Tackling Boko Haram

Even though Nigeria is an extremely resilient nation, having survived successive military coups, a civil war, religious extremism and ethnic crisis, its fight to eradicate the ongoing insurgency led by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram is creating an unprecedented challenge for the country.

Established in 2002, Boko Haram, considered an ultra conservative militant Islamist outfit, is fighting to overthrow the Nigerian government and create an Islamic State, in a bid to dis-associate the state from any form of Western influence that it deems forbidden.

Largely, the trend of the group’s attacks have signaled at an intolerable attitude towards its critics and perpetuating tension between the Muslims and Christians. The counter-fight from Nigeria’s security forces ever since has added to the fair share of violence in the region, the human and economic cost of which has aggravated beyond control. Scores have been killed and thousands have fled the affected areas.

Spreading agenda

Headquartered in the Maiduguri district of the Northern Nigerian state of Borno, the group spent its early years consolidating its base and agenda by spreading its disdain for Western education and corruption by the non-believing political class. But, since 2009, it has begun carrying out deadly and violent attacks, prompting the Nigerian President, Mr Goodluck Jonathon to declare a state of emergency in the three most affected Northern States of Yobe, Borno and Adamawa and launching a military offensive against the insurgents.

More recently, disturbing reports have emerged that the group has forged alliances with the Al-Qaeda through the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb unit as well as Al-Shabab of Somalia. In addition, Boko Haram’s audacious activities have encouraged other smalltime splinter groups to emerge in the region.

Since 2011, Boko Haram has deployed deadly actions on a weekly basis and attacked state institutions and churches, which it believes embodies the forbidden Western culture. More recently, the group has even conducted brutal attacks on government schools and colleges, killing hundreds of students and children. In March 2012, around 12 schools in Maiduguri were burned down, forcing at least 10,000 pupils out of education. Earlier this year, the group indulged in a mass murder of college students of a government medical college, killing about 150 students in their dormitories at night.

Boko Haram’s armed movement is conducting an insurrection in Northern Nigeria, which is mainly inhabited by Muslims. The ever-increasing divide between the extremely poor north and the well-off southern Nigeria has become more exaggerated than ever. The imposition of Islamic law in several northern states has embedded divisions and caused thousands of Christians to flee while scores (mostly Muslims) have been murdered.

However, little has changed on ground even though the security forces have been fully deployed to combat the rising menace of Boko Haram.

In part, the problem has escalated primarily because Nigeria, like a typical African nation, lacks the required structure needed by the administration to tackle this increasing threat. Also, despite being termed as the ‘Giant of Africa’, both in terms of its economy and population, the political leadership has not, until now, taken an initiative to address the socio-economic concerns of its people. To add to this, corruption in higher offices has perpetuated a situation of lawlessness and a feeling of rejection as the government in Abuja has failed to take care of its northern citizens.

All these factors have added to create conducive environment for a group like Boko Haram to thrive, grow and influence the region into its nuanced goal.

Thus, in the absence of a structure and a comprehensive administrative control, Northern Nigeria has slowly been slipping towards this crisis.

Lack of experience

Partly, the problem has escalated to this extent as, until now, the Nigerian government, an otherwise passionate nation against the cause of extremism in other parts of Africa, remained rather in denial about the ongoing insurgency within its own borders. Thus, it never addressed the problem to the extent that it should have.

But it must be understood that the existing circumstances in such conflicts, particularly in Africa, cannot be handled like insurgencies and conflicts in almost any other part of the world. This is because, African countries, have never been equipped to deal with such emerging threats. Mechanisms like law enforcement, border management, immigration, etc, which help governments and security forces to cope with emerging threats like these, are not fully implemented in most of the African countries.

Thus, even a country like Nigeria, with its vast wealth from its booming oil industry, has until now, not been able to be effective on ground primarily due to this reason.

However, some hopes galore, as following a spate of deadly attacks, Abuja has finally been shaken from its disillusion and been forced to address the problem.

Last month, in a rare public announcement, Nigeria’s National Security Advisor presented the country’s latest approach to tackle the Boko Haram insurgency which has rattled the country’s North and North-eastern regions. Nigeria’s latest plan won plaudits from the international community, which has realized that the threat from Boko Haram’s violence is increasingly affecting regional security and interests of countries like USA, UK and France.

Even though the path to successfully eradicate the Boko Haram insurgency will be a gravely difficult one, the first step by the government has already been taken: to acknowledge the insurgency as a national security concern.

Secondly, the new approach to tackle the insurgency has rightly been corrected and formulated as a broader approach to tackle Boko Haram, recognizing that the military alone cannot end the bloodshed, simplly because the problem is not only Boko Haram. Nigeria’s NSA admitted that a more comprehensive approach was needed to tackle the crisis that has stemmed out of a feeling of dejection, alienation, poverty and ethnic division.

Considered a major shift from its past mistakes, the government now plans to implement ‘soft power’ alongside sustained military action. As part of its ‘soft diplomacy’, the National Security Advisor unveiled new measures such as ‘de-radicalization’ programs for suspected and convicted Boko Haram fighters and closer cooperation with communities affected by the deadly violence.

Government plans

In addition, the new approach would also address the social and economic deprivation in the North, which has been understood as a direct cause of recruiting young men into radical ideologies worldwide. The government plans to achieve this task through an ‘economic revitalization program’ in the six northern states mostly hit by violence.

The fact that the NSA’s speech was self-critical and introspective means that the Nigerian government has gone an extra mile to really understand the issues involving the situation. The most important realization was that the military could no longer function within the past framework if it wants to eradicate the threat from Boko Haram.

Indeed, it was a hopeful signal that Nigeria’s new National Counter-Terrorism Strategy, which took eighteen months to be completed, was planned after consulting other countries who have had an experience of conducting a ‘war on terror’.

Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram could achieve much more success if the government puts in place structures that are able to effectively manage and govern so as to create an established mechanism which can provide accountability and effective management.

Monitoring the group’s activities through well equipped intelligence gathering systems, law enforcement border management control, administrative control, checking of refugees and immigration and socio-economic peacekeeping are examples of some more measures the government can undertake to handle the problem in a holistic manner.

Also, it must be realized that deploying security forces for war-like combat in a civilian environment cannot be expected to yield peaceful results, as the victims in the cross-fire undoubtedly turn out to be the civilians. The government must instead, focus on creating a counter-terrorism force, which is equipped and trained to handle such a crisis, within a civilian setup.

In the previous approach, the security forces, particularly the Nigerian military, have been responsible of human rights violations, which have served to alienate local communities. A part of the problem is that the military has deployed its standard combative procedure which is not favorable for fighting in a civilian environment. Lack of training has limited their ability to fight in such a setup. This has also created a desirable environment for Boko Haram to recruit more and more people, particularly, the youth.

Also, Nigeria must employ a regional approach to tackle the extremist activities of Boko Haram. Although it still struggled to mobilize its neighbors-Chad and Cameroon, places Boko Haram is known to have bases in, these countries have done little to help Nigeria stop these terrorists from using their borders, which has significantly undermined Nigeria’s efforts. Boko Haram has taken advantage of their lack of coordination and cooperation.

In addition, as thousands of refugees flee Nigeria whilst arms and fighters reportedly flow across international borders which are porous and lack administrative control, the conflict is no longer an internal matter alone. Therefore, the regional countries must realize that in the long term, the spread of Boko Haram activities can have adverse consequences for the entire region, which is why it is essential for them to act now in a responsible and coordinated manner.

The government needs to tackle the root cause of the problem rather than only fire-fight what Boko Haram throws at it. Without a sustained, comprehensive and structured approach to the problem, the government will be unable to end the violence. Just fighting the group doesn’t solve the purpose; there is a requirement to really target what Boko Haram is fighting for.

Lastly, a vital factor in tackling the insurgency is to streamline the civilian leadership in Nigeria. Currently, political leaders have been reported as actually personally benefiting from the insurgency which has only increased Boko Haram’s fortunes. Corruption in higher offices has translated into a dismal state of affairs on ground, which is forcing the youth to get distracted and disillusioned by the extremist group.