Contrary to the belief in some circles, the states of Yobe, Borno and Adamawa are not at war. Neither is the North. No, whether or not you choose to screw your eyes tightly shut, cover your ears with your hands and sit with knees drawn up to your chest murmuring over and over again “this is not happening, this is not happening…”, the fact remains, this country is at war.
In his speech declaring a state of emergency in the 3 states, President Jonathan confirmed the state of war we are involved in when he mentioned 11 states in which there are “terrorist activities and protracted security challenges”. This adds up to roughly 30% of the country, without taking into account the daily security challenges that we as Nigerians have faced for decades. But the focus at present is on the 3 states most currently in need of assistance. These three states are lined along the same border; a fact which clearly aids the insurgents, as the President stressed preserving Nigeria’s “territorial integrity” 4 times during his 15-minute speech. It appears that Boko Haram have been enjoying a freedom of movement which enables them to roam from northern Nigeria through Chad and Niger, all the way to Mali, where they were said to have participated in the recent insurgency in the north of that country. This appears to confirm reports which indicate that Boko Haram teamed up with the Algeria-based Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Somalia-based Al-Shabaab from June 2012 to synchronize and coordinate their activities.
There have been arguments as to whether President Jonathan’s declaration of a state of emergency in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa was the right thing to do, and whether it is too little or too late. Regardless of the outcome of that debate, we are where we are and must deal accordingly.
It has been said by those better versed in the topic than this writer that fighting an insurgency is like being in a fight with a child: no matter if the child started the fight or how well-armed the child is, if you harm the child you feel as if you have done some unjust, but if the child beats you then you look foolish. Compound that scenario by taking into account that the child will feel justified to use every weapon at its disposal, not because it is fighting for the right thing, but simply because it must do so if it is to have any chance of beating you.
This is where I have an issue with the government’s response, and the president’s declaration of a state of emergency in the 3 states. Whether or not I agree on the need for a state of emergency is irrelevant; however, I am concerned that the application may not result in an acceptable victory (some victories are unacceptable, due to the cost in innocent lives, etc). Keeping in mind the climatic and geological conditions in these states, as well as the poor governance and unbridled corruption which is typical of our beloved country, one can only imagine the hardships the residents of these states must be facing. Decent conditions then for an extended insurgency to plant roots and establish control, whether by intimidation, radicalization, or by assuming the duties of government (defense, administration of justice, and provision of public goods, according to Adam Smith) in those regions.
What concerns me is that as Nigerians we tend to think in terms of force, power, and the effectiveness of them. It is evident in our speech and mannerisms: we tend to be quick to raise our voices, we clap our hands or snap our fingers loudly for emphasis, we bang on tables or stamp our feet to reinforce our point.
Further evidence of this, in case you need it, can be garnered from the history of the conflict with Boko Haram. Likely as not, everyone remembers the infamous Boko Haram uprising of 2009 which led to the killing of Muhammed Yusuf, the leader of the sect at the time. Prior to that, the government had been warned that the group, which had been a peaceful movement up to that point, was becoming increasingly radical, and that they had begun arming themselves. For reasons unknown, these reports and warnings went unheeded for some time until, in 2009, an investigation was launched into the group’s activities. Soon after, the group coordinated the attacks that began this vicious cycle by attacking police forces in Borno state. It has been estimated that 700 people died in that round of violence, a large enough number to imply that force was indiscriminately used, whether by the group or security forces. In fact, reports about Muhammed Yusuf’s death indicate that he was shot by police “while attempting to escape”, but while still in restraints. There have also been videos of police officers allegedly shooting unarmed people “suspected” of being Boko Haram members. If even one of these reports is true, it exemplifies the belief in the effectiveness of force and power of which I speak. I worry that President Jonathan may be attempting a show of overwhelming force to quell the insurrection and “ensure a return to normalcy within the shortest possible time.”
To begin with, the issue of returning to normalcy, as the president put it, is one which this writer finds to be quite absurd and out of the question. It reminds me a little bit of those posters saying, “give peace a chance.” I find those ridiculous because there was peace previously, peace is the state from which we started (which might be what some could call ‘normalcy’). It is because the conditions of that peace became so unacceptable to some people (reasons vary, though poverty and corruption are regularly cited as leading factors) that they resorted to violence. Therefore, a “return to normalcy” would solve nothing, it would simply be a temporary setback for these people who who are probably best referred to as Violent Non-State Actors (VNSAs), as they might flee out of reach across the border, regroup, and return when we get all nice and comfortable again. No, it is improvement that we should be aiming toward. Like it or not, an insurgency such as we are currently facing in parts of the nation cannot succeed without the cooperation, whether active, passive or otherwise, of the population. As well, it cannot be defeated without the help of the same population. It has been said that counterinsurgency is not a war for control of territory but for support of people.
Soldiers, by the very nature of their profession, are not particularly suited to the kind of work being currently allocated to them. It is almost like using a saw to do the job of a nail file, but that is what we are left with and we must make do as best we can. It will be up to the officers, as well as President Jonathan and his staff, to give the right orders and help the soldiers understand precisely what it is they are meant to be doing there. On a positive note, Nigerian soldiers have been actively involved in peacekeeping in several African countries, and thus are likely more capable in the role they have been assigned than most of us realize. Because our troops have been at the forefront of most peacekeeping missions within Africa for several years running, they should have become accustomed to conducting operations and maneuvering their way around a civilian population. As well, international peacekeeping missions require the soldiers to have received further training and orientation in disciplines which fit the roles they are duty bound to fulfill. Col. Mohammed Yerima, a spokesperson for the Nigerian army, confirmed this in November 2012 when he said “there is no force in the West African subregion that can match Nigeria’s capability” when quizzed about the ability of the army to conduct peacekeeping operations in Mali. This will prove invaluable in our current situation.
The first order of business in this desperate war, then, should be to seal the borders of the three states in question, both from other states within the federation as well as the international borders that they collectively hug. Soldiers are more than decent at such tasks, so it shouldn’t be much of a problem to them. The locking down will enable most of the problem to be contained within the region and enable us to focus on addressing it without it either spreading or being reinforced from without. This part is pretty obvious, and relatively easy to accomplish.
There has been talk of a “massive deployment” of troops to the three states, and residents of the states have been quoted in the media as having confirmed this. This is an absolutely necessary step, especially as the word coming from those regions indicate that the VNSAs have been operating with impunity in such a significantly large number of local governments that all government officials must be exceedingly embarrassed. While this massive deployment is necessary, it ought to be seen more than felt. Of course, it is up to those who have more information than this writer to decide how many troops can be spared without thinning out in other areas where they might be also needed, but I strongly advise a large enough contingent of soldiers that have been given explicit orders regarding public safety and rules of engagement. When you can barely turn a corner without meeting a checkpoint, inconvenient though it may well be, it severely restricts the ability of VNSAs to go about their business even more than it does you.
And now for the hard work. The sudden and overwhelming security presence will most likely result in a significant drop in terrorist activities very quickly. This window must be taken advantage of before they begin finding loopholes to exploit. The solution to an insurgent problem is rarely, if ever, one that is purely military, just as it is rarely purely political. It relies on a combination, and coordination, of military efficiency, political will, and economic progress. Thus, even as the military set about achieving these initial objectives, the other sectors mentioned ought to be coming round to bear on the problem.
The state and local governments, who have now been essentially freed of the major security responsibilities, can prove to be invaluable in this aspect. But it cannot be left to them alone. Along with federal agencies, and possibly including international aid organisations being brought in to help, immense political pressure should be put on the state government officials to participate for the sake of the resident population in this time of great need.
First, population control; I would advocate issuing a mandatory ID card free of charge to every man, woman and child over 15 years old, regardless of rank or station. Registration booths should be widely available and the message passed around that after a certain period of time, anyone caught without an ID card risks being detained for questioning. It would also serve to make checkpoints more efficient. Of course the registration booths will immediately become high priority targets but, given the sudden overwhelming military presence and the window it creates as stated above, ensuring tight security at and on the paths to these booths should be well within the capabilities of our forces. If necessary, roving booths could be employed which go from district to district, and residents encouraged to only register at the booths within their districts.
The value of an effective information campaign cannot be overstated. First because inadequate information increases uncertainty, which consequently heightens terror. It is also worth bearing in mind that better lines of communication aid in passing vital information to the people promptly and, if done right, receiving information from the same people in a timely manner.
That being said, a radio station would be a good thing to set up. It is critical that information be quickly and efficiently passed if and when it becomes necessary. Not everyone has access to a television, and newspapers may not be readily available for some reason or other. They take a long time to print and distribute anyway. The Internet, for better or worse, is not something that is widespread in Nigeria, and the last thing the people in charge should want is for word of mouth to take monopoly of the flow of information, as that can result in severely distorted information that could bear no resemblance to the initial message.
While we are on the topic of information, it is the belief of this writer that the security forces ought to present regular updates to the people to assure them. Have a face, which the VNSAs do not; speak regularly, speak positively, and always speak the truth. Lies will be found out, sooner or later, and credibility lost; a situation we simply cannot afford. As David Lerner wrote in his book on psychological warfare operations in World War 2, “Credibility is a condition of persuasion. Before you can make a man do as you say, you must make him believe what you say. A necessary condition for gaining his credence is that you do not permit him to catch you in lies.” It is important that the lies of the insurgents be revealed as such, yet at the same time we need not (read: must not) degrade ourselves to their level.
Which brings me nicely to my next point. Because the VNSAs have chosen to veil themselves and their true motives in the cloak of religion, it is imperative that theit stated ideology be separated from the religious beliefs of the population. Known and respected religious leaders, who know the tenets of said religion better, as well as local imams and people of influence and integrity, should be encouraged and enabled to explain to the people what exactly their religion says about such behavior as the VNSAs have been exhibiting. This is necessary to help establish not just the legitimacy of our government, but also the fact that the opposing forces have grossly abused the faith they claim to be fighting for. People who might otherwise be inclined to subscribe to the propaganda of Boko Haram need to be informed by those they trust and respect that what we are involved in is not a religious conflict. Far be it from me to claim any kind of expertise on the matter, but even from the little I have read of it, the Quran advocates living in peace with one’s neighbors, even going so far as to make special provision for non-Muslims residing in Islamic communities. Because the structure of the VNSAs is, by necessity, loose, and different factions exist within their group, it might be possible to weaken the links between the groups and separate them, a subject I will touch upon shortly. For the time being, let it suffice to say that the elements currently collaborating, or at risk of collaborating, with the insurgents may not be completely inseminated with the ideology that drives the more radical of their number. There might be room yet to reason with some, and this writer believes the effort is worth the potential gain.
We cannot afford to ruin our chances of bringing peace and understanding by allowing our forces to commit atrocities, which will only serve to further alienate neutrals and give the VNSAs something to point to and use as a recruitment tool.
There should be regular meetings (perhaps weekly) between the community leaders, political wing and military commanders to discuss progress, strategies and tactics. All stakeholders should be represented at these meetings. It is necessary in order to unify the different stakeholders and have everyone involved in the winning of this war. The last thing we want is infighting and/or confusion amongst ourselves: that should be left to the VNSAs. Admittedly, there is a risk of collaborators infiltrating these meetings, but it is a risk that ought to be taken, albeit with both eyes open. The meetings need not contain much in the way of sensitive information: their main purpose is so that everyone involved in the process is aware of the general steps and objectives of other stakeholders and they can then have one on one discussions about how best to work together to achieve particular objectives. For instance, a government official who wants to hold a meeting with youth representatives should be able to meet and speak directly with a senior officer about the logistics and security factors. These meetings ought to be replicated at ground level as well: a community leader concerned about crops and farmlands being trampled should be able to express that to an officer who is in a position to do something about it. All parties need to work in accord with each other. Of course, there have already been reports of people from different areas (military and otherwise) who are conspiring with the VNSAs and, as such, it is natural to be suspicious and disinclined to hold open meetings where a collaborator might be present to carry information back to the terrorists. While this is completely understandable, it should not defeat our intention to be more open and keep talking with each other. As mentioned above, these meetings do not necessarily need to be detailed, or even contain plans being formulated. If nothing else, they can simply be a way to meet with each other and explain why certain places were raided, that there was actionable intelligence which led to the decision, and present evidence of contraband found or VNSAs killed/captured, and also to encourage more cooperation so that military operations may be conducted with a much reduced risk to the populace.
In a way, we might consider ourselves exceedingly lucky with the threat we face in its current form. The unscrupulous nature of the VNSAs tactic, and their decision to choose the terrorist method, can be of great value to our efforts. This is because it alienates the people from their cause, freeing up the opportunity to evict them from the communities they have taken over. Because the insurgency has a direct negative impact on the population of these areas, they have failed to endear themselves to the people, which implies that theirs is a reign of terror in the districts which they control. Take away the threat of retribution, take away the terror, and it falls to logic that the people will be willing to cooperate. However, I cannot stress enough that the gains to the residents have to be permanent, tangible and substantial; a temporary respite from violence with little in the way of benefits will not encourage. The insurgents must be permanently isolated from the population.
Keep in mind that, as something of a pacifist, when I say ‘permanently’ I am not necessarily implying killing them. In my opinion, a VNSA who willingly lays down his/her weapons represents a greater victory than 10 dead VNSAs, as aptly explained by Flavius Renatus when he said “To seduce the enemy’s soldiers from their allegiance and encourage them to surrender is of special service, for an adversary is more hurt by desertion than by slaughter.”
This might best be achieved on a district by district basis, essentially an oil spot strategy of divide and conquer. If you have read this far, you probably already understand that I don’t subscribe to the theory of a quick and decisive victory. I would advise the relevant stakeholders to choose the districts/locales that have been most cooperative (or that are the most strategic, depending on results of consultations between political and military commanders) and focus on massively improving their lot. Basic social amenities should be provided, as well as security and protection (especially against retribution from the VNSAs). Essentially, there should be worthwhile, tangible and, dare I stress it, permanent gains to the people for helping to ensure security in those areas. Those districts will then serve to become model examples of the benefits of cooperating with the government; safe havens where, while there would be relatively greater ease and freedom of movement within, movement in or out will be subjected to substantial scrutiny from security forces to better preserve the peace within. This will have the benefit of encouraging other districts to follow the same model. Even if they choose to instead flee to these areas rather than help in securing their own, it still benefits the state because it will leave the VNSAs more exposed to the attentions of the Nigerian army. In which case cooperative districts can be used as a base from which to pacify neighboring districts. Neighboring districts should then be encouraged to take the step which will bring them into the fold, hence the oil spot strategy may achieve success.
Chief among the benefits that the political wing of these three states should be looking to provide, in my opinion, is medical care, the type of which is hardly available anywhere else in the country. Hospitals within the safe districts should be refurbished, medicine cabinets restocked, doctors brought in (I imagine a good number of aid agencies would be willing to help in this regard), and medical care heavily subsidized. Anyone seeking medical aid will be required to produce their ID card. If they fail to do so they will still be treated, but the security will be alerted and will be on hand, ready to take the patient for questioning once treated. It goes without saying that security at medical establishments will need to be of the highest level, as even wounded soldiers might also need to be treated there.
It is imperative, however, that the reconstruction and rehabilitation processes be organized in such a fashion as to have the people concerned actively involved in it. There is little need to lecture anyone about the high unemployment rates, low incomes or inadequate education. Thus the communities would be greatly aided by giving them active roles in their own development, in more ways than one. Building projects, for instance, should be mandated to employ majority of the required unskilled labour from the community within which they will be operating (as these would be primarily within the safe districts, it ought to be feasible enough), as well as whatever skilled labour is available within that community. Hence, not only will the amenities be provided, but also gainful employment and skills acquisition. Of possibly even greater importance, a project which the community as a whole has worked to bring to completion is one which they will recognize as theirs, and it stands to reason that they will strive to protect their own. That is the key, really, to make it theirs. Because the soldiers will leave eventually, as will a good number of aid workers and the attention of the nation (the world, in fact), by which time these communities need to be able to carry on with minimal support.
An added benefit of this is that, as the population takes an active role in their own security by bringing to the attention of security forces suspicious activities, the need for soldiers within the communities will decrease as time goes on, such that the soldiers will less and less be required to patrol the streets of towns and villages, but rather their borders. Civilian casualties in this war will also decline as a result. The only party that wants civilian casualties are the VNSAs, and we should use this to our advantage, as a rallying point for all concerned. And while this is at present a military operation, the hope is for it to develop into a police operation when it becomes safe to do so. As such, this is an opportunity which must be taken to retrain and reorient the police force in these regions to a state where they become a model for the police in other areas of the country to follow. Because we want a situation where, as soldiers vacate communities, they hand over to the local police force who should be capable by that time to perform the duties which our goals require. With the right approach, the citizenry might welcome the police back in with open arms as it will signify a relaxing of tensions. But, even as soldiers vacate a district and police take over security responsibilities within, the economic progress being propagated must not slack but continue apace. I already said it would be hard work involved. As for battling the VNSAs when they have been separated from the civilian population and consigned to open terrain, I’m sure the army will relish the task and do not need my meddling in that affair.
While the points I have made thus far are likely agreeable to all parties involved, I would be remiss in my duty if I didn’t bring up a final point which might not be so readily agreed to by some parties. I think that the political pressure must be more than just at state government level, if victory is to be achieved. It is my belief that the lower rungs must be actively involved, as they are arguably even more important than a state government, which has some isolation outside of the state capital. Just as the VNSAs have built their control from the bottom up, so also the solution must take into close account the grassroots. Too often have we attempted to rule from above; a conscientious effort must be made for leadership from within, with the active and popular support that generates. This will mean significant involvement from representatives in parliament, I suppose. At these oft overlooked levels especially, processes need to be put in place which may be at odds with the will of some politicians, but may prove vital in securing the continued support of a Nigerian government by the residents of these areas. The political structures in these areas should be given tasks to accomplish, and assessed based on these. These tasks ought to serve as basis from which soft and incompetent officials should be reprimanded, counseled, and, if all else fails, relieved of duties. Then someone else may have a go. The idea here is, as advocated by David Galula, to “rebuild [the] political machine from the population upward.” I do not think it is pertinent, at present, to delve into the quagmire that is Nigerian politics, but suffice to say that victory in this war may rely on a shift in political responsibility in order to encourage and persuade the population to participate.
You might notice that I have not at any point referred to people as “the masses.” This is because that term is akin to a peaceful mob; it implies a mass of nameless, faceless beings with which one has little common ground, even common humanity. This way of thinking needs to be expunged if we are to achieve victory acceptable to all stakeholders on our side of the conflict. The people are of vital importance and represent our best chance to prevail against those who seek to destroy all that is valuable, both in terms of material possessions but especially in terms of moral good.
It is for these reasons that I believe the speech by President Jonathan should have been more directed toward the population as a people rather than a declaration of war against the VNSAs. Because if this war is to be won, it will not be won by soldiers, politicians or committees; it will be won by the people.