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

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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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TIME South Africa

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

The red carpet is laid out at Parliament before the start of the official opening session in Cape Town, South Africa, Feb. 12, 2015.
Schalk van Zuydam—AP The red carpet is laid out at Parliament before the start of the official opening session in Cape Town, South Africa, Feb. 12, 2015.

Red carpets, paparazzi, fistfights and $382,000 gala dinners? Welcome to Jacob Zuma's 6th annual address to South Africans

Social Media can be an effective tool for a president wanting to stay in touch with his citizens. It can also be a potent, and public, amplifier of criticism, as South African President Jacob Zuma learned to his dismay this week. In advance of his annual State of the Nation address Zuma invited the public to suggest themes using the hashtag ‪#‎SONA2015. The most tweeted topic? His resignation:

“Pay Back the Money” is likely to echo through the chambers of Parliament as well, when Zuma takes the stage on the evening of Feb. 12. For the past three years his office has been embroiled in the so-called “Nkandlagate” scandal, in which he has been charged with using $21 million in public funds to remodel his homestead in the rural town of Nkandla. The renovations were billed as “security upgrades” but included a private military hospital, a helicopter landing pad and the installation of a swimming pool. Zuma says that he was unaware of the improvements being made at his residence.

Zuma has avoided Parliament since August, when a rabble-rousing minority party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, heckled him from the stage with questions about when he would repay the money. The speaker of the house was forced to close down the question and answer period and eventually called in the police to subdue the wayward parliamentarians.

The EFF has vowed to repeat their performance at the State of the Nation address, raising fears that security will be called in once again, this time broadcast primetime on national television. South Africa’s Sunday Times newspaper reported that parliamentary security staff had been sent to self-defense classes in preparation for the address. (Parliamentary officials stated that the training was routine.) Meanwhile, the opposition Democratic Alliance has pitched a snit of its own, refusing to attend the traditional post-speech gala cocktail party on the grounds that at a cost of $382,000 it is a waste of taxpayer money. The deputy speaker of the National Assembly responded that he would bill the DA for empty seats, because it was too late to recoup the catering costs.

What would be a yawn-worthy event in any other circumstance has riveted the nation, says Frans Cronje, head of the Institute of Race Relations, South Africa’s oldest think-tank. “For the first time South Africans will watch the state of the nation address. This will beat anything else on TV.” One newspaper has even published rules for a drinking game to go with the speech. The pomp and pageantry of the annual address easily lends itself to ridicule. Complete with a red carpet, paparazzi and parliamentarians dressed to the nines (last year one minister showed up in a pilot’s uniform, even though he didn’t have a license), it is “the closest thing South Africa has to the Academy Awards,” says John Endres, CEO of the Johannesburg-based Good Governance Africa policy group.

But the circus-like atmosphere of this years’ address obscures some of the country’s deeper realities, few of which are likely to be covered in depth during the president’s speech. South Africa’s crippled power utility is struggling to meet demand after 20 years of neglect, resulting in rolling blackouts that are likely to last for several months. The power shortage has hobbled investment and curtailed growth in Africa’s most industrialized economy. On Tuesday the Rand fell to its weakest level in 13 years. While the overall unemployment rate decreased slightly last year, the country’s youth unemployment rate shot up to 52.6 percent, the highest in the continent, according to a new report by Good Governance Africa. “South Africa’s youth remain trapped, dependent on hand-outs and unable to improve their lives,” said Karen Hasse, a GGA researcher. “Without better education and business-friendly policies to encourage economic growth and employment, the country’s youth face a hopeless future.”

Zuma may touch on the power crisis and unemployment — it would be hard not to — but there is little he can do without fundamental policy changes, none of which appear forthcoming, says Cronje. “The government is running out of money to run the country. They can’t borrow any more because the debt to GDP ratio has doubled in five years, and they can’t reduce expenditures,” for fear of inciting unrest. Violent protests have become a near daily occurrence, over jobs, schooling, medical care and illegal immigrants. “For the first time since 1994 (the end of apartheid) we are seeing a real pick up in the hiring of riot control police officers.” The EFF spectacle in parliament is nothing compared to what South Africa has in store, he warns. “I wonder to what extent Zuma understands this or is interested in it. We are not seeing in his policies the types of moves that will draw investment to drive growth.”

Of course, state of the nation addresses are not where policy is made. In the case of South Africa, the occasion has become a platform for a populist party on the rise. “The EFF has nothing to lose,” says Enders, of Good Governance Africa. “They have been very smart at generating attention, and highlighting the weaknesses of the current system.” But what is good for the EFF, may not be so good for South Africa. “It’s a bit of a crisis, actually,” says Enders, speaking of the possibility that security forces may have to be called in if heckling gets out of hand. “Using the police to stop people from speaking in parliament is infringing on freedom of speech. But freedom of speech comes with rules that are meant to keep discourse civilized and allow the proper exchange of ideas. So what should be done if the EFF doesn’t follow those rules?” South Africa’s 2015 State of the Nation Address may be billed as spectacle, but it could turn into something much more serious.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the number of State of the Nation speeches Zuma has given. It is the 6th.

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TIME Nigeria

Nigeria’s Military Quails When Faced With Boko Haram

Nigeria's once vaunted military has been hollowed out by corruption, bad leadership, and insufficient training, leaving it vulnerable to Boko Haram's advance

The claims, like the man who made them, were outsize: Nigeria’s military, says National Security Advisor Sambo Dasuki, would crush the Boko Haram insurgency that has bedeviled the country for the past six years, in six weeks. “All known Boko Haram camps would be taken out” by March 28, he told reporters in Abuja on Monday. Just in time for the country’s presidential election, which was rescheduled from its original Feb. 14 date on Saturday.

Given that the Boko Haram insurgency killed more than 10,000 last year, has sent an estimated 1.5 million fleeing for their lives, and now controls a swath of northeastern Nigeria the size of Costa Rica, Dasuki did allow himself a little wiggle room. Even if total annihilation was not, in fact, achieved, he conceded, “The situation would surely be conducive enough for elections.” He would do well to backtrack. Nigeria’s military has so far proved incapable of containing Boko Haram, and there is little to indicate that anything has changed. The African Union pledged 8,700 troops to the fight over the weekend, and on Monday the neighboring country of Niger voted to send in reinforcements as well. That Nigeria’s army needs help dealing with what even its own leaders call a rag-tag militia is a sobering indictment of an institution that was once considered the powerhouse of African peacekeeping. In 2003 the Nigerian army helped defeat the forces of Liberia’s bloodthirsty warlord Charles Taylor. Now it can’t even locate 219 schoolgirls from Chibok that were kidnapped by Boko Haram in April. What happened?

Nigeria’s military has been in decline for the past 16 years, says J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Washington D.C.- based Atlantic Council, ever since the country moved from a military dictatorship to a democracy in 1999. The intervening years have seen the country’s armed forces hollowed out by a combination of poor leadership, graft, misdirected staff training and a succession of civilian governments so worried about another coup that they have starved the armed forces of key resources.

To a certain extent, part of the issue is size. The country may have a 90,000 strong standing army, says Pham, but not all of them are soldiers. Nurses, medics, administration personnel and military police don’t fight, “so the actual number of combat ready troops is much lower.” Add to the fact that some 3,000 troops are currently serving in United Nations peacekeeping missions around the world, and the number left is “inadequate for the task of defending a country the size of Nigeria,” with its population of 174 million and a history of local insurgencies.

A bigger issue is fraud, says former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell, who now runs the Nigeria Security Tracker for the Council on Foreign Relations. Ammunition and arms are budgeted and paid for, but they don’t always reach the front lines, either because they are diverted to the black market, or because the money actually went into a procurer’s pocket. Disgruntled soldiers recently spoke to CNN, describing how they are sent out to fight militants armed with RPGs while they only have dozens of bullets each. The soldiers complained that they had to cover medical expenses for wounds received in battle, and that the spouses of dead soldiers were only granted a minimal stipend. “Nigeria’s annual military budget is somewhere between five and six billion dollars,” says Campbell. “Yet we have credible reports of soldiers being sent into combat with no bullets. The army is plagued by corruption, incompetence and bad morale.”

Military spokesman Maj. Gen Chris Olukolade argues that accounts of insufficient arms and ammunition are an exaggeration. Concern for civilian casualties, he says, has limited the effectiveness of soldiers in an asymmetric battle where the militants routinely take human shields. Nigerians don’t appreciate the costs of war, he says, so it is easy to blame the military’s failures on corruption when there are other factors at play. As is often the case, there is no firm evidence of graft, but Pham notes that there is enough anecdotal evidence to make a case. He cites Nigeria’s purchase of Israeli-made surveillance drones a few years ago. The drones were paid for and delivered, but despite budget allocations for their maintenance and upkeep, the drones were inoperable last spring, when they could have been used to locate the missing Chibok schoolgirls. Instead U.S. and British drones had to be flown in to do reconnaissance. It may not be a smoking gun, says Pham, but it’s enough to start asking hard questions.

As Olukolade inadvertently points out, Nigeria’s armed forces aren’t particularly well trained in counter-insurgency. They are a conventional army faced with an unconventional force that cares little for collateral damage. Nigeria’s army has a bad record of human rights abuses as well, according to Human Rights Watch. Unlike the militants they are fighting, they have to at least make an effort to do the right thing, says Olukolade in a wrong-footed attempt to explain the military’s limitations. “We are aware we are being watched, and are accountable, and that has affected the speed, the kind of swift actions we want to take against [Boko Haram]. We are constantly being put under check, and that has put a check on how far we can go in fighting back.”

Pham, who has worked in West Africa for over a decade, agrees that the Nigerian military’s training is not adequate for the job at hand. The resource-starved, post-dictatorship army often found that the best outlet for attention was U.N. peacekeeping deployments. As a result, he says, officers at Nigerian staff colleges focused more on courses that could get them the coveted U.N. Department of Peacekeeping certification, rather than on tactical and strategic decision-making. “They are trained to think like peace keeping bureaucrats,” says Pham. “So when you throw someone trained in peacekeeping into a war-fighting situation, they are way out of their depths.”

That has been made abundantly clear in the case of Boko Haram, which has continued to make advances in the region even as U.S. officials estimate that its total size is between 4,000 and 6,000 fighters. The group’s recent expansion into Niger and Cameroon has regional leaders up in arms, and ready to fight. Pham says that the extra 8,700 African Union troops will make a good hammer to the Nigerian military’s anvil, but whether or not they will prove successful by March 28, is unclear.

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau, no stranger to outsize pronouncements himself, scoffs at the new military alliance. “Amass all your weapons and face us,” he taunted in a 28-minute speech in Arabic broadcast on YouTube. “You send 7000 troops? Why don’t you send seven million? By Allah, it is small. We can seize them one by one.”

TIME Nigeria

Nigeria’s Delayed Election Gives President a Convenient Time-Out

Nigeria cited security concerns in postponed ballot — but incumbent Goodluck Jonathan stands to benefit most from it

When Nigeria’s government first floated the idea of postponing upcoming presidential elections last month due to concerns about the country’s readiness, the proposal was widely derided as a cynical political ploy. Incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan, once considered a shoo-in, was facing an unexpectedly strong campaign from former military dictator Muhammadu Buhari. An Afrobarometer poll released on Jan. 27 indicated that the two were neck-and-neck. Delaying the election, pro-Jonathan pundits suggested, would give the president more time to make his case for why he should remain at the wheel. Opponents said it would enable his People’s Democratic Party, facing its first defeat after 15 years in power, to dig deeper into a sizable war chest—and state coffers—to outspend Jonathan’s rival.

Those calculations will now be put to the test. Late Saturday evening, Nigeria’s independent election commission bowed to pressure and announced that presidential elections, originally scheduled for Feb. 14, would be postponed until March 28. Nigeria’s widely-respected election commission head Attahiru Jega cited security concerns as the reason for the delay, saying that he had been informed that the country’s overstretched military forces would not be able guarantee voters’ safety. “The commission cannot lightly wave off the advice of the nation’s security chiefs,” Jega said at the press conference. “Calling people to exercise their democratic rights in a situation where their security cannot be guaranteed is a most onerous responsibility.”

To be sure, Nigeria’s military is facing a serious threat in the advance of Boko Haram, a 6000-strong Islamist insurgency that has taken control of a wide swath of northeastern Nigeria. In recent weeks the militants have driven entire units from strategic posts, laid waste to multiple villages, launched suicide bomb attacks, and advanced into neighboring Chad and Cameroon.

But in January, Nigerian military spokesman Major General Chris Olukolade assured TIME that the country’s army would be well up to the task of defending its citizens come election time. So what changed? According to Jega’s official statement, the combined heads of Nigeria’s security services indicated that the army was about to launch a major military operation against Boko Haram, and would not be available to provide backing to the police and other agencies during the next six weeks.

Still, some in Nigeria balked at the idea that the country’s entire military force, which had until recently deployed only one brigade during the whole course of the six-year insurgency, would be otherwise engaged on the day of elections. “The government knew of the security situation all along, so to postpone the polls under the pretext of suddenly now concentrating military and other security resources against the insurgency is absolutely untenable,” says Nnamdi Obasi, Nigeria Analyst for the International Crisis Group.

The United States, too, made it clear that it wasn’t buying it. Secretary of State John Kerry said that he was “disappointed” by the postponement, suggesting that the commission was forced to make the decision. “Political interference with the Independent National Electoral Commission is unacceptable,” he said in a statement. “It is critical that the government not use security concerns as a pretext for impeding the democratic process.”

It also raises the question of what happens if the operation fails. The government is “asking for six weeks to deal with an insurgency it had failed to deal with in almost six years,” says Obasi. “What will happen to the national elections if the security situation in the northeast does not improve significantly in those six weeks?”

Obasi says the postponement is pure politics. “Jonathan and his ruling PDP were clearly in deep waters, so desperately needed to buy time and try to regain steam. The timing of the postponement, the untenable reasons advanced for it and particularly the underhand methods by which it was executed, all leave no doubt that it was driven by narrow political interests rather than national security considerations.”

While Buhari made it clear that he believed the postponement to be an underhanded attempt to bolster Jonathan’s chances at the polls, he also called for calm. “Any act of violence can only complicate the security challenges in the country and provide further justification to those who would want to exploit every situation to frustrate the democratic process,” he told supporters at a rally Sunday.

Delaying the vote, he implied with a good dose of bravado, would only make his candidacy more appealing to an electorate tired of Jonathan’s mismanagement and political shenanigans. “If anything, this postponement should strengthen our resolve and commitment to rescue our country from the current economic and social collapse from this desperate band.”

If the security situation does improve over the next six weeks, it is likely to have little to do with the efforts of the Nigerian military. Niger’s parliament is set to vote Feb. 9 on sending troops to aid Nigeria in its fight against Boko Haram, and the African Union has pledged an additional 7,500. That influx of troops could help Jonathan’s chances at the polls. The incumbent’s campaign has been dogged by his poor record on security, something that Buhari, a former military dictator with a strong-arm reputation, has used to his advantage. Military successes would reverse Jonathan’s bad record.

But the delay could also backfire spectacularly, allowing Boko Haram more time to launch attacks. The militia has no horse in this race, and has threatened both Jonathan and Buhari. Boko Haram is just betting that as long as the country can’t agree on a leader, it won’t be able to agree on a counter-insurgency policy either.

TIME

Nigerian Elections Threaten Campaign to Make Africa Polio-Free

NIGERIA-HEALTH-POLIO
Aminu Abubakar—AFP/Getty Images A polio vaccinator administers oral drops to a child in the Dawanau district of Kano, northern Nigeria in 2013.

Nigeria is is the last country in Africa which is still polio-endemic but it hasn't had a case in six months

For all that ails Nigeria —Boko Haram jihadists rampaging across the country’s northeast, record unemployment and the plummeting price of crude for an oil-dependent government — one thing has been going very right. Nigeria has not seen a case of polio since July 24, 2014. If it can stay that way another six months it will be removed from the World Health Organization’s (WHO) polio-endemic list, leaving just Pakistan and Afghanistan behind. But the general election, on February 14, has global public health officials worried that Nigeria might yet backslide: every election since 2003 has been followed by a surge in polio cases.

A quarter of a century after it was eradicated in the United States, polio is poised to become the second disease since smallpox to be wiped out in the wild. That progress has been achieved through a concerted effort by UNICEF, WHO and Rotary International to establish strict vaccination protocols for governments in affected countries. All it takes is two drops of the vaccine, administered three different times, to render a child immune. In order to achieve that, governments usually hold vaccination drives in affected areas every six weeks. In 1988 there were 350,000 cases of polio in 125 countries; in 2014 that number went down to 339 cases. Which is why this year is such a nail biter for Africa. When Nigeria is declared polio-free, after three years without a case, the rest of the continent can start to breathe a little easier.

Up until now, the greatest concern for public health officials has been Nigeria’s insurgency, which has prevented vaccinators from reaching children in violence prone areas. The upcoming poll has added another layer of worry, says Carol Pandak, Rotary International’s PolioPlus program director. “Elections always pose a threat of hindering polio eradication efforts,” she says via email. “Not only in that government officials are distracted leading up the elections, but possible violence and instability following the elections can have a significantly negative impact on polio eradication efforts.” The post-election surge in cases was most apparent following Nigeria’s 2011 Presidential elections, says Dr. Tunji Funsho, head of Rotary International’s Nigeria program. Election results were met with three days of rioting that killed 800 in the worst outbreak of violence since the 1967-70 civil war. The protests “compromised the security situation and prevented vaccinators from reaching a large cohort of children.”

Elections in India, which was declared polio-free last year, were largely spared the post-polling polio surge because of the country’s relative stability, notes Pandak. Recent Pakistani and Afghan elections saw similar case surges, and Nigeria is not likely to be any different this time around, especially since the two contenders, incumbent Goodluck Jonathan, and former general Muhammadu Buhari, are neck and neck according to a recent poll. These elections “have the potential to be much more disruptive given the political divisions in the country,” says Pandak.

There is also the uncertainty of how the newly elected government will or will not prioritize polio eradication. Funsho notes that in the past, Nigeria’s newly elected officials at the state and government levels were reluctant to fund immunization. As a result, coverage and quality of vaccination services declined. “It takes a strong effort to educate the new political leaders on the value of supporting polio eradication and making it a national priority,” says Pandak.

A surge of cases now would be a serious setback. Nigeria had only six cases last year, down from 53 in 2013. The rapid decline is a serious achievement, considering that in 2003 vaccinations all but stopped in the north of the country when religious leaders declared that the vaccines were part of a plot to sterilize Muslim girls. By the end of the year, 447 children in Africa had been paralyzed by the Nigerian strain of the virus. Within two years it had spread to across 16 countries, reaching as far away as Indonesia.

This year, Funsho is determined to keep Nigeria’s number at zero this year, setting up what he calls a “war room” for polio eradication. He knows that all it takes for those efforts to be undone is an interruption of regular vaccinations and a decline in vigilance. If he succeeds, the world will be one country closer to totally eradicating the disease.

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