Nigeria takes the fight to Boko Haram, but ignores underlying issues

By Simon Allison 26 September 2012

Nigerian authorities are bringing the fight to Boko Haram, putting the Islamist militant group on the back foot with “Operation Restore Sanity”. What they’re not bringing, however, is the economic development or political reform that is essential to solving this problem in the long run. By SIMON ALLISON.

On Sunday night, the heavy fist of Nigerian law enforcement fell on Boko Haram. In the city of Mubi in Adamawa State, 156 alleged members of the Islamist militant group were arrested in “Operation Restore Sanity”, a military raid on what local media described as a “bomb factory”; explosives, chemicals, rocket launchers, machine guns and other weapons were discovered on the scene. Meanwhile, in Damaturu, the capital of Yobe State, the military claimed to have killed 35 people during an overnight gun battle. All the deaths were hostile militants, apparently.

For the Nigerian government, the raids on the two Boko Haram strongholds send a resounding message to the group and to the general public that the authorities are not completely helpless to stem the tide of violence that has been a constant source of irritation and humiliation. Too often, and despite numerous and loud promises to the contrary, the government has failed to protect its citizens.

Since launching its armed insurrection in 2009, attacks attributed to Boko Haram have killed more than 1,000 people in Nigeria. Targets have ranged from the United Nation’s office in Abuja to churches, banks and military barracks, and the group has employed almost every tactic from the militant handbook: suicide bombings, grenade attacks, armed robberies, shooting sprees. They’ve even added a tactic of their own: last month, 30 mobile phone towers in northern Nigeria were targeted in a partially successful attempt to disrupt communications in the region.

All this violence is in support of Boko Haram’s main goal: to turn multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious Nigeria into an Islamic state governed by strict Sharia law. It is a goal that Boko Haram shares with other Islamist militant organisations across the world, ranging from the Taliban in Afghanistan to Al-Shabaab in Somalia.

It is no coincidence that, like those other examples, Boko Haram operates in one of the poorest parts of the world which has suffered decades of state incompetence and failure. Fundamentalist ideologies seem to thrive in these environments, where people are forced to look for more and more radical solutions to their problems. In northern Nigeria, where Boko Haram is strongest – and where it has concentrated almost all of its violence – this is compounded by a long-standing perception that the largely Muslim north has been discriminated against by the mainly Christian south.

If Nigeria really wants to solve its Boko Haram problem, these are the issues the government should be looking to address. After all, history should have taught them that security crackdowns won’t make Boko Haram go away.

In fact, it was the last major offensive against Boko Haram in 2009 which was the genesis of the group’s current success. The military had isolated the leadership of the group to a mosque and adjoining compound in the northern city of Maiduguri and was given the go-ahead to attack. The buildings were shelled and then stormed by troops, indiscriminately firing. By the time they were finished, there were around 100 corpses in the mosque, and Boko Haram’s leader Mohamed Yusuf was arrested. He later died, Steve Biko-style, ‘while trying to escape’.

When Boko Haram regrouped a year later under current chief Abubakar Shekau, it had even more reason to hate the government, and its attacks increased in frequency and intensity. Security forces’ heavy-handed response, meanwhile, seemed to support Boko Haram’s arguments about the incompetence and brutality of the government.

This brings us to the present, where Nigeria is again sending in the troops to combat the militant organisation which has its roots in poverty and inequality. The government will bloody a few noses, sure, and score a few points; that’s what Sunday’s successful raids were. It might even succeed in disrupting Boko Haram and slowing the spate of attacks. This is something it has to do – no government can sit idly by while an armed group wreaks havoc.

However, the chances of a military solution actually working in the long-term are slim to non-existent. Look at Afghanistan, where a decade after being removed from power the Taliban are still in control of wide swaths of the country; or Somalia, where a five-country coalition has yet to push Al-Shabaab out of all its strongholds.

Economic development and political reform is the best way to weaken Boko Haram. Unfortunately, there is no sign as yet that Nigeria’s soldiers are bringing any of that with them. DM

Read more:

  • “Nigeria military says kills 35 Boko Haram militants,” on Reuters Africa;
  • “JTF raids bomb factor, arrests 156 suspects,” on Nigeria’s Vanguard.

Photo by Reuters.


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