Nigeria: Worsening Security Demands New Strategy

Ambassador Johnnie Carson
5 June 2014
guest column

Washington, DC — Nigeria's deteriorating security situation is likely to get much worse, unless the government changes its deeply flawed strategy against Boko Haram extremists.

Support from the United States, western Europe and Nigeria's west African neighbors can help, but only Nigeria can solve the problem – by addressing the root causes of the crisis in Boko Haram's northern stronghold. Otherwise, Nigeria will be faced with a prolonged and spreading insurgency of potentially disastrous consequences.

Over the past several months, Boko Haram has carried out high-profile operations, alongside nearly daily attacks in northern areas, including deadly raids on half a dozen villages this week. To the widespread outrage of Nigerian Muslims, the group invokes Islam to oppose all 'western' education and views.

In February, the group killed over 50 students at an agricultural college. The next month, insurgents raided a military prison, freeing hundreds of criminals and killing nearly 400 people. In April and early May, bombings in the capital of Abuja, near the center of the country, killed over 90 people. On May 19, car bombs in the town of Jos – also hundreds of miles south of Boko Haram's main territory – killed over 125 civilians, reflecting the group's growing reach and operational sophistication. 

It was local and international outrage at the mid-April kidnapping of nearly 300 Chibok school girls that forced increased government attention to the insurgency. Helping locate the girls, as well as supporting the larger struggle against Boko Haram, is in United States' interest. 

Nigeria is Africa's most important country and  a long-standing friend of the United States. It boasts the continent's largest economy and is its leading producer and exporter of petroleum. With over 170 million people, Nigeria is also Africa's most populous state and largest democracy. Although exact percentages are disputed, around half the people profess Islam, giving Nigeria the world's fifth largest Muslim population. 

In the wake of the Chibok abductions, President Obama offered U.S. help, dispatching a large inter-agency team of American diplomatic, civilian and military experts and sending drones to neighboring Chad. Great Britain, Canada and other major powers have offered military assistance. On May 17, President Hollande of France hosted a meeting of west African leaders to discuss combatting Boko Haram and preventing the insurgency from broader regional spread. The presidents of Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, Chad and Benin pledged to cooperate, share intelligence and improve border security.

But Boko Haram is fundamentally a Nigerian problem, and the Nigerian government must assume the principal responsibility for solving it. The United States should assist with intelligence, advice and training, as well as with limited equipment to defuse bombs and improvised explosive devices. It would be unwise to provide combat troops, which could increase the likelihood of Boko Haram attacking American targets and would align the Obama administration with a heavy-handed counterinsurgency operation that has failed.

For the past five years President Goodluck Jonathan's government has repeatedly denounced Boko Haram's terrorism and promised to end the conflict. The strategy has been to deploy increasing military force and to declare a state of emergency in the worst-affected northern states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa. That strategy will continue to fail until the government develops a more comprehensive, sophisticated and agile policy. 

Boko Haram has fed on widespread northern distrust and resentment toward Nigeria's oil-rich central government. Many northerners feel politically and economically marginalized, lacking in any meaningful influence in Abuja and seeing no real gains from Nigeria's vast oil wealth.  The north has the nation's highest levels of illiteracy, infant mortality, unemployment and over-all poverty. In the far northeast, where the insurgency is greatest, joblessness among young men is between 40 and 80 percent.  

To stop Boko Haram, Nigeria needs a two-pronged strategy that both provides security and offers hope of a better life.

A revised security plan should put greater emphasis on intelligence and information to pinpoint Boko Haram locations, followed by surgical strikes to go after the group's leaders and large encampments. Captured Boko Haram members should be tried in court and jailed for their activities. At the same time, the government must do a much better job of protecting civil liberties. Nigerian security forces have reportedly killed and injured hundreds of innocent civilians in recent years. 

The second prong of a new policy should be a robust social and economic redevelopment program – a 'Marshall Plan' to demonstrate to the people in the nineteen northern states that they are a valued part of the Nigerian federal republic. 

Elements of a more-effective strategy should include:

  • A Northern Nigerian Development and Recovery Ministry
  • Appointment of a highly respected and experienced northern leader to run the new ministry
  • A special fund to address some of the region's most glaring social and economic inequities
  • A comprehensive youth training and employment program, including dedicated funding for microfinance and microenterprise activities
  • A mixed civilian/military court to investigate and prosecute military and security personnel accused of human rights violations
  • A commission to investigate and review the extrajudicial  killing of Mohammed Youssef, Boko Haram's first leader
  • A forum for Nigeria's president to meet with all northern state governors on a regular basis.  

In the run up to Nigeria's 2015 presidential elections, President Jonathan also needs to make a more concerted effort to reach out to the people of the north, to visit the communities most affected  by the crisis and to ensure that the people in the north will be able to vote next year.

The international community and the World Bank can lend encouragement to these steps by creating a special Northern Development Fund and providing technical experts to help address the poverty and social inequities in northern Nigeria.  Although security remains precarious, the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union should seriously consider establishing a joint diplomatic and development office in Kano, the north's major city, to help implement much-needed regional development programs.

Without such major changes from Nigeria's government, bolstered by international support, Nigeria faces the grim prospects of a long term insurgency that will result in the loss of thousands of additional lives, the destruction of the northeast and the creation of angry jihadists intent not only on attacking Nigerian targets, but western targets as well.

Johnnie Carson served as U.S. ambassador to Kenya, Zimbabwe and Uganda and as assistant secretary of state for African Affairs from 2009 to 2013. He is currently senior advisor to the president of the United States Institute for Peace.

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