these men were each other’s confidants not long ago. Though the schism between al-Qaeda and IS fighters is rooted in ideology informed by their own official narratives, clashes among egos carved out this violent chasm.

Since the assassination of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria’s Idlib governorate in October 2019, IS’s central command seems to be in a succession crisis, at least in terms of its public face as to who the purported caliph is or shall be. This may indicate that the geographically non-contiguous wilayas are more independent without a unifying figure like al-Baghdadi—whom ISGS’s Sahraoui pledged an oath to—to act as a centripetal force among adherents. Therefore, while ISWAP will still appear properly branded via IS’s highly centralized al-Naba publication and Aimaq News Agency, its local attack tempo and current feud with JNIM seem to be occupying its energy. By contrast, JNIM has its own regional media outlet, al-Zallaqa, which details its local agenda as tending to be far more decentralized in nature, with its far-flung regional groups operating with a much higher degree of autonomy than its IS competitors.

 

Droukdel
An undated photo of Abdelmalek Droukdel, leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, who was killed on June 3, 2020, in Mali. (Al-Andalus/AFP)

 

Meanwhile, on June 5, 2020, the French Minister of Defense Florence Parly announced that French special forces assassinated Abdelmalek Droukdel, the elusive Algerian-born leader of AQIM, in the hamlet of Talhandak in northern Mali’s Kidal region on June 3. At the time of this writing, JNIM’s al-Zallaqa has yet to confirm or deny Droukdel’s death.

A veteran of the Algerian Civil War, the AQIM commander was considered to be an al-Qaeda purist in ideological terms while also playing a key role in the southerly expansion of Salafi-jihad from Algeria into Mali and other parts of the Sahel. His death, if indeed a reality, may call into question JNIM’s current feud with ISGS and its position on negotiating with the Malian government. The reported killing of Droukdel may send shockwaves through the landscape of jihad from North to West Africa. Although Iyad Ag Ghaly is the public face of JNIM’s leadership, Droukdel was still considered a crucial link to al-Qaeda’s inner circle despite maintaining a more behind-the-scenes role after the declaration of JNIM. Now it would appear that Ag Ghaly, notably a non-Arab, is al-Qaeda’s premier representative in the region. The sudden elimination of Droukdel further emphasizes France’s prioritization of hard security measures in the Sahel rather than a sustainable hearts-and-minds strategy. Droukdel’s demise after decades of jihad may also signify that militancy in West Africa may be coming more indigenous in nature rather than an import from northern Algeria. 

 

Conclusion

In this benighted environment of shifting militant alliances, it can be challenging to keep track of the outright hostility between militant groups and the alleged cooperation between them. What is certain is that the fighting between JNIM and IS is sure to further destabilize this already troubled region, which is bursting with potential and hampered by a cross-border cat-and-mouse counter-terror campaign that has achieved mixed results at best. Beyond the French-assisted restoration of central authority over Mali’s northern regions in 2013, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad are arguably worse off in terms of security than when the French military descended on Timbuktu more than seven years ago. As the world witnessed in the Grand Bassam resort attack in Côte d’Ivoire four years ago, extraordinarily violent Salafism has already well migrated from the shores of the southern Mediterranean to the West African littoral. 

 

Derek Henry Flood is a security correspondent focusing on transnational terrorism and geopolitical fault lines. Twitter: @DerekHenryFlood

 

kano
A technician measures the distance between beds at a COVID-19 isolation center at Sani Abacha Stadium in Kano, Nigeria, on April 7, 2020. The center was established with donations from Kano-born Aliko Dangote, a Nigerian businessman and philanthropist. Via AFP

The pandemic that crippled most of the world for months has lumbered through Nigeria, most prominently by claiming the life of Abba Kyari, President Muhamed Buhari's chief of staff. it is the northern city of Kano, where the virus seems to have claimed the most lives.  

The city of about 5 million has seen a surge in deaths that the nation’s health authorities do not attribute to COVID-19, at least officially. The Nigeria Center for Disease Control (NCDC) has reported only forty-five local COVID-19 deaths, yet the people on the street know differently. Gravediggers say they cannot keep up with the demand for burials. Locals say a lack of transparency has complicated the issue in Kano.

 

“Authorities have claimed that these deaths were mysterious”

 

“Some sources reported that over a thousand persons had died from April 20 to May 4 in Kano State,” says Paul Alaje, an economist based in Lagos. “A recent report also has it that over a hundred people have died in the ten days leading up to May 4. Authorities in these states have claimed that these deaths were mysterious. There has been clarification, however, by the Presidential Task Force that most of the deaths are linked to COVID-19.”

The virus has likely spread far more widely here than the NCDC is reporting, Alaje says.

 

“Kano State has lost close to, if not more than, fifty prominent citizens”

 

The disparity between anecdotal accounts of mass deaths and the official health records of the authorities has triggered distrust in the Nigerian government’s narrative.

“From April 17 to May 17, 2020, Kano State has lost close to, if not more than, fifty prominent citizens, including at least seven professors, top serving and retired civil servants, media executives, captains of industry, first-class traditional rulers, and serving and retired security personnel,” reads a press release from the NGO Intersociety (International Society for Civil Liberties and the Rule of Law). “Deaths of their likes have also been reported in Zamfara, Nasarawa, Sokoto, Taraba, Jigawa, Yobe, and Bauchi states. The Kano harvest of deaths sprang up first on April 17, 2020, killing 150 in under four days.”

Whereas the official Nigerian death toll reported by the NCDC by June 2 was 299, Intersociety claims thousands have died: more than 1,500 people have died in Kano, 470 in Yobe, 200 in Jigawa, and 150 in Bauchi, according to Intersociety. These figures could not be confirmed by New Africa Daily.

“There are also independent or unofficial reports of more deaths of low-income and middle-income earners in Sokoto and others, but were wickedly kept from public knowledge,” says Emeka Umeagbalasi, chair of Intersociety’s board of trustees. Where these deaths are reported, they are attributed to other causes, including meningitis, Lassa fever, high fever, high blood pressure, hypertension, acute malaria, hepatitis B, typhoid fever, cough, and catarrh.

“Contradictions abound,” Umeagbalasi says. “Our firm demand is that all the infections and deaths in the northern states and similar ones in the rest of the country must be forensically detected and investigated, and their findings made public.”

Kano
The normally bustling city of Kano is grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic.Via AFP

Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari reassured the nation in a late April broadcast that the mysterious deaths in Kano were not attributable to the virus. However, the lockdown in Kano was extended another month, but elsewhere lockdown measures were relaxed on May 2.

 

Several staffers were infected due to poor handling of samples

 

The government in Kano may have acted to conceal the true statistics, says Dr. Lazarus Ude Eze, a medical doctor who monitors infection surveys in Nigeria.

In fact, Kano’s spike in cases in late April reportedly sparked multiple crises linked to the government’s attempts to save face. First, shortly after Kano’s testing center was set up, several  staffers were infected due to poor handling of samples; then some members of the Kano State Task Force got infected, too, forcing several medical staff to go into quarantine when they were needed the most. Meanwhile, Governor Abdullahi Umar Ganduje was seen spending his time lobbying the federal government to get a larger share of funding to battle the disease, which he previously said was not spreading in the state.

“The Kano situation as reported likely has been caused by a combination of meningitis, which kills several people about this time yearly due to the hot weather and poor ventilation,” says Dr. Tijjani Hussaini, coordinator of the state’s COVID-19 Technical Response Team. “Kano State is like any other place in the world battling with the scourge... We are in a rigorous investigation of the deaths in Kano, but as a scientist I can’t tell you exactly what the investigation will tell us about the cause of the deaths.”

 

Douglas Burton is a former US State Department official in Kirkuk, Iraq, and writes news and commentary from Washington, D.C.

 

Obasanjo Adesina
Akinwumi Adesina (left), president of the African Development Bank, and former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, photographed during the anniversary of the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture in Ibadan, Nigeria, on July 24, 2017. (Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP)

 

Olusegun Obasanjo, former president of Nigeria, has written a letter to twelve former African presidents in defense of the African Development Bank (AfDB) and its president, Akinwumi Adesina, who has come under fire from the United States Treasury Department. Adesina had been accused of ethics violations by a group of anonymous whistleblowers, but was exonerated by the AfDB’s Ethics Committee. Steven Mnuchin, secretary of the US Treasury, rejected the committee’s decision and insisted that an independent investigation be launched, which was approved on May 29.

In his letter, Obasanjo lists the numerous achievements of the AfDB under Adesina’s tenure, before turning his ire on the United States’ efforts to undermine his leadership and re-election bid in August. Regarding Mnuchin’s call for an independent investigation, he writes, “This is outside of the rules, laws, procedures and governance systems of the Bank. The US Treasury Secretary disparaged the Bank and ridiculed the entire governance system of the Bank, which has been in place since 1964.

 

“This is unprecedented in the annals of the African Development Bank Group”

 

Obasanjo’s letter comes amid renewed tensions between Nigeria and the United States, the former being placed on an expanded travel ban list by the Trump administration in February. The former president concluded the letter by calling on African heads of state to rally around Adesina. “We should speak against the introduction of alien practices being recommended by some parties given that such recommendation falls outside the laid down procedures, laws, rules, and regulations of the Bank.

“It is also critical that we emphasize the need for the ADB to remain an Africa-focused development Bank rather than one which serves interests outside Africa.”

 

African Development Bank President Akinwumi Adesina
African Development Bank president Akinwumi Adesina

 

A new investigation will be conducted into allegations made against Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank (AfDB), by a group of anonymous staff members. The bank’s Ethics Committee had already done an investigation and exonerated him, but United States treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin rejected their report and requested an independent investigation. Meeting on May 26, the bank’s Board of Governors, which oversees the Ethics Committee, approved the launch of an independent investigation into the allegations.

Adesina has been accused of nepotism and handing lucrative contracts to personal acquaintances, allegations he has fervently denied.

 

The US is the second-largest shareholder in the African Development Bank

 

Washington was able to push for this renewed scrutiny, as the US is the second-largest shareholder in the AfDB with a 6.5 percent stake, second only to Nigeria.

Nialé Kaba, chair of the bank’s Board of Governors, described the US involvement as an attempt to scuttle Adesina’s prospects of being re-elected at an annual general meeting in August. He is currently running unopposed for the position.

 

At this Engravers' College near Kaduna
Armed men abducted six learners and two teachers from this private secondary school, Engravers College, in a village near Kaduna in October 2019. They were later released, some sources say after a ransom had been paid.

“Terrorists are almost everywhere anytime,” said Peter Aboki, the smiling leader of the Gbagyi ethnic group. He was speaking of the eight Gbagyi villages on the Kaduna River flowing west from the packed metropolis of Kaduna in Kaduna State, Nigeria.

The area known as Birnin Gwari Local Government Area is home to the terrorist group Ansaru and large bandit gangs, some of whom claim links with Boko Haram. This dangerous cocktail of men with guns has led what was once a sleepy backwater to become the de facto “kidnap capital” of Nigeria.

These bandits may in fact be impersonating sectarian terrorists, but either way, their raids are devastating Gbagyi Christian settlements a stone’s throw from the state capital, Kaduna.

“On the evening of May 6, residents of Kabrasha village [44 kilometers southwest of the city of Kaduna] heard bombs exploding in the forest nearby. Several hours later they saw more than a hundred armed men walk or ride motorcycles through the village, and some chanted slogans in Arabic.”

“In a nearby neighborhood, my people saw these men carrying a strange flag, which led some to believe they were insurgents,” Aboki said. “All the villagers ran out of the village at 2 p.m. when a bomb exploded in the church. They thought they were under attack.”

Yet, the truth was different.

An army spokesman explained later that an army helicopter chasing bandits had mistakenly fired a missile into the church. Were the invaders of the village a criminal gang, or soldiers in one of Nigeria’s deadly insurgencies? No one seems to know. But, as we have learned, the terrorist group Ansaru (or those claiming to represent them) appears to be using the dense Kamuku Forest in Kaduna State.

The “More Humane” Alternative

Ansaru, or Jama’atu Ansaru al-Muslimina fi Bilad al-Sudan, which roughly translates as “Companions of the Muslims in the Land of Sudan”, emerged in 2012 as a splinter group of Boko Haram. It calls itself a “more humane” alternative to Boko Haram. Ansaru propaganda leaflets posted early in 2012 promised it would be a “humane” alternative to Boko Haram, and that it would not target innocent Muslim or Christian civilians, except in self-defense, and only focus its attacks against government forces and foreigners. In fact, the splinter group was created to repudiate the abhorrent practices of Boko Haram, which killed indiscriminately. In practice, Ansaru seems to have drifted more into criminal activity, steered by profit, than by any ideological rudder. 

From 2015 to 2019, the group appeared to be dormant. Then, on May 10, Nigerian media reported that the Intelligence Response Team, the country’s top anti-kidnapping unit, led by Deputy Commissioner of Police Abba Kyari, had arrested nine Ansaru bandits.

 

“Unlike Boko Haram, they only kidnap Christians and foreign workers.”

 

“The Ansaru terrorists established themselves as specialists in kidnapping,” according to David Otto, a counter-terrorism expert and director of Global Risk International in London. “Unlike Boko Haram, they only kidnap Christians and foreign workers,” he said.

Ansaru’s bandits ride out on motorbikes from the densely forested Birnin Gwari government area on the extreme western border of Kaduna State. “Alongside the Ansaru gangs are criminal kidnappers who simply claim to be Ansaru, according to Otto. “The foremost leader of Ansaru, the late Mamman Nur, had given permission to organized criminal cells to kidnap for ransom in the name of Ansaru.”

cows
Since 2018, at least six villages near Kaduna have been abandoned as kidnapping concerns have grown.

 

A Mysterious Brutal Kidnapping in January

The leader of a group of several hundred bandits in Chikun Local Government Area in January called himself a Boko Haram commander, according to some of the fifty-seven kidnapping victims who survived twenty-one days in the forest, without shelter, as his prisoners. The bandit leader said his name was “Kachalla”.

“It is possible that the bandit leader called himself Boko Haram simply to terrorize his victims,” Otto said.

The villages of Rumana and Badna, just 45 kilometers west of Kaduna and home to Gbagyi Christian communities, have yet to recover from the trauma of the murders and mass kidnapping, says Jonathan Asake, leader of the Southern Kaduna Peoples Union, a humanitarian group that brought relief supplies to the victims on May 6.

“They were forced to spend three weeks together shackled in the open air, with almost no food rations. The bandit leader told the group he was a soldier of Boko Haram and that he was originally from Borno State,” Asake says. Since the attack, all the residents of Rumana have abandoned their houses.

The Police Track Criminals, Not Terrorists

Recent arrests of Ansaru agents and Nigerian TV reports in February about police operations against Ansaru raise questions about the resurgence of Ansaru as a terrorist threat. Are the increasingly brutal ethnic-cleansing campaigns by so-called bandits in western Kaduna actually campaigns by Ansaru?

“The police in Nigeria track local criminal networks, groups, and gangs, not terrorist groups by name,” says Tanwa Ashiru, CEO of Bulwark Intelligence, a security consulting company in Lagos.

“Terrorists with Ansaru are still in Nigeria, and some of my colleagues say they are regrouping in the states of Sokoto, Zamfara, and Kaduna. Some are seen as affiliated with Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb,” Ashiru says. “They are not a major threat now, but they could be in the future if they are not tracked. The nine Ansaru suspects arrested recently were picked up by a kidnapping unit of the federal police because it combats kidnapping, not Ansaru.”

The arrest of Ansaru-affiliated kidnappers took place against a backdrop of vicious, escalating attacks against Nigerian Christian villages southwest and southeast of Kaduna city.

Major General John Enenche, defense information spokesman for the Nigerian army, told us in a text message that the group that attacked the village Badna in Chikun Local Government Area was not linked to Ansaru.

 

Douglas Burton is a former U.S. State Department official in Kirkuk, Iraq and writes news and commentary from Washington, D.C.

Reuben Buhari is a writer and analyst focused on terrorism based in Kaduna City, Nigeria.

 

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Nov 24, 2020