Will This New Strategy Work Against Africa’s Worst Terror Group?
Nigeria switches to ‘soft’ approach in fight against Boko Haram
Nobody knows exactly how many people have perished in Boko Haram’s insurgency in northeastern Nigeria. The Council of Foreign Relations estimates that more than 8,500 individuals have died since May 2011—killed by the terror group itself or in government crack-downs.
The government had stepped up its campaign against Boko Haram in the past couple years, but that hasn’t reduced the death rate.
The government seems to realize that a purely military approach isn’t working. In mid-March, Nigerian National Security Adviser Sambo Dasuki announced a new strategy that he called the “soft approach,” meant to address the root causes of the insurgency.
While the new strategy sounds promising, it leaves unaddressed the question of army and government reform—and relies on wide government support for its implementation, something that’s far from guaranteed.
Road to terror
Boko Haram is an Islamist organization, fighting for the establishment of an Islamic state in Nigeria and “if possible, all over the world,” according to its late spiritual leader Mohammed Yusuf.
But economic marginalization, government corruption and injustice also motivate the group. Young scholars in the remote city of Maiduguri founded the group in 2003 as an alternative community based on Islamic principles. Boko Haram opposes the dominant Western-style education system and the highly corrupt political system.
In some ways, Boko Haram’s original vision was not so different from those of European and U.S. communes of the 1960s and ’70s. But the early Boko Haram movement got caught up in conflict with some of the local population and with state security, resulting in the violence that shaped the group’s further development.
Tensions reached the breaking point in June 2009, when security forces shot at a Boko Haram funeral procession and injured 17 people. Violence escalated over the next month. Finally, on July 26 and 27, Boko Haram launched a wave of coordinated assaults against government institutions in Maiduguri, bringing large parts of the city under its control.
The government responded with an iron fist, airlifting tanks and soldiers into the region and killing dozens of the organization’s fighters. Authorities arrested and shot Mohammed Yusuf. Human Rights Watch, which has published a detailed report on the cycle of violence, estimates that the July uprising alone killed more than 900 people on all sides of the conflict.
Rock and a hard place
Five years later, the conflict has escalated to a full-on civil war. According to Michael Olufemi Sodipo, local correspondent of Peace Direct in northern Nigeria, Boko Haram’s original motives still matter. “Corruption, economic marginalization, development in the north—these are the issues on the ground,” Sodipo tells War is Boring.
“Average northerners have sympathy for Boko Haram,” he adds—this despite the group’s reputation for brutally killing students, targeting security officials and their families and slaughtering dozens of people at impromptu roadblocks.
For many northerners, Boko Haram is the lesser evil compared to the government, Sodipo explains. Nigeria is one of the most corrupt countries on the continent and its government representatives are notoriously abusive. In the north, even fewer people profit from the country’s vast oil wealth than in the coastal region.
The government’s response has worsened the problem, according to David Zounmenou, Senior Researcher at the South African Institute for Security Studies. Cooperation between the local population and soldiers has been poor, he tells War is Boring. He blames “the abuse and brutality of Nigerian security officials.”
Recently, villagers in northern Nigeria alerted authorities to the presence of Boko Haram fighters. Instead of using the information sensibly, the military first didn’t react for days—and then bombed the village after the fighters were long gone. Ten civilians died, leading one survivor to state that he “regretted” cooperating with the government.
Owing to incidents like this, Boko Haram has managed to sustain a relatively stable rate of activity, despite facing several thousand government soldiers. “What we witness is the failure of the government approach,” Zounmenou says.
The government’s new soft approach seems to accept that, in Sodipo’s words, “brute force, a total military crackdown, won’t work.” In various statements to international media, the government has said its focus will be on “de-radicalization” initiatives in cooperation with local imams—and also on offering economic opportunities for northern youth.
“You will find that most of the youth that are involved with armed groups have no opportunities for economic empowerment,” Sodipo says.
The faith-based initiatives show potential, as well, Zounmenou says. “They are going to use Islamic scholars to engage those who are in prison and try to de-radicalize them,” he explains.
But the new strategy ignores two important issues: police and military brutality and political corruption. “The key challenge is about the professionalization of the army,” Zounmenou says.
Nigeria’s army is one of the largest on the continent and—together with the equally dysfunctional police force—is rife with internal conflict and blatant corruption. “The security structures of the federal government have not been on the top of their game lately,” Zounmenou asserts. “There is a lack of leadership, a lack of equipment, outdated equipment.”
And if the Nigerian government really wants to suppress Boko Haram and similar groups over the long-term, it will have to address its own incompetence and corruption, which are inextricably linked to the underdevelopment of the country—as well as to the state of the security forces.
With one year to go until the hotly contested presidential election in 2015, it’s unlikely that such reforms will become part of the new soft approach to beating Boko Haram.