Chaos and Complexity: Lagos and lessons for megacity management in the 21st century


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David Rubens MSc, CSyP, FSyI, is currently completing his thesis for the University of Portsmouth Professional Doctorate in Security & Risk Management, where his research involves developing models of strategic management and critical decision making for complex crisis environments. He has just returned to the UK after spending 15 months as MD of a US security consultancy in Nigeria. 

The status of the city as the highest form of human social organisation has been an idea and ideal that has maintained pre-eminence since at least the time of the Greeks. Cities are not only drivers of economic growth and development, they create a framework that drives progress in all aspects of cultural, intellectual and social activity.

It is perhaps both a symptom and a cause of a modern global malaise that not only is the role and function of cities being questioned but also the viability of their very continued existence. Like anything in nature that aspires to gargantuatism, cities have moved beyond the bounds whereby the structures and frameworks that first allowed them to prosper and thrive can continue to support the monsters that they have become. With the rate of growth predicted to rise on Malthusian scales (the global urban population is estimated to grow by 70 million people a year), the ability of city managers to continue to supply basic life-management structures is going to be increasingly challenged beyond breaking point.

Cities are not only beginning to fail in their fundamental purposes – as anyone will know who has sat in a traffic jam on a road system designed for a slower and simpler age – they are actually killing the people who live there. Whether it is pollution or the ever-present stress of over-crowded urban life, the question is how the next stage of city development will play out.

Mega-City Management: Dysfunctional or merely self-organizing?

The rise of the megacity has been accompanied by a paradox that sets the utopian ‘city of the future’ against the reality for hundreds of millions of people of the daily struggle that is associated with life in the megacities of the emerging world. In many ways, the urban dweller in modern day Lagos, Mumbai, Dhaka or São Paulowould actually see more connections with the 19th-century urban poor described in Dickens in terms of negotiating the multitude of interactions that go to make up daily survival than with the modern-day planners in London, Tokyo and New York considering how fibre-optic communications systems can best be utilised to integrate global financial management, web-based home security systems or internet ordering from the local sushi bar.

Although the rise of the emerging world’s megacities has been well-documented, it is only relatively recently that the ‘third world’ experience, and particularly that based on the mega-slums and favelas of the emerging south, has been seen as anything other than ‘exceptional’. Under this reading, the accepted model of a major city has implied the integrated management and planned development associated with Europe and North America (and to a lesser degree Asia). The vast unmanaged slums of the third world were therefore considered outliers with no particular significance from an urban theory perspective. In fact, so deeply entrenched is the the conceptualisation of the global south megacity that ‘[t]he slum has become the most common itinerary through which the Third World city (i.e. the megacity) is recognized’ .[1]

However, many of today’s dysfunctional mega-cities had previous lives as well-run – and even model – urban centres, mixing Western-style planned development with a local flavour. But sudden, unmanageable growth rates soon outstripped the capabilities of the governance frameworks. Until the mid-1970’s, for example, Lagos was a functioning mid-range city, with a relatively simple management system and few complex challenges. Increased urbanisation then led to an expanded demand on its services and infrastructure, triggering a self-perpetuating cycle of failure and institutionalised disenfranchisement. Whilst the growth of the developed-world megacities was wealth- and opportunity-driven, in the developing-world megacities, those that were attracted to the urban centres were often unskilled and without the support networks that would allow them to achieve even the lowest level of self-sustaining lifestyles. This inevitably led to the emergence of shanties and slums which, together with a culture of endemic urban planning violations, rapidly created a monster that grew beyond the powers of its handlers to control.


The descent of Lagos from a fully-functioning (and even thriving) urban African centre to a dysfunctional megacity is an issue of political (non-)governance rather than purely one of urban growth. Whilst it might be difficult to differentiate between the causes and the effects of the descent into ‘failing city’ status in what is undoubtedly a complex series of closed feedback loops, ’to represent the city as it is today as an inherently ‘African’ condition is to ignore the dysfunctional political and social systems that have arrested the growth of the infrastructure of the city and left it in dire need of help’.[2]

If Lagos were a child she would definitely be described, even by the parents that love her, as having ‘challenging behavioural traits’. As the Honourable Commissioner, Lagos State Ministry of Physical Planning and Urban Development wrote in the foreword to a 2012 report, ‘By the turn of the last century, Lagos had become an international poster child for the doomsayers of the coming urban challenge—with a reputation for overcrowded and squalid living conditions, high rates of crime, poor governance, urban and environmental degradation and transport chaos’.[3] If Tokyo can claim to be the vision of the future of the hyper-connected 21st century city, then Lagos could equally claim to be its evil twin sister, projecting its reflection through a demented mirror of dysfunctionality and chaos.

In 1964, when Nigeria declared independence from its British colonial rulers, Lagos had less than a million inhabitants and could claim to be a self-conscious beacon of a successful modern African urban centre; cosmopolitan, self-confident, globally aware and connected, but also secure in its African identity. The opening of the National Theatre in 1976 was a significant landmark in the consciousness of Lagos, appearing in many writings as either signifying the peak of national pride and confidence or a symbol of the disparity between its outward show and the reality of the lack of supporting infrastructure (the opening gala was disturbed by a power-cut, a reality of life in Lagos even today). In the same year, a decision was made that Lagos had reached an insupportable level of dysfunctionality (largely based on the continuous grid-lock due to an explosion of the number of vehicles on the road combined with a lack of urban planning and traffic management) and that a new capital, Abuja, would need to be constructed from scratch.

The Lagos experiment in combining modern urbanism with an African flavour was perhaps doomed from the outset, suffering from ‘Incomplete modernity’.[4] This phrase encapsulates both the physical architecture of colonial period major cities, where there was a legacy of under-developed and unequally distributed urban facilities, as well as local power hierarchies that produced a highly iniquitous and unstable legacy of authoritarian and undemocratic control.

Post-colonial administration was often fractured, with departments, ministries and agencies being created on an ad hoc basis and little overview of the strategic requirements or even basic organisational frameworks. Such initiatives created the seeds of destruction from their inception. In Lagos, as in many mega-cities, rather than simplifying the governance structure, each reform merely succeeded in adding seemingly-endless layers of competing jurisdictions and agencies. Administratively, Lagos State comprises five divisions. In 1991, the divisions were further subdivided into 20 local government areas, and in 2006, into 37 local government council areas. While the local government areas are duly recognised in the Nigerian Constitution, the local council areas are not. Different jurisdictional systems are used for different purposes– for example, tax collection, development projects and the management and implementation of local government programmes.

In reality, the problems Lagos has been facing–and which came to full maturity in the ‘dark years’ of military dictatorship (1966-79, 1983-98)–had antecedents in the earliest days of colonial rule. Despite the fact that British authorities saw Lagos as the ‘Liverpool of West Africa’, there was a disinclination to invest the resources to develop it as a functioning, modern city and it was known for its swamps and lack of infrastructure, especially its lack of sewage system. Although there have undoubtedly been improvements made in recent years, in large part due to the return of democracy and the emergence of an increasingly meritocratic, technically-enabled administrative class, one description of Lagos shows what happens when the struggle becomes too tough, and city managers just give up:

‘With no strategic urban planning, the city has had to contend with challenges such as uncontrolled urban sprawl, inadequate and overburdened infrastructure, housing shortages, social and economic exclusion, high youth unemployment, inadequate funding of urban development, rising crime and physical insecurity, cumbersome judicial processes, and low-level preparedness for disaster management. In addition, a large informal sector has developed, primarily as a result of in-migration of unskilled labour’ .[5]


The inexorable growth of slum neighbourhoods created the perception that such ‘traditional’ communities were outside the framework of structured city management, which in turn led to increasing levels of alienation, degradation and public health issues. Such problems were then delineated in terms of public order and safety rather than support and resourcing. At the same time, the responsibility for those areas was seen as being with the residents rather than those with the power to do so something about it. Even if there had been a vision of modern African urban planning, the combination of structural vulnerabilities, a lack of political / administrative frameworks and a lack of a suitably empowered administrative class conspired to derail the African modernisation process from the start.

The modern megacity is widely viewed as in a failing state. However, an alternative view based on his study of Lagos is espoused by R. Koolhaas, who sees Lagos as a self-managing organism within which constant negotiations between micro-communities take place outside of any formal city management framework. For Koolhaas, these daily personal negotiations are not a sign of failed management, but rather ‘a developed, extreme paradigmatic case-study of a city at the forefront of globalizing modernity’ .[6] In this view, the cutting-edge ‘modernity’ of developing world megacities should be recognised, rather than being judgmentally labelled as ‘primitive’ when measured against the template of ‘developed’ Western cities .[7]

Although it is clearly easier to build functionality and good governance into a major city than retro-fit it once it has descended into a failed state, if the megacities of the developing world are to find a way of stabilising themselves, then Lagos may well be the petri-dish where such experiments can be carried out. As the Filani report makes clear, any improvements will be the result of the transformation of the systems of governance built on sustained political leadership and long-term policies rather than quick fix solutions. Some of the planks of the transformation that Filani identifies are: the development of a knowledge-based approach to policy development; the development of partnerships between public and private sectors that allow effective policy implementation frameworks; increased oversight and management of public spending; more effective tax and revenue collection (revenues in Lagos rose from 600m Naira/month ($3.8m) in 1999 to more than Naira ($45m) in 2007); the use of information and communication technology and data collection; and specific programmatic interventions in alliance with UN, regional and national agencies. At the same time, there is the development of parastatal agencies that created the framework for policy implementation, including Lagos State Emergency Management Authority (LASEMA), Lagos State Emergency Medical Services (LASEMS), Lagos State Waste Management Authority (LAWMA) and the Lagos Metropolitan Area Transport Authority (LAMATA) amongst others .[8]

Lagos and its brethren megacities across the developing global south are not second-rate, primitive recreations of ‘real’ cities, but models of a future post-modern urban reality. The problems that these megacities have been wrestling with for decades are increasingly taking centre stage in even the most advanced cities of the Western world. The issue is no longer how to manage better but rather how to create a more appropriate management system. An adherence to a mechanistic, directive-based polity no longer reflects the hyper-complexity of the modern urban experience. Given the chaotic and free-forming nature of much of megacity life, there is a clear parallel between some of the issues being faced in developing an effective crisis management decision-making framework and the same issues being confronted in megacity management circles. If the megacities of the present are to maintain relevance for the future, Lagos may well be the pathfinder for the journey ahead. If, as the saying goes, within chaos there is opportunity, Lagos undoubtedly has no shortage of the former. It is my hope and belief that it is also provides the setting for the latter. As Koolhaas put it, from this perspective, ‘Lagos is not catching up with us. Rather, we may be catching up with Lagos’.[9]

[1] Roy, Ananya (2011) Slumdog Cities: Rethinking Subaltern Urbanism. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Volume 35(2):223-238, p. 225.

[2] Isichei, Uche (2002). From and for Lagos, Nigeria. Archis No 1:12-15, p. 2.

[3] Filani, Michael O (2012). The Changing Face of Lagos: From Vision to Reform and Transformation. Cities Alliance, p. 4.

[4] Gandy, M. (2006). Planning, anti-planning and the infrastructure crisis facing metropolitan Lagos. Urban Studies, 43(2):371–96, p. 374.

[5] Filani, p. 16.

[6] Koolhaas, R., P. Belanger, C.J. Chung, J. Comaroff, M. Cosmas, S. Gandhi, D.A. Hamilton, L.Y. Ip, J.Kim, G. Shepard, R. Singh, N. Slayton, J. Stone and S. Wahba (2000). Lagos, Harvard Project on the City. In R. Koolhaas, S. Kwinter, S. Boeri, N. Tazi and H.U. Obrist (eds.), Mutations, événement culturel sur la ville contemporaine, Arc en Rêve, Centre d’architecture, Bordeaux, p. 653.

[7] Robinson, J. (2013). Ordinary cities: between modernity and development. Routledge.

[8] Filani, p. 6.

[9] Koolhaas et al, quoted in Roy, p. 227.

PS21 is a non-ideological, non-partisan, non-national organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

African owned and driven strategies key in addressing terrorism

Burundian soldiers training for deployment to the African Union Mission in Somalia 2012
Burundian soldiers training for deployment to the African Union Mission in Somalia 2012

Edward Wanyonyi is a Security, Leadership and Society Fellow at University of London-Kings College. He can be reached on

On 7th February 2015, Nigerians received news from the chairman of Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Prof. Attahiru Jega, that national and state elections, originally scheduled for 14 and 28 February, had been postponed to 28 March and 11 April, respectively. The postponement came against a suspicious electoral climate that had earlier on been shaping pitting President Goodluck Jonathan and his main opposition rival General Muhammadu Buhari. However, the INEC chair clarified that ‘security could not be guaranteed in fourteen local government areas in the north east where Boko Haram has been waging a brutal insurgency since 2010. According to the National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, rescheduling ‘the elections by six weeks would still fall within legal provisions and that the government “hoped” to restore normalcy to the north east by then.’

This fact that the security threat posed by Boko Haram could occasion the postponement of General Elections in a country that has perhaps one of the most established military and security infrastructure and legacy in West Africa calls into question the overall preparedness of Africa in combating the threat posed by transnational terrorism organizations, networks and movements.

While the Global War on Terror launched by President Bush following the 9/11 attacks morphed into a coalition of about 60 Western nations engaged mostly in combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, this endeavour also attracted global partnerships within the US government and at the global level. The US Government reorganised the intelligence community and established organisations such as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Bureau of Counter Terrorism and Department of Homeland Security besides reorganisation of all the state departments. At the Global level, the United Nations established the counter terrorism implementation task force to guide the implementation of the UN counter terrorism strategy adopted by members on September 8, 2006.

All these efforts were constructed in an environment that perceived Al Qaeda as the main source, exporter and backbone of the threat of terrorism. While efforts to degrade and defeat Al Qaeda were largely concentrated in central Asia particularly Afghanistan and Pakistan, little was done to prepare and build the capacity of many African countries to be insulate against the threat posed by terrorism. Indeed, while attacks at the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 brought to the world the transnational nature of terrorism, the nature of cooperation that followed sought only to support the US ‘capture and kill’ strategy but little effort was directed in reforming the political and social contexts that would predispose most African countries to the threat of terrorism.

However, this situation changed when Tuareg rebels affiliated to Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) almost ran over Niger and Mali. The situation worsened when AQIM established new operational bases in tumultuous Northern African states such as Libya, Tunisia and Egypt following the Arab Spring turmoil. Boko Haram scaled its operational attacks from guerrilla based to a full blown insurgency capturing villages, towns and even at times routing the Nigerian military. In East Africa, Al Shabaab, previously pushed out of Mogadishu by the onslaughts of AMSIOM forces, started launching daring cross border attacks within Kenya with fatal casualties.

These developments come at a time when global jihadism is being redefined by the emergence of Al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq al-Sham (DAESH) popularly known as the ISIL or the jihadist state that is currently active in Western Iraq and Eastern Syria. It is not surprising that ISIL attracting over 20, 000 foreign fighters including from Africa is overshadowing Al Qaeda and becoming the leading exporter of jihadi ideology and terrorism leading to possibilities of cooperation with AQIM cells, Boko Haram and Al Shabaab.

Crowd fleeing Westgate shopping mall during 2013 attack
Crowd fleeing Westgate shopping mall during 2013 attack

The fact that global terrorism has direct implications to Africa’s security cannot therefore be underestimated. When terror organizations such as ISIL are able to attract and recruit fighters from Africa, the implications for their return are ominous. Not only do they pose direct security threats to their countries should they return and seek to establish terror cells and networks, they also present a unique challenge to security institutions which are yet to be transformed and equipped to deal with counter terrorism.

And here lies the Achilles heel for securing development and communities in Africa. While astronomical financial allocations are made to the modernisation of security services, these efforts although well intended are not coordinated with wider political and economic reforms in the society. It is one thing to establish national de-radicalisation programs but another to ensure that budgetary and development allocations aimed at addressing structural inequalities, marginalization and extreme disenfranchisement in the society are not politicised or end up excluding certain sections of the population. While the international community has established the coalition to militarily engage against groups like ISIL, African countries that are at risk of terror threat still lack proactive counter terrorism infrastructure and political agency to ensure that terrorism is not allowed to take root, win the hearts and minds of population, acquire military might and financial resources to the level like that of Boko Haram that leads to postponement of national elections.

The threat of transnational terrorism in Africa should not just be construed in terms of the frontline states that border AQIM or the Arab Peninsula. It should be looked at from the dimension of the move to promote a vision for a borderless Africa in order to harness regional trade and economic cooperation. As such, a regional but locally owned and led counter terrorism agenda will go a long way to secure this vision.

For this to take place, a three pronged approach is needed to ensure coordination, efficiency and local ownership. First, African Governments need to shift from this ‘entitlement’ stance where they demand international support as a condition for dealing with their own porous borders, corrupt security services, inefficient justice processes and economic policies that seek to disenfranchise  and push young people towards the appeal promoted by jihadi ideology and extremist narratives.

Secondly, local country ownership driven by an energised policy debate on national counter terrorism strategies, institutions and expertise is very much needed. While the international community has a role to play, the primary responsibility for security still remains the duty and prerogative of elected governments. As it remains now, there is a widening vacuum between commitment local ownership of counter terrorism agenda and the foreign driven, imposed and funded programs with the latter being promoted as the best alternative.

Finally, a new regional counter terrorism contact group that should comprise of the African Union, the United Nations Security Council, the Islamic States Organisation, the European Union and funding basket such as the US led Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund (CTPF) could play a role in the training of Special Forces to undertake counter terrorism operations, providing the technology and military gear, but also support for long term political reforms that can build inclusive governments, strengthen human rights and justice institutions, processes and actors while at the same time countering the jihadi ideologies and narratives.

A hashtag’s unintended consequences in Nigeria

Activists in DC rally in support of the
Activists in DC rally in support of the “Chibok girls” taken by Boko Haram.

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Emmanuel Akinwotu is a British-Nigerian writer based in London and an editor and contributor to the Project for Study of the 21st Century PS21 AFRICA channel. He tweets @ea_akin.

A year after the Twitter campaign “#bringbackourgirls” put Nigeria on front pages around the world, the whereabouts of 219 schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram on April 14, 2014 remains unknown.

The global clamor for their release, ferocious in the months after the kidnappings, is now modest, by comparison. But the campaign — and even more, the brutal conflict that sparked it — has had major consequences. Over the past year, Nigeria has changed.

On March 28, for the first time in the country’s history, Nigeria’s opposition claimed victory in a presidential election judged fair and free. President Goodluck Jonathan’s ruling party conceded its 16-year grip on power, and is now a weakened force after significant defeats in state elections.

The new president, former Nigerian military leader Muhammadu Buhari, is not universally popular. As head of state from 1983 to 1985, he was part of a dictatorial regime that committed numerous human rights abuses. His efforts to fight corruption and improve living standards led to authoritarian policies.

But the world since Buhari last ruled Nigeria is a starkly different place, and the self-proclaimed “converted democrat” will likely take a more inclusive and technocratic approach this time around.

His victory represents something else that’s new, too. Buhari, a Muslim from the North, won overwhelmingly in the majority Christian southwest, as well as across northern states. His All Progressives Congress (APC) party, a relatively new alliance of small opposition parties, capitalized on the government’s perceived failure to tackle domestic challenges such as corruption, unreliable electricity and poverty.

Nigeria’s conflict with Boko Haram also helped the APC win. The brutal insurgency has in part made voters nostalgic for the kind of leadership embodied by former military men like Buhari. Many voters felt that, compared to the incumbent, Buhari would do a better job tackling security and corruption — a priority that trumped religious divides.

Muhammadu Buhari speaking at Chatham House, February 2015.
Muhammadu Buhari speaking at Chatham House, February 2015.

And that brings us back to the #bringbackourgirls campaign. In the weeks following the schoolgirl abductions last year, Nigerian citizens were overwhelmingly skeptical of their government. The hashtag campaign raised global awareness of the plight of the missing girls, and also of the government’s weakness. It kept attention on the crime, and played a role in the deployment of more than 100 U.S. Special Forces to advise and support the Nigerian military.

But the campaign’s most important impact was on domestic politics. Politicians faltered under the pressure of added international scrutiny.

Now Nigerian politics will no longer be dominated by a single party. The APC’s win has given balance and alternative to a system that desperately needed it.

But democracy won’t solve all of Nigeria’s troubles. The oil price swoon of the last year has hit Nigeria’s economy hard. Oil exports account for 75 percent of government revenue, and while the price has lately rebounded, the Nigerian economy remains fragile. The central bank has largely cushioned the naira currency’s fall in value, and while the economy has slowly diversified away from reliance on oil, it must do so more rigorously.

Nigeria’s economy, in need of structural reform in a volatile global economic climate, will be a huge challenge for Buhari’s government. His APC party made a number of grand promises, including new welfare systems for the unemployed and state-funded new jobs. Implementing these policies may prove difficult, as will providing reliable, consistent electricity nationwide.

And it’s not clear whether Buhari’s defiance and rhetoric against Boko Haram will result in tangible change. Successive Nigerian administrations have been unable to fix the systemic problems that make the Northeast fertile ground for terrorist groups.

The anniversary of the abductions in Chibok a year ago re-opens old scars. The government’s failure to deal with Boko Haram was exposed at the price of 219 girls, who remain missing. The new government has promised change and nothing is more important than providing security to the people of Nigeria.

This piece originally appeared on on April 17, 2015.

Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

University attack brings stark lessons for Kenya

Garissa Market, Nairobi, Kenya.
Garissa Market, Nairobi, Kenya.

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Edward Wanyonyi is a Security, Leadership and Society Fellow at University of London-Kings College.

The recent attack at Garissa University in North Eastern Kenya by Al Shabaab came as a surprise to many Kenyans and the world. Launched at the crack of dawn on Thursday April 2nd in Garissa, the attack lasted more than 6 hours and in its wake claimed the lives of 147 students, faculty and security personnel who were deployed in the counter offensive. While the Kenyan authorities concentrated their efforts in evacuating the injured, and there was improved inter agency cooperation between the various arms of the security services, more anger, helplessness and a palpable sense of disillusionment swept across the country.

The question is: how did it happen and can future attacks be stopped?

This is not the first such attack by Al Shabaab. Indeed from 2011 when the Kenya Defence Forces launched operation Linda Nchi in response to a series of kidnappings of aid workers and tourists along northern and coastal towns in Kenya, there have been now close to over 150 attacks by Al Shabaab within Kenya with severe casualties.

While Nairobi maintains that its forces are in Somalia until Al Shabaab is defeated, it remains unclear what actually defeating entails, the means employed, the resources required and the civilian, military and diplomatic capacities that need to be mobilised towards this end.

It is the contention of this article that the Government of Kenya has invested its focus on an external military offensive within Somalia while lacking a pragmatic counter terrorism strategy that will operationalise this fight in the homeland. I argue that the current Anti-Terrorism Police Unit is under resourced, understaffed, poorly equipped in combing the entire country and, worse, led by a low ranking officer who is answerable to the Director of operations at the Kenya Police Service Headquarters. He is not directly answerable to the Inspector General of Police nor can he even access the President.

Furthermore, the current civil-military team around the President is causing him to loose altitude as it is enmeshed in a group think psychology that excludes critical thinking. This team formed of party sycophants and key architects of a tribal hegemony are behind a string of pleasant briefings that placate the President with an ‘all is well’ narrative. They are obsessed about regime preservation, locking out other tribes from core sectors of the economy and shaping succession politics while leaving the flanks open for terror to thrive, causing the President to loose altitude.

Moreover, the recent purchase of arms worth USD 2.9 billion from Serbia indicates emphasis on infantry offensive within Somalia but what is greatly needed are teams of personnel mobile and highly trained in special operations missions that can be deployed across the country and anywhere AS supporters, funders, sympathisers are found.

Such a strategy calls for the President to institute sweeping changes. Key will be establishing a new counter terrorism operational command centre as a centralised unit directing action, legislation, resources, local and international support necessary in the war against Al Shabaab. This should produce a Homeland Preparedness action plan that will articulate clearly what it will take to eliminate if not reduce the Al Shabaab terror capacity. This should be followed with a full scale reorganisation of the security agencies to de-tribalise the current upper echelons within handling coordinating security, economic and diplomatic duties within the office of the President, Ministry of Interior and Coordination of Government, Cabinet office and Ministry of foreign affairs.

The incursion of Kenya Defence Forces into Somalia in 2011 was preceded by a series of high level war preparation. Crucially missing in this arrangement were two elements. First, a critical analysis of the capacity of the Al Shabaab to hold out and launch a successful urban insurgency inside Kenya often escaping the scene of crime. In most attacks attackers had all the luxury of time to execute terror with often little counter attacks from local security forces. This goes to prove the intelligence capability and operational planning efficiency of Al Shabaab in not only conducting reconnaissance to establish the best time and target of attack but also a getaway plan from the scene.

This is evident from the 2013 Westgate Shopping Mall attack that had over 70 causalities, the 2014 attacks in Mpeketoni and Poromoko villages in Lamu County that claimed over 65 lives, the cold blood execution of 15 quarry workers in Mandera country and the execution of close to 28 passengers on a bus from Garissa County.

Secondly, Al Shabaab have proven that they are no longer a team of young boys running around with Kalashnikovs following instructions from a radical cleric. This is now a well-trained paramilitary force that is taking more Special Forces missions with the right artillery, formation n tactical finesse.

Al Shabaab is not just a Kenyan problem, of course. Kenya is already part of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) that has made quite impressive efforts to liberate parts of Somalia and support the government in Mogadishu. Kenya is also a key ally in the global war against terror and has been supportive of US counter terrorism efforts within the region. But what is missing now is an international mobilisation against Al Shabaab the same way Al Qaeda and ISIS are being battled on all sides by the global community.

A two pronged approach might be essential in defeating Al Shabaab at the international arena. First and of crucial importance to Kenya is the need for Western allies to join an international contact group for Somalia with the main objective being defeating Al Shabaab. In this regard, AMISOM should be strategically enabled with capacity such as what the International Stabilisation Assistance Force in Afghanistan possessed.

Secondly, the Somalia Government should expedite national reconstruction to ensure that basic services are available to citizens in order to weaken the appeal of jihadism which takes advantage of a weak and absent state authority.

President Uhuru Kenyatta is ready to do what it takes to address this crisis and increasingly he has shown his sincerity and commitment to the safety of every Kenyan. Kenya is not a failed state but the haphazard and chaotic knee jerk reactions every time an attack takes place only emboldens Al Shabaab and sustains a climate of fear.

Project for the Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

How Boko Haram changed Nigerian politics


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Emmanuel Akinwotu is a student at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is also a writer/editor for Project for Study of the 21st Century.

Boko Haram’s Islamist insurgency has thrust Nigerian politics into a foreign place. Politicians in this country are familiar with criticism but not scrutiny. But the kidnap of over 276 girls in Chibok almost a year ago was a turning point. It wielded unavoidable international scrutiny on a political class adept at evading it. And now the elections on Saturday give the changing dynamics in Nigerian public affairs even greater significance.

The prevalent perception that President Jonathan has dithered in dealing with the extremists has deeply receded his chances of winning the presidential elections. He admitted in an interview last week to the BBC that the response to Boko Haram was hampered by a lack of weaponry. But the damage of this delay has run deep.

His ruling PDP party, who have won the last four elections with relative ease, face a credible threat from ex-general Muhammadu Buhari and his APC party. Buhari’s dictatorial past, a weakness in previous elections, is now a central facet of his appeal. He has rebranded dramatically, appearing in tuxedos, high-fiving children and attending musicals. His circular rimmed glasses, a throwback from his younger days, coincidentally rhymes with hip current trends. But over-emphasis on his modernity and democratic credentials as a future president plays against a key advantage.

The Nigerian electorate’s deep-seated nostalgia for military strong-men–and amnesia for the cruelties that they are ultimately famous for–is playing to his advantage. He is campaigning on change but his stock has risen largely because of a return to the past. His leadership infamous for its ruthlessness is seen by many as the antidote to the time-long issues of corruption, power shortage, job creation, and now Boko Haram.

Nigeria’s political class is now more balanced than ever before. Boko Haram has given the negligible prospects of Nigerian opposition parties a boost. The popularity of the government is still formidable, especially in the South-South and South-Eastern regions, but their support has fragmented. After the schoolgirls were abducted from Chibok in April 2014, the Presidency took 18 days to issue a response.

The hashtag campaign, the most popular in 2014 on Twitter, drew international focus on the tragedy of the abductions but also on the silence from the President. Even after he spoke officially to Nigerians, the messaging from the government was incoherent and dismissive. Their appearances amidst the immense media scrutiny were telling. The finance Minister, Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, under the frustration, angrily told a BBC journalist she didn’t want to talk about the girls.

The Bring Back Our Girls campaign has faced constant strain by the government and military. The government has tried to mar them as ‘evil agents’ and forcefully clamp down on their sittings and protests. Public engagement has illuminated the government’s old handedness in dealing with public concerns.

Usually in Nigerian politics, evasion of difficult issues is easy to pull off. Politicians scarcely regard or effectively communicate with electorates until they need them. However Boko Haram’s extremism has significantly challenged this dynamic.

The frequency of the terror in Northern and Northeastern Nigeria has made the necessity of the government to communicate with the public more pressing. It has been harder for the government to duck the bewilderment demands of Nigerians wanting to know why the group have been allowed to advance for so long. And now the consequences of failing to adequately engage with these concerns have waned their hopes of retaining power.

The Nigerian Army, in coalition with neighbouring military forces, have re-captured several cities. Boko Haram, for now, are a force in retreat, but their shadow looms large and politics has changed because of it. Nigeria’s increasingly young and sceptical demographic do not have the political class it is looking for. But what it does have is one more responsive to it. There is real choice for the first time since the end of military rule, and politics, whatever the result on Saturday, is better for it. But the human cost has been far too high.

Breaking a decades-long trend, the world gets more violent

A line of riot police in Kiev, Ukraine, February 2014.
A line of riot police in Kiev, Ukraine, February 2014.

Peter Apps is Reuters global defence correspondent, currently on sabbatical as executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21). Follow him on Twitter at @pete_apps.

If you were watching the news last year, it was hard to escape the impression the world was falling apart. Now the data is in. And yes, it turns out the world’s most violent conflicts got a lot bloodier in 2014 — almost 30 percent bloodier, in fact.

According to an analysis of data from the world’s 20 most lethal wars last year, at least 163,000 people died in conflict. That compares to just under 127,000 in the 20 worst wars the previous year, a rise of 28.7 percent.

That’s a pretty disturbing spike by anyone’s terms. And if you look at the first few months of 2015, the violence doesn’t seem to be waning.

What’s even more worrying is that this seems to be part of an ongoing trend that now goes back eight years. According to the Australia-based Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), global violence — as defined by a range of measures from conflict deaths, to displaced persons, to homicide rates — has been rising since 2007.

This news is in many ways surprising because up to 2007, the data suggested the world was becoming a much safer place.

According to the IEP, global violence had been broadly subsiding since the end of World War Two. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker traces it back even further. Since the dawn of prehistory, Pinker’s research suggests, mankind has been becoming less violent.

So what is going wrong now? And how bad could it all get?

Conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, not surprisingly, top the list of highest casualties, with their confrontations with Islamic State and Taliban — as well as, of course, the ongoing fight in Syria between government and opposition supporters. Nigeria’s battle with Boko Haram has sent it rocketing up the list to number four. If Sudan and South Sudan had remained united, their combined death toll would push them to the number three spot, above Afghanistan.

Of course, all this data shows is that a handful of the world’s more violent war zones are getting worse. In the developed world, by contrast, death by violence continues to fall. Indeed, British crime statistics have continued to slump despite a recession and fewer police officers.

Even within the larger wars, an increasingly small group of people — particularly the members of elements like ISIS or Boko Haram — are doing a larger amount of killing. While 20th century wars saw much of the general (male) population mobilized and fighting, today more people seem content to sit on the sidelines.

A significant and growing percent of the population in many countries feels disenfranchised and sidelined by the way the world is developing. As the Arab Spring showed, sometimes that sentiment is reflected in largely peaceful, pro-democratic action, but sometimes it isn’t.

Eight years into the global financial crisis, the rise of nationalism many feared now seems to be showing itself. In Ukraine in particular, great powers are involved in proxy conflicts with massive repercussions for those living nearby.

Added to that, some experts warn, climate shifts are contributing to the rise in violence. In Sudan, for example, changes in grazing habits and territories are at the root of at least some of the recent violence.

Yet even with the recent spike, things aren’t as bad as they were in the 1990s, when conflicts in Africa, the Balkans and elsewhere were killing tens if not hundreds of thousands of people a year. Geographically, today’s violence is very patchy. The countries I’ve highlighted reflect a relatively small proportion of the world’s surface or population.

Hopefully, things will start to improve. Already, there are promising signs that the fight is turning against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Even as those regions begin to stabilize, however, other countries such as Libya appear to collapse further into chaos.

What the U.S. and its allies can or should do remains entirely unclear. It’s hard to escape the awkward detail that many of the countries with the highest death tolls are those where the U.S. has made the strongest effort to shape events.

But we have to find a way of turning it around, somehow. And we’ve come a long way, after all. We don’t want to go back to battering each other to death with rocks.

This article was originally published on on Friday, March 20, 2015. 

Project for the Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

Spike in Media Coverage of PS21 Study on Spike in Death Tolls

PS21’s study, published Wednesday, March 18, showed a more than 28% spike in deaths in the most violent conflicts in 2014, and has been making the rounds on various news outlets. Untitled It also ran on,, Newsweek, the LA Times website, the Christian Science Monitor and Al-Arabiya, as well as on Danish, Chinese, Croatian, Hungarian and Brazilian news providers. The Thompson Reuters Foundation ran a blog post in response to the research from PS21 Executive Director Peter Apps. Peter Apps also presented a video segment on the topic for Reuters TV.

Death Toll in 2014’s Bloodiest Wars Sharply Up on Previous Year

Rebels marching in northern CAR.
Rebels marching in northern CAR.

The body count from the top twenty deadliest wars in 2014 was more that 28% higher than in the previous year, research by the Project for the Study of the 21st Century (PS21) shows. Almost every major war in 2014 saw a significant increase in casualties.

According to analysis of a variety of data sets, 2014 saw at least fourteen conflicts that killed more than 1000 people, compared to only ten in 2013.

Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan remained the three deadliest wars, unchanged from the previous year but with all three seeing a significant spike in fatalities

Nigeria was the fourth deadliest, its number of deaths almost tripling on the previous year as the conflict with militant group, Boko Haram, intensified.

“Assessing casualty figures in conflict is notoriously difficult and many of the figures we are looking at here a probably underestimates,” said PS21 Executive Director, Peter Apps. “The important thing, however, is that when you compare like with like data for 2014 and 2013, you get a very significant increase. That says something very concerning.”

Many of the most violent conflicts involved radical Islamist groups – particularly Islamic State, the Taliban, Boko Haram and various Al Qaeda franchises.

Sudan and South Sudan remained amongst the world’s bloodiest wars. Indeed, if the two countries had remained unified, their combined death toll would have pushed them to the number three spot above Afghanistan.

Ukraine, at peace in 2013, became the eighth bloodiest war, its death toll exceeding Somalia, Libya and Israel/the Palestinian territories.

The spike in violence appears part of a broader multi-year trend. Research published last year by the Australia and US-based Institute for Economics and Peace showed a steady decline in world peace and rise in conflict related violence every year since 2007, bucking a multi-decade improvement since the end of World War II.

View the full report here. A discussion with Steve Killelea on rising global conflict trends is at the bottom of this post.

Top 20 Deadliest Countries in 2014

Compared to Top 20 Deadliest Countries in 2013

Rank 2014 Death Toll 2013 Death Toll
1 Syria                 76,021 Syria                 73,447
2 Iraq                 21,073 Afghanistan                 10,172
3 Afghanistan                 14,638 Iraq                   9,742
4 Nigeria                 11,529 Sudan                   6,816
5 South Sudan                   6,389 Pakistan                   5,739
6 Pakistan                   5,496 Nigeria                   4,727
7 Sudan                   5,335 South Sudan                   4,168
8 Ukraine                   4,707 Somalia                   3,153
9 Somalia                   4,447 CAR                   2,364
10 CAR                   3,347 DR Congo                   1,976
11 Libya                   2,825 India                      885
12 Israel/Palestine                   2,365 Mali                      870
13 Yemen                   1,500 Libya                      643
14 DR Congo                   1,235 Yemen                      600
15 India                      976 North Caucuses                      529
16 Philippines                      386 Thailand                      455
17 Mali                      380 Algeria                      340
18 North Caucuses                      341 Philippines                      322
19 Thailand                      330 Colombia                      124
20 Algeria                      242 Myanmar                        62
Total                 163,562                 127,134
% Change                       28.7    

Steve Killelea, Founder and Chief Executive of the Institute for Economics and Peace discusses rising death tolls in global conflict with PS21 Executive Director, Peter Apps:

PS21 Executive Director Peter Apps discusses the report for Reuters TV.

PS21 Global Fellow battles Ebola in Sierra Leone

A Freetown street
A Freetown street

Felicity Fitzgerald, a British paediatrician working with the charity Save the Children, has recently returned to Sierra Leone for the fight against the Ebola virus outbreak.

In this piece for Britain’s Daily Telegraph, she finds herself splitting her time between research and patient care.
I’m going to be splitting my time between paediatric clinical work and some desperately needed research. At the peak of the epidemic, all I could think about was changing sheets, cleaning floors, moving patients in and out of the isolation unit and trying to give pain relief and dioralytes to our patients. Data gathering came a long way down the priority list.

This is an upsetting reality of outbreak work. When facilities are filled to the brim with needy patients, making detailed notes about what is actually happening to those patients is a rare luxury.

However if we don’t gather data we will remain in the same evidence vacuum that confronted us with this epidemic…

Epidemiologists and clinicians alike are slightly slack-jawed at the drop-off.

The most logical explanation is that sufficient community mobilization (no touching, safe burials, take sick people to hospital and DON’T look after them at home) occurred at a point when we finally achieved sufficient bed and laboratory capacity. That meant we could rapidly move patients out of the community and into Ebola Treatment Centres.

But it didn’t really feel like that. It felt like one week we were full every day with queues of people needing to be admitted, and the next we had empty beds.

You can donate to support Save the Children’s work in Sierra Leone here.