What can Africa do?
So what can Africa do to arrest the situation – now that both Boko Haram and al-Shabaab appear to be going for broke and expanding their paths of death into neighbouring countries? According to one French government official, speaking in mid-May at the height of the crisis created by Boko Haram’s abduction of over 200 Nigerian schoolgirls, “Boko Haram represents a risk for all countries in the region and all heads of state should be aware of that.”
What the French official was pushing for was a combined effort by West African countries to deal with the Boko Haram threat, which is a sound suggestion. Because, if, say, all the countries in the vicinity – Cameroon, Chad and Niger – joined efforts with Nigeria and denied rear bases for Boko Haram, in addition to intelligence-sharing, it would be much easier to attack and defeat it than if Nigeria acted alone.
But this assumes that Boko Haram is like a conventional army that can be chased around and annihilated. But it is not. Its members only have to shave their beards, if they have any, and put on new shirts and melt into society, and that will be the end of any combined effort to attack them.
On the other hand, and this is the downside of what the French official was advocating for, if a combined multinational effort does not defeat Boko Haram early enough, then as has been the case with al-Shabaab in Somalia, it will take retribution on the collaborating countries, and in the end what was originally a localised terrorism problem in Nigeria will become a multi-country issue. This has been the case of Kenya and Uganda, a situation that has brought untold hardships and death to their citizens at the hands of al-Shabaab.
In these circumstances, a better policy would be leaving Nigeria alone to deal with Boko Haram in the open, while neighbouring countries provide quiet support and intelligence-sharing. There are precedents of this around the world to draw from. For many years, Britain dealt alone with Irish Republican Army (IRA) terrorism, while its neighbours provided quiet support and intelligence-sharing. Germany did the same with the Red Brigade or Baader Meinhof Gang. Africa can do the same.
A good policy would be leaving Nigeria alone to deal with Boko Haram in the open, while neighbouring countries provide quiet support and intelligence-sharing.
In his paper presented last year, Lt-Colonel Umar offered useful advice on what Nigeria could, and should, do to defeat Boko Haram. African leaders would do well to listen to him. His preferred solution includes the following:
* Capture/neutralisation of Boko Haram’s core leaders: This, Lt-Col Umar thinks, will not only prevent the terrorist group from organising, recruiting and launching attacks, it will also deny it support. “Joint operations and supportive operations should be solicited from neighbouring countries to accomplish this task,” he says.
* Improve ideological operations: According to Umar, ideology remains the core strength of Boko Haram adherents. As many of the group’s ideologies are linked to classical Islamic doctrine, they appeal to the wider Muslim population. “To counter these ideologies, the government must establish counter-ideological committees to pick on the vulnerability of interpretations by the sect’s leadership so as to demonise them in [their] communities.”
* Addressing legitimate grievances: “A commitment to resolve the Boko Haram crisis,” Umar says, “would require addressing some of the grievances of the sect. The government must also address many legitimate claims of damages suffered by innocent individuals caught in the cross-fire during the crackdowns on sect members.” Because of these unresolved grievances, a meaningful segment of the population is amenable and sympathetic to Boko Haram.
Umar also advocates the prosecution of members of the security agencies who grossly violated human rights of individuals in the crackdowns against Boko Haram, in addition to the government stopping human rights abuses and all forms of law enforcement violation by the police and security agencies, including arbitrary arrest and detention.
* Create greater employment opportunities: “The lack of employment in Nigeria,” Umar says, “remains a monumental challenge. The northeast region where Boko Haram remains active is considered the worst affected. This is partly due to the failure of the government and is exacerbated by the ongoing conflict.” Thus, the creation of jobs there will put more youths into employment and deny Boko Haram a vital recruiting base.
* Political reforms: Umar attests that the political landscape in Nigeria creates disenchantment for the majority of the people, and the disenchantment has created a growing army of well-known and dangerous militias that have been tools for politicians. “The reluctance of the government to check these growing armies over time creates a ready pool for the Boko Haram extremists in the North…” To stop militias emerging to fight political interests, the politics of the country must be reformed to create a level playing field.
* Dialogue and national reconciliation: A long period of instability has deepened the existing religious and ethnic fault-lines in Nigeria, Umar says. The emergence of Boko Haram has worsened it, and as there is an observed religious patronage by political elites, it makes them indecisive in making prompt decisions. Only a national dialogue and reconciliation effort can resolve these issues, he says.
* Amnesty for Boko Haram: “Granting of amnesty for those who unconditionally renounce terrorism will be necessary,” Umar adds. But this offer should only be made to Boko Haram members who have not been directly involved in the violation of human rights, so that the government will not be seen as rewarding the guilty. “Amnesty is a programme that weakens insurgent groups by encouraging surrender and defection,” Umar says.
What others did
All said and done, an amnesty, political reforms, dialogue, national reconciliation, and addressing legitimate grievances have been some of the solutions others elsewhere have used to resolve their terrorism problems.
Britain used these forms of problem-solving to good effect in finding a solution to the IRA problem. Even though Mrs Thatcher pretended to be tough in public with the IRA, insisting that
she would not “negotiate with terrorists”, in secret her government was negotiating with the “terrorists”, using intermediaries. Africa must
learn a lesson from the British, and others’ experiences around the world, if the continent is to defeat the terrorists threatening the lives of its citizens.