TIME Nigeria

Why Nigeria’s Elections Could Trigger Renewed Violence

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan arrives on stage to sign a joint renewal with opposition candidate Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (not pictured) of their pledge to hold peaceful "free, fair, and credible" elections, at a hotel in the capital Abuja, Nigeria, March 26, 2015.
Ben Curtis—AP President Goodluck Jonathan arrives on stage to sign a joint renewal with opposition candidate Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (not pictured) of their pledge to hold peaceful "free, fair, and credible" elections, at a hotel in the capital Abuja, Nigeria, March 26, 2015.

Incumbent Goodluck Jonathan and challenger Muhammadu Buhari are neck and neck, setting the stage for violence, or worse, in Saturday's election

On Saturday Nigerians will head to the polls in the country’s tightest election since the end of military rule 16 years ago. One-time military dictator Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) is taking on incumbent Goodluck Jonathan of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in a race that has captivated the country, and the continent, for several months. Not once in Nigerian history has an incumbent government lost a presidential election, but this time around there is a strong sense that the opposition actually has a chance. It’s a sign of a maturing political system, but many fear that the tight race could presage a spasm of post-election violence that could send Africa’s biggest economy over the edge, particularly as the security services are preoccupied with an operation against the Boko Haram militant group in the northeast. A recent Afrobarometer poll shows that most eligible Nigerians intend to vote, but at least half are concerned about political intimidation and violence.

Past elections in Nigeria have proven turbulent, but 2015 is likely to prove particularly volatile, says Roddy Barclay, senior Africa analyst at Control Risks, a political risk consultancy. “Nigeria is at a key crossroads as it enters this election cycle. This is the first genuinely competitive election since democracy was restored in 1999, and that challenges the longstanding status quo in the country’s political system. Under either scenario — a Jonathan or a Buhari victory — we anticipate blowback in the form of unrest in the heartland of the losing candidate.” And in a country already beset by a vicious Islamist insurgency, that unrest could have repercussions across the region.

This is not the first time Buhari, a Muslim northerner, has faced Jonathan at the polls. In 2011 Buhari challenged Jonathan, a Christian southerner, and lost by a large margin. But this time around he has a strong national backing, with the country’s major opposition parties coalescing around him. Polls in December indicated that Buhari and Jonathan were equally popular. A six-week postponement of elections, originally slated for February 14, due to insecurity may have given Jonathan, with his deeper purse, an edge in campaigning, but Buhari supporters have been unflagging. In the interim they welcomed several PDP defectors — and their vote banks — into their camp.

Not only are the vote blocks evenly matched, the potential for frustration-fueled violence as one side looses to the other in a tight race is much higher. There is also the issue of regional rivalry. In running for what some Nigerians consider a third term — Jonathan, a former vice-president, came to power in 2010 when President Umaru Yar’Adua died in office — the incumbent is breaking a longstanding political agreement to alternate power between northern and southern candidates. As a result, there is a strong perception in the north that the region has become increasingly politically and economically marginalized under Jonathan, says Barclay. The government has also struggled to meet the expectations of a young and increasingly urbanized society that demands rapid change, enabling the opposition to gain ground. “Buhari supporters really believe that he can win this time around, because he has a credible platform and a high-profile national campaign,” says Barclay. “So if expectations are frustrated, we’re likely to see a violent reaction.”

And the precedent is grim. When Jonathan was announced the winner of the 2011 election, rioting in the country’s north and central regions killed an estimated 800 in violence that broke largely along ethno-religious lines. “That spasm of unrest was largely due to frustrated northern youth taking to the streets in anger at a vote that they saw as impeding their prospects for future prosperity,” says Barclay. “That anger was manifested in the targeting of communities that were thought to favor Jonathan, in particular Christians in the north.”

Adunola Abiola, a political analyst and founder of the London-based Think Security Africa policy institute, was in the northwestern city of Kaduna during the 2011 riots. The stage is set, she says, for a much more widespread outbreak of rioting. In 2011 the violence was disorganized and spontaneous. “People were coming out and expressing their anger and targeting anyone they thought was in the ruling party based on their religion and ethnicity,” she says. “This time around you have an opposition that is national. It’s more likely that we will see violence across the country.”

Abiola is particularly concerned about the potential for accusations of electoral mismanagement and fraud. It is not clear that voters in the three northern states where Boko Haram is strongest will be able to go to the polls, nor is it certain that the estimated one million people displaced by the insurgency will be able to vote. Likely Buhari voters, their exclusion could spark allegations of fraud should he lose. “I am not suggesting in any way that the APC organizes violence, but they do have a passionate support base that may take violent action if they feel Buhari has been cheated in this election,” says Abiola.

Still, she says, a Jonathan or a Buhari win is preferable to the alternative: stalemate. In Nigeria’s constitution the presidency is not won on a majority vote alone. A successful candidate also needs to get at least 25% of the vote in 2/3 of Nigeria’s 36 states. By Think Security Africa’s calculations, Buhari has the popular vote, but Jonathan has the wider regional base. While a runoff is possible, the numbers are not likely to change on a second round, considering how close the two candidates are, says Abiola. “Our conclusion is that a free and fair poll will likely result in a stalemate.” With an economy rattled by the declining price of oil, the country’s main source of revenue, and an insurgency that threatens the region, Nigeria cannot afford paralysis in government, says Abiola. With so much weighing on the outcome of the election, taking Nigeria into the uncharted waters of a political standoff could be the most dangerous outcome of all.

TIME ebola

Ebola Continues to Punish Survivors One Year After Start of Outbreak

A woman mourns at the grave of her late brother at the National Cemetry on Disco Hill, Margibi County, Liberia, March 11, 2015.
Ahmed Jallanzo—EPA A woman mourns at the grave of her late brother at the National Cemetry on Disco Hill, Margibi County, Liberia, on March 11, 2015

Ebola has almost disappeared, but the suffering continues and little has been done to fix the health services that could not stop it

Every time Foday Gallah slings himself into the passenger seat of his ambulance, he gives a small prayer of thanks that he is still alive. Eight months ago the Monrovia-based ambulance supervisor caught Ebola from a patient as the virus rampaged through Liberia’s capital city. But even in the throes of agonizing joint pain that is characteristic of the deadly disease, he wanted nothing more than to be back in his ambulance again, helping his fellow Liberians. He got his wish. Speaking to TIME on his mobile phone as his ambulance makes its daily rounds — so far two women in labor and a man with severe breathing problems — he describes his recovery and plans for his upcoming wedding. Aside from increased eye sensitivity, a common Ebola-survivor complaint, “I’m doing just great, thanks be to God. But others, man, they aren’t doing so well.” And Gallah isn’t just talking about side effects.

On Sept. 26, 2014, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released an alarming report that suggested that as many as 1.4 million Liberians and Sierra Leoneans could be infected with Ebola by January if adequate precautions were not taken. That worst-case scenario garnered international attention and galvanized local action, helping scale down the exponential spread of the disease over the course of several months. Now, one year since the declaration of what went on to become the largest outbreak of Ebola in history, the total number of confirmed cases in West Africa, or coming from West Africa, stands at 24,701, with more than 10,194 dead. Though those numbers continue to rise, it’s a far cry from how bad it could have been. Still, the impact of Ebola on the societies and the economies of the three West African nations most affected — Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia — has been devastating.

After a four-month convalescence, Gallah was able to get his job back with the ambulance service. Not all survivors were so lucky, he says. Most still struggle to find jobs, from friends at the clinic where he was treated, to Ebola patients he picked up and others he met through a newly formed survivors group. Many have been kicked out by landlords for failure to pay rent on time, or because fear of the disease is still strong in Liberia. But the worst, he says, are the Ebola orphans, the children who lost one or both parents to the disease and now must rely on extended family members for food, clothing, support and school fees. In a country where 84% of the population lives on less than $2 a day, an extra mouth to feed can be an insurmountable burden. The government has stepped in with foster care and orphanages, but that only helps the most extreme cases — children whose entire families have been wiped out. The others fall through the cracks. In his neighborhood alone Gallah knows of at least seven children who are now living with aunts, uncles and cousins who can barely get by. Many are survivors themselves. “It’s pathetic. These orphans are the worst side effect of Ebola, and no one is doing anything to help them.” Gallah, along with other members of his survivors group, now puts aside 100 Liberian dollars ($1) per month for an Ebola-orphans’ fund to help pay for school fees. If nothing is done soon to help in the aftermath of Ebola, he says, “worse than having Ebola will be the life of those who survived it.”

Iris Martor, a nurse and program director at the More Than Me Academy, a free school for disadvantaged girls in Monrovia that was forced to shut its doors when Ebola tore through Liberia’s capital city in August, wants to see the organization expand its mission to educate Ebola orphans. For the moment though, she wants to make sure that the national focus on eradicating Ebola doesn’t waver. At the peak of the epidemic, Martor helped organize a team of nurses to monitor health conditions in some of Monrovia’s most affected slums, and knows all too well how the virus can leap from person to person in crowded quarters. To this day she still cannot bring herself to hug or shake hands with friends. Her caution is warranted. After a hopeful three-week lull since the last reported case of Ebola in Liberia, the World Health Organization announced a new case on Friday. Noting that both of Liberia’s neighbors have seen worrying upticks in case counts, Martor says vigilance is a must. “As long as Guinea and Sierra Leone still have problems, Liberia will be at risk. Only when all three countries are free from Ebola can we put it all in the past. Only then can we really start thinking about the future.”

For his part, Dr. Philip Zokonis Ireland has already started thinking about the future. Ireland contracted Ebola while working at Monrovia’s John F. Kennedy Medical Center in July. His recovery was long and difficult, plagued by anger, depression and what he thought at the time might be permanent nerve damage in his hands. Eventually his appetite, his optimism and his manual dexterity returned, and he says he is a better guitar player now than before Ebola. But the anger remains, he says by phone from J.F.K. Hospital, where he has returned to his old job as a clinician. “Most of my anger had to do with how Liberia’s health care delivery system let us down. So I have decided to use the rest of my life span to develop better health care in Liberia.” He has set himself an arduous task. With only 50 practicing doctors for a nation of 4 million, Liberia’s health care system was already among the worst in the world when Ebola struck, the result of deep poverty and devastating civil war. Ebola laid bare the dangers of physician shortages, a lack of equipment, funding inadequacies and poor communication between clinics, hospitals and the country’s Health Ministry. “We need help. And I am not talking a couple of million dollars here or there,” he says, citing the old proverb about teaching a man to fish. “We need help in the form of doctors and public-health experts who can teach us to have a better public-health system. We need medical schools, and labs. We need to convince our government that public health is the No. 1 priority.” Already he is noticing a worrying lack of government focus on strengthening the system. Ebola, he warns, will burn itself out eventually. “But if we don’t do anything significant to improve our health system, especially health education, it could come back. It might be Ebola, or it might even be worse.”

TIME ebola

Ebola Cases Surge in Guinea, as Liberia and Sierra Leone Show Progress

Members of the Guinean Red Cross move the body of a person who died from the Ebola virus on March 8, 2015 at the Donka hospital in Conakry.
Cellou Binani—AFP/Getty Images Members of the Guinean Red Cross move the body of a person who died from the Ebola virus on March 8, 2015 at the Donka hospital in Conakry.

As long as Ebola remains in one of the West African countries at the center of the epidemic the whole region remains at risk

Even though the latest Ebola epidemic first surfaced in Guinea more than a year ago, the tiny West African nation has been largely spared the catastrophic escalations in case counts experienced by neighbors Liberia and Sierra Leone. At the peak of the crisis, Liberia was reporting 442 new cases a week, with corpses filling hospital morgues and rotting on street corners. Now, nearly two weeks after Liberia’s last known Ebola patient was declared free from the disease, Guinea has reached its own grim milestone, with 95 new cases in the week ending March 15, the highest weekly tally of new cases so far this year according to the World Health Organization [WHO]. Sierra Leone, meanwhile, is seeing some success, reporting 55 new confirmed cases last week in its lowest weekly total since June, when the epidemic first started to spin out of control.

Even though Guinea’s reported caseload was down from that country’s peak of 156 at the end of December, it still represents a near doubling of infections, from 58, in the span of one week. That’s a troubling sign for the region as a whole, particularly as WHO noted with concern that the chain of transmission in Guinea is happening largely out of sight of health workers who can monitor and isolate the contacts of infected people, a process that helps stop the spread. Another cause for concern is that most of the infections in both Guinea and Sierra Leone have occurred along a narrow, well-trafficked corridor along the two countries’ shared border. “The population is highly mobile, with a great deal of movement throughout surrounding districts and countries,” says the weekly situation report. “Limiting the movements of cases and contacts is challenging but essential to prevent the seeding of new outbreaks.”

Thursday marks the 13th day since the last patient tested positive for Ebola in Liberia; but the WHO requires 42 days — twice the maximum incubation period for the highly infectious disease — before it can be declared Ebola-free. Even then Liberia can hardly afford to relax if its neighbors still harbor the disease. Ebola spread in Guinea for four months before it crossed the border to Liberia, launching the epidemic that has so far claimed 10,194 lives.

TIME Nigeria

Boko Haram Under Attack by 4 Armies Led by Nigeria

Chad Boko Haram Flintlock
Jerome Delay—AP Chadian troops participate along with Nigerian special forces in an exercise in Mao, Chad on March 7, 2015.

Even if the allies hit Boko Haram hard militarily, it will still have the potential to launch terrorist attacks

With army trucks bristling with weapons, and soldiers boasting that they would catch Boko Haram militant leader Abubakar Shekau alive, military forces from Niger and Chad crossed into northeastern Nigeria on Monday to open new fronts in a war against an insurgent group that has wreaked havoc in the region for several years. Residents from both Nigeria and Niger described door-rattling booms of fighter-jet missiles and the stutter of artillery fire as troops zeroed in on Boko Haram enclaves near the border. Nigerian army spokesman Colonel Sami Usman Kukasheka crowed to BBC World that the joint effort “will definitely see to the end of the insurgency in Nigeria.” What he didn’t say is that it is unlikely to be anytime soon.

Analysts estimate that Boko Haram controls some 20,000 sq km in Nigeria’s northeast, forming a rough square bordered by Niger, Chad and Cameroon. Though Boko Haram originates in Nigeria, much of its strength comes from its ability to cross borders in pursuit of sanctuary. No longer. The multipronged effort, with troops massing on all three sides, appears designed to encircle the group, cutting off supply lines and escape routes, says J. Peter Pham, a Nigeria expert and director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. It’s not the first time the four countries have worked together to tackle Boko Haram, but this offensive, says Pham, may prove to be the most effective yet. With forces from Niger advancing into Nigeria for the first time, from two different locations on the northwestern border, and with Chadian and Cameroonian forces holding the frontier to the northeast and southeast, Boko Haram fighters have nowhere to go. “The noose is tightening around Abubakar Shekau, and if one looks at the map, it is clear that the ultimate goal is to isolate Boko Haram from” cross-border sanctuaries, says Pham.

With Chadian air support and Cameroonian military backup, Nigeria’s army has already recaptured two dozen towns from Boko Haram, a group that gained international notoriety when it kidnapped nearly 300 schoolgirls from a boarding school in Chibok in April. Still, it is unlikely that Nigeria will be able to fulfill the government’s promise that all territory will be liberated before general elections scheduled for March 28. Boko Haram flourishes in the dense jungles of the northeast, and its brutal campaign of kidnappings, executions and forced conscription ensures local support, even if out of duress. The Nigerian army doesn’t have the troop numbers or the equipment for a full-fledged territorial takeover, but the government cannot afford to let foreign forces lead the fight, either. One of the biggest issues in the upcoming election is security, and incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan can’t risk looking so weak that he requires outsiders to secure the country. “It is politically and psychologically important for the government that Nigerian territory is not seen as being liberated by foreign troops,” notes Pham. Instead the neighbors will play a supporting role.

Nigeria’s military spokesman cites Shekau’s pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) on Saturday as proof that the regional fight against the group is already having an impact. Liking the pledge to the desperate pleas of a “drowning man,” Colonel Kukasheka told the BBC World Service, “There is no surprise that he is craving for support from fellow terrorists across the world.”

Though Shekau is far from drowning, there may be some truth to the boast. Boko Haram and ISIS have been “circling and courting for a long time,” says Pham, noting Boko Haram’s adoption of ISIS’s black flag and anthem in the fall, and ISIS’s citation of Boko Haram’s Chibok kidnappings as precedence for its own kidnapping of Yezidi women and girls in Iraq. But the fact that both groups have been losing territory in recent weeks means they could use a little bit of a propaganda boost. “It was happening already, but the propaganda needs of both groups expedited the process,” says Pham. “For ISIS to acquire a new province, so to speak, is propaganda that benefits them both.”

That propaganda could quickly turn into a black eye for ISIS if Boko Haram does end up being wiped out through the efforts of the multinational force. ISIS has not yet responded to Shekau’s pledge, and given the current operation, leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may want to take a wait-and-see approach before he commits to a vulnerable ally. But Boko Haram, like ISIS, has two aspects: a military force that can be defeated, and a terrorist reach that is all but impossible to contain. On the same day the multinational forces started rolling into Nigeria, the provincial capital of Maiduguri was hit four times by suicide bombers. That’s something sure to make ISIS proud.

TIME Nigeria

Nigeria’s Kidnapped Girls Forgotten Ahead of Election Day

President Goodluck Jonathan is concentrating his energies on getting re-elected in March

It has been nearly one year since Boko Haram militants kidnapped over 270 schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria. And while the terrorist group continues its attacks across Nigeria, the country’s president has been more focused on staying in power after the March 28 elections than on getting the girls back.

Local activists want that to change, demanding that the government make the disappearance of the Chibok girls the top priority. “These rallies is the reason why [the government] remembers,” organizer Funmi Adesanya told TIME’s Africa bureau chief Aryn Baker, “but I don’t think they are really doing anything about it.”

TIME isis

Why Bashar Assad Won’t Fight ISIS

President Bashar Assad in 2014.
Joseph Eid—AFP/Getty Images President Bashar Assad in 2014

“The more powerful ISIS grows, the more they are useful for the regime"

The regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad has long had a pragmatic approach to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), says a Syrian businessman with close ties to the government. Even from the early days the regime purchased fuel from ISIS-controlled oil facilities, and it has maintained that relationship throughout the conflict. “Honestly speaking, the regime has always had dealings with ISIS, out of necessity.”

The Sunni businessman is close to the regime but wants to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions from both ISIS supporters and the regime. He trades goods all over the country so his drivers have regular interactions with ISIS supporters and members in Raqqa, the ISIS stronghold in Syria, and in ISIS-controlled areas like Dier-ezzor.

The businessman cites Raqqa’s mobile phone service as an example of how there is commerce between the regime, Syrian businesses, and ISIS. The country’s two main mobile phone operators still work in Raqqa. “Both operators send engineers to ISIS-controlled areas to repair damages at the towers,” he says. In addition, there are regular shipments of food to Raqqa. “ISIS charges a small tax for all trucks bringing food into Raqqa [including the businessman’s trucks], and they give receipts stamped with the ISIS logo. It is all very well organized.”

READ MORE: Inside ISIS, a TIME Special Report

The businessman has a driver who lives in an ISIS-controlled area near Dier-Ezzor. “My driver is always telling me how safe things are at home. He can leave the door to his house unlocked. ISIS requires women to veil, and there is no smoking in the streets. Men can’t wear jeans either. But there are no bribes, and they have tranquility and security. It’s not like there are killings every day in the streets like you see on TV.”

And, he notes, ISIS pays well — slightly less than the pre-war norms but a fortune in a war-torn economy: engineers for the oil and gas fields are paid $2,500 a month. Doctors get $1,500. Non-Syrians get an expatriate allowance, “a financial package that makes it worthwhile to work for ISIS,” says the businessman.

Assad does not see ISIS as his primary problem, the businessman says. “The regime fears the Free Syrian Army and the Nusra Front, not ISIS. They [the FSA and Nusra] state their goal is to remove the President. But ISIS doesn’t say that. They have never directly threatened Damascus.” As the businessman notes, the strikes on ISIS targets are minimal. “If the regime were serious about getting rid of ISIS, they would have bombed Raqqa by now. Instead they bomb other cities, where the FSA is strong.” That said, the businessman does not believe that the regime has a formal relationship with ISIS, just a pragmatic one. “The more powerful ISIS grows, the more they are useful for the regime. They make America nervous, and the Americans in turn see the regime as a kind of bulwark against ISIS.”

A senior Western diplomat who specializes in the Syrian civil war agrees that ISIS is seen as an asset by Assad. “They will do whatever it takes to devalue the opposition, even if it means strengthening ISIS. They know that if it comes to choosing between the black flag [of ISIS] and Damascus, the international community will choose Damascus.” And the strategy has worked extremely well. “The way it’s going now, it’s a matter of months, not even a year, that the moderate opposition is so weakened that it won’t be a factor anymore. So in just a few months from now the regime will be able to achieve its strategic goal of forcing the world to choose between Damascus and the black flags.”

So by ignoring the conflict between the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime to focus purely on ISIS may solve problems in the short term, says the diplomat, “but there will be more problems to come. These are the ingredients for a further escalation of the conflict — alienating large parts of the Sunni population, so that they have no choice but to join ISIS. Not for ideological reasons, but because they will do whatever it takes to overthrow the regime in Damascus.” Not only that, it will widen the geographical boundaries of the conflict by making this a fight of all Sunnis. “It’s a clear recipe for further escalation well beyond the geographical boundaries of the current conflict.”

However, Damascus believes that once it has neutralized most of the opposition, it can then defeat ISIS with ease. “ISIS alone, the regime can deal with them. What Assad wants is international recognition of his legitimacy as Syria’s President,” says the businessman. “When the war is over, he can easily handle ISIS with the help of Hizballah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.”

Read next: Don’t Take the Bait: The U.S. Should Not Send Troops to Fight ISIS

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Nigeria

Boko Haram Sends Out Child Suicide Bomber as It Loses Ground to Nigeria

Chadian soldiers on top of a truck, left, speak to Cameroon soldiers, right, standing next to the truck, on the border between Cameroon and Nigeria as they form part of the force to combat regional Islamic extremists force's including Boko Haram, near the town of Gambarou, Nigeria, Feb. 19, 2015.
Edwin Kindzeka Moki—AP Chadian soldiers on top of a truck, left, speak to Cameroon soldiers, right, standing next to the truck, on the border between Cameroon and Nigeria as they form part of the force to combat regional Islamic extremists force's including Boko Haram, near the town of Gambarou, Nigeria, Feb. 19, 2015.

The Nigerian military regains a key town lost to Boko Haram, but the insurgent group stoops to even bloodier tactics

Victory in battle is rarely a straight shot. So it goes in Nigeria, where the fight against the militant Islamist insurgent group, Boko Haram, progresses in fits and starts. Victory one day is eclipsed by defeat the next. On Saturday Feb. 21, Nigeria’s military spokesman tweeted that the army had retaken the border town of Baga after a fierce battle with the group’s fighters.

https://twitter.com/DefenceInfoNG/status/569145288818102272

But even as soldiers continued with the “mopping up” operation, residents elsewhere in the area reported scores of deaths at the hands of Boko Haram militants. And a day later, on Feb. 22, a suicide bomber killed five and wounded dozens in the northeast town of Potiskum, about 210 miles away. Though Boko Haram has yet to claim responsibility for the attack, the devastation was caused by what is rapidly becoming the group’s signature calling card: a female bomber, who, according to witnesses speaking to Reuters, looked to be no more than eight years old.

Though Boko Haram reportedly has enough firepower to successfully raid several Nigerian military garrisons, its ability to wreak terror is just as important in an asymmetric war like this one. United States intelligence officials estimate that Boko Haram has only 4000-6000 “hardcore” fighters, but a succession of attacks across Nigeria’s northeast and across the borders of its neighboring countries has nonetheless demonstrated the group’s seeming ability to be everywhere at once. The Nigerian military has a hard time keeping up, leaving many civilians caught in the middle. Few support Boko Haram, which has left a trail of massacres and abductions as it seeks to impose on the region its interpretation of Islamic law, but even fewer dare stand up to the group without a military to protect them.

Help is on the way: the African Union has pledged 8,750 soldiers, police and humanitarian officials to the fight. Already Nigeria’s neighbors Chad, Niger, and Cameroon, have entered the fray, defeating the insurgents in border areas and denying Boko Haram the sanctuary it once enjoyed. But Nigeria’s military is faced with an uncompromising deadline. National Security Advisor Sambo Dasuki has pledged that Boko Haram will be defeated before the March 28 presidential election, which was postponed from February for security reasons. That gives the army six weeks to do what it hasn’t been able to achieve in the six years since the insurgency launched.

Regaining Baga is a start. Strategically speaking, the fishing town offers little military advantage. Symbolically, it packs a punch. Boko Haram took Baga on January 3, in a surprise raid that sent soldiers tasked with protecting a nearby military garrison fleeing for their lives. Over the course of the next few days Boko Haram methodically rampaged through neighboring villages, killing and burning everything in its path. At the time, local officials estimated that up to 2000 residents had been killed; a government assessment put the number at 150. With access to the area limited and phone coverage all but cut off, it was impossible to establish which number was closer to the truth. Satellite imagery released by Amnesty International a few days later showed widespread devastation that gave credence to the higher count, though it is also possible that many residents fled before Boko Haram arrived.

Still, the discrepancy was largely interpreted as a government effort to downplay the insurgency’s strength, and the military’s failure. Now that Baga has been re-taken, investigators will be able to get closer to the truth of what actually happened. That may be of little comfort to those who lost loved ones and property in the massacre, but in the battle of messaging, it’s a start.

TIME Nigeria

Boko Haram Vows to Disrupt Elections as President Is Deserted by Key Supporter

A boy walks near a banner campaigning for Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan along a street at Campus Square neighborhood in Lagos, Feb. 2, 2015.
Akintunde Akinleye—Reuters A boy walks near a banner campaigning for Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan along a street at Campus Square neighborhood in Lagos, Feb. 2, 2015.

Goodluck Jonathan needs more time to take on Boko Haram and win the election

It’s never a good sign when your political mentor starts publically questioning your decisions as President, particularly if he is the man who laid the path to the presidency in the first place. For weeks Nigeria’s revered former President, Olusegun Obasanjo, had been quietly criticizing his former protégé and current President Goodluck Jonathan’s ability to combat the Boko Haram militant group. But when the Nigerian election commission announced a six-week postponement of elections to allow for a military operation against the insurgents, Obasanjo turned up the volume, publically insinuating that it was a ploy for the President to cement his position in the face of the rising popularity of his rival Muhammadu Buhari before endorsing Buhari in an interview with the Financial Times.

The elections come at a difficult time for Nigeria. Boko Haram has increased its attacks, and its terrain, over the past few months, expanding into neighboring Chad, Niger and Cameroon and raising fears for the stability of Africa’s biggest economy and most populous nation. Boko Haram has killed an estimated 13,000 Nigerians, and has abducted more than 1,000 others, including 257 schoolgirls in April. Despite a promised military operation, Nigeria’s ongoing political squabbling continues to prevent a unified national response. Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau has pledged to disrupt the polls, laying the groundwork for a fraught election season.

It was really only a matter of time before the divorce between Jonathan and Obasanjo became final. No one, however, expected it to be quite so theatrical. In front of a gathering of journalists and members of the ruling People’s Democratic Party, Obasanjo handed his membership card to a colleague to be torn up and announced his resignation from the party he helped found in 1999, when he became the country’s first post-dictatorship President. “Henceforth I will only be a Nigerian. I am ready to work with anybody regardless of his or her political affiliation,” he said in a statement that ran in national newspapers on Tuesday. That small act of petulance is likely to have far-reaching consequences for Jonathan’s campaign for re-election, already under strain from wide-ranging accusations of incompetence and weakness. While Obasanjo declared that he would not join the opposition, many will interpret it as an endorsement for the party of Buhari.

Shekau pledged to disrupt the elections “at any cost” also on Tuesday in a 15-minute video released via the group’s new Twitter account. “This election will not be held even if we are dead,” he vowed, speaking in the Hausa language of northern Nigeria. As if to prove his point, two suicide attacks killed at least 38 people on the same day the video was released. Two days before, on Feb. 15, a female suicide bomber killed at least 10 passersby in a market, also in the country’s northeast.

The number of Boko Haram attacks has increased dramatically since the announcement of the postponement of the elections, which were slated for Feb. 15. As a result, few Nigerians believe the leadership’s assurances that the insurgency will be defeated in time to allow residents of the northeast, where it is strongest, to vote. “Even if the ongoing military operations smash all the insurgents’ camps, as promised, Boko Haram has shown itself to be highly mobile, tactically adaptable and considerably resilient,” says Nnamdi Obasi, Nigeria researcher for the International Crisis Group. “So it is doubtful that the government will achieve an environment sufficiently secure for displaced persons to return home and for the electoral agency to conduct polls all over the northeast on March 28.”

The governments of Chad, Niger and Cameroon have promised to lend a hand by sending troops, but they are finding themselves bogged down with combatting Boko Haram on home turf. Shekau, in previous videos, pledged to attack any country that went after Boko Haram. He has followed through, threatening leaders by name in his video broadcasts, and sending forces and suicide bombers across the borders of all three countries. Cameroon’s army announced on Feb. 17 that it had killed 86 Boko Haram fighters and detained a further 1,000 suspected supporters. On the same day, Niger’s government claimed to have killed 200 rebels, detained 160 supporters, and averted a suicide bomb attack in the town of Diffa. Such assertions are difficult to corroborate. If true, they are an alarming indication of Boko Haram’s reach and strength. Obasanjo may have criticized Jonathan’s inability to manage Boko Haram, but if the combined forces of Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon can’t defeat the insurgency with international support, then his successor may also find it difficult.

TIME ebola

Liberia’s Children Go Back to School but Ebola Is Not Over Yet

Students stand in line before heading to their classrooms at Don Bosco High School in the Liberian capital Monrovia on Feb. 16, 2015.
Zoom Dosso—AFP/Getty Images Students stand in line before heading to their classrooms at Don Bosco High School in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, on Feb. 16, 2015

All across Liberia, streets are filled with the excited laughter of children returning to school after a six-month hiatus. The children, decked in the smart cotton uniforms of both public and private schools, line up in front of their classrooms to wash their hands in chlorine solution and wait to get their temperatures read by teachers wielding infrared thermometer guns.

Once inside they will pick up lessons abandoned in August, when an Ebola epidemic cut a swath through the country, infecting nearly 9,000 and killing at least 3,826. “The Ebola outbreak has had a devastating effect on our health and education systems and our way of life in Liberia,” Liberia’s Minister of Education Etmonia Tarpeh said in a statement. “We have managed to beat back the spread of the virus through collective efforts. Reopening and getting our children back to school is an important aspect of ensuring children’s education is not further interrupted.”

Ebola taught the nation to fear contact, to avoid unnecessary gatherings and to distrust a government and an international community that seemed both unwilling and unable to bring the crisis to an end. But with the start of school — deemed safe by the Ministry of Education, even though the virus has not been completely eradicated from the country — Liberians are regaining a sense of normalcy and can allow themselves to hope for a time when Ebola is little more than a bad memory. “It’s a good sign,” says school nurse Iris Martor. “We can’t let down our guard, but we can start thinking about the future again.”

Not all schools have opened. Some have yet to receive basic sanitation kits from the government and the U.N. Children’s Fund, and others are still being cleaned up and disinfected after having served as holding centers for the ill. Some, like Martor’s More Than Me Academy, which serves underprivileged girls from Monrovia’s West Point slum, won’t open their doors until March 2.

Schools have already reopened in neighboring Guinea, where the outbreak started in late 2013, and are expected to open in Sierra Leone, which has seen the highest number of infections, at the end of March. Of the three most affected countries, Liberia has recovered the quickest. It has seen just a handful of new cases every week since January, compared with an increase from 39 to 65 new cases in Guinea and 76 new cases in Sierra Leone in the week ending Feb. 8, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Still, it’s a dramatic decline compared with the hundreds of new cases every week during the peak of the epidemic in September and October.

On Monday, officials in the three countries announced that they had set a target of reducing the number of new cases to zero within 60 days. It is an achievable goal, but similar targets have been set in the past, only to be undermined by a sudden flare-up in unexpected areas.

Ebola, which kills nearly half its victims, is spread through contact with infected bodily fluids. Practices like the washing of the dead are deeply ingrained in West African society; all it takes is one improperly conducted funeral for a new chain of transmission to start, undermining weeks of work. The WHO, in its most recent assessment, noted that Guinea reported a total of 34 unsafe burials last week.

Elsewhere in the country, village mobs attacked health workers from the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders, accusing them of bringing the virus. Sierra Leone was forced to quarantine a fishing community in the capital, Freetown, after the discovery of a cluster of five new cases. “We are very, very far from the end of the outbreak,” Iza Ciglenecki from Doctors Without Borders told reporters at a science conference in California on Saturday. For most illnesses, it is enough to get the number of cases down to a low rate for doctors to be satisfied they have an infectious disease under control. Not so for Ebola. Until the number of new cases stays at zero for 42 days — twice the maximum incubation period — no one can afford to let their guard down, not even the students washing their hands in chlorine in the schoolyard.

TIME South Africa

South Africa’s State of The Nation Address Starts With a Fistfight, Ends With a Dance

Members of the Economic Freedom Fighters, wearing red uniforms, clash with security forces during South African President's State of the Nation address in Cape Town on Feb. 12, 2015.
Rodger Bosch—AFP/Getty Images Members of the Economic Freedom Fighters, wearing red uniforms, clash with security forces during South African President's State of the Nation address in Cape Town on Feb. 12, 2015.

“For a solid hour last night South Africa resembled a messy, dysfunctional state being held together by the security forces”

At least on some things, South African President Jacob Zuma knows how to deliver. His much-anticipated State of the Nation Address on Thursday night in Cape Town promised a spectacle. The nation got a circus that kept South Africans glued to their TV screens for several hours with scenes of heckling parliamentarians, fistfights on the parliament floor, an opposition party walkout and Zuma’s inappropriate chuckles. There was even a note of spy-craft intrigue: cellphone signals were mysteriously blocked for 20 minutes, preventing journalists from tweeting and filing stories and photos from the venue. The actual content of Zuma’s speech — uninspiring and lacking in content by most assessments — will be forgotten long before the full impact of a precariously divided government is felt on the country and Zuma’s political future. “It was hard to believe that South Africa is a functional democracy,” lamented an editorial in the local Times newspaper. “For a solid hour last night South Africa resembled a messy, dysfunctional state being held together by the security forces.”

Shortly after taking the podium, Zuma was interrupted by a member of the rabble-rousing Economic Freedom Fighters EFF party demanding to know when he would pay back government funds inappropriately used to upgrade his personal residence. Another cheekily asked how the estimated $21 million would be repaid – via cash, electronic transfer, or debit card? Three times they were ruled out of order, part of a carefully choreographed campaign to shame the President. When EFF leader Julius Malema, a one-time Zuma acolyte turned opponent, insisted that he had the right to be heard, the speaker of the house called in the security forces to evict all 25 members of the party. Television screens went momentarily dark. Photographs taken during what cable operators termed a feed interruption show the red jumpsuit-clad EFF members struggling with the guards, some using their trademark red hardhats to bash their way out of security cordons. By the time the television broadcast resumed, not a single member of the EFF, which makes up a very loud six percent of parliament, remained in the room. A few minutes later all 89 members of the official opposition Democratic Alliance walked out in disgust, leaving just the 249 members of Zuma’s African National Congress, and a handful of independents, behind.

MORE South Africa’s State of Nation Address Has Become a Carnival that Avoids Country’s Real Problems

The room thus cleared of naysayers, Zuma returned to the podium an hour after the scheduled start with a triumphant chuckle. He was met with a burst of applause from his African National Congress party faithful, but the content was not worth the accolades. Considering that South Africa is wracked by a power crisis that leaves many parts of the country in the dark for several hours every day, a crumbling economy (the Rand hit a 13-year low the evening before the speech), rising civil unrest, and the highest youth unemployment rate in Africa, Zuma’s speech was disappointingly lacking in urgency and concrete solutions. He did promise a $2 billion bailout of the cash-strapped Eskom power utility, but failed to say where, exactly, the money would come from. He also laid out a nine point plan to “ignite growth and create jobs” that echoed earlier economic strategies that have yet to bear fruit. And he pledged that foreigners would no longer be able to own land in South Africa. It was a sop to rural loyalists, perhaps, but a threat to the foreign investment that is a large part of the country’s economic lifeblood.

If Nelson Mandela’s first Presidential address to South Africans established the ANC as the party of the country’s promising future 20 years ago, Zuma’s state of the nation speech on Feb. 12 firmly cemented it in a dysfunctional present. “What did Zuma’s speech tell me? It tells me we are doomed,” says 34-year-old Cape Town resident Jacques, who asked to go by only his first name. “He didn’t give us any real plan on how we are going to turn the situation around. Already the foreign companies are fleeing, and they are taking the jobs with them.” Jacques at least has a shop assistant job, a relative rarity in a country where one in two South Africans between the age of 18 and 35 are unemployed. Jacques grew up as an ANC supporter, but says that he has lost all respect for the party that took Black South Africans like him from apartheid to equality. “Zuma says he is bringing changes, but only thing the ANC brought us was Mandela,” says Jacques. “I don’t even bother voting anymore.” He is not alone. In the 2014 parliamentary elections, more South Africans chose not to vote than voted for the ANC, a damning demonstration of national frustration. Not that Zuma and members of his party members appear to be doing anything to counter the trend. Instead they celebrated their “victory” over the EFF by dancing the night away on Parliament’s steps. It was a marked reversal for a party that once made history by speaking out of turn, and whose members were carted away by armed security guards for daring to do so.

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