Hope springs eternal

From the ever-elusive 15 minute a day workout that will give you a six pack or the “make $27383 a week working from home” spam ads you see on the internet tubes all the time, it’s clear that people are wired to hope for some quick, easy fix to their problems. That impulse must only get bigger the worse those problems get, so if you’re, say, stuck in the midst of a civil war or living in a country under constant threat of attack from a home-grown group of terrorists, you’re probably going to put a lot of hope into anyone or anything who offers the promise of a resolution to your situation. And, hey, who knows, maybe your hopes will actually be rewarded.

That dynamic is definitely playing out in Nigeria, where president-elect Muhammadu Buhari is pledging to “stop Boko Haram.” If you ask me, it’s a little odd that he’s taken to the pages of the New York Times (?) to make that pledge, but I suppose he’s also playing to an American audience that he hopes (there’s that word again) will help him in his efforts. But he seems to have the right idea:

We must start by deploying more troops to the front and away from civilian areas in central and southern Nigeria where for too long they have been used by successive governments to quell dissent. We must work closer with our neighbors in coordinating our military efforts so an offensive by one army does not see their country’s lands rid of Boko Haram only to push it across the border onto their neighbors’ territory.

But as our military pushes Boko Haram back, as it will, we must be ready to focus on what else must be done to counter the terrorists. We must address why it is that young people join Boko Haram.

There are many reasons why vulnerable young people join militant groups, but among them are poverty and ignorance. Indeed Boko Haram — which translates in English, roughly, as “Western Education Is Sinful” — preys on the perverted belief that the opportunities that education brings are sinful. If you are starving and young, and in search of answers as to why your life is so difficult, fundamentalism can be alluring. We know this for a fact because former members of Boko Haram have admitted it: They offer impressionable young people money and the promise of food, while the group’s mentors twist their minds with fanaticism.

Goodluck Jonathan arguably seemed more interested in how he could use Boko Haram to prop up his own rule than in defeating it, and he never showed much ability to make life better for people in Nigeria’s impoverished Muslim-majority north (where Buhari is from), so these are welcome words. Apart from his words, there are substantive reasons to think that Buhari might be able to succeed where Jonathan failed. As a former military officer (military dictator, actually, but we’re getting to that), he may be able to get control over the army in a way that it seemed Jonathan couldn’t, and the fact that he’s a northern Muslim might help appease elements in that part of the country who were alienated by Jonathan’s very ascension to the presidency, which was seen by many as a breach of Nigeria’s unwritten rule of presidential succession/power-sharing. But look, the fact that Buhari’s previous experience running Nigeria was as a repressive and unaccountable autocrat should be a pretty big red flag as far as his ability to bring peace and stability to the country is concerned (and as far as his ability to leverage the foreign aid that he’s going to need to rebuild Nigeria’s weakened military is concerned). He’s older now and hopefully a changed man, but it will be impossible to know that until he takes office next month.

There’s been a flicker of hope in Yemen as well, as President (I guess? President in exile?) Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi named Khaled Bahah as his new vice president yesterday, giving Yemen a VP (I guess? VP in exile?) for the first time since Hadi took over for the deposed Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011. Bahah was previously Hadi’s prime minister for about 14 seconds (OK, two months or so) between November of last year and January of this year, and his most notable qualification for the VP gig is that the Houthis don’t seem to hate him; they voluntarily released him from house arrest in Sanaa last month in what Bahah called “a goodwill gesture.” Al Jazeera’s Yemen analyst, Gamal Gasim, has (perhaps a touch hyperbolically) declared that Bahah is “the man who could save Yemen,” because he’s probably the only high-profile Sunni politician left in the country who is broadly acceptable both to Sunnis and to the Houthi-Saleh Zaydi coalition. Gasim is suggesting that Bahah’s new job could put him in position to serve as de facto president of the country, either at Hadi’s behest or (more likely) at the behest of Hadi’s bosses patrons, the Saudis. Like Hadi, Bahah is also from the southern part of the country, so if he’s installed as the real ruling power in Sanaa he’ll have a decent shot at keeping separatist elements in the south in check.

So Bahah has a lot going for him, and it would behoove the powers that be to find a way to end the Houthi-loyalist fighting so that Yemen can turn its attention back to dealing with a resurgent (thanks to the civil war) Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. But the key to achieving a political solution in Sanaa seems like it’s ultimately going to come down to a Saudi willingness to stop trying to bomb the Houthis into complete submission. The Houthis claim they’re ready to talk when the bombs stop dropping, which puts the onus on the Saudis to stop the air campaign and let them prove it. Barring that, it’s unlikely that Bahah or anybody else will be able to bring an end to Yemen’s violence anytime soon.


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