Governance Reforms May Be More Effective Than Military in Countering Boko Haram, South African Professor Tells ACSS – Africa Center for Strategic Studies
Governance Reforms May Be More Effective Than Military in Countering Boko Haram, South African Professor Tells ACSS
Washington, D.C.—Nigeria’s counterterrorism efforts have been unsuccessful because policymakers fail to acknowledge that elite corruption and the exclusionary character of the state are the underlying causes of the violence that has left more than 2,800 dead since 2009, Professor Hussein Solomon, Senior Professor in the Department of Political Science, University of the Free State, South Africa, said during a presentation at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS) on March 28.
Assertions that the conflict in northern Nigeria is purely the result of religious tensions are misguided, Professor Solomon argued. “It is dangerous to label the conflict as religious solely due to its religious overtones,” he said, noting that narratives discussing the ethnic dimensions are more prevalent within Nigeria.
To be sure, linkages between Boko Haram, the militant Islamist group that has claimed responsibility for numerous deadly attacks in northern Nigeria, and other terrorist groups in East Africa and the Sahel are well-documented. A February 2012 ACSS Africa Security Brief on regional security cooperation in the Maghreb and Sahel pointed out “Nigerian intelligence services have reported that some members of Boko Haram were recruited by an Algerian, Khaled Bernaoui, and trained in a southern Algerian camp as far back as 2006.”
“Boko Haram’s rhetoric and tactics indicate that the organization has expanded its reach well beyond its original base in northeastern Nigeria,” wrote Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director of the Ansari Africa Center, in an April 2012 ACSS Africa Security Brief examining Boko Haram’s resurgence. “It may be evolving into a transnational threat with links to other terrorist groups and violent extremists in North, West, and East Africa.” The terrorist group’s February 2013 kidnapping of seven French tourists from a wildlife reserve in neighboring Cameroon only worsened fears that the threat posed by Boko Haram has metastasized.
However, Professor Solomon insists that Boko Haram ultimately formed in Nigeria in response to local grievances. “Boko Haram is merely a vehicle representing deep popular dissatisfaction with deteriorating living standards, a corrupt political elite not responsive to people’s needs, and an alienating state that is reinforcing sectarian divisions and unable to articulate a notion of Nigerian citizenship transcending divisions of language, ethnicity, religion and region,” Professor Solomon said during his presentation.
The Nigerian government, he says, is viewed by many in the region as delinquent and predatory. Although Nigeria’s government routinely fails to invest in basic social services, such as health and education, access to the state provides governing elites with ample opportunities for self-enrichment. “Politics becomes a zero-sum game,” Professor Solomon said. Those who are excluded, he says, often look for ways to get even.
Rather than seeking to build a cohesive national identity, Solomon says that political elites in Nigeria have sought to manipulate existing social identities for political gain. “The post-colonial Nigerian state does not actually try to create an all-encompassing Nigerian identity,” he added. “They actually use the existing identities…to mobilize a particular ethnic or religious group for their own narrow political purposes.”
“Ethnic, communal, religious, regional and sectarian identities are on the rise in Nigeria since they provide a safe haven for increasing numbers of people fleeing an incompetent, insensitive and predatory state,” Professor Solomon said during the presentation. “What we have is the unraveling of being ‘Nigerian’.”
In many parts of Nigeria, religious leaders have filled the vacuum left by the state and, in the process, have become extremely influential. “Religious leaders occupy a central position because they are the ones providing education, health and welfare facilities,” he said. The overwhelming majority of Nigerians, he said, believe that religious leaders should play a significant role in politics. To Professor Solomon, this reflects the deep antipathy with which Nigerians view the state and trust with which they view religious leaders.
When the context of Boko Haram’s rise is taken into account, Solomon said, it is clear that the Nigerian government’s military-centric response to the threat of Boko Haram has been insufficient. “The military oriented nature of counter terrorism efforts does not address the deep rooted structural conditions that spawned Boko Haram,” he said. “[Counterterrorism initiatives in Nigeria] fail because they don’t seem to take into account overlapping regional, ethnic and religious identities, the fragility of the state, economic imbalances between the North and the South, and historical contexts.”
Human rights advocates claim that the heavy-handed response of the Joint Task Force (JTF), the hybrid military and police force deployed to respond to Boko Haram, may actually empower the militant group. “Civil society activists in Nigeria say that ordinary citizens fear both Boko Haram and the JTF, whose abusive tactics at times strengthen the Islamist group’s narrative that it is battling government brutality,” according to an October 2012 report by Human Rights Watch. “The police’s extrajudicial execution of Boko Haram’s leader, Mohammed Yusuf, and dozens of other suspected members in July 2009 became a rallying cry for the group’s subsequent violent campaign.”
To effectively address the challenges posed by violent extremist organizations in the North, Professor Solomon said, Nigeria will need to create an inclusive state. This will require enhanced development in the north, he said, as well as greater investment in Western-style education and the appointment of northern political elites to senior
The Africa Center is the pre-eminent Department of Defense institution for strategic security studies, research and outreach in Africa. The Center engages African partner states and institutions through academic and outreach programs. The Africa Center supports United States foreign and security policies by strengthening the strategic capacity of African states to identify and resolve security challenges in ways that promote civil-military cooperation, respect for democratic values, and safeguard human rights.
For more ACSS analysis of Boko Haram, see Africa Security Brief No. 20.
Professor Hussein Solomon’s opinions are based on his professional academic experience and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. Instead, they are presented to contribute to public discussion on security in northern Nigeria and the surrounding region..
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