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Boko Haram
March 24, 2015

Event Transcript: ‘War in West Africa? Nigeria Ahead of the Elections’

Diletta Cordani
Alex Treptow
Jasmin Harper

Christian Whiton

Former Senior Advisor at the U.S. State Department

Sohrab Ahmari

Editorial Page Writer at The Wall Street Journal

Robin Simcox

Research Fellow at The Henry Jackson Society

Chaired by Davis Lewin

Deputy Director & Head of Policy and Research at The Henry Jackson Society

Tuesday 24 March 2015

The Henry Jackson Society, Millbank Tower, London

For a summary of this event, click here

For a podcast of this event, click here



Davis Lewin, Deputy Director and Head of Policy and Research


Welcome this evening to our humble abode and another Henry Jackson Society event. As a matter of fact, dare I say, not to prejudice other speakers, but it gives me huge pleasure to be sitting among these three friends and colleagues to discuss what is really a massively interesting, massively relevant topic, on which I frankly have my own questions that I will get to put to the panel, I hope, at some point. Namely, war in West Africa and Nigeria ahead of the elections.

To introduce the panel very quickly… they’ll speak for about seven to eight minutes each before we do a Q&A in the usual manner.

On my very right, not necessarily politically [Laughter], is Christian Whiton, who is the President of the Hamilton Foundation and the author of the book Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War. Christian, of course, famously was previously a State Department Senior Advisor during the Bush administration and Senior Campaign Advisor to Newt Gingrich’s 2012 campaign.

On my left here is my brilliant colleague Robin Simcox, who is the National Security Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and has spoken on a variety of platforms, including testifying to Congress in the United States, the White House, the National Counterterrorism Center, of course in the British Parliament, US Special Operations Command and the European Parliament, and is widely in demand and widely published on matters of intricate international affairs, terrorism, national security and so on and so forth. I won’t go through all the publications that have published him because we would be here all day. One of the publications that has published him is The Wall Street Journal.

And it gives me absolute pleasure again to have Sohrab, a good friend as well – not in the American sense, but in the European sense, truly – who is an editorial-page writer for The Wall Street Journal Europe based here in London. Sohrab joined the Journal in New York as an Assistant Books Editor, before which he was a Robert L. Bartley Fellow also at the Journal in 2012. He is, again, one of the most insightful friends on matters of international affairs in this town.

So we really have a stellar panel and, with that, I shall give over to Christian to set the scene. ‘War in West Africa? Nigeria Ahead of the Elections’. Thank you, Christian.


Christian Whiton, Former Senior Advisor at the U.S. State Department


Thank you, Davis. Can everyone hear me OK? Yes?

Thanks, it’s great to be back here at The Henry Jackson Society. It’s always good to be among friends and an honour to come to a place where so much important debate takes place in London.

As Davis mentioned, this is a timely issue because we’re going into elections this Saturday between the incumbent Goodluck Jonathan and his challenger Buhari. It may not all be decided on Saturday and what I can tell, from afar of course, is that both sides seem like they believe they’re going to win, so it’s going to be very interesting.

Approaching this from my background, which is focused on governance broadly from [a] security [perspective], it’s an interesting question, an interesting challenge, because so much of Africa has been relegated to exports and aficionados and people with an interest in economic development. Sometimes economic development divorced from clear political goals. What I would affectionately call ‘Peace Corps types’ have tended to play more in the African space, at least in Washington. It may be very different here in London.

But this has changed recently and not necessarily for good reasons, although it may be for good effect that more and more people are interested in this. You know, you have of course, most notably, the rise of Boko Haram. What was a regional and specific problem [is] becoming more and more noticed and relevant to the West and other countries.

You, of course, have the famous incident of two hundred schoolgirls kidnapped, leading to a shockingly ineffective Twitter campaign to free them. Alas, Boko Haram was not going to respond to a tweet from the First Lady and from others demanding their return, but, you know, glib remarks aside, what was a regional menace, or a national menace, is now mushrooming. You have, in effect, a regional war; not just Nigeria involved in the fight, but also now forces from Chad and from a number of other African nations.

You also have the US Secretary of Defense, new on the job, talking in the context of the fight against ISIS, saying that it might also now expand to Nigeria; which was a sort of subtle way of saying that he’s not going to rule out the notion of a broader US or Western involvement going beyond what has been provided so far since the schoolgirls were kidnapped, which has been very, very minor.

So it’s a little hard to get specifics out of the Pentagon, but I was told by someone who focuses on this [that] it could be small; just a squad of Marines involved in assistance, which I’m sure, effective as they are by their numbers, is not really akin to a decision by the West to help a beleaguered ally.

You know, when I worked at the State Department, my boss, when I’d write about human rights, I’d write about North Korea and China, and he’d say, ‘OK, that’s great; talk about the abuses, but no one is going to care unless you explain why it’s important; or they’ll care, but they just won’t act’.

But I think Nigeria is important and increasingly so. Again, not being an Africa expert, looking at this I always just assumed it was the biggest economy in West Africa. In fact, Nigeria is the biggest economy in Africa, which is truly remarkable. It’s not, again, just ticking through some Western stereotypes, it’s not purely a petro-state either. You know, 30 percent of the economy is agriculture and 26 percent services. This is actually a much healthier mix than a lot of the Gulf states that rely on most of their GDP in almost all of their government revenue from hydrocarbons. And you also have 6 percent growth. Obviously, these are lagging indicators, and there’s a real question if the decline in the price of oil will have an impact on Nigeria.

But [Nigeria is] a country that’s very important, that has very serious problems, and despite those sort of economic bright points, [there are] also some very dark clouds out there: 20 percent unemployment and a problem with corruption. This, of course, is not exclusive to Nigeria by any respects, but [Nigeria] ranks 136t out of 175 by Transparency International’s ranking from the most open, least corrupt to the most corrupt. So [it is] not on the absolute bottom, but certainly toward part of the spectrum where you don’t want to be. In Transparency International’s measurement for control of corruption, Nigeria gains only a 16 percent.

Why do I bring this up? Because the problem is that this is driving an Islamist message. Any group that’s out of power, that wants power, can cite corruption as a reason to replace the incumbent government with themselves, but corruption in particular is something that has been used to build support for sharia, to build support for Islamist governance, and in fact, we see this in the challenger, Buhari. He said, ‘if Nigeria does not kill corruption, corruption will kill Nigeria.’ And he called for a Marshall Plan to fight factors like corruption and terrorism, and I think that’s an important thing to understand and a dangerous thing in a way. We in the West look at rule under the Taliban, and say, ‘How could anyone want that?’ Or we look at ISIS today and say, ‘How could anyone want that?’

I think that there’s a failure to appreciate that there actually is a political appeal to Islamism, to the idea that, instead of separating Mosque and state, instead of having laws that are made by legislators, by Congresses, and then interpreted by judges, that actually that whole apparatus will be turned over to clerical rule, that people who are not democratically elected, who are not really accountable to the people, will choose those laws.

And it links up to yet another problem we have, especially in the United States, less so here, which is an inability to identify radical Islam as the driving force of so many of the problems. We look at Boko Haram and think ‘OK, they’re jihadists, they’re terrorists’. But they’re animated by an ideology, animated by Islamism. It’s the same animating force that drives threats as diverse as the Iranian regime and ISIS and Al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, groups that don’t pursue their goals through terrorism or jihadism necessarily, like the Muslim Brotherhood – although there’s some debate about that – but nonetheless share the same vision. In the West we’re so distracted. We talk about extremism. We talk about how these groups hate each other. How maybe it’s not such a bad thing that in places like Syria that they’re fighting each other but, in fact, at the end of the day there is a genesis to all of these threats.

And so [this] brings us to this point in time in Nigeria. We have an election where there’s a candidate who is an incumbent, who is imperfect, who has had a challenging tenure, but [there’s] also an opponent who has called for sharia, who has talked that up, who a sceptic like myself might look and be concerned that he might turn out to be an Erdoğan, someone who’s willing – like Erdoğan in Turkey – to pour gas on the flames, to use populism, to use this appeal to a pure form of life that isn’t so pure, that isn’t so anti-corrupt, in order to achieve the goals that he wants.

Just to close on an analogy. During the Cold War, we had wrapped our minds around the strategy of fighting communism, [the strategy of] containment – actually it was even before containment was finally chosen. In 1948 [there was] an election in Italy that pitted Christian Democrats, who would increasingly bring Italy into the West, or the Communists, who would take it behind the Iron Curtain, and frankly we didn’t do what we would probably do today. At that time we didn’t say, ‘well, we don’t like these various parties. This is a sticky issue. This is for Italians to decide. You know, we don’t like these communists, but some of the other guys, weren’t we just fighting them in a war three years ago?’

Instead, we were beginning to wrap our mind around a desire to stop Communism politically, militarily, in the intelligence realm and the political warfare realm. We got involved in that election. If the Soviets were putting their thumb on the scale for the Communists, we were at least going to do as much for the other side.

And that’s not saying that I think that the US the UK should be intervening in Nigeria’s elections. I just think that, at this point in time in history, we can no longer afford to ignore elections like this in a political context like this. Thank you.


Davis Lewin


Thank you, Christian. Moving on straight to Sohrab.


Sohrab Ahmari – Editorial Page Writer at The Wall Street Journal


I want to start by thanking The Henry Jackson Society for organising the talk. I’d like to thank Christian and Robin and all of you for being here.

I recently – about a month ago, a month after the Charlie Hebdo attack – had an opportunity to interview French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, and towards the end of the interview… it was not the main point of the interview, but he mentioned Africa. He said, ‘You know, France needs to be present in Africa because Africa is the continent of the future.’ It’s a pretty striking quote, and it didn’t make to the actual printed interview because it wasn’t the main subject, but it stuck with me. I think that it’s telling something, and I think if you look at some of the numbers about Africa, you realise that he is, in fact, correct.

There’s a tremendous opportunity in Africa. I’ll recite a few of…though most of you are probably familiar with most of these, but over the last decade the continent’s GDP has grown 5 percent a year. So, year on year, 5 percent. Trade between Africa and the rest of the world has doubled since 2000. Africa and especially Sub-Saharan Africa…this was a fact that always… it astounds me in a very pleasing way: [Africa] is the world’s most entrepreneurial region. Six of the ten countries with [the] highest rate of total early-stage entrepreneurial activity are in Africa, and Nigeria – this country that is the subject of tonight’s discussion – tops that list. 40 percent of adults in the country are starting a business and have run it for at least three and a half years. 40 percent of those entrepreneurs are women. So it’s a continent where farmers are using cloud computing to set prices and guide logistics. 85 percent of Nigerian adults say they see good opportunities to start a business. That really is the opportunity in Africa.

As Christian also said, we are all accustomed often to think and talk about Africa in this kind of Peace Corps model of a series of challenges. You know, malaria, HIV, illiteracy and so on. But things are changing, and I think in official Washington, official London, official Brussels, the mind-set isn’t changing, but others are noticing the opportunity. So roughly half of China’s foreign development aid right now goes to Africa. China surpassed the US as Africa’s largest trading partner, somewhere in 2009, at around $200 billion. The volume of Chinese trade now is double America’s trade with Africa.

That’s not to say that those challenges aren’t there – again, HIV, malaria, illiteracy and of course the rise of African Islamism, the scourge of Boko Haram. It was Wole Soyinka, the Nobel-winning Nigerian playwright, who described this new force of Islamism in Africa as ‘a shadowy but lethal force determined to re-enslave the continent with its chains of fundamentalist theology’.

So the challenge is unquestioningly there, and today we saw Chadian troops bomb Boko Haram locations. But if you ask the State Department today, ‘what’s American Africa policy?’, I’m willing to bet that your average State Department mid-ranking officer wouldn’t be able to give you a coherent answer. They’ll say, you know, ‘promoting good governance, combating infectious diseases, especially HIV, improving literacy.’ And those are all good things, but they don’t altogether make a coherent Africa strategy.

What you should get instead is something like this: the US will ensure that the American-African partnership is among Washington’s deepest relationships across the world [in terms of] business, military and diplomacy. But unfortunately, right now there is no sense of that strategy, and that’s really the tragedy, because the Chinese don’t care about good governance, right? They just come in, they extract crude materials, they invest, they bring in their own armies of workers, but they don’t really care about democratic governance. They don’t really care about Africa developing, not just economically, but also politically. And without a US presence and a Western presence, we can’t shape those outcomes.

I think it is fine to criticise Goodluck Jonathan on corruption and his initially insufficient counter-terror efforts. I think he took too long to acknowledge the Boko Haram threat, but I think you don’t get very far just criticising him if you’re not present. The French are very present. Obviously, they have a history there, and the French tried to put together a sort of anti-Boko Haram coalition. Initially, it didn’t get very far, but I think that the coalition you’re now seeing is in part French-inspired. The Chinese are present, for good or ill, whereas the US Africa Command base is actually in Germany. This is a surprising fact to me. It has only 1500 personnel, which is a tiny proportion of the US military, and it sits in Germany.

So I think that that failure goes to a broader American retrenchment from the world. We’ve seen that in the Middle East, we’ve seen that in Eastern Europe and in Africa too.

To close, I’ll just quote a US Army commander I spoke with recently. He was speaking about Eastern Europe, but I think it applies equally well to Africa, where you can’t not be present and then expect for problems to go away on their own. He said, ‘You can’t surge trust.’ It think that is true in Ukraine, in Eastern Europe, and it’s certainly true in Nigeria and Africa more broadly.

Thank you.


Davis Lewin


Thank you, Sohrab. And with no further ado, let’s just go on straight to my colleague, Robin Simcox.


Robin Simcox, Research Fellow at The Henry Jackson Society


Thank you. I’m going to try and place what’s happening in Nigeria, some of the groups that are operating in Nigeria, in the broader context of some of the global jihadist movements that are going on today.

In Africa, the way I see it, we have a series of regional actors – not just local ones. In West Africa, obviously Boko Haram is a group that just doesn’t just carry out attacks in Nigeria, but also in Cameroon, also in Chad. In East Africa, you have Al-Shabaab, which isn’t any longer an organisation which only focuses on its place, in Somalia, but in Djibouti, in Kenya, [an organisation which] has planned attacks in Uganda. There is a fear of potential attacks in Ethiopia, a country that has been engaged in Somalia in the past.

But then consider the situation in North Africa as well. You have a genuine mess unfolding in Libya; [you have] the Ansar Al-Sharia groups operating there. We’ve seen attacks recently in Tunisia, of course. We know there is an ongoing security situation in Nigeria. [There is] Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb operating throughout the Sahel. Obviously security in this region is a major issue.

Looking at Nigeria specifically, I will go through a very, very brief history of how some of the jihadist movements there have developed. For years Boko Haram and Ansaru, one of their offshoots, have been at the forefront of this. Behind the scenes, Al-Qaeda has had an interest in Nigeria in a variety of ways, primarily through its affiliate, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), but also with its Yemeni and Somali affiliates, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Al-Shabaab. They worked alongside Boko Haram both in terms of training, weapon supply, communications, those kinds of things; and this has been outlined by the US government. Mohammed Yusuf, the former Boko Haram leader, is known to have received money from Osama bin Laden in the past. The Abbottabad files – the files discovered in Osama bin Laden’s compound – [are] again said to show show a clear link between him and Boko Haram.

I think that sometimes [there is a] desire to paint Boko Haram as this purely indigenous local problem and kind of wilfully ignore some of the international links that do exist. I figured out there have been at least six Al-Qaeda or Al-Qaeda affiliated groups that Boko Haram has had some kind of connection to. Al-Shabaab we’ve mentioned, Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan –  it’s kind of core area –  AQAP, also Ansar-al-Din and the Movement for Unity in Jihad in West Africa, which both have operated broadly in Mali.

The main ties, however, are through AQIM in the Sahel. It’s had a relatively advanced relationship with the group. Boko Haram members have trained and fought alongside them possibly as early as 2006, and the groups have worked together in kidnap for ransom operations.

Turning to Ansaru; this is an organisation formed by Boko Haram members, likely in 2011. Jacob Zenn of the Jamestown Foundation and Associate Fellow here at HJS has outlined how most of Ansaru’s members were Nigerians who were trained in the Sahel in the late part of the last century and early part of this. The core of its leadership constitutes of those who trained with Al-Shabaab and AQIM in around 2009. The International Crisis Group has said that Ansaru essentially became Al-Qaeda’s Nigerian franchise and one largely focused on kidnap for ransom.

Now, Ansaru and Boko Haram have worked together in the past, especially on kidnappings, but there are really key differences. I think that those differences are becoming even more pronounced. Boko Haram’s operations… it’s no secret, everyone in the room knows how severely bloody they are. This is no holds barred violence from Boko Haram. They’ve begun to use female suicide bombers and increasing amounts of IEDs. The death count in Nigeria is truly chilling.

Ansaru increasingly wants to distance itself from this bloodshed. It’s criticised Boko Haram for its attacks on Muslim targets, its bombings of mosques, of markets. Ansaru are now trying to portray themselves as defenders of the local population. This is a very Al-Qaeda style model. It does exactly the same in Syria. It does exactly the same in Yemen. Thomas Joscelyn of the Long War Journal has put this well. He’s compared the two, saying, ‘Ansaru is attempting to portray itself as a popular revolutionary force; Boko Haram top-down totalitarianism’.

And then we had recently the latest twist in these dynamics. It’s the pledge from Boko Haram, or from Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the so-called Caliph in the Islamic State. This had been rumoured for a while before it happened this month. ISIS had been assisting Boko Haram with its propaganda messages. When Boko Haram first set up its own Twitter account [it was] promoted by users known to disseminate ISIS propaganda. Boko Haram had started referring to itself as Islamic State in West Africa. And then you had this pledge of loyalty from Shekau to Baghdadi, which was accepted.

Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, one of ISIS’s most prominent public figures, has started talking about how those who are inspired to join the Caliphate [but] can’t make it may be able to go to Nigeria instead.

The Boko Haram pledge was ISIS’s biggest coup yet, for me. It has a support base of varying sizes in Libya, in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the Sinai Peninsula, parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan, but a lot of these are kind of disaffected Al-Qaeda brigades, or those inspired by the group. Not especially big hitters. Boko Haram are. So it was a pretty significant moment.

As well as the PR, it allows Boko Haram to project power ideologically that it can’t manage militarily or operationally. So Boko Haram doesn’t have the ability really to shape events in the Middle East, but this connection to ISIS now gives them a stake, a marginal disconnected one, but a stake, nevertheless, in events there.

Does Shekau genuinely see Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the Caliph? Possibly not. But does he see him as a vehicle for strengthening Boko Haram? Absolutely. Similarly, do ISIS see Nigeria as a priority for them? I would suggest not. But does it see it as a way of expanding their brand considerably? Absolutely. It can now claim with some legitimacy [that] it holds territory in the Middle East and it holds territory in West Africa. It’s a win-win for both of them at the moment. Whether that will last is something I’ll come to when wrapping up.

So where does this leave Ansaru? I think you’d have to say, looking at the current fault lines in the Nigerian jihadi movement, Boko Haram is to ISIS as to what Ansaru is to Al-Qaeda. So I wouldn’t expect Ansaru to be joining ISIS anytime soon. Ansaru’s leader has referred to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of Al-Qaeda, as his emir. There is a degree of loyalty there and one I think we can sometimes underestimate when we hear these predictions about Al-Qaeda breaking off en masse to join the Islamic State. This, I think, isn’t going to happen, and I don’t think it will happen with the case of Ansaru.

I’m going to wrap up with, if not reasons for optimism, then not necessarily pessimism, because I think that there are struggles that Boko Haram and ISIS are both having that are potentially causes for optimism. Boko Haram have benefitted from state corruption and being able to infiltrate the government. But it’s tough to see them getting popular support over the brutalised population in Nigeria at the moment because they were the ones who did much of the brutalising. It’s very tough for them to govern. They’re losing territory. They seized a town near the Cameroon border back in August. It was seen as significant, but that has been lost. There’s quite a concerted regional effort at the moment, which is making some progress, but like the progress made with Al-Shabaab in East Africa…that doesn’t mean that they won’t continue to be a very severe problem.

Turning to ISIS, their appeal is obviously partially based on this image of an unstoppable terrorist army. Other jihadi groups looking for brand recognition want to get on board that bandwagon. But what happens if ISIS begins to lose territory? [Or if] their momentum is stalled even more so than it is at the present? In Iraq, obviously, that means probably Shia death squads and things get even worse, but in terms of the global jihadi movement, I wonder whether ISIS is going to continue to look as appealing in those circumstances.

If they’re put on the back foot further, is ISIS going to share its wealth and weapons with groups that have sworn loyalty to it at a time when it is struggling to keep territory itself in Iraq? In that situation, does Baghdadi genuinely have much of a stake in what happens in Abuja or the forests of Northern Nigeria? We’ll see, but I’d suggest possibly not, and I think that’s somewhere that the international community can possibly look to exploit matters in the future. I’ll leave with that.


Davis Lewin


Thank you, Robin.

And if I may take the prerogative of the chair while the audience formulates its first questions… I was struck. I don’t know, maybe it goes to you [gestures]… anybody who wants to answer on that… I was very struck by the article in this weekend’s International New York Times. I don’t know if you saw it. It was a long reported piece where the Chadian army had taken some journalists on a trip to visit various cities that they had liberated. The general in charge was saying that basically that the Nigerians weren’t coming to take over these towns.

So the question is…perhaps it’s you [gestures], perhaps it’s you [gestures]… In terms of the actual military nature of this game on the ground, what is going on there? On the one hand, Nigeria is asking for more support, asking for more help; should it be part of our strategy? On the other hand, it seems that, in the actual ground war against radical Islam in that sense, they are not on the ground in the way that we would like.

Any of panellists care to comment?


Robin Simcox


I mean, it’s tough… I think we have a very severe problem in this because we are limited to working too closely with the Nigerian army because of the mass atrocities that have been committed by them in the past. This is one of the big problems when the farcical ‘Bring Back Our Girls’ campaign was launched. We were very limited in what we could actually assist with because of the Leahy Law, which prevents us from working very closely with armies that are said to have perpetrated human rights abuses.

So I think our… There’s long been problems with the Nigerian army, going back to the French led campaign in Mali to remove jihadi groups there a couple of years ago. The Nigerian army weren’t seen as terribly helpful then, and I don’t see any great reason for change. Our ability to really shape things, I think, is limited.


Christian Whiton


Just to add that… It does seem that, frankly, in Nigeria, against Boko Haram – but also we’re seeing this more broadly in the fight against jihadists – there is an element of excessive optimism, almost pollyannaish, in assessment. I mean, ISIS is not expanding – switching to the Middle East – but it hasn’t been set back in a way that… I mean, you see not just regional forces. You’d sort of expect this from the Shia Iraqis. But, in a Babe Ruth style, pointing at the bleachers when you are going to hit your home run and then not delivering. This long-awaited liberation of Tikrit in Iraq hasn’t happened, and we’ve seen the incoming government in Nigeria talk up the operation against Boko as this could be wrapped up, you know, by the weekend.

But part of that, I think, is something that I thought we’d gotten away from in the West, which are overly optimistic assessments of war that are, you know, nonetheless just seen as a part of war.

But just to sum up, I think it does go back to the lack of a clear strategy. Sending forces, Western forces, to go on a very specific and difficult mission of rescuing the schoolgirls, I think it’s problematic.

Stepping back and saying, if there is a reason to go to war, if we really are willing to switch from other tools of statecraft to pulling triggers and killing people, then there has to be a very clear mission objective, and we have to be in it to win it. And that’s something that we just haven’t seen, not only in the fight against Boko, but in the fight against ISIS, which I’d say is pell-mell.  We’re in month number nine without a lot of victories to point to. So yes, some of this is on the government of Nigeria, but I think some of this is on us as well.


Davis Lewin


Let’s go with you, first, sir.


Question One – Jonathan Paris


My name is Jonathan Paris. Currently I’m in the middle of a two-phase project for the US government on the future of China and Africa, 2035.


But my question is not really about China, though I was curious to hear Sohrab discuss it, but it’s about one of the findings at phase one in my study. The demographic surge in South-Saharan Africa is quite startling. In a world where birth population is coming down everywhere, including North Africa and the Middle East, you have these birth rates of six to seven per mother in West Africa, Central Africa and East Africa.


So my question to you – to Sohrab in particular, but all of you – is, you know, you have China rising, but you also have a danger here. All these young people, this baby bulge becomes a youth bulge. Radicalisation… we have strong demography, particularly among Muslim Africans. What does that mean? We know they can come to Europe. My friend David Otto would talk about the risk… what are your views on the downside of this demographic surge in a very volatile and incipient ideologically invested place?

Sohrab Ahmari


I think that’s a great point, more so than a question. It is a problem in the Arab world. The youth bulge that you mentioned has coincided in many places with unemployment, various forms of frustration and led to radicalisation, I think. Again, what that underscores to me is the challenge for Africa to not only bring [about] stability, but economic growth. Economic growth, development and jobs aren’t an answer to jihadism.

On the editorial page we’ve repeatedly argued that these movements are movements that are driven by real ideas. But it’s a part of it, and I think, if Africa continues to grow, it will mitigate some of the… not all of them, you still need to dislodge Islamists when they take a town or whatever. But it will help if Africa continues to grow at its current pace of clocking in five, six, seven, eight percent a year.


Christian Whiton


Just one thing I’ll add to that, if I may. This doesn’t address specifically the issue of demographics, although, frankly, demographic changes often are the result of economic factors, but – I agree with Sohrab – it was unfortunate that the State Department spokesman essentially oversimplified the idea that if terrorists had more economic opportunity they wouldn’t be terrorists. That’s ridiculous; it’s driven by an ideology. But, nonetheless, there are economic factors, and it speaks to ‘are jobs available? and ‘what is the status of corruption?’

There is something worth looking at that the US pursued after the fall of the Berlin Wall in Central Europe. They were called private enterprise funds. That is different than traditional foreign aid going to institutions and governments. [It’s] almost venture capital-like use of foreign aid. The idea was to jump-start a private economy, to provide capital to a middle market, which is actually where most jobs come from, small and medium-size enterprises. That is an approach that actually worked quite well in Central Europe. It might be something that Western governments or donor governments should look to.

Just one last point on that. With corruption and economic factors, it’s so important to fight them, but so rare to find success stories. If you look at Buhari, talking about things like creating a whistle-blower law, OK, they’re fine. That’s not really a plan to fight corruption. Nor is it an indicator. It seems the best indicator is when senior people actually start going to jail, which perversely can actually take your transparency rating from Transparency International,  and make it look worse in the short term, because headlines are dominated by corruption. But until you see senior officials who have engaged in corrupt acts going to jail, then you’re not really going to have a serious programme.


Davis Lewin


Gentleman here.


Question Two – David Otto


Thank you very much, gentlemen. I’m looking at African…


Davis Lewin




David Otto


Oh, David Otto.


Jonathan Paris


What do you do?


David Otto


I’m an expert in counterterrorism, specialising in Sub-Saharan Africa, especially in Nigeria and Cameroon.


Davis Lewin


And a friend of Jonathan Paris.


David Otto


Oh, yes. [Laughter]

One of the things that amazes me is the dynamics of insecurity in Africa, especially if you look at Sub-Saharan Africa. I’ve done a lot of research on Boko Haram’s regional expansion in Cameroon, Niger state and the rest. And there’s one thing which we have to understand in terms of the causes of this organisation… if you look at the ideology – we talk about the Islamic ideology – Islam had been in that area, which previously was known as the Sokoto Caliphate, you know, the caliphate empire from the 9th to the 19th century before the Europeans moved in. So you can see that there is an ideology which is embedded in that area. So you talk about Northern Nigeria, you talk about Northern Cameroon, you talk about Niger state, you talk about Libya, all these areas. If you look at where the Islamic so-called Caliphate is looking to install, this is an area which had been covered by the Islamic region.

Currently, in terms of the strategy that Boko Haram is carrying out and the capability of the Nigerian government, we say, ‘what can the West do?’ We’ve always had the tendency to be caught napping when it comes to these organisations. We catch them when they are already big. This is one of the things that have been a case in terms of Boko Haram, in terms of its expansion.

I spoke to the Cameroon government when Boko Haram started to…


David Lewin


What’s your question? [Whispers]


David Otto


Oh, I’m sorry. Yes.

I spoke to the Cameroon government in terms of how Boko Haram is infiltrating different areas and moving to different areas. This was in 2011.

So my question is: what role could the West play? I know that there is an economic essence into all of this; you know, how much you get, how much you lose. What can the West do in terms of stopping young black people from Europe who want to go and join Boko Haram, now that Boko Haram is having links with ISIL? People would not go through the route in Turkey any more now that there is Nigeria, which goes through Libya and through to Syria.

What can the West do in that area?


Davis Lewin


Okay, I’m going to take one more before we address this. The lady here, please.


Question Three


My name is [inaudible] and I’m from Nigeria and I’m a broadcaster.

I want to address the issue of economic growth, or lack of it, and the growth of fundamentalism. I’m actually interested not just in Islamic fundamentalism but Christian fundamentalism [and polarisation] that brings about in a place like Nigeria.

So I’m very interested in that dynamic of economics and growth of fundamentalism, and I’m also interested in Christian’s suggestions of the post-war medium business investments against an Aids-based… I’m sick and tired of hearing about malaria and all of that. The last time I heard an international organisation saying that they caught malaria in Africa and they are vomiting blood. You don’t vomit blood when you have malaria. There might be something to learn from China because often when Africa and nations like Nigeria…  they do not have democratic institutions, so how does one engage with those countries, with those challenges while wanting a robust economic growth, particularly because of that population bomb that is waiting?


Davis Lewin


Thank you. So, I’m going to summarise into three concise questions and go along the panel and you pick the ones you want to answer.

The first point is to do with – and I’ll start with Robin over here, I guess – with the question of, now that ISIS and Boko Haram are joined up, is there a foreign fighters issue that we are ought to consider that it is not going through Turkey?

The second one is going to be the question [on] economic growth and its relationship with extremism and fundamentalism, as well as [traditional] aid versus some kind of investment.

And the third point is about the democratic institutions and lack thereof, and how one can engage with the country, given that that’s the picture.

I think this is a fair summary.

Starting with you, Robin.


Robin Simcox


Yeah. Even before the ISIS-Boko Haram connection formalised, I think there has been a bit of complacency in the UK over Nigerians traveling to join Boko Haram because of the large Christian population within the Nigerian community here. I think that the problem…there has been an example of someone from the UK travelling to join Boko Haram, and it seems to me to be one of those issues which we’re only going to figure out is a problem once the horse has already bolted. I mean each of these conflicts, be it Nigeria, be it Yemen, be it Somalia, Pakistan, Syria and the rest. They all have so many different factors going into them, but there is always one thing underpinning it, which is the strong ideological pull. You see that again and again. It’s creating conditions, I think, in the UK to…obviously the ideal is that we don’t want young people in this country going off to fight and die in countries they have never even been to. But our ability to do that over the last twenty years has been pretty poor.

So that’s why I think that some of the measures that the Home Secretary is trying to bring in about things like passport removal or travel bans; people say, ‘it’s authoritarian’ or, ‘it’s not dealing with the long-term problem’. Fine, let’s accept for a moment it’s not dealing with the long-term problem. The short-term problem is stopping British citizens [from] going and killing themselves and others abroad. And so I think there’s obviously the ideological battle we’ve got to fight. There are also practical things that we can do.

Also, in terms of what the West can do in the conflicts, there have been European Union forces [carrying out] training. This was when Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram…obviously very different problems… but the European Union’s carried out training and assistance.

I think that we can step up that more in Nigeria, but obviously it is always this strange priority. Two years ago, Africa, I think, in UK government was a huge priority. In Amenas gas complex facility was just attacked, and everything was North Africa. And then the girls were kidnapped. We said, ‘we’ve got to be concerned about Boko Haram’. Then there’s a declaration of a Caliphate and all the attention is onto Iraq.

We just haven’t figured out how to manage all these trouble spots. And solving that is a question that’s even above this wonderful panel!


Davis Lewin


Well, this might be a question of resources. But we don’t discuss this on this panel.


Sohrab Ahmari


There is a lot packed into your questions. I would start with the premise that Nigeria has been impoverished in recent years thanks to what we call ‘structural adjustment programmes’. It hasn’t. Empirically speaking, Nigeria has become more prosperous. Its growth has been astonishing year on year. Has that spread across the border as much as it should? No, but I don’t think it’s correct to say that Nigeria in recent years has become more impoverished. It hasn’t.

And frankly, the old kind of statist development model that grew after the post-colonial era – not in all places but in many places – is in part responsible for some of the corruption that we see because it’s the type of State that allows for presidents for life and others to skim off the top and always promise development but don’t deliver.

And finally, that model is not really even indigenous to Africa. Africa, you might say, hasn’t indigenous free-market traditions. It was in part erased by colonialism and then later on by the presidents for life and the various socialist autocrats and so forth so.

So I disagree. I think that the path forward for Nigeria is more free-markets and for more of these entrepreneurs. You know, something like only 15 percent of Nigerian entrepreneurs, a survey says, are afraid of failure. That’s a really great rate. That’s not the case in many European countries and many other parts of the world where if you feel like failure is going to happen if you start a business, [if you feel like] it’s going to ruin your life, then you won’t start a business.

Africans, more generally, and Nigerians, don’t have a fear of failure. So that’s an environment, you know, right for entrepreneurship, right for free markets. That is not going to be the solution to corruption; it’s not going to be the solution to Islamism, but it would address all of these problems in various ways. For example, when a large middle class develops in Nigeria and elsewhere, and people start demanding governments be held accountable.

So, on the whole I disagree. I don’t think Nigeria is more impoverished. I don’t think going back to the old statist development model is the answer.


Davis Lewin


Let’s go on.


Christian Whiton


The question ‘what can we do?’ was turned around only recently, which is ‘why is this our fight?’ or ‘why should we be involved?’ [It] is constantly a question in the US, although you are seeing a rapid decline in isolationist sentiment. It was at its peak after sort of 2006 and there has been a change. But I think there’s what we are going to do and we should do, and unfortunately they are two different things right now. I hope that changes.

What we are going to do: I think what the West will do is to stop the flow of foreign fighters, or try to. You are seeing pretty strong efforts by the UK and US governments to do that. You know, in the US, if you are planning or are active in giving material support to a terrorist organisation, it’s pretty easy to convict and send those people to prison.

And then you’ll see, I’d say, more pell-mell efforts, like the one against Boko by the West, by the US, which is a very, very small number of people in a very limited capacity.

What I say we should do is political warfare, a much broader use of the full spectrum of statecraft against Islamists. Even though I think Robin is actually right – the linkup between ISIS and Boko Haram is opportunistic – it is what it is, and it only goes as far as it does. But you are starting to see sort of a vague weave from the middle of Africa through the Middle East. And again, even though these groups hate each other, [they] are on the same page in some respects as the Iranian government.

So, having a concerted plan to go after Islamism… President Obama mentioned the Crusades recently, without mentioning what’s happened in the subsequent one thousand years, [without mentioning] that you had the separation of temporal and spiritual issues, and the fact that Islamists want to reverse that, reject that.

Look at what we did in the Cold War. We had things like the Congress for Cultural Freedom. Instead of sending people to preach capitalism to communists, we actually empowered social democrats and socialists, people with a voice in the debate, to go and change the political dynamic.

How could you do that today? Well, you don’t need to go and set up the George W. Bush memorial, you know, Schools for Moderate Islamic Thought…


Sohrab Ahmari


Yes, we should.




Christian Whiton


We’ll call it the Dick Cheney School!




Christian Whiton


But there are techniques – and not all of them involve acting like boy scouts – that you can [use to] influence political outcomes. And then the French model… if you compare the Twitter attack Michelle Obama launched against Boko Haram and the limited US and UK involvement since then, and compare that to what I think you both mentioned, the French intervention in Mali, which was in and out, quick and clean, I think there is a lot to be said for that if a government needs help.

To the question of economics, I wouldn’t suggest following the Chinese model – I don’t think it would work. It’s based on cronyism and just sort of a different set of corrupt factors. It’s the party; you have an infrastructure cliff there that is dramatic. If you think the housing crash in the US had big consequences for the country, just wait and see what happens in China.

China also focused on being an export-driven economy; it’s sort of run its course at that. I would direct it back, just as a point of historical interest, to those enterprise funds, to efforts that are focused more on the middle market, small and medium-sized businesses. They may not be exciting. It’s not Facebook, it’s not Twitter, it’s the local cement company or even a restaurant, a small business, but that’s what employs people. When you have capital directed at those factors of economic progress, it’s less about politicians building monuments to themselves. Infrastructure is important, but you know, third runway in Hong Kong, things that… Some of the building you are seeing going on in China that would be exacerbated by the AIIB that China is launching. I’d say that’s a very government-centric approach that is wrong. If you look at things like the Polish-American Enterprise Fund, it’s a different way to use capital that I would suggest.


Davis Lewin


Thank you. So what we’re going to do is that we’re going to have one very quick round of all the hands that I’ve seen up, and then we’ll do one last summing up of the panellists.

Starting with the gentleman in the front here. Quickly, just a question, please.


Question Four – Anthony James


My name is Anthony James and I’m also a security expert.


My question is very simple and straightforward. With the elections coming up on Saturday, I just want to know: Who do you think would be the best, or the better, choice to address the issue of Boko Haram?


Davis Lewin


Alright, thank you. Gentleman here.


Question Five


My name is [inaudible].What you said earlier about…


Davis Lewin


Sorry, can we get straight to the question, please?


Question Five cont.

OK. The question I want to ask is this: what can the West do to assist Nigeria on Boko Haram now? What does the panel think?


Davis Lewin


Thank you. Gentleman here in the middle.


Question Six


Hello. I have a slightly controversial question.  How would you respond to someone who suggests that all of you are talking complete rubbish? If you take the actually history of the West… who killed [inaudible]? Who is supporting the French occupation? It’s almost a military occupation of all of the countries in West Africa. [Inaudible] Who supported South Africa? So if you just take it on these grounds, the West does not come across as a democratic, loving region.

So the question would be, is Boko Haram – and ISIS – actually an evolutionary response to Western behaviour? Yes, they are ruthless. Yes, they kill. But how else can you respond to somebody who uses bribery and political manipulation at every step to get their way?


Davis Lewin


Thank you. You did say it was going to be controversial.

And the lady here, please.


Emily Dyer, Research Fellow at The Henry Jackson Society


Emily Dyer, I’m a Research Fellow here at The Henry Jackson Society.

Robin, you mentioned the link-up between Boko Haram and ISIS would give Boko Haram a stake in the Middle East. I was just wondering if the panel could help elaborate what that stake might look like?


Davis Lewin


OK, quick summary.

Nigeria elections: who would be the better candidate to fight Boko Haram? What can the West do in fact to assist Nigeria now rather than in the future? Is it actually all just hypocrisy because the West is at fault and these movements are just a sign of our misdeeds? And the link-up between Boko Haram and ISIS, has it created a sort of stake in the Middle East and what does it look like?

Feel free to ignore all of these questions, just say whatever you want by way of summary, or address any of them. Starting with you, Christian, please.


Christian Whiton


Thank you.

As for who… on the one hand, it’s not for me as an American to tell Nigerians who they need to vote for, but it seems to me that given what is going on in the world and the stakes, it would be a shame to see someone elected – Buhari – who does indulge the idea of – at the end of the day, he doesn’t use this verbiage – of unifying mosque and state, who is at risk of being like the Turkish president now Erdoğan, indulging some of the political factors that link up with this.

Of course, both candidates are saying that they’re going to take on Boko, and Jonathan has had a difficult run with that. It just seems politically it would [be] dangerous for the broader region to have someone who has flirted with, well more than flirted with, sharia Islamism, who could be challenged.

What should we do against Boko now? It’s hard because it’s not necessarily just the West’s problem; it’s a chicken and egg thing. How do you get a concerted regional effort against Boko? Do you have to step forward yourself as the West, as the US and the UK, and then other factors on the ground come, or is it vice versa? If it is vice versa, if you’re waiting for the region to act, will that ever happen? We are having this problem against ISIS too because we see it as a problem, but, you know, who’s going to go first? I think that the fact that you see all of these countries coming together – Chad, Niger, Cameroon and of course Nigeria – is the fundament of a good anti-Boko and now anti-ISIS programme.

So getting AFRICOM out of Stuttgart onto the African continent. If it’s worth fighting, if we have already decided to pull the trigger and start killing people, that’s a big decision in statecraft. When you make that decision, you should decide you’re going to win. You’re going to go all the way.

The last question, which I think is fundamentally important, ‘is the West hypocritical?’ Are we just cravingly pursuing our own national interest, and shouldn’t we be more diffident given the colonial past of some of the European nations and our involvement in this? It comes up not just with regard to West Africa; it comes up with Iran. And I think we need to be honest. We are a nation with interests.

Speaking from the perspective of the United States, we are not perfect. We have made mistakes in the past, but there is a huge moral difference between the Islamists and governments like Iran. Also a big distinction that is important is that the Islamism that is driving Boko, and other things, is not something that is new. It’s not something in Iran that occurred because of a coup in 1953. These are an ancient political impetus that has come into the modern world and that really has grown up, unfortunately, in recent decades.

Also, setting aside history, these are real problems that need solutions. So I think we can accept that no nation is perfect. No leader is perfect. These are problems that are not going to be solved by simply saying things like Rand Paul in the US did. You know, ‘we may have caused some of these’ [sic] – I don’t think we did – but, you know, saying that and using that is an excuse to do nothing.


Sohrab Ahmari

I will just address the last question as well because I think I just endorse everything Christian said in terms of the elections and what to do immediately.

Just to the last point, I mean… look; if someone has a gripe with Western history, Western imperialism, which has committed untold crimes in Africa, unquestionably, well, is the way to deal with that to behead schoolgirls? That really I think is the difference between us and them. And I think that it does a discredit to Arabs, Iranians, Africans, any place where these movements are rising to say, you know, ‘it’s just a reaction’. It just gives those people zero agency. ‘They don’t have any choice; they just couldn’t help beheading children’. I think that’s a mistake, and I think that it does a discredit to the continent.


Davis Lewin


A suitably robust answer as expected. Make me very happy, please.


Robin Simcox


Yeah, I think Sohrab’s put that far better than I would. I think that, just the two things… there have been so many phases. Think of Iraq. There have been so many phases in that war, that ongoing war, especially since the invasion in 2003. I mean, everything has happened: al-Maliki, his authoritarianism, the Shia death squads that were operating in 2006-2007, likely to come back now. Ascribing all this to the West I think is grossly unfair, and as Sohrab said, the manifestation of it has been completely brutal and unacceptable.

The question of what would it look like, the stake of Boko Haram… Boko Haram can’t shape events on the ground any more than AQAP can shape events on the ground in Somalia. But it does mean there’s a potential pipeline of training, advice, facilitation and sharing fighters, potentially, that goes on between ISIS and Boko Haram.

Just like you may hurt Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan – I mean, the extent to which we have can be overplayed, this is still a hugely powerful organisation. [Or] just as you may hurt […], but not be able to really get on top of, Al-Qaeda in Yemen, for example. I suppose a similar model – it’s not perfect – kind of applies… you may be able to weaken the Islamic State in Iraq, but certainly not in Syria and, [only] to a limited extent, Iraq, but they still have other operational branches which can still remain relevant across the world. It’s very debatable, the extent to which these affiliates they have are really powerful actors at the moment, but I certainly see the potential of them possibly being so.


Davis Lewin


Thank you very much. That leaves me to thank our excellent panel: Christian, Sohrab and Robin, for what I think we can all agree was a fascinating and insightful discussion. Plenty of food for thought, in that way.

Can I also thank the team who made all of this possible? In the most friendly and nicest possible way, I urge you to make your way out because some of them are waiting way past their time to make their way out as well. It has been a pleasure having you. I hope we’ll have you again soon. Many thanks. If we can thank the panel in the usual manner.