To finally defeat Boko Haram, Nigeria’s leaders must change their ways

The aftermath of a bomb strike at a refugee camp in Rann, Nigeria. EPA

Since Mohammadu Buhari became president of Nigeria in May 2015, his government put Boko Haram on the defensive in its north-eastern heartlands. Over the last two years the group has steadily lost control of swathes of territory, culminating in December 2016 when it was forced from one of its last remaining strongholds, the Sambisa forest.

This seemed to finally vindicate the triumphalism Buhari voiced at the end of 2015, when he proclaimed that the government had “technically won the war”. But as he approaches two years since his election, the war is far from over. Boko Haram is down, but not out.

Compared to its peak, the group is now far less able to seize large towns and hold territory. Its principal methods are now suicide bombing against softer targets and hit-and-run attacks on security forces. But it remains flexible and adaptable; it can still operate in both rural and urban battlefields, and is a serious security challenge not just for Nigeria but for the neighbouring states of Niger, Chad and Cameroon.

The advances of the last 18 months are of course to be welcomed, but securing the ultimate defeat of Boko Haram will be a more complex, multifaceted and lengthy project than the grandstanding Buhari would admit. It will also demand that Nigeria recalibrate itself dramatically on all fronts – military, economic, developmental, political, social. These all demand fundamentally new approaches, and all are hampered by the deep-seated deficiencies of the Nigerian state and its ruling elites.

Getting it right

The military campaign will always be a massive undertaking, not least given the sheer size of the area in which Boko Haram operates. Its heartland province, Borno, covers tens of thousands of square kilometres in a region of vast ungoverned spaces and porous borders. But things have been made much harder than necessary by the Nigerian military, which has unleashed brutal abuses and security crackdowns on ordinary civilians in the name of counter-insurgency.

This only adds to Boko Haram’s pool of potential recruits. The state can never win the battle for the hearts and minds of the local population if the security forces consistently operate beyond the rule of law and pose as serious a threat to the civilian population as the insurgents themselves.

Beyond getting the military in line, Nigeria has to make the best use it can of Western assistance, training, and intelligence support, as well as sub-regional military collaboration. This means getting over any impulse to decline assistance from supposedly lesser African neighbours, which the Nigerian elite worries could damage the country’s image as one of Africa’s dominant powers.

Muhammadu Buhari with a woman and baby rescued from Boko Haram. EPA

But there’s more to this than good military practice and international co-operation. It’s become a truism that counter-insurgency struggles cannot be won on the battlefield alone, and so it goes in Nigeria. The north-east in particular contends with widespread unemployment, low levels of formal education and vast reservoirs of poverty. As long as these problems go unaddressed, they will provide fodder for extremist groups.

As the International Crisis Group note, while the precise relationship between development and counter-insurgency is complex, providing proper services where people need them will certainly boost the state’s legitimacy. The only alternative is for millions of people to endure a culture of hopelessness while elites enrich themselves at their expense – as has too often been the case in Nigeria since independence.

Divide and conquer

The threat is not utterly insurmountable. Boko Haram is a diverse organisation, pulling together a jumble of interests; it makes no sense to treat it as a homogeneous, absolutist organisation with whom constructive dialogue is impossible.

There is a wedge to be driven between the hard-line Islamist ideologues who lead the movement and their footsoldiers, many of whom will be motivated more by socio-economic grievances than radical jihadism. If Boko Haram captives and defectors are simply killed in combat or treated brutally, others will have no incentive to jump ship. That would deprive Nigeria of a crucial means to weaken Boko Haram and obtain vital information.

If the state is to defeat what’s proven to be a highly durable insurgent group, it needs to dedicate itself to the rule of law, and an acceptance that the government is the people’s servant, not their master. In short, Nigeria’s leaders must commit themselves the idea of a constitutional state.

This is a tall order indeed. Good governance is the most effective antidote to Boko Haram, and would help assuage the grievances on which they thrive, but it also goes against the grain of Nigeria’s depressing post-independence history. The state is dysfunctional, even kleptocratic, and a wide array of vested interests still benefit from its disorder. Until this sad state of affairs is improved, even a seriously wounded Boko Haram will be very hard to defeat definitively.

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