Johannesburg — The Boko Haram terrorist group claimed to have killed 78 people in Nigeria's Borno State last week. The bodies of at least 40 migrant rice farmers, working in Zabarmari village, were beheaded while harvesting crops. The group says it is Muslim, but its brand of violent religious supremacy is rejected by Nigeria's Muslim faith leaders. Extremist attacks, primarily in northern Nigeria, have killed tens of thousands of people since 2011, and displaced more than 2,5 million in the eight-nation Lake Chad Basin - including nearly a quarter of a million Nigerian refugees, according to the Global Conflict Tracker.
AllAfrica's Nontobeko Mlambo spoke to Dr. Akinola Olojo, a senior researcher studying issues of conflict, security and peace affecting northern Nigeria at South African-based Institute for Security Studies, in its Lake Chad Basin Programme, based at its regional office in Dakar, Senegal. Dr. Akinola is an alumnus of the African Leadership Centre in Nairobi.
In your work as a researcher on counter-terrorism and conflict resolution, how have you approached Nigeria's crisis - particularly in the north?
One of the most significant security challenges facing northern Nigeria, particularly the north-east zone, is the Boko Haram crisis - a complex one. While my engagement with the issues has been in the form of individual projects, I have also had the opportunity to work in teams.
In 2019, my work explored the idea of dialogue with terror groups and how this can be integrated into a comprehensive counter-terrorism approach. Following the study, I had the opportunity to share some of the insights at a number of forums on the African continent, a UN General Assembly side event in New York and also at the US Congress in Washington D.C.
I have examined and found crucial other areas, such as the influence of religious leaders and organisations in addressing the ideology of Boko Haram and the role of the private sector in counter-terrorism, as well as the question of how 'foreign' terrorist fighters are in an African context, where contemporary state borders are the outcome of the colonial period. My most recent study in 2020 has been on community resilience. In other words, investigating the factors that explain why some communities have not experienced high levels of violent extremism despite so-called risk factors. [The study multiple factors and recommends responses, including greater engagement in peacebuilding by traditional authorities, religious leaders and community peace committees, as well as government economic investment in sectors such as agriculture that improve peoples lives and in livelihood prospects for youth.]
Climate change and resource pressure, for example lack of water and land, will make conditions more difficult in the region. Is there any hope of moving towards less conflict - or peace?
Climatic alterations in northern Nigeria and indeed the wider space of the Lake Chad Basin – Cameroon, Chad, Niger – is a harsh reality. It is already having an impact on conflict trends, and this intensifies existing dynamics and creates new risks which complicate efforts towards stabilisation. For instance, some of the climatic challenges were witnessed earlier this year with floods, which have affected many communities, and also exerted an adverse impact on agricultural production. Notwithstanding, efforts are currently being made by the Lake Chad Basin Commission, with the endorsement of the African Union, to implement what is known as the Regional Strategy for the Stabilization, Recovery and Resilience of the Boko Haram-affected areas of the Lake Chad Basin. The intervention pillars of this strategy take into account the challenges posed by climate change. However, it is one thing to have a well-crafted strategy and another thing to actually implement it and evaluate its impact.
A strategy is one thing; implementing and evaluating it is another.
Several times the government has said Boko Haram is defeated, so why are there still attacks?
The declaration by the Nigerian government about a so-called 'technical defeat' is misleading. The government declared this a few years ago, when some of the territory previously occupied by Boko Haram was recovered. However, based on the evidence of persistent attacks, series of abductions of civilians, destruction of livelihoods, assaults on the military and the overall humanitarian emergency, it is clear that the terror group has not been defeated. In fact, the government is challenged by at least two factions of Boko Haram that continue to demonstrate audacity and resilience, despite counter-insurgency efforts. In a nutshell, Boko Haram remains active and deadly.
What do you think the government should be doing with its security structure, especially after the 43 farmers were killed?
The campaign against Boko Haram is a multi-dimensional one that goes beyond the use of force. Armed force against the group has its utility, and the military should certainly have the right type of weapons required for the battles they face. The appropriate welfare conditions for soldiers should also be taken seriously. However, the complex nature of the crisis necessitates multiple levels of management. There has been serious suspicion around issues of accountability and how certain individuals and entities may be profiting from the crisis. This requires urgent attention.
In addition, there is an aspect of the crisis that calls for efforts to counter the ideology of Boko Haram. There is also an aspect that relates to human rights abuses and this is also crucial, because studies have shown that some individuals, who in the past joined terror groups like Boko Haram, did so due to the killing of a family member or friend. One must also recall that the escalation of the crisis in 2009 happened after the extrajudicial killing of Boko Haram's first leader, Mohammed Yusuf. There is the need to engage local communities in a deliberate way that recognises their contribution to solutions. In doing this, women must not be excluded.
The conflict with Boko Haram is not directly about oil - but does oil contribute to the extremist group's persistence and the state's failures against them?
Based on evidence and trends in the affected communities and the region in general, oil cannot be considered as having a direct bearing on the Boko Haram crisis. The emphasis here is the word 'direct'. There are, of course, clear governance gaps in general that have contributed to the crisis. In fact, part of the governance challenge in Nigeria owes something to the over-reliance on crude oil as a major source of revenue, as well as the mismanagement of revenues over the decades. However, some caution and nuance with analysis is required when trying to draw the linkages between oil and the crisis.
Governments must give priority to community needs.
Why do you think there is lack of infrastructure and investment in government programmes in northern Nigeria, and will development make the region more peaceful?
Investing in socio-economic development and ensuring accountable governance will certainly go a long way. Communities need to feel that their needs and concerns are prioritised by those they elected into positions of leadership. Furthermore, leaders at all levels in northern Nigeria should demonstrate the political will towards sincere action that can address the concerns of communities. Although Nigeria in general is faced with a huge gap between the so-called elites and the struggling man or woman on the street. However, this elite gap appears to be most profound in the context of northern Nigeria and the leaders in the region have a huge responsibility to fulfil as far as addressing the problem is concerned.
When speaking about the Boko Haram crisis, one must bear in mind that a lot of very good research has already been done in order to analyse the nature of the problem. The direction which policies should take has been inspired from this sound knowledge base. In fact, in 2017 Nigeria launched its Policy Framework and National Action Plan for Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism. This National Action Plan actually reflects key components that are required for addressing the ongoing crisis. However, what is urgently required at this stage is sincerity and political will on the part of leadership to implement suggested policies. In addition, this implementation should be done with a sense of urgency.
AllAfrica interviews are lightly edited for length and context. AllAfrica's reporting on peacebuilding in Africa is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, "investing in knowledge that inspires informed action in democracy, education and international peace.