Two of red24’s chief analysts, Andre Colling (AC) and Ryan Cummings (RC), go head-to-head in a Q&A covering Yemen’s increasingly likely slide towards failed state status and Boko Haram in Nigeria, respectively. The questions form part of a basic ‘key assumptions check’ and are typically used in the industry as a starting point when reassessing a security environment or the operational capability of an armed group. The answers also provide some insight into the respective security environments of each state.
Nigeria – The Boko Haram threat
(AC) Ryan, Boko Haram is a prominent, well-funded and well-supported Islamist militant group, based in Nigeria. Why do you argue that it does not have an international focus and that its activity is only (and will only be) Nigeria-focused over the medium-term?
(RC) There is mounting evidence to suggest that Boko Haram has extended its operational footprint outside of Nigeria and may have infiltrated neighbouring countries, such as Niger and Cameroon. Nonetheless, both the sect’s rhetoric and operations suggest that Boko Haram remains a Nigeria-focused, grassroots organisation. In this regard, Boko Haram’s alleged expansion into neighbouring countries is congruent with the group’s domestic agenda, as this expansion has provided the sect with an operational environment in which it can train, recruit and even launch cross-border attacks into Nigerian territory. The status quo will likely endure until such time that the respective governments of Niger and Cameroon adopt a more hardline stance against Boko Haram interests, both within and outside of their respective borders.
(AC) What is the current level of regional security coordination between Nigeria and neighbouring countries?
(RC) To date, the level of security co-operation between Nigeria and its immediate neighbours has been limited to intelligence sharing and joint border patrols. However, these initiatives have been compromised by logistical problems, including staff shortages and poor communication networks. Nevertheless, there are increasing calls by Western governments for more robust regional co-operation, particularly the execution of joint military operations. I believe it will only be a question of time before such initiatives are undertaken.
(AC) What incentives, if any, are there for resource-poor states bordering Nigeria to co-operate against militants?
(RC) The longer the Boko Haram insurgency continues, the higher the risk that the sect could become entrenched within neighbouring countries and possibly export its insurgent operations to these territories. Moreover, an often overlooked aspect of the Boko Haram insurgency is the regional humanitarian crisis it is causing. Since early 2013, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has estimated that at least 470,000 people have been displaced by Boko Haram attacks and reciprocal military offensives in north eastern Nigeria. An estimated 60,000 of the aforementioned number have sought refuge in the neighbouring countries of Chad, Cameroon and Niger, placing a significant burden on areas already experiencing food and resource scarcities. Co-operation against militants among Nigeria’s neighbouring states could help prevent these effects.
(AC) What is the long-term outlook for Nigeria? Can the government end the insurgency?
(RC) I believe that the Nigerian government can end the Boko Haram insurgency, provided that it is willing to change its current counterinsurgency strategy. To date, Nigeria has relied on a military solution to the insurgency, which is problematic, given that the Nigerian armed forces are lacking the requisite resources, training and manpower for such a strategy. In this regard, the country will likely require external assistance, both in the form of training and funding, in order to ensure that the military has the knowledge, numbers and equipment for the execution of successful counterinsurgency operations.
However, most critically will be Nigeria’s willingness to address the structural socio-economic problems that are fuelling the insurgency. By addressing issues such as poverty, unemployment and corruption, which are considered systemic in the country’s north, the government could drain Boko Haram’s grassroots support, upon which the longevity of the sect’s insurgency is dependent. In short, the government needs to make a better offer to the people than any offer from Boko Haram. Until the sect is forced into a position in which negotiation, and not violence, is the primary means of addressing its grievances, Boko Haram will continue to persist with the deadly efficacy it has demonstrated to date.
Yemen – The potential failed state
(RC) Andre, you argue that Yemen is on a path towards failed state status. Is this assessment valid, given the success of the recent National Dialogue Conference?
(AC) I think so. The National Dialogue achieved some limited success, but as recent conflict in the north, persistent tribal violence in the east and Islamist extremist agitation in the south east demonstrate, it has not achieved immediate results. In addition to these challenges, oil income has diminished and the economy is heaving under enormous pressure and reliance on foreign aid. The government is essentially in a state of flux and prone to further instability.
(RC) You touch on the issue of the presence of non-state armed groups that operate within the country. In this regard, who are the major groups?
(AC) There are a number of groups. The Shiite Houthis in the north, AQAP in the east, Harak militants in the south and, of course, the various tribal groupings, most of which are well armed. There are also numerous political parties which have an armed support base, including al-Islah, arguably the strongest opposition group in the country.
(RC) Are any of these groups interconnected and, if so, how do these relationships influence the power dynamic within the country?
(AC) Many, if not most, of these groups share certain ‘commonalities’. For example, there is evidence to suggest that some tribesmen are working with AQAP (in kidnapping operations) and that AQAP members have inter-married with tribes’ people, in order to cement alliances and secure operational ‘space’. Some political parties and tribal groupings are also loosely allied. Al-Islah has a close connection to the al-Ahmer tribe, which is in turn the dominant force in the Hashid Tribal federation. The Hashid comprises a number of smaller tribal groupings who are loyal to opponents of al-Islah and al-Ahmer, such as the Houthis. The government also runs a patronage system through its Ministry of Tribal Affairs, which allegedly pays off certain tribal figures in return for their allegiance or neutrality. The security forces are also split in many areas along tribal lines, while many politicians have split allegiances. Typically, one is loyal to one’s family, tribe, religious order, party and, usually lastly, the state. So in summary, these groups are connected through a complicated mix where alliances are frequently forged or broken in response to political and security developments.
(RC) Are there any discernible shifts in the current alliances which could worsen or improve Yemen’s political and security outlook within the short- to medium-term?
(AC) Discerning shifts in alliances remains a difficult undertaking. While small shifts are frequently occurring in response to security and political developments, major alliance shifts occur less frequently. The last major upheaval occurred in 2011, when elements within the army withdrew support from then-president, Ali Saleh. However, even this split was accepted as a likely outcome, given the entrenched differences that already existed within the ‘unified military command’ and political hierarchy. Similarly, any major political development over the near-term will act to further destabilise and polarise Yemen. Such triggers could include a high-profile political assassination that undermines the recent political gains, or a major advance or capture of territory by one of the major non-state armed groups.