Boko Haram made a sudden apparition on television screens around the world in April 2014 with the abduction of more than 200 school girls in Chibok. Following the kidnappings, a worldwide campaign “Bring Back our Girls,” was organized to plea for the safe return of these students. The worldwide campaign” as well as other social media outlets inevitably gave Boko Haram undeserved publicity. Today, the transformation of Boko Haram from a marginalized domestic terrorist group initially fighting for systemic changes (end of corruption, impunity, instauration of Sharia Law) in Northern Nigeria; to a terrorist insurgent group controlling swaths of Nigerian territory, exposes the decay and dysfunctions of some key institutions in Nigeria and the region.
Boko Haram means “Western education is forbidden” in Hausa; its official name is “Jamāʿat ʾahl al-sunnah li-l-Daʿwah wa-al-Jihād “ meaning in Arabic “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad.” Boko Haram started in the 2000s as a Muslim sect under the leadership of the Ustaz Mohammed Yusuf who denounced the corruption of leaders and preached a non-violent way of social change. While advocating for Sharia law; terrorism was not yet part of the group arsenal. The popularity of the leader soared as his criticisms against politicians became louder and resonated with disenfranchised and marginalized youth. In 2009, there were frequent clashes between Boko Haram and security forces. The same year, during a series of raids, the army crushed the group, killed hundreds of followers, destroyed their main mosque, the Al-Haji Muhammadu Ndimi Mosque in Maiduguri, and arrested its leader Ustaz Yusuf who would be later executed without due process. The group’s remaining members went underground to re-emerge later in 2010 under the leadership of Abubakar Shekau, now more organized, deadly, and committed to the goal of creating a “caliphate Islamic state” in Northern Nigeria.
Most insurgent groups generally go after two main prizes: territory and populations. Their strategies are terrain centric (conquer and hold territory) and population centric (win over and control population) and in most cases, to win over population, these groups will kill people of their own group and leaders who stand against them and intimidate through public display of gruesome acts of violence; they will also attack security apparatus and symbols of state power.
Let’s look at Boko Haram today:
Terrain centric – The goal is to create an Islamic Caliphate in Northern Nigeria. The towns of Bara, Marte, Gamboru Ngala, Dikwa, Bama, Gwoza, Damboa, and Banki in Borno state, and recently Buni Yadi and Bara towns in Yobe state have fallen and Boko Haram is advancing toward Maidaguri the capital city of Borno State.
Population centric – None of these towns have the type of resources Nigeria is so well endowed with, but Boko Haram is also trying to win the hearts and minds of the local population (in their own way) and regulate social relations and interactions. The fall of these towns was done without the kind of mayhem Boko Haram is known for. According to eye witnesses, instead, Boko Haram combatants were preaching and asking people not to be afraid. However, in order to control populations, they will eventually use extreme violence.
Boko Haram violence is not senseless and blind as people may think. It is purposeful and strategically aimed at: a) degrading the state security apparatus, killing, demoralizing, and intimidating individual soldiers; b) provoking the Nigerian army to overreact and alienate the populations they seek to protect (there are reports of the army using child soldiers, harassing civilian populations, and other abuses); and c) stretching the Army thin by mounting attacks in different cities, suicide bombings, kidnappings, bank attacks, and other activities that require important deployment of Nigerian armed forces without impacting Boko Haram capability.
The metamorphosis of Boko Haram from an obscure Islamic sect to a well known terrorist insurgency led by Abubakar Skehau unclothes many institutions in the region:
The Nigerian Army: a paper tiger – The debacle of the more than half of a battalion of the Nigerian Army who found refuge in Cameroon after the fall of the town of Bama (the second largest town of Borno state) is symptomatic of an Army that is demoralized and underequipped. The retreat of more than 500 Nigerian soldiers following a standoff with Boko Haram in Cameroon is really unsettling! We are talking of the Armed forces of the largest economy in Africa, an army of more than 160 000 men and women, with a budget of more than 5 billion US dollars (20% of the country’s GDP). The only logical conclusion is that long gone are the days when Nigerians and countries of the ECOMOG (Liberia and Sierra Leone in particular) could be proud of the Nigerian Army.
One of the most preeminent senators from Kaduna state and member of the Senate Joint National Assembly Committee and former General Hamed Saleh offers the following explanation, as reported in Allafrica.com : “For us to understand why that is happening, we need to go back to the Babangida (Gen. Ibrahim Babangida) era. After the 1990 Okar coup, the Federal Government of Nigeria systematically and comprehensively disarmed the military…All the tanks, all the artillery guns were disarmed and locked up. All the aircraft were parked in Ilorin and other places, flying stopped, training stopped to ensure regime security, not national security…”All the good officers of the Nigerian Army were hounded out of the military…The attendant result was decay. Training was no longer going on at the battalion level, soldiers lost their skills and since then, no additional military equipment was purchased for the Nigerian Army. Even things as little as machine guns were in short supply, ammunition was in short supply…”
This analysis of the Nigerian Army can be applied to many countries of the region where politicians’ mistrust of the Army and their own illegitimacy have transformed the mission of Armed forces from protection of the country to suppression of dissenting politicians and unarmed activists.
The African Union (AU): Missing in Action – On May 17, 2014, France organized and held a Summit on Security in Nigeria and the region. While the list of participants was impressive with the presence of head of states of Cameroon, Benin, Niger, Chad, Nigeria, and representatives of the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union, equally noteworthy was the list of absents, particularly the African Union (AU). The AU was simply not welcomed nor invited. Asked why the AU was not invited, one adviser to the French president gave the following answer: “AU has no intelligence capability”; to my knowledge the EU has none either. Beside the Paris Summit, AU itself did not initiate any summit or action to address the issue. This situation is an illustration of the increased apathy of the AU (not necessarily regional economic communities-REC) towards security issues and more unfortunately the lack of trust some African leaders have in this institution when it comes to security matters.
Regional security cooperation: Elusive catch word! – Should the Boko Haram Caliphate become a reality, it will have as neighbors: Cameroon, Nigeria, Chad and Niger. It will be a landlocked caliphate. How will it survive? The answer probably lies on how the current insurgency is thriving. Experts argue that Boko Haram makes money by attacking banks, kidnappings, and other illegal endogenous activities. in addition there are ungoverned spaces, corrupt politicians and military officers, and weapon traffickers in these neighboring countries. These favorable factors build on the weak collaboration between security forces of the region and the mutual suspicion that exists among leaders of these border countries who would rather meet in Paris than in Abuja, Ndjamena, Yaoundé, Niamey, or Addis Ababa.
The response of the Nigerian government and neighboring countries so far has been enemy-centric that is, focusing on killing Boko Haram combatants and degrading their capabilities; unfortunately alienating the populations they are supposed to protect. It is worth mentioning that the enemy-centric approach has been so far productive in Cameroon, for the simple reason that Boko Haram has not shown any interest in controlling territory nor population in that country. Apparently it is well served by ransoms it received from kidnappings in Cameroon and the intelligence it receives from young disaffected Cameroonians, some of whom are joining the group for economic reasons. Hopefully, Cameroon will learn from Nigeria’s mistakes and be mindful of the importance of working for and with the local populations and addressing local grievances and sources of disaffection.
Boko Haram will eventually be defeated; unfortunately many people -many girls – will not live to see that day. A lot of innocent blood will be shed and thousands will be displaced and made refugees. It is time for the AU, particularly the African Union Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) to become proactive and more assertive as far as terrorism is concerned, working closely with other regional bodies; strengthen the collaboration of countries in the region; and rebuild the capacity of the Nigerian military. But in strengthening these institutions to defeat Boko Haram, policy-makers should not forget this principle from the field of medicine and now adopted by development practitioners, that is: “Do no harm” to the populations you are trying to protect. “Do no harm” in this case will also mean implementing “population- sensitive security and military operations” that work with and for the populations, protecting them from physical violence, but respecting their rights and guaranteeing their access to basic services (education, health, shelter, etc.). They should do more than winning the hearts and minds, and leverage local resources so that populations have the means (not only the will) to express their gratitude and support for the Nigerian government and other border countries in the fight against violent extremism.