President Buhari’s War Against Terror
One hundred days after taking office, President Muhammad Buhari is keeping his campaign promise to prioritize ending the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria’s northeast region. Right from his inaugural speech, when he ordered the immediate relocation of the country’s military command from Abuja to Maiduguri, the hot bed of the crisis, it became obvious that a new sheriff was in town, and it would no longer be business as usual. Since then, President Buhari has rejigged Nigeria’s counterterrorism architecture, forging regional alliances and appointing new security chiefs whose marching orders are to eradicate the insurgency within ninety days. Even the Nigerian Army is making gradual gains in the war against terror, its new determination reflected in the recent change in the code name of its operation from Zaman Lafiya (Operation Restore Peace) to Zaman Lafiya Dole (Operation Restore Peace by All Means).1
The toll from the Boko Haram insurgency has yet to abate, however; over eight hundred people have been killed and hundreds of thousands internally displaced within this period. With the Nigerian security forces’ massive onslaught in the past months, one would think the terrorists would be completely incapacitated by now. The insurgency continues to display strong resilience and shocking adaptability. Members of the group, who formerly traveled in armored personnel carriers (APCs), now ride horses to carry out their nefarious activities—and they are no less deadly for it, recently killing eighty people in three villages they attacked on horseback in Borno state.
Despite whatever gains have been made, a cursory look at President Buhari’s first hundred days in office and the activities of his administration reveal an emphasis more on winning the battle than winning the war. While I agree the military approach to ending the insurgency cannot be dispensed with, it is crucial that we continue to reiterate the need to win the entire war, by adopting a holistic approach to ending the insurgency.
This objective presents several challenges. All over the country, from Borno to Abuja, the nation’s capital, internally displaced persons (IDPs) from the Boko Haram insurgency have been living in poor conditions. Just a few days before the celebration of Buhari’s hundred days in office, the Abuja IDPs took to the streets to protest their circumstances before the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). Whether or not the protest did any good remains to be seen; however, immediate action must be taken to ameliorate the plight of the IDPs. Not only do they represent fertile ground for radicalization and recruitment for the insurgents, but their situation might also bring about a serious humanitarian crisis. The United Nations Population Fund (UNPFA), for instance, recently projected the number of births among IDPs in Nigeria would hit 60,000 by the end of 2015.
According to some reports, some IDPs are gradually returning to their communities. But what exactly are they returning to? Are they going back to villages where the houses are razed to the ground, the wells are filled with dead bodies, there is no water, and landmines are lying around? The fact is that most of the communities are uninhabitable at the moment, and those few that can be lived in have no law enforcement agencies to protect the population should Boko Haram return to attack them again. If IDPs are to go home, the government urgently needs to help clean up their battered communities and present a rehabilitation plan with clear and practical benefits.
Accountability is also integral to resolving the conflict and maintaining peace in the north of Nigeria and the country as a whole. For the first time in Nigeria’s history, it is important to ensure impunity and immunity are not used to undermine peace and security further. In that regard, however, we have yet to see the policy direction of the government, which may be in part because the problem is not Boko Haram alone. The human rights group, Amnesty International, recently issued a report2 indicting the Nigerian military for its wanton killings in the war against the insurgency. These allegations are in no way false. As early as 2011, members of the Joint Task Force (JTF) were accused not just of the extrajudicial killings of young men, but also of burning properties of suspected Boko Haram members or sympathizers. We may recall this situation got to the point where the Borno Elders Forum called for the disengagement of the JTF. The Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) has also allegedly committed war crimes—both against Boko Haram and civilians—while aiding the Nigerian forces in countering the extremists. The CJTF poses a post-conflict security risk to the country, and an expansive rehabilitation plan is needed for the group.
As for Boko Haram, how are we to go about holding its members accountable? It is very important to cap the insurgents’ influence in order to deter dissident groups from taking up arms against the state in the future. A blanket amnesty, like the Niger Delta amnesty, will not suffice, as such previous approaches ended up fueling impunity and causing more conflicts and insurgent groups to spring up all over the country.
Our quest for accountability must also take into consideration the difficult nature of the Boko Haram insurgency. In the last years, for instance, the terrorist group has varied its recruitment strategy; most new members are forcefully conscripted, abducted, or blackmailed into the group. There are also early members who left and even fled their communities when the group made its departure from dawah (the proselytizing of Islam) to destructive jihad (the spreading of Islam by unholy war). An effective accountability mechanism would be one that addresses the complexities of this conflict— for instance, considering the peace, justice, and reconciliation options for winning the war against terror. This raises the question, will Nigeria design its own home-grown gacaca3 or mato oput,4 with women, youth, and traditional and religious institutions represented? Or will it take the form of another truth and reconciliation commission, following the South African model?
What is obvious and imperative at this point is that President Buhari’s administration must immediately rise to the task and unveil a holistic master plan to deal with the Boko Haram insurgency and forestall future conflicts in Nigeria.
- Newson247, “Boko Haram: Military launches ‘Peace by All Means’ operation,” July 20, 2015, http://newson247.com/2015/07/20/boko-haram-military-launches-peace-by-all-means-operation/, accessed September 18, 2015. ↩
- Amnesty International, "Stars on their Shoulders. Blood on their Hands. War Crimes Committed by the Nigerian Military," June 02, 2015, http://www.amnestyusa.org/sites/default/files/report.compressed.pdf, accessed September 18, 2015. ↩
- The Rwandan system of community justice adopted to deal with the 1994 genocide. It literally translates as “Sit down and discuss issues.” ↩
- Ugandan family-based reconciliation practice, also used to end the violence in Northern Uganda. ↩