The commander in charge of ending Boko Haram’s seven-year insurgency in northeastern Nigeria announced at the end of August that the country’s army expects to seize the militant group’s last few strongholds in the northeastern region over the next few weeks.
According to Major General Lucky Irabor, commander of the operation, the militant group is now holed up in a few pockets of the Sambisa forest and two areas located near Lake Chad, adding that they would be flushed out “within weeks.” Sambisa forest is where more than 200 schoolgirls, who were kidnapped from the northeastern Nigerian town of Chibok in April 2014, are believed to be held. During an interview at his base in Maiduguri in Borno state, the birth place of the insurgency, Irabor disclosed that “almost all of the locations held by the Boko Haram terrorists have been reclaimed. We are talking only of a few villages and towns.” He further added that “there are joint operations. My commanders have an exchange with local commanders across the borders. Because of the collaborations we’ve had Boko Haram has been boxed in and in a few weeks you will hear good news.” He also disclosed that the militant group, who pledged loyalty to the so-called Islamic State (IS) group last year, were still in control of Abadan and Malafatori, two towns located near Lake Chad. The army is now planing a new push into the Sambisa forest after abandoning an attempt due to torrential rain.
The Nigerian army missed a December 2015 deadline that was set up by President Muhammadu Buhari to wipe out the militant group, which wants to set up an Islamic caliphate in the area around Lake Chad. The army has however retaken most of the group’s territory, which at one point was the size of Belgium, with much of the success being due to better military cooperation with Nigeria’s neighbours, particularly Chad, whose forces have ben attacking Boko Haram fighters fleeing across the border. Despite loosing territory, Boko Haram manages to stage regular suicide bombings in Nigeria and in neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger. Furthermore, since 2009, when the insurgency began, more than 15,000 people have been killed and a further 2.3 million have been displaced while the local economy has been decimated.
The move to retake the final areas of the northeastern region of the country comes after reports emerged that Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, may have been wounded or even killed in a recent air strike in the region. While there have been conflicting reports of Shekau’s status, Irabor has disclosed that the leader had recently been wounded, backing off an Air Force statement released earlier this month that suggested that he had been killed in an airstrike. Irabor disclosed, “Shekau was wounded. That’s what I can confirm, but as to whether he is dead that I cannot at the moment confirm.” Boko Haram, which normally communicates via video or audio clips posted o the Internet, has so far stated nothing since the 24 August Air Force statement about Shekau sustaining injuries in the airstrike.
On 13 May, the United Nations Security Council disclosed that it is alarmed by Boko Haram’s ties to the so-called Islamic State (IS) group, adding that it is throwing its support behind a Nigerian-led regional summit to confront the threat.
In a statement, the 15-member Council disclosed that it welcomed President Muhammadu Buhari’s “crucial initiative” to hold the Summit on 14 May, which will be attended by regional leaders as well as French President Francois Hollande. It adds that the summit should help develop “a comprehensive strategy to address the governance, security, development, socio-economic and humanitarian dimensions of the crisis.” The Council also expressed “alarm at Boko Haram’s linkages with the Islamic State” and voiced “deep concern that the activities of Boko Haram continue to undermine the peace and stability of the West and Central African region.” Last year, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to IS and Nigerians have ben reportedly fighting in lawless Libya. The group also has ties with al-Qaeda-linked groups that operate in the wider Sahel region. The Council also renewed its call for regional countries Cameroon, Chad and Niger in a multinational joint task force to “further enhance regional military cooperation and coordination” to root out Boko Haram. It also demanded that Boko Haram “immediately and unequivocally cease all violence and all abuses of human rights” and “release all those abducted” including the 219 schoolgirls who were kidnapped in Chibok, Nigeria in April 2014.
The Council statement was drafted by the United States as a show of support for President Buhari on the eve of the meeting.
On 14 May, regional and western powers gathered in Nigeria to attend talks on quelling the threat from Boko Haram.
Speaking to reporters shortly after meeting with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari in Abuja, French President Francois Hollande stated that “impressive” gains has been made against the Islamists by greater cooperation, warning however that “this terrorist group nevertheless remains a threat.” The Nigerian leader has invited leaders from Benin, Cameroon, Chad and Niger, whose troops will make up a new regional force against Boko Haram, which has been pushed to northeastern Nigeria’s borders around Lake Chad. The 8,500-member force, which has African Union (AU) backing and which is based in Chad’s capital, N’Djamena under a Nigerian general, was supposed to have deployed July 2015. Plugging gaps and improving coordination between the armies that are currently operating largely independently is seen as vital in the remote region where borders are known to be porous. Saturday’s summit, which comes two years after a first such high-level gathering in Paris, also comes as Nigeria’s military pushes deep into Boko Haram’s Sambisa Forest stronghold after recapturing swathes of territory. While President Buhari has vowed to defeat Boko Haram before the end of his first year in office later this month, and the army portraying the Islamists as being in disarray, there have been warnings against any premature declaration of victory. Deputy US Secretary of State Anthony Blinking disclosed in Washington, which is flying surveillance drones over northeastern Nigeria from a base in northern Cameroon, that he did not see Boko Haram as defeated. However he conceded that “they have been degraded,” adding that the US was “extremely vigilant” about the connections, amidst reports of Boko Haram rebels fighting in lawless Libya and the group’s ties to al-Qaeda affiliates in the wider Sahel region. Speaking to reporters on Friday, he disclosed that “this is against something we are looking at very, very carefully because we want to cut it off.” British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has also warned about Boko Haram’s ties to the so-called Islamic State (IS) group, stating that progress was being made against the group with help from London, Paris and Washington. He added in his statement that “…we must maintain the momentum to win the war, and build the right conditions for post-conflict stability in the region.” With Boko Haram now on the back foot, attention has increasingly started to turn towards the plight of those that have been displaced by the ongoing insurgency. Two million Nigerians have been internally displaced and are now living in host communities or camps. The government of Borno State, which has been the worst-hit by the violence, has stated that the displaced face a “food crisis” and US $5.9 billion was needed to rebuild shattered infrastructure. United States Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, who visited northeastern Nigeria and northern Cameroon last month, has indicated that 9.2 million people in the wider region were affected by the conflict.
The final communiqué disclosed that a “global approach” was required, comprising of hard and soft power in order to end the threat. Britain’s Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond characterized the fight against extremist ideology as “a generational struggle against an evil that will destroy us if we do not destroy it.” He further told the gathering that “we must sustain this fight until evil is defeated and good prevails,” and called for countries affected to win the “hears and minds of those terrorized by Boko Haram.” US Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken also disclosed that respect for human rights was essential, after repeated accusations of military abuses against civilians and Bok Haram suspects. He further warned that not addressing the drivers of extremism – poverty, deprivation, lack of opportunity and education, would create “Bok Haram 2.0” even if the group were defeated militarily.
The United Nations child agency has reported that Boko Haram’s use of child bombes has increased over the last year, with one in five suicide attacks being carried out by children.
According to a new report, girls, who are often drugged, were behind three-quarters of such attacks that were committed by the militant Islamist group in Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria. This represents an 11-fold increase, with four such attacks carried out in 2014, compared to 44 the next year, including January 2016. Analysts note that this change in tactics reflects the group’s loss of territory in Nigeria over the past several months. A regional offensive by Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon last year drove Boko Haram from much of its territory it held in northern Nigeria, effectively undermining its six-year campaign to carve out an Islamist caliphate. Despite this loss of territory, the militants have struck back with suicide bombing and hit-and-run attacks targeting civilians.
Meanwhile aid agency Mercy Corps reported on Monday that Boko Haram has lured young entrepreneurs and business owners in northeastern Nigeria to join the Islamist group by providing or promising capital and loans to boost their businesses. According to Mercy Corps, seeing successful business ownership as a way to escape poverty, many Nigerian youths, ranging from butchers and beauticians to tailors and traders, have accepted loans for their businesses in return for joining Boko Haram. The report from the US-based aid agency notes however that this lure of business support is often a trap, as those who cannot repay their loans are either forced to join the militants or are killed. Report author and Mercy Corps peacebuilding adviser Lisa Inks has disclosed that “Boko Haram is tapping into the yearning of Nigerian youth to get ahead in an environment of massive inequality,” adding, “it is incredibly clever – either such loans breed loyalty or Boko Haram use mafia style tactics to trap and force young people to join them.”
According to the latest statistics released by Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics, six in ten Nigerians live in absolute poverty, on less than one dollar a day, a figure which rises to three quarters of the population in the northeastern region of the country. Many young people told Mercy Corps that they would struggle without the support of powerful “godfathers” to provide capital for their businesses, or cash transfers for equipment and goods. Mercy Corps, which conducted interviews with 145 people including young former Boko Haram members, family of former members and youths who resisted joining, has reported that Bok Haram has therefore been able to fill a critical gap in financial services.
The report has called for increased access to financial and business services, more support for conflict-hit communities and greater efforts to reintegrate people who have fled the militant group.
On Sunday, 20 March, voters in five African countries cast their ballots, including four presidential elections and a constitutional referendum. Incumbents in Niger and Republic of Congo are expected to sail to re-election, while Benin’s presidential election run-off vote is less certain.
Below is a look at the contests:
Benin’s President Thomas Boni Yayi is stepping down after the maximum of two terms in office, effectively enhancing the West African country’s democratic credentials. Sunday’s election was between the current Prime Minister Lionel Zinsou and businessman Patrice Talon, who was once accused of trying to poison the outgoing president, an allegation he denies. Prime Minister Zinsou, who quit his job as the head of one of Europe’s biggest investment banks when he was nominated prime minister last year, is the leading contender. The 61-year-old candidate for Boni Yayi’s Cowry Forces for an Emerging Benin (FCBE) has the support of the majority of lawmakers in parliament via the backing of two main opposition groups. During the first round of voting, on 6 March, Zinsou won 27.1 percent of the vote, with Talon, a 57-year-old entrepreneur who made his money in cotton and running Cotonou’s port, coming in second with 23.5 percent. However since then, 24 of the 32 other candidates who stood in the first round of the election have come out in support of Talon, including third-placed Sebastien Ajavon, who won 22 percent of votes.
Polls opened at 7:00 AM (0600 GMT), with 4.7 million people eligible to cast their ballots. Voting was to close at 4:00 PM (1500 GMT). Voting on Sunday passed off calmly, with no major incidents reported.
On Monday, 21 March, Benin Prime Minister Lionel Zinsou conceded defeat to businessman Patrice Talon in the presidential elections. He conceded after early results overnight indicated that Talon won 64.8 percent of the vote, against 35.2 for Zinsou.
- Youth Unemployment – The 15 – 34 age group makes up some 60 percent of the country’s working population. Officially, the unemployment rate is under 4.0 percent, however with 85 percent of works in the informal sector of the jobs market, the figure does not reflect reality. With few jobs available, many university graduates end up driving motorbike-taxis that are increasingly found everywhere in the West African country. Zinsou has promised to create 350,000 jobs by 2021, especially for the young and women, while Talon has pledged to take steps in order to encourage job creation in the private sector.
- Corruption – When President Boni Yayi first took office in 2006, he had vowed to stop endemic corruption in several key sectors, including in the port in Benin’s commercial hub, Cotonou, and the cotton industry. However his two terms in office have been marked by several embezzlement and bribery scandals. In 2010, the head of state ws implicated in a major savings scandal in which thousands of Beninese lost money. The construction of a new national assembly building in the administrative capital Port Novo has also taken millions of dollars however it has never been finished. Furthermore, last year, the Netherlands suspended aid to Benin after four million euros, which were earmarked for drinking water schemes, disappeared.
- Health and Education – Benin, which has a population of 10.6 million, is considered by the World Bank to be a low-income country with poor ratings in both the health and education indicators. Free primary school education has been seen as a positive from Boni Yayi’s presidency, even if subsidies do not always reach schools. Furthermore, President Boni Yayi also created a universal scheme to open up access to healthcare to the poorest in society via an average monthly subscription of 1,000 CFA francs (1.5 euros). The scheme however is not yet up and running. Prime Minister Zinsou has promised that he will make development a key priority, including helping the 100,000 poorest families and improving medical infrastructure.
- Major Port in Benin – The port accounts for almost half of the country’s tax receipts and more than 80 percent of customs tariffs. It handles some 90 percent of the country’s overseas businesses and sells itself as a transit port for neighbouring Nigeria to the east and surrounding countries, such as Burkina Faso and Niger. Major infrastructure work has been carried out, including the construction of a new quay, which allows it to handle twice as many containers in 2014 as it did in 2008. A computerized management system of truck arrivals and departures has also been put in place as well as a single counter to handle all transactions, effectively helping to streamline procedures and cut graft. However waiting times remain long due to a lack of available space and the new checks. Accoridng to sources, ships often wait up to a week before offloading, with some opting to go to Lome in neighbouring Togo, brining in the containers by lorry, which is quicker. The port of Tema, in Ghana, is also a main competitor for business.
The election in Niger effectively pits incumbent president Mahamadou Issoufou against opposition figure Hama Amadou, who has been in prison since November 2015 on charges, which critics say are politically motivated. President Issoufou is campaigning on his credentials in the fight against Islamic militancy. His opponent left the country late last week to seek medical treatment in France for an unspecified ailment.
Voting on Sunday ended in Niger with President Mahamadou Issoufou the likely winner of the election. Throughout the day, security forces were posted at polling stations. They also patrolled the streets of Niamey and monitored the city’s main intersection. As polling stations closed in the early evening and elections workers began counting ballots, observers disclosed that there were no major incidents that had been reported, adding that voter turnout had been low. Provisional results are due to be released in the next few days.
Republic of Congo
President Denis Sassou N’Guesso, 72, who has been in power for more than 30 years, is seeking another term in office after he organized a constitutional referendum that effectively removed the an age limit that would have disqualified him from running again. The run-up to the October referendum was marred by violence, and mobile phone service was blocked in the country.
On 19 March, authorities in Republic of Congo announced a 48-hour communications blackout for Sunday’s presidential election. On Saturday, a government source disclosed that all communications would be cut on Sunday and Monday, by order of the authorities in order to avoid “illegal publication” of the results. A letter from interior minister Raymond Mboulou to the country’s phone companies disclosed that “for reasons of national security, please block all communications including SMSs from March 20 and 21.” The government source added that the move would not affect the voting process and would “in no way hinder the opposition’s access to the results.”
On Sunday, voting began under a media blackout, in a tense ballot that is expected to see President Denis Sassou Nguesso prolong his 32-year rule. Polling stations opened promptly at 7:00 AM (0600 GMT), with on the ground sources reporting that voters lined up quietly outside in the capital Brazzaville. The polls closed at 6:00 PM (1700 GMT). Tensions later broke out with riot police using tear gas to disperse 200 opposition supporters who were trying to get into a polling station. According to on the ground sources, dozens of heavily armed police fired tear gas at the supporters of opposition candidate Guy-Brice Parfait Kolelas and chased them away from the polling station in the south of the capital Brazzaville.
Senegal is voting on a constitutional referendum, which proposes fifteen reforms that would make sweeping changes. In contrast with many African leaders, Senegalese President Macky Sall is asking voters to shorten the country’s presidential term from seven years to five. The proposed changes also call for a strengthened National Assembly, better representation for Senegalese abroad, and greater rights for the opposition in national elections.
Voting began on Sunday at 0800 GMT and ended at 1800 GMT, with up to five million Senegalese voting in the election. Technical problems with producing voter ID cards however will prevent 200,000 from exercising their democratic rights. According to Doudou Ndir, the head of the country’s election watchdog, turnout was slow early on, with only 10 percent of votes cast by 11 AM. Activity however was likely to pick up in the afternoon. The results are no expected to be released until later this week.
Voters are casing ballots in Zanzibar, the semi-autonomous archipelago off the coast of Tanzania. The opposition parties have called for a boycott of the election. Zanzibar’s vote is a re-run of an October ballot, which the main opposition parties say runs counter to Zanzibar’s electoral laws.
On Sunday, voting began with tight security. Polling stations opened on time at 7:00 AM (0400 GMT), with votes lining up peacefully. Turnout however was expected to be low in opposition strongholds after the Civic United Front (CUF) urged its supporters not to participate. The Zanzibar Election Commission (ZEC) indicated that there had been no delays in the delivery of ballot boxes and papers and said both local and African observers were in place, although those from the EU had stayed away. Polls closed at 4:00 PM (1300 GMT) with results expected as early as Monday.