President Goodluck Jonathan’s proclamation of a state of emergency in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa States may signal a turning point in the Nigerian government’s conflict with Islamist insurgents in Northern Nigeria. The military’s deployment of more troops as well as helicopter gunships and jets has been greeted by a euphoric note of optimism in the media. The sense is that the armed forces, now unshackled from political inhibitions, are about to showcase the hitherto underestimated might of the Nigerian state and finally crush Boko Haram. Such militaristic boosterism should be tempered by more sober appraisals of events.
In imposing emergency rule, President Jonathan acted decisively if belatedly, for this was a measure that arguably should have been taken a year or two earlier instead of engaging in fruitless attempts to appease the terrorists. It had become necessary to prevent the Northeast from a descent into ungovernable chaos. The expectation now is that the escalation of force will swiftly end the insurgency but it is more realistic to think in terms of months and years rather than weeks.
Counterinsurgency campaigns take time because of the hydra-headed and often protean nature of insurgencies. The proper comparison is not, as some commentators opine, between the Nigerian situation and the recent Anglo-American military expeditions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Nigerian army is not a foreign invading force. The more accurate comparison is with the conflicts between Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers, Britain and the Irish Republican Army, Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army and India and the Naxalite Maoist rebellion. All these insurgencies have lasted decades.
The current offensive may well degrade and even destroy the organization known as Boko Haram but this is unlikely to end the plague of terrorism for a number of reasons. Firstly, even though the group is probably in its death throes, it would be prudent to expect it to mount last gasp bombings, shootings and kidnappings and to attempt high profile attacks on major cities including Abuja almost as a sort of murderous final flourish. The Islamist anarchist cult Maitatsine was first “crushed” by the military in 1980 in Kano but its sporadic uprisings continued across the north, particularly the northeast, until 1985. This resilience is typical of a manifestation of terror that has evolved beyond an organizational format to become a socio-cultural phenomenon. When we think of terrorism now, we should think less of organizations and more of a subculture of violent rebellion against the state.
Beyond this, the technology of violence is now diffuse. Terrorism executed with easily accessible low tech implements will likely become a normative feature of Nigerian life for the time being. Furthermore, Boko Haram is not the only terrorist threat facing Nigeria. The first terrorist attack of the Jonathan era was carried out by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, a seasoned purveyor of bombings in the Delta.
The country’s vast pool of unschooled, unskilled, and unemployed young males of working age is a veritable incubator of anti-state aggression. This is coupled with politicians’ penchant for domesticating and co-opting violent groups for their own purposes instead of properly addressing them as criminal elements. Indeed, it is impossible to separate terrorism and insurgency from the culture of political violence that suffuses partisan politics. A presidential adviser, Kingsley Kuku and Asari Dokubo, a Niger Delta militant gang leader recently threatened violence if Jonathan is not reelected in 2015 demonstrating the complicity of politicians at the highest levels in the plague of terrorism. The politically-connected oil-stealing gangsters who call themselves “Niger Delta militants” symbolize the nexus between terrorism and politics.
As was the case in the Niger Delta, the prolonged militarization in the North east and the complexity of combating a stealthy group hiding in the midst of a civilian population and using it as a human shield, carry the risk of human rights violations by the military. Such abuses will radicalize an embittered populace and further fuel the flames of the insurgency. The geography of the north east, which is the epicentre of this insurgency, has enabled Boko Haram to develop transnational affiliations and close links with criminal and terror networks extending from the Sahel to the Maghreb. It will take concerted and persistent action to root out these groups. In the Northeast, the veins of alienation which extremist groups tap into run deep. If Islamist terrorism was going to germinate in Nigeria, it seems logical that it would be in her much neglected northeastern frontier.
Whatever its eventual success, this military action should be understood as an ad hoc measure. A medium to long term national security strategy requires the urgent development of institutional capacities to address the new range of threats posed by low intensity conflicts such as that between the pastoralists and farmers, an essentially ecological conflict driven by climate change but with the potential to assume a broader sectarian scale. These include threats posed by insurgency, ethnic militias and privately-owned paramilitaries. Piracy in Nigeria’s coastal waters is a growing threat with international implications and could become the next major national and international security crisis.
A revised national security strategy must surely involve an enhanced border security administration including the short-term militarization of Nigeria’s exceedingly porous borders with her Sahelian neighbours. It will also call for police reform initiatives that restore civilian policing to the front lines of security and law enforcement administration. One of the more pungent symptoms of Nigeria’s dysfunctional security architecture has been the militarization of law enforcement with an overburdened military tasked to combat everything from highway banditry to kidnapping. This, in addition to the neglect of the police, has contributed to a climate of militarism that feeds violence and in which a regard for due process of law can scarcely flower.
A pre-emptive security doctrine would blend modern, well-tooled policing with conflict resolution mechanisms and early warning systems in communities. This means leveraging civil society resources in creating mechanisms that prevent small scale altercations from flaring into all out conflict. Security and intelligence services must become more adept at tracking the evolution of ethnic and religious associations, and identifying those whose philosophies dispose them towards future radicalization and militarization.
Institutional reforms in the security establishment are much more difficult than proclaiming emergency rule. They require administrative rigour and the political will to challenge obsolete orthodoxies. They call for a shift from the establishment’s obsolete military era obsession with state capture through coup d’etat – a steadily diminishing threat since 1999 – to a broader cognizance of the perils posed by non-state actors and the intersection of politics, organized crime and terrorism. No security sector reform, for instance, is complete without reviewing the use of perverse affirmative action schemes in staffing strategic agencies. If there is any area of governance that urgently needs to be run as a meritocracy, it is the intelligence, security and law and enforcement administration.
The Terrifying New Normal
Before the 1980s, there were no religious disturbances in Northern Nigeria. From 1980, they became normative fixtures of the northern urban life. A variety of factors were responsible. The oil boom of the late 1970s had driven many youngsters from rural agrarian life to the cities in search of jobs. Deindustrialization subsequently eliminated a significant segment of the blue collar work force and provided the Maitatsine cult with fodder for its various uprisings from 1980 onwards. Other factors were the proliferation of radical Islamist groups supported by Wahhabi extremists in Saudi Arabia and Shia revolutionaries in Iran which fed on rampant socio-economic dislocation, the politicization of religion after the 1978 Constituent Assembly debates on Sharia and later, military regimes’ manipulation of religion to generate support in Northern Nigeria and mask their misrule. All of these factors coupled with the failure of the state and the deepening poverty of the region provided fertile ground for the chronic spate of urban terrorism that are frequently described as religious riots.
In much the same way that religious riots became normative after the 1980s, it is reasonable to project that Boko Haram-style terrorism will continue albeit in isolated and sporadic proportions for the time being. It will become part of the fabric of our national life. Safety measures will be out in place to adapt us to this terrifying new normal. Bomb detectors are already almost ubiquitous in public spaces. More of such devices will become customary. But the problem with a scenario in which terrorism ceases to have any impact is that terrorists will seek to carry out even more spectacular outrages to register their agenda on a desensitized public consciousness. Nigerians are already accustomed to great insecurity so terrorists might feel compelled to use more vicious tactics to breach the threshold of public outrage. Should the socio-economic conditions that incubated Boko Haram be left unaddressed, we can also expect a better armed and more organized insurgency to emerge from the ashes within a decade.
Ultimately, however efficient the military and the security forces may be, their work is only a stopgap measure. Elected politicians must actually govern and provide the developmental deliverables that will turn a teeming young population away from nihilism and anarchy. There are no foolproof guarantees against terrorism but intelligent governance can shrink the population of malcontents to the barest minimum of misanthropes that are beyond salvage. The more young Nigerians are empowered to live creative lives and achieve upward mobility, the less likely they are to be seduced by psychotic visions of paradise or careers in political thuggery. It is this failure to create social security and to provide paths to a meaningful life that is the greatest generator of terrorism and conflict in Nigeria.
(All Images sourced online)