Nigerian authorities have been reluctant to describe the ongoing counter-insurgency campaign against Boko Haram in the northeast as a war. This reluctance is by no means unprecedented. Right up till the moment federal forces invaded Biafra, the federal government was still describing its mobilization against the secessionist regime as a “police action.” The tendency to understate security challenges is the state’s way of projecting an unflappable comportment; to reassure the public that “there is no cause for alarm” and that “the situation is under control.”
In this instance, the critical data defies understatement. Conservative estimates place the number of lives claimed by the insurgency at over 4, 000 since 2009. According to the UN High Commission for Refugees, the fighting has internally displaced 470, 000 people in Nigeria with another 60, 000 forced to seek refuge in Cameroon, Niger and Chad since 2013. More than fifty percent of the refugees are women and children. The closure of federal government colleges in the region has affected over 10, 000 students – a number that increases exponentially when the closure of other schools is factored in. The “talibanization” of the northeast is in progress as evinced by Boko Haram’s targeting of schools and preying upon girls.
Since 2011, Boko Haram has struck the national police headquarters, army and air force bases in the northeast and the State Security Service headquarters in Abuja where inmates attempted a jailbreak last month. It has also attacked public schools including federal government colleges where young Nigerians of diverse faiths and ethnicities are educated. Its hatred for pluralism as embodied in the Nigerian state is unalloyed. Having moved from seeking virgins in paradise to snatching young girls for sexual slavery, the group’s ideological bankruptcy has been exposed. All that it has left is nihilistic sadism as evidenced by its murderous focus on soft targets. This makes it all the more dangerous.
President Goodluck Jonathan has not been able to rally the country against this threat; nor has he articulated a theory of the case that explains our current national security challenges and a grand ideological and strategic response to non-state actors. Instead, his administration has shown itself willing to use the conflict for political ends notably as a means of smearing political opponents. For its own part, the opposition is incapable of nuanced critiques of terrorism and sees an opportunity to promise miracles if elected. We are in a time of national crisis and statesmanship is in short supply.
The administration suffers from a massive credibility deficit. Jonathan’s serial broken promises to end the insurgency have been damaging. Continuing attacks on soft and hard targets such as military bases have undermined public confidence in the armed forces and security services. This is a shame because the military and the security agencies have worked hard to degrade Boko Haram. They have perhaps been undone by a predilection for “truth-bending.” Propaganda is a customary element of warfare but it has to be properly executed. Public impatience is understandable, more so, in the light of a political class that is largely considered insensitive to the plight of the poor – the insurgents’ victims of choice.
The administration has also failed to provide a coherent narrative timeline that explains the origin and evolution of Boko Haram. In January, Aliyu Mohammed Gusau was appointed minister of defence ostensibly to coordinate a new approach to the counter-insurgency. Gusau was National Security Adviser (NSA) from 1999 to 2006. Having been appointed again to that position by Jonathan in 2010, Gusau has been NSA longer than anyone else since 1999. An inquest into the origin and evolution of Boko Haram must surely ask questions of what he knew and did about the current threat when it was still at an embryonic stage in the early to mid 2000s. Gusau’s appearance before the senate for his confirmation hearing provided the opportunity to pose such questions. The senate instead afforded him the luxury of exemption from questioning. The fact that the senate failed to question a nominee penciled down to head the defence ministry in a time of war aptly demonstrates its dereliction of duty.
The failure to produce an official biography of Boko Haram has been a boon to conspiracy theorists who tap into popular but false narratives to explain the insurgency. Some of the most colourful theories posit nebulous conspiracies starring either the president or his political opponents. However, in this instance, Nigerians are attributing to malice what is largely a consequence of incompetence. When a system long crippled by corruption, mediocrity and dysfunction is confronted by a protean, highly adaptive and asymmetrical threat, it is asking too much to expect an immediate nimble and strategically efficient response. These conspiracy theories continue to cloud the public mind at a time when national consensus is required.
Some of the measures that need to be taken – mass relocation of tens of thousands students to safer places for schooling or the establishment of protected camps for half a million refugees require competent leadership and a strong state but the Nigerian state is weak and political actors are unwilling to lead.
The military has scored moderate successes in its campaign at great human cost. Its casualty figures, while closely guarded by the defence establishment, are significant enough to warrant a national memorial and greater effort to commemorate the supreme sacrifices being made by the troops. However, the military is hamstrung by a deficit of numbers with which to adequately cover a theatre of operations which due to the nature of the enemy is highly fluid; a limited intelligence support structure and arguably, a resource deficit that adversely affects its ability to effectively hold ground. These deficits have to be surmounted.
But the military also suffers from being the only instrument in the toolkit favoured by politicians; it is, by definition, a broad sword when, in many instances, what is required is a scalpel. A purely military approach that is apparently devoid of preemptive policing, adequate intelligence gathering and psychological warfare components is bound to have limitations. For instance, the failure to protect moderate clerics that have been targeted by Boko Haram and to deploy them as a first line of defence against extremist ideologies in the communities is a tactical error. The army is also overstretched by its deployment across the federation putting out fires that are really within the purview of the police. The risk of mission fatigue is high.
The National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, recently unveiled a broader strategy that incorporates non-military options in the counter-insurgency toolkit including greater efforts to win hearts and minds and to address the socio-economic conditions of the northeast. This will require time to work. The administration has also outlined the Federal Initiative for the North East (FINE), a raft of economic, infrastructural and agro-allied rehabilitation measures. Given the region’s scale of ecological, socioeconomic and infrastructural degradation, federal intervention is necessary. But until a suitably hefty security and military footprint is established and order is restored, rehabilitation and reconstruction will be impossible.
From all indications, this will not end soon. Counter-insurgency campaigns are notoriously long drawn-out affairs. This administration has been burned badly in the past by an imprudent eagerness to declare the imminence of victory. However, the nature of the enemy and the nature of its terrain which includes vast ungoverned spaces straddling borders with Cameroon, Chad and Niger, call for a reassessment of what ‘victory’ means. Both the public and the troops on the frontlines will be ill-served by premature triumphalism. Conversely, an open-ended military commitment with no timelines or performance indicators is untenable and carries its own risks. Prolonged militarization with ample occasion for human rights violations and scorched earth tactics will surely radicalize occupied communities and boost Boko Haram’s recruitment drive in the area. This dynamic, at least partly, accounts for Boko Haram’s resilience.
Boko Haram lost the first phase of the war in 2011 when its attacks on churches failed to elicit widespread reprisals that could have ignited a broader sectarian war in which it would then have postured as an Islamist defence vanguard. Much of the conflict is now contained in the northeast but if the northeast is “abandoned” or “forgotten”, either by reason of paucity of resolve or resources, it would rapidly become a base for the insurgents to regroup and eventually launch attacks on other parts of the federation. The northeast frontier is usually on the fringes of the national consciousness but as the gateway to the Sahel and the Maghreb, it is an area of vital importance where the insurgents must be denied refuge or breathing space. We cannot afford for this to become a forgotten war. At this point, international assistance is necessary to augment the joint military operations by Nigeria and her neighbours. National pride should not stop Nigeria from seeking external help even as it continues build capacity.
In an age of attacks on soft targets, there also needs to be fresh thinking on how to secure public spaces – parks, bus stations, markets and schools. Strategies for this must involve the cooperation between security agencies and the citizenry. Terror is tragically the new normal and we must adopt a permanent posture of vigilance.
Given the foul opportunism of politicians in a pre-election year, it can be easy to forget who the real enemy is. The indiscriminately ecumenical range of Boko Haram’s victims on April 14 in Nyanya, Abuja should serve as a reminder.
(All Images Sourced online)