Since March 2015 there have been noticeable military successes against Boko Haram in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger. The most important victory in my view is the liberation on April 2015 of hundreds of women and children held captives in Sambisa forest, Northeastern Nigeria and used by Boko Haram as sex slaves, porters and even human bombs. Today, the terrain-centric strategy that helped Boko Haram control a territory larger than Belgium (about 15% of Nigeria), has been limited by the military coalition composed of Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria, causing the violent extremist group to lose ground. Its latest decision to rename itself “Islamic States’ West Africa,” an affiliate of DAESH (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), may be a sign that things are not working in their favor, but it could also announce a change of tactics and heightening in lethality and brutality, mirroring the horror we are constantly seeing in Syria, Iraq and Libya where the so-called DAESH is in control.
In his inaugural address last Friday, May 29, 2015, the newly elected president of Nigeria, President Buhari showed his resolve to defeat Boko Haram by announcing the relocation of the Military command and control center of the counter-insurgency against Boko Haram to Maiduguri, the group’s birthplace. This move demonstrates the President’s intention to bring military leadership closer to the point of action, while also grounding the military decision-making process in the realities of the battlefield. This move also sends a symbolic message to the terrorists, which states: “We are bringing the fight to you…” But Boko Haram did not wait long to respond. Before the last guest to the inaugural party left the capital city, Abuja, Boko Haram conducted several attacks in Maiduguri, killing more than 20 people and destroying buildings, including a Mosque.
While the resolve of the president and his willingness to work with neighboring countries is commendable, his exclusive focus on security and military responses is limited. Nigeria has been down that road before, specifically in 2009, when the group was crushed by the Nigerian military and some of its hard core members forced into hiding, only to come back stronger, more determined and blood thirsty than ever. Unlike other conflicts West Africa has witnessed in such countries as Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire, etc., which offered possibilities of peace agreements, followed by Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) programs, fights against terrorists groups do not generally lead to DDR. In the case of Boko Haram, a military victory like the one in 2009 will likely mean that Shekau and some of his lieutenants are killed, forced into hiding or captured but the majority of foot soldiers will vanish into neighboring towns and villages in the Lake Chad region. These combatants will more likely constitute local criminal groups, moving on to terrorize truck and bus drivers and their passengers on major roads, steal from cattle raisers and farmers throughout different towns in the region, while awaiting their next recruiters, be they disgruntled politicians who’ve lost elections or charismatic religious leaders with a political agenda.
George Santayana, the Italian philosopher once warned the world a century ago: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I hope our leaders remember!
Military victories in the fight against violent extremism can only provide narrow windows of opportunity for peace and development work. They are not solutions. Defeating Boko Haram and winning lasting peace in Nigeria and the Lake Chad Region will require a fundamental shift in the thinking of leaders. A shift that gives equal focus if not, priority to nonmilitary interventions that address reasons why Boko Haram’s leaders are able to mobilize, train, pay and equip so many combatants, some of whom were learning to operate weapons for the first time. Nigeria nor any of the countries fighting Boko Haram cannot militarize his way out of the issues Boko Haram is thriving upon, including socioeconomic exclusion, systemic corruption, poverty, abuses by security forces and a general sense of abandonment that leads some young men and women to radicalization.
There is no shortcut to the painstaking yet crucial work of socioeconomic reconstruction, restoration of rule of law, and local participation in decision-making. Leaders of the Lake Chad Region will have to commit and show resolve in the reconstruction front as well. Some private organizations are already implementing development projects in the Lake Chad region. However, without clear commitment and support from regional leaders, these projects may just be Band-Aids, rather than sustained, comprehensive and integrated reconstruction initiatives that are needed at both local and regional levels.