To Beat Boko Haram: Plan for a Long War

Northeastern Nigeria 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 lingua franca in northern Nigeria. The name by which the group is widely known reflects their stridently anti-western ideology.

Though said to have been founded in 2002 by a man called Mohammed Yusuf, the group shot to national prominence in July 2009 when its attempted uprising was crushed in of days in an army crackdown which left hundreds dead - both militants and civilians. Many of these were killed extra-judicially, including Mohammed Yusuf. After a year-long lull to recuperate and regain strength, the group staged a comeback under the deputy - Abubakar Shekau  who had survived the violent crackdown. 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

CFR Nigeria Security Tracker estimating that 3796 Nigerians have been killed by Boko Haram between May 2011 and February 2014

Though the army seems to have contained BH’s activities to the northeast –  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 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, and the Civilian Joint Task Force (an amalgam of local vigilante groups), imposes a fragile peace in the capital cities. Whilst BH holds sway in the peripheries and the northeastern border with Cameroon. 

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' of unstable stalemate in Nigeria's northeast. 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 state capitals, whilst BH dominates the peripheries and small towns cannot be allowed to concretise. Because, like a gaping wound left to fester, the northeastern frontiers will simply become a staging post for BH to grow to the point where it can more effectively challenge the territorial sovereignty of the Nigerian state.

What then can be done to mitigate, and eventually quell, this insurgency? I suggest that the government needs to abandon the perception that this will be a short war. Assuming a long or short war will shape not only how we perceive the BH problem, but more importantly, how we develop plans to confront it.  

Plan for a long war

Nigeria's new Chief of Defence Staff, Air Marshal Alex Badeh
Appointed on 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 suffers from profound institutional weaknesses. And this frail condition manifests itself in a chronic under-supply of 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.

CFR Nigeria Security Tracker estimating that 15, 075 have died violently from a combination of terrorism, sectarian clashes and state brutality.

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. Generating solutions based on the right assumptions is necessary and essential if we are to prevail against BH. Therefore, thinking of, and 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. 

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