Beltway Briefing

The top five stories from US politics today.

Michelle Bachmann

1. Michele Bachmann is just as well-known for her gaffes as fellow Tea Party icon Sarah Palin. This morning, she defended herself on CNN's American Morning show.

"People can make mistakes and I wish I could be perfect every time I say something, but I can't," she said. "But one thing people know about me is that I'm a substantive, serious person and I have a strong background."

She also explained her recent slip up, when she said of her hometown that "John Wayne was from Waterloo" and "that's the kind of spirit that I have, too." The actor was born nearly 150 miles away, although the serial killer John Wayne Gacy Jr. lived in Waterloo at one point. She told CNN that these comments "were just misspeaking", and she meant she identified with his patriotism.

Unfortunately, she also managed today to claim that John Quincy Adams was a founding father on ABC's Good Morning America (he was a president, but not a founding father).

2. Mitt Romney's Utah advisers are reportedly attempting to get the date of the state's Republican presidential primary next year moved from late June to earlier in the spring, because it might play a bigger role in the nomination process.

The Salt Lake Tribune's Robert Gehrke writes: "If the Romney camp is successful, it could set up an early showdown between Romney, chief of the 2002 Olympics in Utah, and former Gov. Jon Huntsman in Huntsman's old backyard -- and it is a contest that, according to recent statewide polls, Romney would likely win."

However, he also notes that it could also end up costing taxpayers between $2.5 million and $3 million to stage the primary. Holding it on 26 June 2012 as planned would mean it could be held on the same day as the statewide primary election for other Utah offices. Despite this extra cost, the change has not been ruled out.

3. Rod Blagojevich, the former governor of Illinois and one-time presidential hopeful, has been found guilty of corruption. After 10 days of deliberation, a jury found him guilty of 17 charges, including trying to sell or trade President Barack Obama's old Senate seat and attempting to shake down executives for campaign cash. He was acquitted of another bribery charge, and the jury was undecided on charges of attempted extortion. The convictions carry a combined maximum prison sentence of around 300 years, although the judge is expected to sentence him for around 10.

As governor of Illinois, it was Blaojevich's responsibility to name a senator to replace Obama after he was elected president in November 2008. He planned to sell the seat. Federal agents were tipped off and recorded hundreds of hours of tapes. He was arrested two years ago, but an earlier trial ended in deadlock.

4. Bristol Palin said today that her mother "definitely knows" whether she will run for president next year. "We've talked about it before," the 20 year old told Fox and Friends. "Some things just need to stay in the family."

 

This comes on the same day as the older Palin travels to the key primary state of Iowa for the premier of Undefeated, a documentary about her time as governor of Alaska. This has renewed speculation about whether she will put herself forward for the presidency.

5. The powers of social media have long been something that those at the top of the political game wish to harness. Tim Pawlenty has become the latest to try, with the somewhat bizarre Pawlenty Action.

PawlentyAction

Jason Linkins at the Huffington Post is unimpressed:

See, back in the day, the average voter might sign up with a presidential candidate because of values they had in common and the shared belief that grassroots action could facilitate sweeping political change. But the Pawlenty campaign understands that deepening the connection between campaign and volunteer requires much more. That is, it requires points and badges!

You get 10 free points for signing up to help "T-Paw" (yes, the website really refers to him as that), 10 for connecting your Facebook, five for connecting your Twitter, and so on. It's not clear exactly what you can do with all your points, but perhaps that is besides the...point.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Scarred lands: visiting the villages Boko Haram left behind reveals the toxic legacy of terrorism

The progress and challenges of Nigerian communities rebuilding after Boko Haram’s insurgency begins to wane.

“Sometimes it’s when I go to bed that what happened comes back to me.” Two years ago, Boko Haram militants stormed into 23-year-old John Amida’s home late at night in a village in Gwoza, Borno State, northeast Nigeria. Shielding his eyes with his hands from the torchlight saved his life. He shows me the mark in the centre of his forearm where the bullet aimed for his head went instead.

“All my friends were either killed or abducted,” he says. “I don’t try to forget what happened because it’s not possible; it’s with you even when it is not in your mind. The best thing is just to keep on living every day.”

After a broadly effective 18-month military campaign, Boko Haram remains a deadly yet waning force. Many communities once occupied by Boko Haram are now liberated. In Adamawa, just south of Borno, over 630,000 people previously displaced by Boko Haram have returned home.

With them, over 170,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) now live in camps, or – like John and his family – in host communities. He and his family live in a home vacated and lent to them by a local. All over Adamawa, IDPs live in homes shared with residents or given to them temporarily in exchange for help, crops or token sums of rent.

Adamawa is a serene, largely rural, mountainous state. Even deep into the dry season, driving through the roads that cut between its vast countryside, its land is incredibly scenic. But within local communities, in more rural, isolated villages north of the state’s capital, Yola, the picture is more complicated.

Gombi, a small town a few hours’ drive from Yola, was recaptured from Boko Haram in late 2014. Much of what was destroyed in the insurgency – shops and small businesses – have been rebuilt or replaced. The local government buildings have been largely restored. The impact is still visible but, according to locals, decreasingly so.

But in less urban areas, like in Garaha, a village in Adamawa, rebuilt homes sit next to broken, abandoned houses, churches, mosques and buildings blackened by the fires that damaged them. Local government officials say the damage across Adamawa by the insurgency has set the state’s development back by a decade. Funding for rebuilding the state, which local governments complain is insufficient, is concentrated on urban areas.

According to Chief Suleimanu, a traditional ruler in Garaha, mental health issues are widespread but few are financially able to access support. While some people have been able to move on, others are still dealing with the consequences.

“Many couples and families have separated,” he tells me, detailing how in some couples one partner feels attached to their home while the other can’t face returning, or feel there is little to return to.

“The same with the children, some of the young people have gone to bigger cities like Kano or Abuja because of a lack of opportunities.”

Many returnees, who left camps in Cameroon to come back to Adamawa, are from families who have lived in their villages for generations. Their ancestral roots anchor them to their homes because their farmland is their main source of income. Non-agriculture-based industries provide few jobs. For many people, fleeing their homes meant abandoning their livelihoods.

As of 2015, 52 per cent of people in Nigeria lived in rural areas. Their relative isolation is a blessing and a curse. Larger rural spaces provide them with adequate land to cultivate their crops – but it also leaves them exposed.

During Boko Haram attacks on Garaha through to early 2015, there was minimal protection from security forces who often take hours to arrive.

For many people living in rural Adamawa, life is getting harder and easier at the same time. Armed herdsmen, mainly from the Fulani ethnicity have become a greater threat across Nigeria, partly due to tensions between land ownership and cattle grazing.

According to locals, killings by herdsmen have increased this year. But villages are addressing their vulnerability. Armed vigilantes, some of which formed due to the lack of military protection against Boko Haram, are increasing. The police services are often too far away or too under-resourced to protect them. But some vigilantes now have more weapons and vehicles due to help from state services and locals. It is not an ideal solution but it has made places like Garaha safer.

With this new-found relative safety, villagers have begun farming again. With cash grants and donated tools from charities like Tearfund, it has been easier for thousands of people to begin cultivating land. In many villages there are small, lively recreation centres where young people play snooker and watch sport. Many of their places of worship have been rebuilt.

But the situation is grimmer in communities where such charities are not present.  Without resources, state or non-government help, rebuilding is a real challenge.

Adamawa is a state maxing on its credit of hospitality, relative safety and appreciation of agriculture. A recession in Nigeria and a severe food crisis in the northeast have added pressures on returnees and IDPs. Liberated communities will need more help and attention before they truly feel free.

Emmanuel Akinwotu is a journalist based between Lagos and London who writes about Africa, migration, and specialises in Nigeria.