Lessons from Nigeria’s ‘war on terror’

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In his latest column for the Daily Nation, our Co-editor, Nic Cheeseman, asks what Kenya can learn from Nigeria’s attempts to tackle Boko Haram. The abduction of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok may prove to be a turning point in the ongoing conflict with Boko Haram, with a recognition of the need for better intelligence, international collaboration and an effort to win ‘hearts and minds’. 

Like in Kenya, terrorism has risen to the top of the agenda in Nigeria following the abduction of almost 300 schoolgirls by Boko Haram militants. The failure of the Nigerian government to find and free the girls has shone a spotlight on the inability of President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration to tackle the insurgency in the north of the country.

The Nigerian experience suggests three important lessons for countries like Kenya that are currently struggling to contain terrorists. First, the battle to win hearts and minds is just as important as the targeting of terrorist operatives. Second, quality information and effective policing are likely to be more effective than brute military force. Third, combating terrorism requires regional and international solutions; no country should be too proud to ask for help.

Although the instability in northern Nigeria received relatively little international coverage until the abduction of the 276 schoolgirls, the Boko Haram insurgency has been raging for over a decade. Founded as the Congregation of the People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad by Mohammed Yusuf in 2002, Boko Haram (the Hausa name for the Congregation, which translates as ‘western education is sacrilege’) has carried out a series of attacks that are estimated to have killed 10,000 people.

This has resulted in tremendous political instability in the worst affected northern states such as Borno, Adamawa, Kaduna, Bauchi, Yobe and Kano. According to the Nigeria Security Tracker of the Council on Foreign Relations, an American think tank, over 10,000 people have died in violence motivated by ‘political, economic, or social grievances’ in Borno state alone.

In 2009, clashes between Boko Haram supporters and Nigerian security forces in the capital of Borno state, Maiduguri, resulted in hundreds of deaths and the arrest of Mohammed Yusuf. According to the Nigerian government, Yusuf was subsequently killed by security forces as he attempted to escape custody. President Goodluck Jonathan initially appeared optimistic that these operations and the death of Yusuf had broken the back of Boko Haram.

But Boko Haram was not defeated, it was simply regrouping. It was initially thought that the movement’s second in command, Abubakar Shekau, had died in the 2009 attacks. However, video clips subsequently confirmed that he was very much alive and, having married one of Mohammed Yusuf’s four wives and adopted their children. He also took over as the operational leader of Boko Haram.

In the years that followed it became clear that not only had Boko Haram survived, it had become increasingly ambitious and violent. In 2011, a car bomb detonated in the United Nations offices in Abuja, killing 21 and wounding 60. The parallels to the bombing of the US embassy in Kenya in 1998 are so obvious that they scarcely need to be drawn. Numerous attacks followed including an attack on a bus station in Abuja on 14 April that killed more than 70 people.

The abduction of almost 300 schoolgirls aged between 12 and 17 from their dormitory in Chibo, Borno state, was thus the latest in a long line of atrocities that the Nigerian state has been powerless to prevent. Some commentators have attributed the ferocious resurgence of Boko Haram to a ‘northern plot’ to destabilise the presidency of Goodluck Jonathan, who hails from Bayelsa, the country’s southernmost state, and ascended to the presidency upon the untimely death of President Umaru Yar’Adua in 2010.

The idea underpinning this conspiracy theory is that northern political leaders are helping to fund and organise Boko Haram in order to undermine Jonathan’s credibility and prospects for re-election in 2015. However, Boko Haram has targeted moderate figures within the north, and many northern leaders appear to be as afraid of the insurgency as their southern counterparts.

Other commentators have located the source of ongoing instability elsewhere, suggesting that the actions of President Goodluck Jonathan have made the situation worse rather than better. The government’s strategy has received three main strands of criticism.

First, a number of observers who have spent the last decade tracking the activity of Boko Haram argue that the killing of Mohammed Yusuf and numerous activists in 2009 made the insurgency more, rather than less, violent. Such critics suggest that simply fighting ‘fire with fire’ has not been successful so far and is unlikely to be successful in the future. For every terrorist killed, others are radicalised. Force is most likely to be effective when it goes hand-in-hand with a well thought out strategy to win hearts and minds. Sadly, the ‘security swoops’ of Somali neighbourhoods in Nairobi, in which thousands of innocent people have been detained as the government searches for a small number of terrorists, suggest that the Kenyan government has not yet fully appreciated this point.

Second, a number of security experts have argued that the Nigerian government’s over reliance on the military has resulted in the deployment of a counter-insurgency strategy that is doomed to fail. Military troops are very effective if you are fighting a known force in a known location and all that is required is brute force to carry the day. But the military has often proved to be a rather blunt and ineffective instrument against terrorist cells that operate in multiple locations in the context of a diffuse organisational structure.

Critics suggest that preventing terrorist attacks requires good information and effective policing rather than heavy-handed military intervention, but this is precisely what Nigeria lacks. Kenya has also struggled to establish processes through which security information can be reliably collected and acted upon. Moreover, as we saw in the Westgate fiasco, the General Service Unit (GSU), which evolved out of the police force, is often more reliable and more effective than the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF).

Third, President Goodluck Jonathan has been criticised for failing to accept international assistance. Throughout the insurgency, the Nigerian government has been keen to depict the crisis as a ‘domestic issue’ and to reject offers of international assistance. Even following the schoolgirl kidnapping it took the president three weeks to publicly acknowledge what had happened, and another two days to accept an offer of help from the United States.

International assistance is an area in which the Kenyan government has behaved rather differently to its Nigerian counterpart. America has for a long time provided essential military assistance (estimated at around $300 million), while Kenya has signed a security pact with Israel. The government has also engaged the Chinese to support its efforts to secure its borders and territorial waters and received help from Turkey, both governments’ human rights record notwithstanding.

But what of Nigeria? Sadly, the recent rush of international assistance may prove to be too little too late. If the school girls have been taken across the border and split up between different Boko Haram leaders, or sold into slavery, it will be incredibly difficult to find them and bring them home. But President Jonathan may nonetheless be right that the tragedy will prove to be a ‘turning point’.

By forcing the Nigerian government to face up to its own limitations, and triggering the provision of much needed counter-insurgency assistance, one of the saddest episodes in the country’s recent history could prove to be the moment when the tide is finally turned against Boko Haram. So far, it does not seem that the Westgate attack has had the same effect in Kenya.

This column was originally published on 10th May 2014 in the Daily Nation. 

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