A rally in Abuja. Photo: Getty
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Live-tweeting an Islamist insurgency

With the eyes of the world on the Nigerian government, its main concern is to silence critical voices.

The kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls from Borno State in north-eastern Nigeria on 14 April by the Islamist group Boko Haram has provoked worldwide condemnation and sympathy. Protests erupted around Nigeria and outside the country’s embassies overseas. The US, UK, France, China and Israel have all offered practical support. The hashtag #BringBackOurGirls has been tweeted over a million times, even by Michelle Obama.

It’s easy to send a protest tweet in the west but in Nigeria the stakes are higher. A critical comment can lead to days of government questioning. On 5 May, two women leading protests in Abuja against the kidnap, Saratu Angus Ndirpaya and Naomi Mutah Nyadar, were arrested and accused of fabricating the abductions to discredit the government. Both have now been released.

It took over three weeks for the presidency to acknowledge the disappearance of the girls. President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration aggressively guards information on its “war on terror” by cracking down on citizen journalism and online activism. With a general election scheduled for February 2015, Jonathan is intolerant of any criticism of his government’s record on security and corruption.

“The current government is desperate to stay in power,” Japheth Omojuwa, a veteran activist and member of the Occupy Nigeria movement, told me. “Any voice, any individual, that looks like it’s not in support of them will be blackmailed, will be arrested. They will do anything they can to shut down these voices.”

Nigeria’s battle against Boko Haram dates back over a decade but has intensified in the past two years. In March, Amnesty International estimated that 1,500 people had been killed this year alone. Nigerian newspapers report that at least another 500 have died since.

Official government reports claim the army has incurred few losses in its campaign against the Islamists. Amendments last year to a 2011 law have made it a criminal offence to incite terrorist violence online, and the security services have used the act to intimidate journalists and bloggers who publish alternative accounts of the military’s campaign. Independent journalists say they are being threatened with libel actions to prevent publication of stories damaging to the government.

On 30 March, Isiyaka Yusuf Onimisi, an engineer at an electricity substation on the edge of Abuja’s high-security Aso Rock compound, which contains the presidential villa and the federal Supreme Court, heard gunfire outside his window. Aso Rock is also where the State Security Service (SSS), Nigeria’s domestic intelligence agency, interrogates suspects. In the 1990s, enemies of the military dictatorship disappeared into the SSS headquarters – known locally as Yellow House – and never came out. Today, it is central to the government’s battle against Boko Haram.

That morning, a suspected militant overpowered his guard and freed his comrades; they then staged a jailbreak from Yellow House. The resulting gunfight lasted over four hours. The media were kept away but Onimisi was, as he tweeted, “in the middle of the show”. As the government tried to play down the incident, his tweets were being read avidly around Nigeria.

Three hours in to the gun battle, he stopped tweeting. When family members tried to call him, they found that his mobile phone was switched off. A source close to the family told me that when Onimisi’s brother rang his office, colleagues told him he had been taken away “on orders from above” by men who identified themselves as members of the Directorate of Military Intelligence.

When ten days later Onimisi still had not resurfaced, his Twitter followers raised the alarm. Activists, including Omojuwa and others from Occupy Nigeria, began demanding his release. Protests were organised in the cities of Ibadan, Ekiti, Benin, Lagos, Kaduna and Kano.

On 11 April Onimisi was quietly released. He returned to Twitter, briefly, on 17 and 18 April. He did not respond to my request for an interview, but thanked his supporters. “My freedom matters,” he tweeted, “whatever happen in there end in there.” (Meaning “whatever happened in there, stays in there”.) Then his account was closed.

Even now, with the eyes of the world on the Nigerian government, its main concern is to silence critical voices. Social media might not bring back the victims of Boko Haram’s crimes, but the continued courage of critics inside the country could help force a complacent government to confront its own weakness.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

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Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours – but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.