Boko Haram: What is to be Done? – Professor Hussein Solomon

18 Jan

Editor’s Note:  Hussein Solomon, a longtime friend of GAPW, is a sensitive, nuanced, highly-respected commentator regarding many of the current mis-steps in African counter-terrorism policy, including an over-reliance on decontextualized military ‘solutions.’  This piece on the grave situation currently unfolding in Nigeria, Cameroon and neighboring states originally appeared as a policy paper of Research on Islam and Muslims in Africa

Even by Boko Haram’s own depraved standards, this month’s attacks by the Islamist group have gone beyond the pale. In one case, a woman in labour was shot dead. In another, a ten year-old girl was strapped with explosives and used as a human detonator in a crowded market[1]. Beyond the brutality of the terrorist atrocities committed is the sheer scale of the attack. In the case of the most recent attack on Baga, where 2,000 civilians were killed according to Amnesty International, heavily armed Boko Haram fighters arrived in trucks and motorcycles[2]. Following an initial attack with grenade launchers on the hapless citizens, survivors of the initial assault fled into the forest only to be gunned down by other Boko Haram fighters on motorcycles. The savagery of the assaults has even motivated the moribund African Union (AU) to act – calling for an AU force to intervene and defeat the insurgents[3].

I am convinced that Abubaker Shekau and his Boko Haram terrorists can be defeated. But what would a strategy of victory look like? First, is the issue of regional and international co-operation. Boko Haram is not only a Nigerian problem but a transnational one – consisting of fighters from as far away as Libya and Somalia[4]as well as having ties with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Somalia’s Al Shabaab (The Youth), the Movement for Unity and Oneness in West Africa and Mali’s Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith). Moreover, there is a discernible Boko Haram presence in Chad, Cameroon, Mali, and Niger. Currently each of these countries is trying to unilaterally take on Boko Haram. Whilst some successes have been achieved, for example, when Cameroon’s military killed 143 Boko Haram fighters after they attacked the Cameroonian military camp in Kolofata[5]; it is clear that neighbouring states need to think along the lines of joint military operations, sharing intelligence, coordinating border crossings, as well as starving Boko Haram of its financial resources emanating locally and abroad to conducts its terror campaign. The latter would necessarily entail greater help rendered to these states by the West as well as the UN’s Counter-Terrorism Committee.

Second, three caveats are important when discussing the employment of military force. In the first instance, the employment of force should not be at the expense of the political and developmental responses to counterterrorism. Rather the military should complement these other legs of a holistic counterterrorism strategy. In the second instance, where force is deployed it should take on board the African context. The focal point of African armies should be highly mobile 600 troop battalions as opposed to bigger brigades of 3,000 troops or a corps of 10,000 troops. This would allow for a more flexible force more in keeping with the counter-insurgency battle they have to wage. Finally, such a military force should take cognisance of the plethora of local militia groups which have sprung up amongst local communities in an effort to protect themselves from the ravages of Boko Haram. These could be useful force multipliers and working relationship could be established between the intervention force and these militia groups. Moreover, the intervention force could also provide training to these groups in the face of a common enemy.

Third, as any medical practitioner knows, prevention is better than cure. Whilst a military solution is needed in the short term, the underlying extremist ideology driving Boko Haram must also be addressed. Radicalisation among Nigeria’s Muslims is also growing[6] apace as a result of the internet and jihadi chat forums.[7] Boko Haram’s founder – Mohammed Yusuf – himself was a trained Salafist (a school of thought associated with jihad and the austere Saudi tradition of Islam known as Wahhabism).[8] Yusuf was also a great admirer of fourteenth century jihad ideologue, Ibn Taymiyyah.[9] Yet the government has done little to curb the spread of radical Islamism. This is surprising considering that the group seeks to convert Nigeria into a Muslim Wahhabist state[10] and the fact that it recruits from the Ibn Taymiyyah network of schools that Yusuf had set up.[11] This, in turn, also contributed to the difficulty that the state’s intelligence apparatus had in penetrating Boko Haram: recruitment seems to be taking place among disciples of a particular religious leader in a particular area.[12] These bonds of loyalty between disciple and religious leader are notoriously difficult to break.

Fourth, counterterrorism efforts are hobbled by the incapacity of the Nigerian Police Force (NPF) to gather intelligence and undertake scientific investigations. According to Amnesty International, most police stations do not document their work. There is no database for fingerprints, no systematic forensic investigation methodology, only two forensic laboratory facilities, few trained forensic staff and insufficient budgets for investigations.[13] Under the circumstances police tend to rely on confessions, which form 60 per cent of all prosecutions.[14] However, it often appears that such confessions are extracted under torture. In the process the guilty often escape punishment while the innocent suffer. In terrorism cases, it means that despite the multitude of arrests of alleged Boko Haram members and sympathisers, it hardly impacts on the sect’s endurance and capacity to carry out fresh atrocities. In addition, corruption within the NPF is rampant,[15] further undermining counterterrorism initiatives.

Such corruption has also become endemic within the Nigerian armed forces, resulting in widespread demoralisation and at least two mutinies in 2014 by soldiers against their commanding officers. While Nigeria’s armed forces are allocated US$6 billion of the annual budget, this hardly benefits the ordinary Nigerian soldier whose monthly pay was suddenly halved to 20,000 Nigerian naira (approximately US$130) in July 2014.[16] Ordinary soldiers have to go into battle against Boko Haram rockets and mortar rounds, in ‘soft’ Hilux trucks, since the money for armoured personnel carriers inexplicably dried up. In addition, each soldier engaging in frontline duty is supposed to receive a 1,500 Nigerian naira daily allowance and food is to be provided. However, this allowance does not get to them and often, neither does the food. Under the circumstances, desertions are increasing.[17] Worse still, soldiers accuse their superiors of leaking their plans and movements to Boko Haram in exchange for payment. In May 2014, 12 soldiers were killed in an ambush in Borno state. Angered by what they perceived as plans leaked to Boko Haram, the remaining soldiers returned to base and turned their guns against their commanding officer.[18] This situation cannot be allowed to continue if one wants to seriously end Boko Haram terrorism.

Fifth, counterterrorism efforts are also proving counterproductive because of the brutality unleashed by the security forces – in the process, losing hearts and minds. The Joint Military Task Force (JTF) in Borno State, for instance, has resorted to unlawful killings, dragnet arrests and extortion and intimidation of the hapless residents of Borno. Far from intelligence-driven operations, the JTF simply cordoned off areas and carried out house to house searches, at times shooting young men in these homes.[19] Similar tactics were pursued by the JTF at homes searched in the Kaleri Ngomari Custain area in Maiduguri on 9 July 2011. Twenty-five people were shot dead by security services, women and children were beaten, homes were burnt and many more boys and men were reported missing.[20] Such excesses on the part of the security services can only contribute to the further alienation of citizens from the state and its security forces – something that Abuja can ill afford. This situation is compounded by the fact that the Nigerian soldiers and police patrolling in northern states are national, not local, and therefore are unlikely to share either ethnic or cultural backgrounds with the local population[21] who view themselves as being under siege in an occupation by `foreign forces’.

Sixth, counterterrorism efforts fail as they do not recognise the wider context – the potential assets that extremists groups have at their disposal. A case in point is the existence of armed gangs throughout northern Nigeria. These number in their thousands and include such gangs as the Almajirai, Yan Tauri, Yan Daba, Yan Banga, and Yan Dauka Amariya. These gangs provide a ready pool of recruits for extremists.[22] The authorities therefore need to neutralise these armed groups as part of the broader fight against Boko Haram.

Finally, counterterrorism efforts suffer as a result of the credibility gap between promise and performance, rhetoric and reality. While promising to curb or eradicate the scourge of terrorism, government actions do not seem to reflect this urgency. As Abimbola Adesoji has reflected, ‘… the government response to Islamic fundamentalism seems neither adequate nor enduring. The prompt trial of arrested culprits, bold and firm implementation of previous commission reports, and a more devoted handling of security reports and armed gangs, as well as better handling of known flash points and hot spots, would, in addition to serving as a deterrent, portray the government as a responsible and a responsive body.[23] Unfortunately none of this has occurred.

This is a failure both at the political level and at the level of the security forces. Political mandarins have failed to adequately arm their security services or provide sufficient funds to engage in long-term intelligence operations to penetrate Islamist organisations in the country. Nigeria’s federal structure has unfortunately contributed to the poor coordination among the different security organisations. This is further exacerbated by, ‘…the inability of state governors as the chief security officers of their states to control the security forces, which are under the control of the federal government.[24]

There are however, failures on the part of the security services as well. The skill sets of those in the Nigerian intelligence community do not provide an adequate ‘fit’ to the challenges posed by sects like Boko Haram. Indeed most of those in the intelligence community seem to have a background in VIP protection – the protection of senior political officeholders – as opposed to intelligence proper.[25] A consequence of the lack of skill sets was evident in December 2011in the northern city of Kano, when security police were keeping the home of a suspected militant, Mohammed Aliyu, under surveillance. Arriving at his home, Aliyu immediately realised that his home was under surveillance and called members of his sect. Within minutes they drove up in three vehicles and fatally shot three undercover police officers.[26]

In addition, there is the on-going problem of nepotism within the security services – people being appointed on the basis of who they know as opposed to what they know. Agekameh[27] captured the sorry state of Nigerian security services by noting that, ‘Standards have fallen due to political partisanship. People now occupy sensitive positions in the security agencies not because of their ability to perform, but because they are either from one geographical location, simply wield some influence or know some people at the top who will nurture their career. The twin evil of godfatherism and favouritism has eaten deep into the entire gamut of the security agencies. Sycophancy rather than professionalism has been elevated as the most important criterion for career advancement.’

These failures help to explain why Nigerian security services were caught unprepared when Boko Haram made its vicious appearance on the scene. The fight against Boko Haram will therefore be a long one but it can be won with the requisite political will garnered to fix these problems and in the process protecting the innocent from the scourge of terrorism.

[1] Barbie Latza Nadeau, “Nigeria is Letting Boko Haram Get Away with Murder,” The Daily Beast, 13 January 2015. Internet: Date accessed: 15 January 2015.

[2] “Boko Haram may have killed up to 2,000 people in Nigeria: Amnesty International,” IBN Live. 15 January 2015. Internet: Date accessed: 15 January 2015.

[3] “South Africa warned against fighting Boko Haram in Nigeria,” News 24, 15 January 2015. Internet: Date accessed: 15 January 2015.

[4] Will McBain, “Nigeria plays down Baga bloodbath,” Mail and Guardian, 16-22 January 2015, p. 11.

[5] Krishnadev Calamur, “143 Boko Haram fighters Killed in Clashes with Cameroon’s Military,” NPR, 13 January 2015. Internet: Date accessed: 15 January 2015.

[6] Zalan Kira, ‘Assessing Terror Threats’ US News Digital Weekly, 3, 49, 9 December 2011, p. 10.

[7] Abimbola O Adesoji, ‘Between Maitatsane and Boko Haram: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Response of the Nigerian State’, Africa Today, 57, 4, 2010b, pp. 99-100.

[8] Toni Johnson, ‘Boko Haram,’ Council on Foreign Relations. 27 December 2011, <; (Accessed 21 January 2012), pp. 1-2.

[9] Ibid., p. 2.

[10] Ioannis Mantzikos, ‘The Absence of the State in Northern Nigeria: The Case of Boko Haram’, African Renaissance, 7, 1, 2010, p. 61.

[11] Ibid., p. 58.

[12]Abimbola O Adesoji, ‘Between Maitatsane and Boko Haram: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Response of the Nigerian State’, Africa Today, 57, 4, 2010b, p. 101.

[13] Amnesty International, Nigeria: Human Rights Agenda 2011-2015. London: Amnesty International, 2011, p. 8.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., p. 9.

[16] Monica Mark, ‘Uphill battle for Nigeria’s ailing army’, Mail and Guardian, 30, 31, 1-7 August 2014, p. 19.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Amnesty International, Nigeria: Human Rights Agenda 2011-2015. London: Amnesty International, 2011, p. 30.

[20] Ibid.

[21] ‘Boko Haram: Nigeria’s growing new headache’, Strategic Comments, 17. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), November 2011, <;, (Accessed 9 January 2012).

[22] Abimbola O Adesoji, ‘Between Maitatsane and Boko Haram: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Response of the Nigerian State’, Africa Today, 57, 4, 2010b, pp. 112-113.

[23]Abimbola O Adesoji, ‘Between Maitatsane and Boko Haram: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Response of the Nigerian State’, Africa Today, 57, 4, 2010b, p. 100.

[24] Ibid., p. 114.

[25] Ibid., p. 114.

[26]David Smith, ‘Boko Haram suspects held after Nigerian shootout’, The Guardian, 19 December 2011, <; (Accessed 28 January 2012), p. 1.

[27] Omede  J Apeh, ‘Nigeria: Analysing the Security Challenges of the Goodluck Jonathan Administration’ Canadian Social Science, 7, 5, 2011, p. 94.

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