17 March 2021
For over a decade, the North-eastern region of Nigeria has been ravaged by insecurity, as the militant group Boko Haram has destabilised border communities. The damage ranges from loss of life to destruction of property and farmlands.
We analysed the efforts of various state and non-state actors (both local and international) to address these security challenges, and found evidence of uncoordinated actions between government agencies and other stakeholders.
This has forced international actors to withdraw their troops and support from the fight against Boko Haram, leaving the border communities in crisis.
To win the confidence of communities under threat, the Nigerian government needs to demonstrate its resolution and sincerity of purpose. It must devise coordinated efforts with other stakeholders to end the insurgency.
Responses to insurgency
We conducted group discussions and individual interviews in six border communities in 2017 and 2018. A total of 276 participants were interviewed in the states of Borno, Adamama and Yobe. We also looked at the legal framework backing Nigeria’s counterinsurgency and considered the state’s military responses as well as the quality of support received from external actors.
It was only after the United States decided to blacklist Nigeria and Nigerians for terrorism in January 2010 that the Nigerian government enacted anti-terrorism legislation. The Terrorism Prevention Act was signed into law in June 2011. The Money Laundering Prohibition Act also came into being in 2011, aiming to cut off financial support for terrorism.
The Federal Government established a special Joint Task Force in Maiduguri in 2011. It comprised the military (Army, Navy and Air Force), the Department of State Security and the Nigerian Police Force. It allowed for coordinated intelligence gathering and sharing among the security formations.
But security experts have questioned the kind of intelligence gathered by the Joint Task Force. It used a military approach to fight an organisation whose identity and structure was fluid, and yet to be established. This is a serious weakness in the government’s response and a reason why the Boko Haram insurgency continues to thrive.
Shortly after the task force was formed, 30,000 troops were deployed to the trouble spots. But a succession of task forces were unable to defeat Boko Haram, which continues to attack military bases and communities. The group gets financial strength, manpower and support from international terrorist networks.
A comprehensive National Counter-Terrorism Strategy was adopted in 2014. This strategy stipulated who would be involved and what mechanisms would be used.
The country closed the borders between northern Nigeria and the neighbouring states of Niger, Chad and Cameroon after it was established that the insurgents were using the porous borders. This move was meant to curtail the activities of Boko Haram, prevent them from escaping into neighbouring states and cut their supplies from foreign terrorist networks.
Some Boko Haram elements still found their way through unmanned parts of the border and attacks continued. The Joint Task Force was often overpowered by the insurgents with superior firepower and guerrilla tactics.
The Nigerian state has received support from external actors, both within the West African sub-region and outside the continent. A Multinational Joint Task Force was formed in 1998 by Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad, and joined in the fight against Boko Haram in 2012. Benin Republic joined in 2014. The multinational troops also received support from the African Union and the Lake Chad Basin Commission. But their activities triggered attacks by the Boko Haram in the Lake Chad region, causing the security situation to deteriorate further.
Countries outside Africa provided training, technical and intelligence support and arms. Some sent troops to assist in the fight, but they were frustrated with the way the Nigeria military handled the intelligence they supplied. The United States then withdraw its military.
Despite these efforts, our field research revealed that people in the border communities felt they had been neglected by the government and left to their fate. Some said the military’s intervention came too late and that the task force was unable to confront Boko Haram. Young people we spoke to said the failure of government to intervene made them regroup themselves to defend their people and fight back against Boko Haram oppression. They also spoke of being harassed and maltreated by task force members.
Many of the respondents lamented the hardship the military had imposed on them, including the restriction on their movements which prevented them from carrying on their daily activities.
The failure of the Joint Task Force pushed some aggrieved people in border communities to take up arms against Boko Haram. The effectiveness of these groups caught the attention of the Chief of Army Staff, who recognised them officially as the Civilian Joint Task Force and co-opted them into the Joint Task Force formation.
Why government’s efforts failed
The initial military approach introduced to combat Boko Haram was largely problematic. It is difficult to fight an organisation when its identity and organisational structure are not known. The counterterrorism drive by the government is crippled by the inability of the Nigerian Police Force to gather intelligence and carry out forensic investigations, and by corruption in the force.
Another part of the problem is that the Joint Task Force engages in unlawful killings, arrests, extortion and intimidation of residents. Officers are not local to the regions where they operate and are not familiar with the culture and terrain of those localities. The local people see themselves as under siege by a foreign security force. They have lost trust in the government’s promises.
And Boko Haram’s financial strength remains robust. It has even been suggested that it received money from some states to stay out of their areas. Once payment stopped they resumed attacks.
The Nigerian government still has a lot to do in the fight against insurgency in North-eastern Nigeria. The fact that the border communities have devised survival strategies such as forming alliances with Boko Haram for protection or taking up arms themselves suggests the conflict is far from over.
A sincere government would combat corruption in both the government and the military, and direct attention and resources to the fight against Boko Haram.
Until this is done, insurgency will continue to pose a serious threat.
By Samuel Okunade. This article first appeared in The Conversation.