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Saturday, 23 January 2016

Russia Leaps into the Syrian Quagmire

I first wrote and published this article with a local Nigerian newspaper on October 9, 2015, just over a week after Russia's intervention in the Syrian civil war.

A Russian SU-30M fighter jet takes off from Hmeymim airbase. The airbase is the main hub of Russia’s operations in Syria (Photo: Russian Ministry of Defence)

Amid the chaos of the Syrian civil war, Putin has dramatically stepped up Russia’s military presence in the country. On September 30, 2015, Russian jets began bombing targets in Syria. 

Weeks before the intervention, a series of satellite images posted on line showing Moscow’s steady deployment of fighter jets, combat helicopters, tanks, armoured fighting vehicles, and anti-aircraft missile systems into the coastal cities of Tartus and Latakia had already hinted at this possibility.

Russia’s expansion of the port facilities in its naval base at Tartus, the upgrading of the airfield at Latakia into an airbase, and the deployment of prefabricated housing suggests a substantial number of Russian military personnel may eventually be stationed in Syria. 

A few days to the commencement of operations, Russian media reported that the number of “military specialists” deployed in Syria had grown to 1,700.

What explains Russia’s actions?

Defeating the Islamic State

Russia officially claims its forces are there to help beat back the Islamic State. Putin’s speech at the UN General Assembly on Monday 28 September reiterated this claim by calling on the US and its allies to join Russia, Iran, and the Syrian Government in a global anti-IS coalition

The insurgencies of the 1990s and early 2000s when Islamist militants in its North Caucasus Republics – Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria – nearly caused the disintegration of the Russian state remains a searing experience for the Kremlin’s security elites.

Russian officials, to push back against western scepticism that the Kremlin takes the fight against IS seriously, often state that more than 2,000 Russians – primarily from the North Caucasus – and some 3,000 nationals of the former Soviet Republics in Central Asia are fighting with the Islamic State. This for them is a source of immense concern as these fighters might eventually return home to reignite insurgencies in the North Caucasus or destabilize the fragile Central Asian states on Russia’s periphery.

After the recent agreement between Iraq, Russia, Syria, and Iran to share intelligence in the fight against terrorism, the Iraqi military spokesman was quoted as saying the initiative was the result of “increasing concern from Russia about thousands of Russian terrorists committing criminal acts within ISIS”.

Preserving the Syrian State

Another reason often cited by the Kremlin for Russia’s intervention is the desire to save the Syrian state from destruction.

Assad’s forces have taken a battering of late. Gone is the swaggering confidence of last year, when it seemed the Syrian civil war had irreversibly turned in his favour. The summer of this year saw government forces suffer shattering defeats and stunning reversals in the east and south of Syria – leaving roughly about 60% of the country in rebel hands.

In July a visibly deflated Assad finally acknowledged, in his first public speech for a year, that his troops were struggling to hold onto territory due to acute manpower shortages. 

In the speech he essentially admitted that the objective of reconquering all of Syria is an unrealistic dream for the foreseeable future; consolidating government strongholds in Damascus and the Alawite heartlands of Latakia and Tartus was now the strategic priority.With what seemed like the imminent collapse of the Assad regime, and with it the disintegration of the Syrian state, Putin felt compelled to act.

In his interview with CBS news correspondent Charlie Rose, which aired on September 27, Putin said his “deep belief” was that if governmental institutions are allowed to completely disintegrate, the last bulwark against Islamic extremists overrunning the whole of Syria will disappear. 

Therefore the only “solution to the Syrian crisis [is] strengthening the effective government structures and rendering them help in fighting terrorism”.

Restart the Syrian Peace Process

One reason often cited by analysts, especially Russian analysts, for this projection of Russian power into the unstable dynamic of the Syrian civil war is to revive the stagnating peace process. At first take this may seem counter-intuitive, but on deeper reflection the logic to this line of thinking becomes clearer. 

The assumption is that with the opposition buoyed by their string of recent military victories, they and their western and regional backers will likely become less amenable to a political resolution of the crisis.

By clearly demonstrating that the fall of Assad is a redline that he is prepared to enforce, Putin, the analysis goes, is signalling that decisive military victory against the Syrian government is not possible. Therefore, the armed opposition and their international partners must reckon with the fact that the Assad regime will be an integral part of any political process in resolving the civil war.

Through a series of calculated and bold, but risky, military moves, Putin hopes to force a diplomatic breakthrough.

One related reason often cited by analysts is how interaction and negotiation with the west over the fate of Syria could lead to a lessening of Russia’s estrangement from western powers over Russia’s actions in Ukraine. By being a constructive player in Syria, as it was during the Iran nuclear deal, the west’s unity over continued sanctions on Russia may weaken.

Russia as a Great Power

A major driver of Russia’s foreign policy under Putin has been the desire to restore Russia as a great power in international politics. There is no better signifier of great power status than the capacity for independent action far from one’s immediate region.  

With the collapse of the US’ “train and equip” programme for ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels, and with the Obama administration seemingly hesitant to do little other than insist ‘Assad must go’, an opportunity has opened up for Russia to emerge as a powerbroker in the Syrian civil war.

From this perspective, the decision to intervene reflects the Kremlin’s view that the dangers posed to Russian interests should the Assad state fall outweighs the risks of being sucked into the Syrian quagmire. As a great power, Russia has therefore decided to act independently to preserve its interests.

Monday, 11 January 2016

Why Nigeria Should Think Twice Before Joining Saudi Arabia’s Islamic Military Alliance

An abridged version of this article was published in 'Africa Arguments' on 8 January 2016.

Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammad bin Salman announcing the establishment of its anti-terror alliance at a rare press conference in Riyadh on December 15 2015. Photo Credit AFP

On 15 December, Saudi Arabia made a surprising announcement as it unveiled to the world what it said will be a 34-state “Islamic military alliance” to combat terrorism “all over the Islamic world”.

This ambitious initiative, said Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman, “emanates from the keenness of the Muslim world to fight this disease, which has harmed the Islamic world’s standing in the international community”.

Little is known about how exactly this alliance will operate, but according to official statements it seems there will be a military component which includes intelligence sharing, a messaging component to combat extremist ideology, and a sanctions component focused on “stopping the flow of funds” to terror groups.

As for the countries involved, there are notable absentees such as Iran, Syria and Iraq. Meanwhile, those said to be part of the alliance are drawn from across Asia, the Middle East and Africa. It remains to be seen which countries will formally join the Saudi-led coalition, but one of those considering membership is Nigeria.

On 17 December, Presidential Spokesman Garba Shehu said “Nigeria has been formally invited to be a member of the alliance”, but that the “decision to join has not been taken yet”.

Islam and OPEC in Nigeria-Saudi Relations

If Nigeria were to join, it would signify a major step-change in relations with Saudi Arabia.

Islam has historically anchored the relationship between both countries. It has facilitated trade, enhanced people-to-people contact and deepened cultural ties – especially with northern Nigeria. For example, the station in Jeddah which managed the affairs of Nigerian pilgrims during colonialism “became the nucleus of a fully-fledged Embassy” after independence.

The late Sheikh Abubakar Gumi, a towering figure in the history of Islamic reform in postcolonial Nigeria, was “an important broker in Nigeria-Saudi relations”. His extensive connections with Saudi Arabia’s religious and political establishments made him “one of Nigeria’s first semi-official diplomatic representatives in the kingdom” in the years preceding independence, and “the most important … [channels of] … investment … from Gulf states” in succeeding years.

In 1971 a new vector was added to the bilateral relationship when Nigeria joined OPEC, the Saudi dominated oil cartel. This aspect of the relationship however, hasn’t been as promising as expected in forging real strategic ties. Both countries haven’t always seen eye-to-eye over OPEC policies. Saudi Arabia is the only ‘swing producer’ in OPEC and the organization’s influence over global oil prices is largely underwritten by the Kingdom’s spare capacity, making Saudi oil policy prone to unilateralism.

As a result, during periods of crisis such as the current collapse in oil prices, OPEC members like Nigeria have often been unwillingly pulled along in the slipstream of Saudi policy. 

Some Advantages

Given their shared terrorism challenge, adding security cooperation to the Nigeria-Saudi relationship could have real potential.

Boko Haram clearly has a transnational dimension – it is increasingly engaging in cross border attacks and has links to other Islamist militant groups beyond West Africa – and an international security platform for intelligence cooperation could be hugely useful to Nigerian security forces.

Additionally, further support from the alliance in the form of funding or training could also significantly enhance counterterrorism efforts.

However, there are also potential perils from membership that the Nigerian government should consider seriously as it ponders the Saudi invitation.

What’s in a name? 

The first possible danger comes from the name of the group – the Islamic Military Alliance – and how this could play in Nigeria’s fraught domestic scene.

Soon after news broke of Nigeria’s supposed membership of the Saudi-led initiative, the Christian Association of Nigeria, the umbrella body for the country’s Christian groups, registered its protest, saying membership harms “Nigeria’s pluralistic character [and] portends great danger to national unity and integration”.

Should President Muhammadu Buhari sign-off on Nigeria joining, informing the public early, being transparent about how the decision was reached, clearly articulating the advantages for Nigeria, and securing broad elite consensus will be essential to avoid the anti-terror alliance becoming a polarizing factor in the country’s interreligious relations.

The intense controversy that trailed Nigeria’s membership of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in 1986 offers salutary lessons.

When “out of the blue” news broke in January 1986 that Nigeria had “secretly” become a member of the OIC the previous month, it sparked a political crisis. The non-transparent attainment of OIC membership exacerbated what in any case would have been a contentious issue, and the controversy it sparked effectively paralyzed Nigeria’s participation in the organization.

“In order to satisfy Muslims, [Nigeria] has not officially withdrawn its membership”, said historian Toyin Falola, “and in order to satisfy Christians, it has refused to play an active role in the OIC”.

If Nigeria joins the Islamic Military Alliance, it will have to be careful as to how it presents this move to the public.

Saudi Arabia’s Geopolitical Motives

The second problem derives from Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical motives and regional ambitions.

Most responses to the new anti-terror alliance have expressed skepticism as to the real reasons behind the initiative. The exclusion of Iran in particular – a country with which Saudi Arabia is locked in an intense struggle for regional supremacy – is seen by many as being indicative of Riyadh’s desire to galvanize the Sunni world against its rival.

A striking feature of the Middle East’s geopolitics is Iran’s prominent place in Gulf Arab threat perceptions – Oman being the notable exception, perhaps due to the country’s unique religious make-up (neither Sunni nor Shi’a but Ibadi, an entirely different sect. Oman neither joined the Gulf Cooperation Council’s war in Yemen, nor has it joined the new anti-terror alliance).

The Saudi-led intervention in Yemen is a perfect example of how the ‘Iran threat’ now drives Gulf Arab foreign policy behavior. GCC member-states have never used military force abroad, except as part of a US-led coalition. Perceptions that US disengagement from the region is encouraging the expansion of Iranian power triggered that intervention and drives the GCC’s subsequent military activism.

“In private GCC officials make no bones in saying they felt compelled to [act in Yemen]”, said Ken Pollack at a prepared testimony before Congress in July 2015, “because the United States was embracing Iran rather than deterring or defeating it”.

Therefore, Nigeria’s membership of the anti-terror alliance could entail, if not explicit support, then at least implicit endorsement of Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical objectives – objectives that are much broader than simply countering terrorism.

The sectarian undertones of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry could also have domestic repercussions for Nigeria given the unresolved tensions between the Nigerian state and its own restive Shia minority.

Whose Terrorists?

Linked to the question of Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical motives is a third problem: which militant groups will command the alliance’s focus?

Saudi Arabia says the new alliance will confront “any terrorist organization that appears in front of us”. But it is clear that the alliance’s leading states will have different perceptions of who the main threats are.

For Turkey, for example, the role of Kurdish separatists looms large in its concerns. Ankara’s attention is focused on unseating Syria’s President Assad and preventing its nightmare scenario of an independent Kurdistan emerging amidst Syria’s wreckage. Defeating Islamic State comes an important but distant third in its list of priorities.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia’s view of what constitutes terrorism – as enshrined in its 2013 anti-terror law – is so broad as to practically include “any act of protest or criticism” against the monarchy. The law was recently used to execute a prominent Shia cleric and critic of the Saudi monarchy, further inflaming regional tensions and leading to the severing of diplomatic ties with Iran.

A truism in international relations is that the heavyweights in any alliance generally define its objectives. The danger for Nigeria in joining Saudi Arabia’s initiative therefore is that it may find itself having to stand by the controversial, and sometimes reckless, policies of its powerful friends in the name of solidarity. 

No Algeria

The fourth problem for Nigeria’s possible membership of the alliance is the absence of Algeria.

Nigeria’s defence planners differentiate the country’s national interests into three levels of importance: ‘vital’ interest, identified as the country’s survival and the preservation of its territorial integrity; ‘strategic’ interest, identified as the stability of immediate neighbours and West Africa; and ‘peripheral’ interest, identified as the country’s “obligations to the international community” such as participation in UN mandated peacekeeping missions.

If one were to map the landscape of Nigeria’s security threats using this framework, a picture would emerge of three separate geographical levels of concern: stability in the Lake Chad region, where Boko Haram is concentrated, would constitute a ‘vital’ interest; the broader Sahel, which potentially offers Boko Haram strategic depth and connects Nigeria to the chaos in Libya, would be of ‘strategic’ interest; and stability in the Levant, where the so-called Islamic State is based, and beyond would come under ‘peripheral’ interests.

This perspective illuminates Algeria’s importance to Nigeria’s broader security. Stability in the Sahel is crucial for Nigerian security, and Algeria is the regional power in that neighbourhood. Despite its reticence about using military force – its constitution explicitly forbids external military adventures – Algeria’s potential as a stabilising power is undeniable. It is an “indispensable broker of stability in … the Sahel”, says a recent report by the International Crisis Group.

The Sahel is both a barrier and a highway straddling Nigeria and Libya, the latter of which is arguably home to Islamic State’s most important outpost. And Nigeria’s limited capability to project its power means close cooperation with Algeria is essential if the region is to push back against the further spread of IS.

Since March 2013, intelligence chiefs from eleven countries across the region – including Nigeria and Algeria – have met every two months, with foreign ministers meeting every three, as part of the Nouakchott Process to discuss Sahelian security. Diplomatic energy may well be better spent improving the performance this multilateral initiative, where matters affecting Nigeria’s direct strategic interests are concerned, than in the broader Saudi-led alliance.

In assessing whether to stay in or out of the Islamic Military Alliance, Nigeria should be careful to weigh the clear potential advantages against these equally formidable perils.

Monday, 28 September 2015

The Iran Nuclear Deal

Why Diplomacy Succeeded and Regional Alignments

Signatories of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action announcing the agreement in Vienna, 14 July 2015. From left to right: Foreign ministers Wang Yi (China), Laurent Fabius (France), Frank-Walter Steinmeier (Germany), Federica Mogherini (EU), Mohammad Javad Zarif (Iran), Philip Hammond (UK), John Kerry (USA). Image Source: Wikipedia

On July 14, Iran and the P5+1 – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (Britain, China, France, Russia, United States) plus Germany – concluded a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) concerning the future of Iran’s nuclear program. On July 20, the UN Security Council unanimously endorsed the landmark deal.

In late October, Iran is expected to begin implementing its part of the agreement. In early 2016, following the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) confirmation of Iranian compliance, the UN, US and EU will begin lifting sanctions and unfreezing Iranian assets – opening the way for Iran’s reintegration back into the global economy.

Basic Framework of the JCPOA

Broadly speaking the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) places extensive limits on Iran’s nuclear programme; makes provisions for an intrusive inspection regime to monitor and verify Iran’s compliance; creates a “Joint Commission” to resolve disputes that may arise over the implementation of the deal; establishes a “snap back” mechanism to ensure that should Iran cheat on its obligations, sanctions will automatically resume without the need for a new Security Council vote to avoid a possible Russian or Chinese veto; and outlines the sanctions that will be removed following Iranian compliance.

The JCPOA will last for ten years, but some restrictions envisaged by the deal will remain in place for up to twenty five years. 

Why Diplomacy Succeeded

Last meetings before nuclear agreement. Image Source: Wikipedia

The Iran deal has been widely praised as a triumph of nuclear diplomacy. Through negotiation and compromise, Iran finally accepted unprecedented restrictions and inspections on its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of international sanctions and reintegration back into the global economy. Why did diplomacy succeed? 

Leadership Changes

The elections of Presidents Obama and Rouhani, in the United States and Iran respectively, changed the complexion of the diplomatic negotiations. Both Presidents were determined to reorient the diplomacy of their respective countries away from the adversarial policies of their predecessors.

Obama came to power intent on placing diplomacy at the forefront of US’ engagements with adversaries – a policy that recently led to the restoration of diplomatic ties with Myanmar and Cuba.
Similarly, Rouhani’s electoral mandate hinged on his campaign promise to bring Iran out of sanctions’ induced political and economic isolation.

This context set the tone for a more positive participation in the negotiation process from the two most important countries in the dispute: Iran and the US.

Alignment of Major Power Interests

The Iran nuclear accord was signed amidst the backdrop of worsening tensions between the world powers. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and destabilization operations in Ukraine had put it at loggerheads with the west. China’s growing assertiveness in East Asia and its expansive claims in the South China Sea had seen diplomatic relations with the US deteriorate.

Despite such inauspicious circumstances, the world powers nevertheless maintained an impressive degree of unity during the nuclear negotiations. Why?

All had a vital interest in the diplomatic process being concluded successfully for three basic reasons.

The first is rooted in the fact that historically the five legally recognised nuclear powers – US, China, Russia, France, UK – have always sought to preserve their nuclear monopoly. Consequently, they have often been the strongest champions of strengthening the nuclear non-proliferation regime.

The real strategic concern for all the major powers was that a nuclear armed Iran could set off a dangerous chain reaction in the Middle East – with regional powers such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey, similarly going nuclear, and Israel coming out of the closet regarding its own atomic arsenal; all to balance against an empowered nuclear Iran.

The destabilizing potential of a nuclear arms race in an already unstable Middle East could also lead to a disruption of oil supplies, an acute concern for China and the European powers given their dependence on Middle Eastern oil.

The second basic reason has to do with proximity. 

Only the weak Caucasus and Central Asian countries separate Russia from Iran; and both Russia and Iran are littoral states of the Caspian Sea. This geographical proximity largely informed Russia joining the sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiating table. Like any great power, Moscow doesn’t want nuclear armed neighbours.

This proximity concern also factored into the EU’s strategic calculations because the Middle East and North Africa are traditionally seen as part of Europe’s broader neighbourhood. A nuclear armed Iran, and the dangers of proliferation in the region, risks placing atomic weapons in the hands of major non-western states on Europe’s doorstep.

It also indirectly factored into China’s decision to stick with the diplomatic process.

China is surrounded by nuclear threshold states (i.e. countries with the industrial capacity, nuclear infrastructure and technological know-how to become nuclear powers) such as South Korea and most significantly Japan. 

For Chinese policymakers therefore, the guidelines for Iran’s nuclear programme could become “part of an implicit international standard that could be adapted and applied” against China’s neighbours, says Tong Zhao, an analyst at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy.

The third reason for the success of the diplomatic process has to with preserving great power freedom of action. More nuclear armed states invariably means less scope for military action by the great powers against stubborn smaller powers.

This has been a central concern for the US as it remains the only true global military power. A consistent theme of US post-1945 grand strategy has been the effort to thwart both friends and foes from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Francis Gavin, a seminal thinker on US foreign policy, argues that the three core drivers of US nuclear policy has been the desire to “safeguard its security, preserve its power, and maintain its freedom of action”. US policymakers have “aggressively sought to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons” because they “could be used to deter the United States and limit its freedom of action, both regionally and in the world at large”.

This sentiment is echoed by Colin Kahl, the US Vice President’s National Security Advisor, when he stated candidly at an academic conference for nuclear experts in 2013 – a year before he entered government – that “it is precisely because of the potential constraint on American … freedom of action in the Middle East that U.S. policymakers so heavily weight some of the ills associated with a nuclear-armed Iran”. 

Regional Alignments

How will the Iran nuclear accord shape the Middle East’s strategic landscape?

One big positive trend to look out for is the possibility of a reduction of the decades long tensions between the US and Iran. The negotiations and compromise that produced the JCPOA demonstrates that constructive and positive dialogue is possible between Washington and Tehran.

Similarly prior to this deal, the US and Iran proved that they could work as de-facto partners with mutual interests in combating the so-called “Islamic State”. American jets have practically acted as the air force to Iranian backed Shi’ite militias in Iraq.

With the suspicions around Iran’s nuclear programme resolved, the trend towards tactical cooperation on regional security between Washington and Tehran could become more prominent. 

However, this doesn’t mean that a full-fledged alliance between the two erstwhile adversaries is in the offing.  The US and Iran are still sharply at odds in Syria over the fate of the Assad regime; and Washington has supported Riyadh’s war against the Iranian backed Houthis with weapons, intelligence, and most visibly ships to help enforce a Saudi-led naval blockade in Yemen.

While strong disquiet over what they believe was the US sacrificing their security interests to reach a grand bargain with Iran may push the Gulf Arab states to begin diversifying their strategic partnerships – the outreach to Egypt and India, and Saudi Arabia’s warming ties with Turkey, underscores this trend – the US will nevertheless remain the principal strategic guarantor of these states.

Likewise, the US will continue to depend on the Gulf Arabs for stability in the energy market, and for its strategic presence in the Middle East.

One other trend that could become more prominent with the signing of the nuclear accord is a closer regional alignment between Iran and Russia.
There had been palpable tensions between both countries over Russia’s participation in the sanctions regime against Iran. Russia unilaterally cancelling the sale of the S-300 surface-to-air missile system in 2010 (after the weapons had been fully paid for) to force Iran to the negotiating table, and to placate Israel, only reinforced Iran’s traditional suspicion of Russia as an unreliably power.

Putin’s lifting of the ban on the delivery of the S-300s in April, and the lifting of UN mandated sanctions, has removed the main sticking point in the strategic partnership between both countries.

A major negative trend to look out for is an intensification of the strategic rivalry between Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The JCPOA only seems to have convinced the authorities in Riyadh that Washington is determined to exit from the region; leaving the way open for Tehran to expand its power. This basic assumption will lead Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Arab allies to step-up aggressive military actions to push back against what they see Iran’s growing regional influence.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Fashola’s Website Scandal, Twitter Overlords, and Rumourpreneurs

Some Thoughts

Former Governor of Lagos State, Babatunde Raji Fashola. Photo Credit: Punch

Former Governor Babatunde Raji Fahola (BRF) has finally responded to the website scandal story that broke out last week. Couched between his anger-laced sentences was his confirmation that N78million of public funds was supposedly spent to “upgrade” his website ( 

Essentially BRF is telling us he approved about $400,000 – the price of a 4-bedroom house in Abuja – to pay for what is basically an internet-based, interactive billboard to advertise his achievements. 

 Apart from the condescending tone he adopted in responding to this serious allegation that borders on corruption and gross mismanagement of public funds, there are a couple of issues with this website scandal. 

First, the IT firm BRF said Lagos state paid to upgrade the website earlier denied receiving N78m, saying it charged N12.5m for the job but was eventually paid N10m

Second, it seems the IT firm – ‘Info Access Plus Limited’ – has no website of its own. Searching for the firm online is like looking for the fabled Loch Ness monster – a few sites with similar names come up, but upon closer examination you are left disappointed. How come an IT company that seemingly specialises in charging the price of a 4-bedroom duplex for a few fancy app gadgets – as BRF will have us believe – doesn’t have a visible online presence?

Third, even if we accept that the N78m was actually paid and Info Access actually exists, then the question arises: Was it an appropriate use of public funds – especially in a poverty-stricken country desperately in need of social and physical infrastructure investment, and where public officials are known for routinely inflating public contracts.

Fourth and finally, again even if we accept N78m was paid and Info Access exists, there is the problem of ownership. In his press statement BRF implied that the website was a public project. The web address – – and a few minutes browsing through the website will leave anyone with the strong impression that the website personally belongs to him. 

If this is the case then it is profoundly problematic to say the least that money that could have been better spent upgrading Lagos’ many dilapidated schools, hospitals, roads etc. was wasted on upgrading his website instead.

As far as I am concerned, BRF still has a case to answer as his response was thoroughly unconvincing. He is praised for having administered Lagos relatively well during his time as Governor of the state. Many see him (myself included) as a progressive reformer; part of the new breed around President Buhari expected to bring discipline and prudence to the management of our commonwealth. 

Therefore he should see the website scandal as a serious allegation demanding a sober response, not as a hatchet job by political enemies deserving of the insulting response he eventually gave.  

Twitter Overlords and Rumourpreneurs

Anybody active on Nigeria’s social media scene – particularly twitter – will know that there is a special class of people known as the ‘overlords’, or as I prefer to call them: ‘rumourpreneurs’. These individuals are the most aggressive defenders of their chosen party online (they are usually self-appointed to that role mind you). 

These individuals are permanently on high alert; constantly scanning the twittersphere for scandals that can be converted into damaging rumours to either harm political opponents, or to deflect attention from the scandal gripping their party or political masters. 

Their ability to concoct fantastic stories to tear down political opponents or delusional narratives to prop up the battered reputations of their fallen masters is unsurpassed.

We all have our favourite rumourpreneurs – I know I have mine. I generally start the day by going onto his/her timeline to get my dose of rumours.

PDP has the most ruthless and unprincipled practitioners of ‘overlordism’ – the campaign of calumny waged against President Buhari during the elections (including the utterly false rumour that he suffers from prostate cancer) and the recent incident of an APC overlord’s ‘Direct Message’ being fabricated and the fake message dumped online are just two examples of this ruthlessness.

The Fashola website scandal has however given APC’s own rumourpreneurs the opportunity to showcase their talent. And they have not disappointed. 

One or two rumourpreneurs seem intent on pushing the utterly fantastic story that BRF had no idea what happened. Some lower down officials probably fleeced the money. As the money is too small, it would have been impossible to keep track of. 

By stating that the N78m was spent on upgrading his website, rather than let suspicions that it was embezzled by his underlings grow, BRF was merely acting like a responsible leader who didn’t want to throw his loyal subordinates under the bus. 

The whole scandal, says the overlords pushing this narrative, is in fact a calculated attempt by unknown forces to tarnish the impeccable reputation of BRF, and therefore block his path into President Buhari’s cabinet. 

The fact that the website scandal was initially uncovered by BudgIt, an apolitical civil society organisation, whom APC overlords have in the past loudly applauded for uncovering PDP’s financial malfeasance simply doesn’t register. 

Now that the anti-corruption guns have been turned on APC, the only response they can muster is:

These particular rumourpreneurs then finished off with a rhetorical flourish, warning all that will lend them their ears not to be swayed by the baying mob. Yesterday it was Goodluck Jonathan’s ministers, today it is BRF, tomorrow anyone could find themselves “thrown into the gladiatorial arena that is social media [and] torn to shreds”.

Yep. In the determination to defend their masters, overlords unfortunately sometimes stray too far in taking leave of their senses.

To the APC overlords peddling this rumour, please

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Why Nigeria Should Also Think of Itself as a Central African State

This article was first published on 'African Arguments Online' on 21 July 2015

President Muhammadu Buhari with the President of Chad, Idris Deby, during a Press Conference at the State House in N’djamena, Chad. 4 June 2015. Photo Credit:
The ‘concentric circle‘ model which frames how Nigeria’s foreign policy thinkers view our region places the country exclusively in West Africa. Consequently West Africa has traditionally been the main focus of the country’s regional diplomacy.

West Africa also remains the arena of Nigeria’s boldest and most celebrated diplomatic initiatives to date – the establishment of ECOWAS in 1975 and the ECOMOG interventions of the 1990s.

I think this view of our broader region which situates Nigeria on the eastern edges of West Africa is incomplete. Instead our strategic thinkers should embrace the country’s natural identity as a potential pivotal power situated at a crossroad between multiple regions, and an anchor state linking West and Central Africa together.

Nigeria’s broader region also encompasses Central Africa. Therefore we should also join Central Africa’s principal regional organisation – the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) – as an observer.

A Potential Pivotal Power and an Anchor State

Geographically, Nigeria shares land and sea boundaries with six countries: Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Niger, and Sao Tome and Principe. Of these, only Benin and Niger are West African states and members of ECOWAS. Our other four neighbours are Central African states and members of ECCAS. Our longest land boundary is with a Central African and ECCAS state: Cameroon.

Map of West Africa and ECOWAS States (Blue) and Central Africa and ECCAS States (Red). Angola, DRC, and Burundi are stripped because they are members of both ECCAS and SADC (Angola and DRC), and ECCAS and EAC (Burundi).
Similarly, Nigeria’s most pressing security challenge – Boko Haram’s terrorist insurgency – is concentrated along our borders with our Central African neighbours, Cameroon and Chad. To all intents and purposes, given the serious security threat posed by Boko Haram, Nigeria’s defence diplomacy will be oriented towards our Central African border for the next few years.

Central Africa has a special place in Nigeria’s diplomatic and military history. Independent Nigeria’s first troop deployment abroad was to the Democratic Republic of Congo. A month after gaining independence, Nigeria volunteered an army contingent to join UN forces trying to quell the post-independence crisis that gripped that Central African country.

Similarly Nigeria’s first major military intervention abroad under its own initiative occurred in one of our Central African neighbours: Chad. Alarmed at the chaos on its north-eastern border as a result of Chad’s civil war, Nigeria deployed an 800-man peacekeeping force into the country in March 1979.

Its objective was to maintain order and provide breathing room for the rebels to hammer out a political settlement to the conflict. The mission failed. Nigeria, lacking the “political, economic and military leverage needed to impose peace on the factions in Chad”, withdrew its troops three months later.

Undeterred Nigeria again deployed troops in December 1981, but this time as part of a wider Nigerian-led multilateral effort under the auspices of the Organisation of African Unity. The initiative was driven from Lagos, the force was commanded by a Nigerian, and Nigeria provided the bulk of the troops, 2000 out of 3500.

This was Nigeria’s largest force deployment abroad, until the ECOMOG operations in West Africa of the 1990s. Hampered by acute logistical weaknesses and financial difficulties – and after Hissène Habré, backed by France and the US, seized power in June 1982 – Nigeria and the OAU force withdrew.

A year later Nigeria again resorted to military force – this time unilaterally – to dislodge occupying Chadian forces from a disputed Island in Lake Chad and protect Nigerian fishermen from the spill-over of Chad’s raging civil war. This sparked a three month-long crisis and intermittent border clashes from April-July 1983, killing an “estimated seventy-five Chadian soldiers and nine Nigerians”, until an agreement was signed on 11 July resolving the crisis.

Unfortunately these important interventions – especially the abortive peacekeeping attempts in March 1979 and December 1981-June 1982 – and the rich lessons that can be gleaned from them are largely absent from public discourse, due to the West Africa-centric prism through which we view Nigeria’s regional environment.

Economic, Historical and Cultural Ties

Nigeria’s economic linkages further reinforce the point that the country is as much a Central African as it is a West African country. UNCTAD’s recent report on intra-African trade show that all thirteen countries that count Nigeria as among their top five export partners are West and Central African states (pg. 22-27).

Five of these – CAR, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville, Gabon, and Sao Tome and Principe – are Central African and ECCAS countries. Similarly, of the eleven countries that count Nigeria as among their top five import partners, three – Cameroon, Chad, and Equatorial Guinea – are in Central Africa and ECCAS.

Nigeria’s own trade with the two regions however is heavily West Africa-centric. This is because West Africa is generally more developed than Central Africa, and because of the decades-long foreign and trade policy focus on West Africa.

The historical and cultural bonds between parts of Nigeria and some Central African states complete the linkages binding our country to the fate of its ECCAS neighbours. Fulanis make up about 9% of Nigeria’s population and about 10% of Cameroon’s. Kanuris constitute about 4% of Nigeria’s population and about 9% of Chad’s.

The Sokoto Caliphate, which sprouted from modern day north-western Nigeria in the early 19th century and grew to become the most powerful state in West Africa, at its height stretched eastwards covering virtually all of northern Cameroon, and small parts of Chad and the Central African Republic. Similarly the Kanem-Borno Empire, which originated in modern day north-eastern Nigeria in the 9th century, at its furthest extent in the 14th century encompassed almost all of Chad, northern Cameroon and small parts of the Central African Republic.

With African integration seemingly gathering pace – the agreement to establish the Tripartite Free Trade Area between the 26 member states of COMESA, EAC, and SADC, was signed on June 10 in Cairo, and the deadline for establishing a Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) has been set for 2017 – joining ECCAS will leave Nigeria best placed to take the lead and advocate for harmonizing the integration agendas of West and Central Africa in preparation for the establishment of the CFTA.

In sum, joining ECCAS will broaden Nigeria’s strategic horizon and give our foreign policy planners a more accurate perspective of our regional location. It will also incentivise Nigeria to participate in shaping the economic and security environment of a long neglected part of our wider neighbourhood: Central Africa.

Discarding the old paradigm that sees Nigeria as lodged on the eastern edges of West Africa, and instead embracing the country’s natural identity as a pivotal power, an anchor state, a geostrategic gateway, and a connecting node linking West and Central Africa will widen our regional opportunities. It will also enrich our economic and cultural diplomacy.