The Nigerian military has struggled to have any effect in the face of Boko Haram’s intensifying attacks. But with the right combination of military and non-military, short- and long-term strategies, the Islamist militants can be stopped, as Max Siollun explains.
The casualties and suffering that have been caused by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram over the past five years are mind-boggling. According to estimates, 12,000 people have been killed, 8,000 thousand more have been injured or maimed, and thousands of innocent people have been displaced by the conflict. Even more worryingly, around half of those deaths have come in just the past year.
Nigeria is being haunted by the ghost of past mistakes, and a gigantic coop of chickens has come home to roost, though it is not as if the country was not pre-warned. In the early 1980s, northern Nigeria was rocked by a violent uprising by an Islamic sect led by a Cameroonian preacher known as “Maitatsine”. 4,000 people were killed and the commission that investigated the violence reported: “Because of the very wide gap between the rich and the poor in our society…[Maitatsine’s sect] were more than prepared to rise against the society at the slightest opportunity.” The commission advised: “This regrettable social situation in our society ought to be remedied immediately else it will continue to provide the required recruitment potential for disenchanted men…to rebel.”
The government did not heed these lessons. It did little to address economic inequality or religious extremism, leaving in place the conditions under which Boko Haram could emerge. The insurgency has flourished over the past five years and the attempts to combat it have largely fallen flat. With the right combination of long-term planning and execution, however, the Islamist militant group can be defeated.
Tackling Boko Haram?
The methods deployed so far against Boko Haram have had the same effect as pouring petrol on an open fire. The Nigerian army has been accused of mishandling the insurgency, and any or all of: the indiscriminate use of force, torturing innocent civilians, and being reluctant to confront Boko Haram fighters.
The army might argue that there are mitigating factors which hamper it. It is trained for conventional warfare and peacekeeping operations. Elaborate hostage rescues and fighting AK-47 wielding Islamist biker gangs in the middle of city centres are not its forte. Since Nigeria has never experienced an insurgency of this type or magnitude before, the army is in the odd situation of being tested on the battlefield first, and learning the lessons afterwards. It has had to adapt to a new type of war and learn on the job.
The terrain does not favour the army either. The combined size of the three states in north-eastern Nigeria worst affected by Boko Haram – Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa States – is roughly equal to that of Tunisia, or five times that of Switzerland. Trying to hunt down militants dressed in civilian attire, blended in with millions of civilians in villages, towns, cities, markets, and forests in an area that size with only a few helicopters and aeroplanes is no easy feat.
The army also faces operational challenges. Some soldiers have complained of being under-equipped and finding themselves outgunned by heavily armed Boko Haram militants. More accurately, the issue may be that the army is incorrectly equipped for this type of conflict. Earlier this year, Nigeria’s former Chief of Defence Staff, General Martin Luther Agwai astutely observed that: “Our military is properly equipped to fight yesterday’s war”.
The federal government has been looking for a silver bullet solution to crush the insurgency with a single blow. However, they have belatedly learned the same painful lesson that the British learned with the IRA in Northern Ireland and that America has been learning with al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and beyond. As the former Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Nasir El-Rufai, once commented rhetorically: “Tell me where in the world military action alone has solved an insurgency.” And as Agwai conceded, “You can never solve any of these problems with military solutions…It is a political issue; it is a social issue; it is an economic issue; and until these issues are addressed, the military can never give you a solution.”
But if military force cannot stop the insurgency, what else can be done? The often-repeated mantra is that economic development is the antidote to violent extremism. However, who will invest in a region wracked by violence and insecurity and in which militants destroy any signs of development, such as schools and mobile telephone masts?
The government’s strategy so far has appeared to be schizophrenic at times, vacillating between vowing to “crush” Boko Haram, pleading with them to negotiate, and offering them an amnesty. The government’s approach has been of saying the right things but at the wrong time, or of doing the right things but in the wrong way.
Military force and negotiations are part of the solution, not all of it. And an amnesty should be the end of the conflict resolution process, not the start of it. In April 2013, the government made itself look weak and desperate by offering an amnesty to Boko Haram without getting anything in return, while it also demonstrated the government’s myopia about the group, which does not recognise the secular Nigerian government. The offer was contemptuously rebuffed. Boko Haram does not even respect the authority of venerated Islamic figures in northern Nigeria, such as the emirs. Boko Haram has either killed, or tried to kill, emirs and imams who criticised their violence. This is the equivalent of Christian rebels killing priests.
It is not all a tale of mishaps though. The government is learning, albeit belatedly, and has made some tentative steps in the right direction. The National Security Adviser Colonel Sambo Dasuki (retired) appointed Fatima Akilu, a psychologist, to work as the Director of Behavioural Analysis and Strategic Communication in his office. Akilu has designed a programme called “Countering Violent Extremism” which maps out a blueprint for de-radicalising and rehabilitating militants, preventing others from being radicalised, and a communication strategy to counter Boko Haram’s narrative. The syllabus for military cadets at the Nigerian Defence Academy has also been modified to give cadets training in counter-terrorism.
Meanwhile, a volunteer civilian security group known as the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) may have provided a template for community-based security that can be applied elsewhere, if refined. The CJTF is a cross between a neighbourhood watch scheme and ruthless vigilantes. Due to Nigeria’s massive ethno-linguistic diversity, and the federal nature of its security forces, police officers and soldiers are often deployed in areas they have never been to before and where they are complete strangers, with no understanding of the local culture or language. This makes it very difficult for them to gain the cooperation or trust of locals. This is where the CJTF can be of assistance. Although it is armed only with rudimentary weapons such as sticks, knives, and old rifles, the CJTF’s local knowledge, and in some cases individual knowledge of Boko Haram members, has helped them “out” Boko Haram members to the army.
The CJTF’s cooperation with regular security forces has also helped deter attacks in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State and biggest city in north-eastern Nigeria, and push the militants out into more rural areas. In fact, ironically, the CJTF’s success in Maiduguri may have indirectly led to Boko Haram’s kidnap of hundreds of schoolgirls in the town of Chibok and elsewhere; with the CJTF present in Maiduguri, Boko Haram moved out of the city into more vulnerable areas with plenty of “soft targets” such as schools.
Other political forums have also been advocating good governance, economic development, and education as solutions. These are all noble suggestions, though it must be noted that they will take years or even generations to have effect. There is no bottle of anti-terror pills that the government can get from a chemist and force-feed to Boko Haram’s fighters. Rather, it must drip-feed a cocktail of anti-terror solutions into Boko Haram’s ecosystem.
Iron fist in a velvet glove
The military alone cannot end the insurgency, but it does have a crucial role to play. Military force is the means that can be used to buy enough “quiet time” for the government to come up with permanent solutions. The military must use enough force to either reduce the frequency and intensity of Boko Haram’s attacks, or pressurise it into considering a ceasefire.
To do this, the intelligence agencies will have to start by massively upgrading their poor intelligence on Boko Haram. The evidence suggests that Boko Haram has been more successful at infiltrating the military than the other way around.
Although Boko Haram acts like a ceasefire is a non-starter, it is possible if the government learns to speak the group’s language. The concept of a Hudna (an Arabic phrase that can mean “calm” or “cessation”) is a part of Islamic jurisprudence recognised by other Islamic insurgents, such as Palestine’s Hamas.
A Hudna can be a long-term cessation of hostilities, lasting several years, which can also be renewed. Given that the federal government will never accept Boko Haram’s goal of an Islamic theocracy within Nigeria’s borders and that Boko refuses to subordinate itself to Nigeria’s secular institutions, a long-term Hudna may be a way of allowing both sides to get what they want without losing face.
The government could propose a Hudna as a temporary ceasefire or peace treaty, while Boko Haram can claim it did not abandon its jihad but sheathed its swords in a manner consistent with its cosmology.
Right now though, Boko Haram has little reason to consider a ceasefire. It has a large mobile army, a massive stockpile of weapons and ammunition, and controls several thousand square kilometres of territory in north-eastern Nigeria. The government must therefore create its own bargaining chips to elevate its position at the table. Leverage could come from taking Boko Haram members alive as prisoners rather than summarily executing them.
Prisoners would have strategic value as assets that could be used to negotiate the release of the hundreds of kidnapped children. Drying up the reservoir of potential Boko Haram recruits would also amplify the importance of Boko Haram prisoners, by making their members harder to replace.
The former British Chief of Defence Staff, General Sir David Richards, believes that “economic liberation” of the population is critical in defeating doctrinal insurgencies. The type of economic development that will disincentivise young men from joining Boko Haram though is not the typical Nigerian type of grandiose white elephant projects that the average man and woman care little about. Instead, drip-fed investments on tangible projects such as roads, water, jobs, and electricity are more likely to undermine the insurgents’ violent alternatives.
This war, however, must be fought not only on the battlefield, but also by using the media and educational establishments. The media, Koranic schools and religious authorities have a key role to play by challenging Boko Haram’s interpretation of Islam, and by providing alternate non-violent narratives. Nigeria must also develop a counter-insurgency doctrine and apply it uniformly across the military, intelligence agencies, and teaching establishments.
Ending this insurgency will also require a regional solution. Nigeria cannot do this alone. Nigeria is located in a “bad neighbourhood” in which many of its counterparts, such as Chad, Cameroon, Niger, and Mali are experiencing insecurity too. Nigeria cannot expect to avoid catching a cold if its neighbours sneeze, and vice versa.
The morning after
With the right strategies, Nigeria can undermine Boko Haram, militarily, economically and psychologically. But the government must also start preparing for “the morning after” today. At some point, this insurgency will end and the government will face difficult questions.
How will it re-house and compensate the displaced people? What will it do about the thousands of students whose education has been disrupted by school closures and/or being kidnapped? How will the victims who have been raped, injured, or rendered orphans or widows by Boko Haram react when they see economic opportunities being given to people who killed their family members?
One day, the same security forces that fought Boko Haram may have to protect ex-militants from score-settling attacks by their victims.
The short-term forecast for Nigeria is of more bloodshed and violence between security forces and Boko Haram. The long-term forecast is that the insurgency can be terminated, but only by thorough long-term planning, a robust military strategy resolute enough to pressurise the group, but flexible enough to rehabilitate repentant militants, and creating space for economic development. The solution to Nigeria’s problem may well be bitter tasting and slow-acting. But this anti-terror medicine is one it will have to brace itself for and take.