Author’s Note: The following is the first instalment of a four-part series exploring practical suggestions of what can be done to mitigate, and eventually quell, the Boko Haram insurgency. This first article argues that any strategy for subduing Boko Haram must rest on the assumption of a long war.
Maps of Nigeria: The three northeastern states currently under a state of emergency are highlighted on the map on the left. These three states are also the locus of the Boko Haram insurgency.
Nigeria’s northeastern region is currently in the grip of a bloody insurgency by a group called Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad), but more widely known as Boko Haram (BH). ‘Western education is forbidden’ in Hausa; the main language in the northern half of the country. The name by which the group has become known reflects their anti-western and anti-modernist ideology.
Though said to have been formed in 2002 by a man called Mohammed Yusuf, the group shot to national prominence in July 2009 when its attempted uprising was crushed in a matter of days in an army crackdown which left hundreds dead – both militants and civilians, many of which were killed extra-judicially, including the first leader of the group. After a year-long lull to recuperate and regain strength, the group staged a comeback under Abubakar Shekau – the deputy while Yusuf was alive. And by the end of 2010, what started as a challenging law enforcement problem had mushroomed into a full blown insurgency.
BH Leader: Abubakar Shekau
According to the Council on Foreign relation’s (CFR) “Nigeria Security Tracker”, about 3800 Nigerians have been killed by BH between May 2011 and February this year. And according to Human Rights Watch, approximately 700 Nigerians have perished in terrorist attacks in the first two months of this year alone. The same NGO, this time citing UN figures, reports that the insurgency has scattered about 60,000 civilians into neighbouring countries (Cameroon, Chad, Niger) as refugees, and left close to half-a-million internally displaced persons.
Nigerian refugees in Cameroon
Though the army seems to have contained BH’s activities to the Northeast – the ethno-cultural heartland of the group and the epicenter of the violent insurgency – it has thus far failed to demonstrate that it can decisively win this war. Friday’s (14 March) brazen, but failed, daylight assault on Giwa barracks in Borno state is yet another reminder that BH’s insurgency continues to rage untamed. And there are real dangers that the conflict could lapse into an unstable stalemate. By this I mean a situation whereby the army, in alliance with the Civilian Joint Task Force (an amalgam of local vigilante groups), imposes a fragile peace in the capital cities; occasionally mounting punitive raids to dismantle terrorist camps close to the nation’s frontiers. And BH holding sway in the peripheries and northeastern borderlands; intermittently puncturing the security bubble of the regional capitals to sow fear, or for narrow tactical objectives (i.e. bank robberies for funds, attacking military installations to free captive colleagues or to replenish weapons etc.).
Alex Preston’s vivid account of the time he spent in Maiduguri, the Borno state capital, earlier this year reporting for GQ magazine gives us a glimpse into this emerging ‘new’ normal. In his article titled “Boko Haram: Sons of Anarchy”, he narrates his encounter with local businessmen:
[Maiduguri], they say, [is] an isolated oasis, temporarily protected from the surrounding violence by the soldiers colonising the city, by the vigilance of the Civilian JTF. They tell me that vast areas of Borno remain under the control of the terrorists: villages in the Gwoza hills have been turned into Boko Haram training camps, the insurgents have disappeared into the Mandara Mountains, the Sambisa Forest on the border with Cameroon. They are still carrying out atrocities that go unreported in the press.
Two attacks, just a day apart, late last month provide even more graphic illustrations of this absence of state power in peripheral communities. The first was the brutal assault on the Federal Government College at Buni Yadi. Buni Yadi lies 65km from Damaturu, the Yobe state capital. For “over five hours” BH unleashed carnage: killing 59 male students, burning down college buildings; and after having finished their destructive mission, promptly abducted 16 female students. And according to eyewitness accounts, they invaded the college in a large convoy of as many as nine pickup trucks, thus demonstrating their freedom to roam in the peripheries. The second was a series of coordinated assaults, again on peripheral settlements, but this time in Adamawa state, which ended with close to 40 civilians dead. Again, according to the eyewitness reports, BH fighters stormed the settlements heavily armed, in a convoy of “four-wheeled trucks and motorcycles”, killing and burning unchallenged by the security services “for more than four hours” before retreating.
This emerging stalemate whereby the army and the civilian JTF control the regional capitals while BH dominates the peripheries cannot be allowed to concretise. Because, like a gaping wound left to fester, the northeastern frontiers will become an entry point (if it isn’t already?) for other groups more capable of challenging the sovereignty of the Nigerian state.
What then can be done to mitigate, and eventually quell, this insurgency? I will explore a couple of practical suggestions across four articles. My first suggestion is that the government needs to abandon the perception that this will be a short war. As will become evident in subsequent articles, assuming a long or short war will shape not only how we perceive the BH problem, but more importantly, how we confront it.
Plan for a long war
Air Marshal Alex Badeh is Nigeria’s new Chief of Defence Staff, appointed January 16, 2014
When listening to statements by senior state officials, one often gets the distinct impression that the assumption which frames government’s thinking on this insurgency is that a short, sharp, and forceful application of military might will break the back of the insurgents. The consistent message seems to be: We are on the cusp of victory, a few more hard blows and BH will be subdued – as early as this April, if the new Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) is to be believed.
This assumption that victory is just around the corner is wrong. The failure of the multiple States of Emergency – first declared in December 2011, declared again in May 2013, and subsequently extended in November 2013 for another six months – to restore normalcy to the northeast underscores this fact.
Counterinsurgency wars tend to be intelligence led, long, and wearing, struggles. America’s decade long foray into Afghanistan and Iraq attest to this fact. Nigeria’s war needn’t last a decade – not least because BH currently lacks the material capabilities, technical skill and significant local support that the insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan enjoyed – but it certainly will not be as easily quelled as many Nigerians envisage. And this is especially so given the weakness of the Nigerian state.
Like many post-colonial states, Nigeria has never really managed to emerge from weakness. And the intrinsic pathologies of this frail condition manifests itself in weak state institutions (including the security services and the military), and poor performance in supplying essential ‘public goods’ (the most critical of which is human/public security). In fact, as I write (early morning of March 17), news came through that 149 individuals had been killed in inter-communal violence across two states on Sunday (March 16).
To underscore this fragile human security environment, CFR’s Nigeria Security Tracker estimates that in the just over two-and-a-half years between May 2011 and February 2014, about 15,000 civilians died violently from a combination of sectarian/inter-communal clashes, state brutality, and of course terrorist attacks. This averages out at about 500 deaths per month. This gruesome body-count serves as a tragic reminder that the country’s weak institutions often means that law enforcement problems quickly spawn into complex security challenges, thereby crowding the stage with BH in terms of strategic attention and resources.
Given this profound weakness, it is quite frankly an act of fantasy for the Nigerian government to explicitly or implicitly assume that this counterinsurgency war will soon draw to a close. Conceptualizing solutions based on the right assumptions is necessary and essential if we are to prevail against BH. Planning for a long war will ensure that policy elites devote the necessary attention and resources to this existential problem. It will also create the right policy environment for a more realistic assessment of the scale of the security challenges confronting us as a nation. This assumption of a long war also underpins the other suggestions I will explore in subsequent articles.