The recent abduction of more than 200 school girls in northeastern Nigeria is a clear indication of how the country, despite its vast economic and military potential, lacks the critical ability to ensure the proper security of its citizens. The event sparked a global outcry and motivated the campaign #BringBackOurGirls, which drew attention to the true danger of the Islamic insurgent group Boko Haram.
This tragic event prompted the Nigerian government to openly welcome, for the first time since the beginning of this insurgency, the offer of security assistance from world powers such as the United States, France, and Great Britain. With new support flowing in from major world powers and neighboring countries, the question now is whether Nigeria will indeed be able to effectively address the wider security concern that has now become both messy and solution resistant.
Without doubt the problem of the Islamic insurgency in Nigeria resists easy solutions. In its desperate attempt to quell the Boko Haram insurgency, the government has resorted to the combination of both soft- and hard-handed strategies, such as the use of firepower, the offer of amnesty, the initiation of back-channel dialogue with (and sometimes the coercion of) insurgent family members. None of these means, unfortunately, seems to have stopped or even mitigated the security hemorrhage to any significant degree, as evidenced by the recent increase in the Islamic militant bombings of civilian targets.
Then came the dilemma of whether to play a lone wolf or accept international assistance. To this dilemma, the consensus seems to have erred on the side of the following: ‘to the Nigerian problem, a Nigerian solution.’ Whether this consensus is in part motivated by the desire to avoid unnecessary international attention and also perhaps the unintended consequences of having to deal with a perceived outside intervention is open to debate. For a country that has a track record of solving its internal security problems, this move is rarely a surprise.
What surprises, however, is how poorly the Nigerian government has so far managed the current security challenge of the Islamic insurgency. First, until recently, the Nigerian government neither agreed on the dangerous nature of the group nor set up a serious security plan to counter it effectively, despite reports that it is connected to and receives outside training from other regional Islamist groups.
Second, for many years, it approached the crisis with the over-simplistic and perhaps short-sighted idea that the Islamic insurgent group could be quickly won over, due to the vast arsenal of economic and military tools at the disposal of the Nigerian government. This faulty assessment, by all accounts, was probably based on the country’s past victory battling other local insurgency groups, such as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, which in contrast to Boko Haram was formed for purely economic reason. In the eyes of the Nigerian government, it is as if all security problems are created equal.
Third, Nigeria has left its security services in disarray; these poorly equipped forces remain largely at the mercy of the better equipped Islamists, despite billions of dollars spent on security in the last few years and a hefty 5.8 billion USD defense budget for 2014. These blunders and missteps have without doubt undercut Nigeria’s efforts in ending the insurgency.
The intervention of Western powers, such as the United States, Great Britain, and France,might signal a new turn in the fight against the Islamic insurgents. For instance, apart from the ongoing training of rangers in neighboring Niger, the US is now providing logistical support to and signed an intelligence sharing agreement with Nigeria. This intervention is expected to close the existing security gap in term of logistics, counter-insurgency training, and closer security cooperation with neighboring countries. It could boost the Nigerian security system and help it to better contain, deter, and defeat the Islamic insurgency.
The Paris Summit for Security in Nigeria that brought together the five African countries of Nigeria, Niger, Benin, Cameroon, and Chad on May 17, 2014 is a clear sign that the fight against the threat posed by Boko Haram is taking a new turn. There are fears, however, that the involvement of neighboring countries and major Western world powers in battling and defeating the Islamists could be perceived as the war on Islam. Were that to happen, it could invite foreign jihadists, making the task even more daunting.
Indeed, the acceptance of international assistance and cooperation might be a signal that the Nigerian government is now ready to address the long overdue problem of the Islamist threat. However, the government cannot be idle if it hopes to take advantage of this support and achieve its intended goal. It must revise its current controversial security strategies that are suspected to have become part of, and not solution to, the existing problems of insurgency. It must show urgency in addressing this problem. Too much water has gone under the bridge due to dawdling, inaction, and reluctance.
The government must also find ways to address its governance predicament of mismanagement, especially in the security sector. Much of this requires an urgency to address genuine social grievances, and to develop counter-narrative measures that can help lure away local communities, which are suspected of lending support to Islamist groups. Equally important, as part of the new strategies, Islamic schools commonly called madrassas – often times used for both children religious education and jihadist training – must be discouraged and replaced with more formal types of religious education, with curriculum determined by the local communities and the States.