Is Nigeria Winning The War Against Boko Haram?
By Col. Timothy Antigha
LAGOS APRIL 11TH (URHOBOTODAY)-Among the emerging threats to contemporary international security is the onslaught of militant Islam. This threat has manifested in varying dimensions, depending on the strategy of its initiators. In certain cases, the threat has taken advantage of state fragility. In other instances, the threat has arisen as a deliberate challenge to perceived western cultural imperialism. Perhaps, to counter this perceived encroachment, the Al Qaeda and currently ISIS have plunged the Middle East region into turmoil, with occasional forays into Europe and America. In West Africa, the Nigerian Government has been engaged in an intractable battle to defeat Boko Haram terrorism since 2010. Scores of high profile targets in the Federal Capital Territory Abuja, Adamawa, Borno, Yobe and Kaduna States, have been attacked. Presidency sources estimate that the seven year Boko Haram insurgency has claimed about 20,000 lives, displaced about 2.4 million persons and destroyed property worth billions of Naira.
The inability of the Nigerian government to quickly resolve this problem initially may in part be connected to the dominance of two schools of thought in the effort to diagnose the problem in its early stages. The first school comprising north east political establishment, intelligentsia and some analysts believed that Boko Haram was a reaction to political and socio-economic distortions in Nigeria. This group held that there was widespread poverty, corruption and inequality in the polity, therefore Boko Haram is a natural outcome of these conditions. This opinion was not peculiar to the mentioned groups alone. In a 2011 article titled ‘To Battle Nigeria’s Boko Haram, Put Down Your Guns: How To Undermine the Growing Islamist Threat’, John Campbell; US former Ambassador to Nigeria, also argued that Boko Haram is simply a Nigerian problem. The second school comprising a few commentators, the intelligence community and security agencies, posited that Boko Haram terrorism could be part of a wider plot of global Salafist Jihad waged by transnational Islamic – terror networks. Later developments like the pledge of allegiance (bayat) first to Al Qaeda in the Maghreb and later to ISIS, change of name to ISIS West Africa Province and arrest of several foreign fighters on Nigerian soil, among other indicators, showed that though Boko Haram terrorism and insurgency benefitted maximally from governance and institutional failures of several years prior, a foreign sponsored radical Islamic Ideology was its raison d’etre.
BOKO HARAM CAMPAIGN OF TERROR
Apart from being religious fundamentalists, Boko Haram is also a terrorist social movement. Like all social movements, it represents groups that are on the margins of society and state. Outside the boundaries of institutional power, Boko Haram seeks to change the system in fundamental ways, through a mix of unbridled criminality and terror. Analysts believe that the initial stalemate in diagnosing the problem emboldened the terrorist group, resulting in its quickly moving to implement its agenda through dissemination of its poisoned ideology and denunciation of traditional institutions and rulers. Other steps were elimination of dissenting Islamic scholars and massive use of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), light infantry weapons, machine and anti-aircraft guns to promote violence and spread fear. It would be recalled that as at 2011/12, Boko Haram operated freely in the North East, North Central geopolitical zones and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. To bring clearly into focus the operational latitude that Boko Haram enjoyed, it is relevant to recall a few of the atrocities caused by the terrorist group.
The United Nations office in Abuja came under Boko Haram attack on 27 August 2011. This attack was significant for Boko Haram in two ways; firstly, it raised its profile as an international terrorists group. Secondly, it marked the beginning of its movement on the trajectory to acquiring a major terror franchise in West Africa. Two months earlier, Nigeria Police Headquarters suffered a similar fate. These were closely followed by repeated attacks in Nyanya and Suleja. In Kaduna, two strategic military institutions; The Armed Forces Command and Staff College, Jaji and Headquarters 1 Division, Kawo were also attacked. Boko Haram also sort to provoke sectarian violence and inter – religious conflict by killing dissenting imams, attacking several mosques, as well as churches during Jumat prayers and church services. To demonstrate its elaborate design and resolve to completely destroy the nation, the terror group turned its attention on Nigeria’s future. It attacked scores of schools across the North East, killing both teachers and students. The mass abduction of female students in a school in Chibok in 2014 attracts media headlines across the world till date.
The import of Boko Haram focus on security agencies should not be lost. The objective of attacking military and paramilitary installations at that point in the terror campaign was to send a clear message and warning to the civil populace who expected that the military will defend them. By 2014, Boko Haram was in control of sizeable portions of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe States. It launched a media wing which constantly assaulted public psyche with images of executions and other exploits. At the sub – regional level, Boko Haram also controlled large portions of territory in the Republics of Cameroon, Chad and Niger, prompting a flurry of diplomatic activities across Africa and Europe.
Without doubt, 2011 – 2014 was Boko Haram’s most active and successful years. During this period, there is no doubt that the public lost confidence in the ability of the military to defend Nigeria’s territorial integrity. Media editorials and commentaries in both traditional and new media clearly indicated flow of public opinion. At a point, the 3 North Eastern states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe were placed under a state of emergency. Some commentators even called for the removal of Service Chiefs. However, this order of events was not entirely strange. Extant literature on the life cycle of terrorist organizations suggests that terrorist groups are most violent at the initial stages of their campaign. In this regard, Peter Phillips argues that “at the centre of the life cycle sits the grassroots support for the terrorist organisation. Competition for grassroots support shapes the timing and intensity of the terrorists’ competition with the government. The grassroots support that is captured during the early stages of conflict will eventually shape the life cycle of the terrorist organization”. However, the extent to which Boko Haram succeeded in this regard is debatable.
COUNTER – TERRORISM AND COUNTER – INSURGENCY
In dealing with terrorism and insurgency, several lines of operations are usually open to governments. These lines of operations include; kinetic, diplomatic, political, Information and economic among others. To determine if Nigeria is winning the war against Boko Haram, it is imperative to do so within the parameters of these lines of operation.
National defence decision making process is stratified into grand – strategic, strategic, operational and tactical levels. As suggested earlier, misdiagnosis of a problem at a higher echelon can lead to some degree of inertia at the lower echelons. Although the Nigerian military recognizes the external ramifications of the Boko Haram terrorism, the conceptualization of the threat is that Boko Haram is an insurgency. Therefore, the Concept of Operations has been based on Nigerian Army’s Counter-Insurgency Operations Doctrine. The threat definition has also taken into account the internal manifestations of Boko Haram. This has in turn informed the level of force applied. For instance, the Rules of Engagement (ROE) issued by the Defence Headquarters has emphasized the need for troops to distinguish between civilians and terrorists and ensure the continued protection of civilian population, in order not to derail the overall objective of ‘winning hearts and minds’. It is to the credit of this awareness that youths nicknamed ‘civilian JTF’ work with the military to track down known terrorists in the Borno neighborhoods.
Similarly, classical counter – insurgency strategy broadly prescribes principles such as minimum necessary force, political awareness by troops and popular support as some of the measures for dealing with threats to national security like those posed by Boko Haram. Consequently, the restructuring of the campaign plan directed by the Chief of Army Staff, Lt Gen Tukur Buratai has resulted in the creation of the Theatre Command and 8 Task Force Division as well as logistics and forward operation bases that are cognizant of their huge responsibilities to the society. Despite obstacles by Amnesty International, these efforts have given traction to full spectrum logistics supported kinetic operations across the North East Theatre. The Theatre Commander, Maj Gen Lucky Irabor outlines the outcomes of these efforts as follows:
Routing of Boko Haram in Sambisa forest and capture of Camp Zairo.
Realignment of forces.
Enhancement of logistics and supply of same to troops in the front.
Restoration of the confidence and fighting efficiency of troops.
Reclamation of all areas hitherto occupied by terrorist across Adamawa, Bornu and Yobe States.
Opening of major roads linking state capitals of Maiduguri, Damaturu and Yola to the hinterland.
Phenomenal reduction in the number of Internally Displaced Persons.
Commencement of stabilization programmes by United Nations agencies and other Non-Governmental Organizations.
Restoration of government presence in all areas previously ungovernable.
In contrast, Boko Haram has lost all strategic grounds it once held from Adamawa to Borno and Yobe States. Tactically, they are currently at wits end, as the terrorist group is helmed – in in the recesses of the Lake Chad area. As clearance operations by the Multi – national Joint Force, 7 and 8 Divisions intensify, it is expected that ungoverned areas around the Lake Chad where they now hide will also be cleared.
Amnesty International and Republic of Chad 2015 estimates suggest that Boko Haram has strength of 20,000 and 15,000 terrorists comprising Nigerians, citizens of Niger, Chad and Cameroon. Citizens of these countries have been arrested in Nigeria. This makes the terrorist group trans–national. Expectedly, Nigeria has been at the vanguard of diplomatic efforts to galvanize nations of the Lake Chad Region towards eliminating the threat of Boko Haram. On February 28, 2012, the Nigerian Government and the Republic of Cameroon signed an agreement to jointly police their common border and prevent its domination by terrorists. Report disclosed that the agreement was part of measures to deal with the menace of Boko Haram. The report added that diplomats from both nations committed to the complete implementation and accomplishment of the objectives of the agreement in the overall interest and security of the peoples of the two nations.
In a related development, Nigeria and Republic of Niger also agreed to the immediate commencement of joint border patrols along their common border to curb the activities of Boko Haram. The agreement was signed in October 2012, in Niamey, Niger Republic. About 2 Months after his inauguration, President Muhammadu Buhari was in Cameroon to show Nigeria’s continued commitment to existing agreement to combat terrorism within its border communities. He told his Host, Paul Biya; “United we can defeat Boko Harm”. Also, President Buhari took his bilateral engagement to Chad in June 2015, where in conjunction with President Idris Derby, pledged to pursue members of the sect “everywhere”. Similarly, Nigeria signed bilateral agreements with other nations; like the United Kingdom, Germany and France, in an effort to develop the nation’s capacity to confront and defeat Boko Haram terrorism.
Nigeria has recognized the primacy of multilateralism in the fight against a formless, highly mobile and transnational terrorist network such as Boko Haram. Consequently, a coalition of nations threatened by terrorism has emerged. In this regard, Directors General of external intelligence agencies of the Republics of Benin, Cameroun, Chad, Niger, France and Nigeria signed a multilateral agreement on March 5, 2015, to ensue effective policing of common borders to avoid the infiltration of terrorists and the repatriation of suspects in conformity with existing protocols. In the same vein, Nigeria has benefitted from various initiatives by the United State and her allies towards curbing Boko Haram terrorism. Briefing the US Senate in May 2013, the Bureau of African Affairs, Senate Foreign Relations Committee noted “Through our Trans – Sahara Counter – Terrorism Partnership, Global Terrorism Forum and our bilateral relationship with Nigeria’s neighbours, we are encouraging greater information sharing and border security efforts”.
The renewed sub – regional effort to defeat Boko Haram through the operations of the Multi – national Joint Task Force commanded by Maj Gen Lamidi Adeosun and the commitment to the emergence of a sub – regional framework for counter – terrorism point to the success of Nigeria’s diplomatic initiative towards the defeat of Boko Haram. As would be expected, these efforts have resulted in the policing of ungoverned spaces within the Lake Chad basin which currently provide sanctuaries for terrorists. Also, the successful hosting of the Oslo Humanitarian Conference on North East Nigeria and Lake Chad where donors pledged over 670 million US Dollars to humanitarian, human rights, development and security needs of the region indicate that Nigeria has successfully catalyzed international effort towards the containment and eventual defeat of Boko Haram.
Boko Haram’s strategic partnership is facing serious crisis. ISIS main and its affiliate in North Africa are being routed in Libya and Iraq by US forces, and in Syria by a coalition led by Russia. With the dismantling of these terrorist networks and activation of relevant bilateral and multilateral agreements among regional and international partners, the end of Boko Haram is quite close.
During conflict, politics demands leadership, negotiation and compromise in the search for solutions to a common problem, without mortgaging public interest. The government has sufficiently demonstrated these facets in its efforts to deal with the Boko Haram problem. Severally, the government has moved to negotiate, but met with unacceptable conditions from the adversary. In a move that was meant to build confidence, government ordered the release of family members and associates of Boko Haram kingpins, who themselves are guilty of levying terrorism against the state, yet some of these people reportedly went back to join the insurgents.
In April 2016, the government launched OPERATION SAFE CORRIDOR in the North East. According to Defence Headquarters sources, “OPERATION SAFE CORRIDOR is geared towards rehabilitating and reintegrating the repentant and surrendering Boko Haram members back into normal life in the society”. This programme has been successful as over a thousand exhausted Boko Haram members have signed up. Also in October 2016, President Mohammadu Buhari inaugurated the Presidential Committee on the North East Initiative, charging them to coordinate all interventions by private, public, national and international partners, towards the rebuilding of the region. These and other initiatives show the capacity and willingness of the government to manage the crisis. However, in the face of Boko Haram’s intransigence, the government needs to persevere and remain open to meaningful dialogue in the interest of national integration. The government will also need to widen its engagement to include other uncommitted and ambivalent fringe groups with similar objectives, in a bid to further isolate Boko Haram.
In contemporary societies, the mass media play crucial roles in shaping public opinion. The ability to set the agenda for public discussion and reach into homes and offices across great distances in real time gives the media a unique influence over their audiences. Terrorists are aware of this interplay. Consequently, they leverage the media to advance their cause. Scholars like Brigitte Nacos believe that the media are indispensable to terrorists. In her work “Mass Mediated Terrorism: The Central Role of the Media in Terrorism and Counter – Terrorism”, Nacos outlines how terrorists exploit global information networks to proliferate their violent achievements, known as “propaganda of the deed”. Therefore, management of information in the era of Boko Haram terrorism is a clear and compelling line of operation.
To this end, concerted efforts have been made by to roll back the gains made by Boko Haram in the information domain. A substantial portion of these efforts have focused on providing the public with information which raises awareness on the poisonous ideology being propagated. Recently, the Theatre Commander of OPERATION LAFIYA DOLE presented 3 teenage girls who repudiated Boko Haram ideology and refused to be used as suicide bombers. This means former adherents of Boko Haram ideology are beginning to resist, courtesy of the vibrancy of our information programmes. Also, the Directorate of Army Public Relations has made tremendous progress in the area of keeping the public aware of the successes of the military campaign through commentaries, stories and images. Similarly, the media have been consistently sensitized through seminars and conferences on the urgent need to side more with national security than consumerism and profit consideration. The outcomes of these efforts have been the declining media content on the Boko Haram and its atrocities. However, more still needs to be done in the area of national orientation. This is because national orientation is critical to neutralizing Boko haram ideology. Besides, it will serve to raise the awareness and empathy of a significant number of Nigerians in other geopolitical zones who are still not sufficiently aware of the carnage that had taken place in the North East. On its part, the Office of the National Security Adviser could mainstream counter – terrorism communication to identify and neutralize radicalizing messages across the media spectrum, particularly, those targeting youths.
Regarding Boko Haram, its footprints in both traditional and new media have been on the decline, compared to the weekly appearance a few years ago. From January 2017 till date, the only noticeable images of Boko Haram have been those of internal wrangling, power struggle and execution of members. One of those executed recently was its spokesman; Tasiu alias Abu Zinnira.
The role of targeted micro economic policies in bringing relief and empowerment to vulnerable communities in post – conflict environments cannot be overemphasized. In this regard, the federal government and governments of the 3 states ravaged by Boko Haram terrorism have undertaken various micro finance schemes, as well as women and youth empowerment initiatives aimed at rebuilding businesses ruined by terrorism. Similarly, the wife of the President Mrs Aisha Buhari, the Ministry of Women Affairs, Non – Governmental Organizations and Philanthropists have all joined the drive to rebuild the economy of the North East geopolitical zone. Similarly, the Presidential Committee on the North East Initiative is also working to bring the much needed relief. Also, the National Assembly is working on a bill to establish the North East Development Commission that would fashion a “Marshall Plan” for the North East.
As a result of these interventions, confidence is gradually returning and populations of Internally Displaced Persons are going down steadily in camps across the North East. The implication of this scenario for Boko Haram insurgency is that grass root support; which is the live wire of any insurgency has been lost. If these programmes are sustained and even extended to more vulnerable people in all the affected areas, lingering sympathies or support for Boko Haram will ultimately evaporate, forcing its leadership to abandon the insurgency.
Assessed from the parametres discussed, there is no gainsaying that Boko Haram is living its last days. However, the total defeat of Boko Haram in the North East will not be the end of terrorism or insurgency in Nigeria; rather, it will be an opportunity for us to prevent the next one from happening. Moreover, it should be clear at this time that though strategic, the military has control of only a single line of operation in Counter –Terrorism and Counter Insurgency. Consequently, it would be essential that the relevant authorities across the three tiers of government and institutions focus on and address governance issues. Only this can prevent local grievances or invasive foreign ideologies from spreading and destabilizing our national psyche, orientation and security.
Deputy Director Public Relations
8 Task Force Division