In June, suspected members of the Islamist militant group Boko Haram attacked Yobe prison freeing over 40 inmates and concluding a week of violence in which around 150 Nigerians were killed in attacks. Frustrated by the government’s inability to check such attacks, President Goodluck Jonathan sacked both Minister of Defence Bello Haliru and National Security Adviser General Andrew Owoye Azazi.
That arbitrary and short-term reaction is representative of Jonathan’s approach to terrorism over the past two years. His counter-terrorism policies have been overwhelmingly reliant on state force as opposed to negotiation, dialogue, or counter-radicalisation programmes in the north, and they have so far failed to deliver.
Boko Haram – which means “Western education is forbidden” – is based in the northeast of the country and has rapidly overtaken militants in the oil-producing southern Niger Delta as the country’s biggest security threat.
The precedent of using bullets to tackle the group was set in 2009 when security forces clashed with militants in Maiduguri. Nearly 200 people were killed and thousands displaced. Forces also managed to capture Boko Haram’s leader, Mohammed Yusuf, who was later killed in detention.
Since 2009, Boko Haram have reportedly killed over 1,000 people in attacks on churches, mosques, government buildings and schools as well as assassinations of high-profile politicians and religious figures.
Operations by Nigeria’s security forces have also, however, led to numerous deaths of bystanders as well as Boko Haram suspects with little accountability. One security officer, for example, worryingly explained, “When we receive intelligence that Boko Haram members are in a particular location, we usually arrive on the scene spraying bullets. Innocent people die but that happens all the time in Nigeria.”
Legally, the 2011 Prevention of Terrorism Act gives the police, security forces, and Joint Task Force sweeping powers to counter terrorism. Most importantly, section 13 states that law enforcement officers have immunity “from civil or criminal liability for the use of force as may be necessary for any purpose that results in injury or death to any person or damage or loss to any property”.
This goes hand-in-hand with Police Force Order 237, which permits officers to shoot suspects and detainees who attempt to escape or avoid arrest – this helps explain why no-one has yet been prosecuted for the death of Yusuf.
The preference for the use of force and state violence to counter Islamic terrorism is not unique to Nigeria, and could be seen to be part of a global paradigm led by the US in its War on Terror. Subsequently, it could be argued that Nigeria needs to continue to use force against Boko Haram in order to maintain the economic, political, and military support of the US.
Already embarrassed by allowing Umar Abdulmutallab – the Nigerian terrorist who failed in his attempt to detonate explosives whilst on a plane headed for the US in 2009 – to slip through their net, Nigeria was then placed on America’s terror watch list as a “country of interest”, alongside Iraq, Iran, and Yemen. Though that policy has since been changed, the international framing of Nigeria as a country that harbours terrorists could be harmful to Nigeria’s economic prospects. Being seen as unstable, dangerous, or insecure deters foreign investors.
This perhaps explains why Nigeria follows America’s lead and perseveres with its aggressive counter-terrorism policies. In this pursuit, the government has been accepting support from the likes of the UK, Pakistan, France, Israel and Italy in the form of training, arms, and finance. The biggest supporter of Nigeria, however, has been the US which has sent counter-terrorism advisors to Nigeria, while its Anti-terrorism Assistance Programme and Trans-Sahel Counter-Terrorism Program has provided Nigeria with significant funds to strengthen counter-terrorism units.
Negotiation, on the other hand, has been given little serious consideration, under the old mantra that “we don’t negotiate with terrorists”. Boko Haram has demonstrated a willingness to negotiate with the government, offering terms for laying down arms, but has also, from time to time, violently rejected government offerings.
In July 2010, Boko Haram spokesperson Abu Zayd stated that the “government must be sincere and stop terrorising Muslims in Maiduguri and parts of the North, then there should be a time limit for ceasing fire to gauge government commitment in keeping to its promise, which cannot be more than ten years”.
Then in October 2010, Boko Haram gave further conditions for a truce, including releasing detained members, allowing those in exile to return, reopening closed mosques, just treatment, and “practice [of] our religion according to our belief”.
Up to now, talks have come to little, and many suspect that neither Boko Haram nor the government is taking negotiation seriously. Efforts by Babakura Fugu, a relative of Yusuf, to mediate between the government and Boko Haram concluded in his murder by Boko Haram members in September 2011. In March 2012, negotiations collapsed again with the Supreme Council for Sharia in Nigeria blaming the government for leaking details of the meetings to the press and creating friction between the different parties.
Last July, Jonathan stated that he would be willing to negotiate if the group was not “faceless”. The group is too fragmented, he suggested, to engage in meaningful dialogue, making military solutions backed by the US the best of the undesirable options available.
There may be some truth behind Jonathan’s claim that the group is factionalised and internally incoherent, but these assertions may also be an excuse to continue violence in place of confronting the genuine economic, social, and political problems that allowed for radicalisation in the first place. Indeed, it is for these underlying structural reasons that Boko Haram has a degree of grassroots support in the north, and until the Nigerian government recognise this, their aggressive military strategies will at best only be able to deliver short-term respite, if that.
Editorial note - further reading:
Zach Warner on the historical dynamics of exclusion that produced Boko Haram.
Mark Dearn on the group's development and evolution.
An expert panel discuss the sect and strategies to combat it.
Exclusive Analysis on the link between Boko Haram's actions and sectarian violence across Nigeria.
Exclusive Analysis on splits in the sect and ties to politicians and international groupings, such as AQIM.
Alex Thurston on Boko Haram's February 2011 threats of war.
Rom Bhandari on how the group is a political as well as security problem, following Goodluck Jonathan's announcement that Boko Haram had infiltrated government.
Alex Thurston reports from Kano on Obasanjo's attempted diplomacy with the group.
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