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The Reins of Insecurity in Nigeria’s Quiet War: Something Sour in Borno State



A great many observers of U.S./Africa relations have aptly questioned and even criticized President Obama's selection of countries (Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania) during his 3rd official visit to the continent. Some of the most dismayed have wondered why and how the President could fail to make a stop in such an important strategic and economic partner like Nigeria.

After all, Nigeria, with a population of 170 million, is the continent's most populated country; in 2011, the country supplied the United States with approximately 770,000 barrels of crude oil, becoming this country's 4th largest importer, and has been keen to establish itself as a leader in ECOWAS and the AU.

However, it is not exactly a secret that Nigeria has been tussling with dire development problems like endemic poverty, corruption, and security, as levels of violence seem to continually increase. The security issue is particularly pronounced in the northeastern state of Borno, due to the government's campaign to wrest control from Boko Haram. President Goodluck Jonathan acknowledged as much in a televised address and issued a state of emergency in Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa because of "a systematic effort by insurgents and terrorists to destabilize the Nigerian state." Those assertions are valid.  It is certainly plausible that this could be precisely the moment for President Obama to highlight these issues with a visit and call on Nigeria to tackle the root causes of its instability in person.  However, doing so would have only given cover to the manner in which Abuja has chosen to address the metastasis of Boko Haram and the government would be much better served by a healthy dose of soul-searching regarding the type of country it wants to be.  As it stands, there is something sour in Borno State.

Traditional human rights watchdogs have reported on Boko Haram's exploits at length, describing how the group has targeted police, government security agents, Christians in church, and other Muslims suspected of cooperating with the government or who have spoken out against them.  By the same token, equal attention is being drawn to the Joint Military Task Force's (JTF) increasingly aggressive response tactics to dealing with the situation. A recent Human Rights Watch report found that "research suggests that crimes against humanity may have been committed by both state agents and members of Boko Haram."  Moreover, the New York Times recently ran a story detailing the extent to which jaw-dropping human rights abuses have been committed by the JTF to quell Maiduguri (Borno State's capitol) and purge Boko Haram from the local population. The systematic dispensation of the constitutional guarantees' of due process is questionable at best, and disturbing at worst.  Reports indicate that people are rounded up and held without charge, trial or access to a lawyer in secret locations.  At the moment, the JTF seems to be the judge, jury, and executioner, and being accused of sympathizing with Boko Haram or being caught in a nighttime raid is almost tantamount to capital punishment.  It has also been reported that the accumulation of dead bodies at Maiduguri's hospital – delivered regularly by JTF operatives – has grown so large that resident's flee the neighborhood to get away from the overwhelming stench of rotting corpses.  There have been numerous accounts of truckloads of bodies being dumped that appear tortured, emaciated, and sometimes still wearing handcuffs.  Deliveries even occur when there have been no clashes with or operations against Boko Haram, begging questions about the exact circumstances of their deaths.  That Nigeria is a signatory of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, along with various other international treaties designed to guard against torture, arbitrary arrest, and detention seems inconsequential as the JTF operates under the auspices of a presidentially mandated state of emergency.

Perhaps the JTF's lopsided approach to dealing with the civilian population stems from the mindset of security and defense arbiters within the government. Apparently, it has been a longstanding policy to station military and police personnel in localities outside of their ethnic, religious, and regional homeland.  This is troubling because if the deployed security apparatus on the ground does not understand, respect or relate to the locals, then necessary support and cooperation from the locals may be lost at the onset. Under such conditions, the local population could readily mistake the security apparatus as an occupying force, especially if that force is indiscriminately targeting people with wanton disregard for human rights.  This is hardly an approach that inspires confidence in the government, will win the hearts and minds of Maiduguri residents, or addresses the root causes that give rise to insidious groups like Boko Haram.

The government ought to commit itself to a serious reexamination of how it employs the use of force when responding to domestic security threats.  Though Abuja is completely within its rights to dislodge Boko Haram, its philosophy that "only superior force can tackle insecurity" is inadequate in the current case and simply adds salt to the wounds of a population with legitimate grievances.

Meeting aggression with superior aggression and no strategic plan to alleviate the region's under-development and poverty is little more than laying fertilizer on the recruiting grounds for Boko Haram, which preys on the disillusionment of people who believe that their government cares naught for them.

Moreover, as tempting as it may be, the utterly despicable events of July 6th, when Boko Haram executed 22 students at a secondary school in Yobe, cannot justify brutal crackdowns by the JTF.  President Jonathan must offer Nigerians a clear alternative to the senseless wiping out of innocent people that Boko Haram engages in.  The government does not help itself by acting out of character and making it difficult for its people to discern between Boko Haram's thugs and those adorned in military issued uniforms.

The pain and frustration of absolute poverty run deep in Northeast Nigeria.  It is no accident that Maiduguri is the "spiritual home" of Boko Haram – one of the poorest parts of the country where approximately 75 percent of the people survive on less than $1 USD a day.  What's more, the government's own Bureau of Statistics has released reports stating that the Northeast lags disproportionately behind the South in terms of health, nutrition, education, infrastructure development, and access to electricity. The fact that the JTF has disabled mobile phone signals in the region to discombobulate Boko Haram, and inadvertently complicated commercial activities, such that the prices of basic food staples, have surged between 25-150 percent, goes to show how poorly thought out the government's counteroffensive strategy has been.

Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa paint a dismal picture, but the government's heavy hand is not going to ameliorate the situation or beat back Boko Haram for good.  President Jonathan may be on the right path by offering amnesty and various other carrots, but surely he must realize that his attempts to engage Boko Haram are always undercut when the JTF runs roughshod with impunity over the local population. One cannot credibly talk of dialogue and then turn a blind eye to the security apparatus's atrocious night sweeps and public executions. Nigeria must do better.  Accordingly, President Jonathan is going to have to get serious about tackling corruption and developing the North.  This means breaking up the well-entrenched patronage networks that have benefited at the expense of the average Nigerian, empowering civil society to monitor public spending and hold accountable officials who misuse public monies, and avoiding the reflexive use of the JTF to quash everything in its way. This is a tall order to be sure, but not an impossible one.

Derek Langford is a Program Assistant with the Africa Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center




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The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations.    Read more