Is the Tide Actually Turning Against Boko Haram?

Over the last several weeks, headlines have documented numerous military defeats suffered by Boko Haram at the hands of the more than 8,700-strong allied forces, including reclamation of key towns and the rescue of nearly 700 women and girls. As allied forces close-in on the terrorist group, it seems the tide has finally turned against Boko Haram.

From Reuters:

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But these apparent victories could be deceiving. Unless the incoming president changes course,  recent gains against Boko Haram on the battlefield may be short lived.

The incoming President, Muhammadu Buhari, who takes power at the end of this month, has pledged a military-first approach to countering Boko Haram with little regard to the fact that one of the key underlying causes of the conflict has been the behavior of the very military he is relying on to defeat Boko Haram. Unless the new president, himself an ex-general, adopts a more holistic approach to addressing the underlying drivers of radicalization his strategy may be doomed.

It is easy to see why force is such a compelling solution; it not only provides immediate, tangible results, but also satisfies the desire for action in the face of unthinkable atrocities. However, such a military-first approach is not different from other narrow, state-led strategies tried over decades in other countries with unsustainable, limited results.

In these places, the tactic has proven to beget little more than endless cycles of violence in the pursuit of the ambiguous objectives of the “War on Terror.” Take Kenya for example. Despite substantial military victories against al-Shabaab, aided by U.S. drone strikes, the group has not been eradicated. Rather, it has been stepping up guerilla-like mass atrocities in Somalia and Kenya.

Killing high profile Al-Shabaab leaders prompted a fundamental restructuring of the group, according to Alex Dick-Godfrey of the Council on Foreign Relations.  It now exhibits what might best be described as a “de-concentration of power”  manifesting in a shift in interests from territorial control of Somalia to more nebulous goals of creating instability throughout the Horn of Africa. That begs the question: How do you militarily counter forces which lack a unified territorial front or agenda?

Similarly, Boko Haram has proven to be a resilient, adaptable group, undeterred by force and flexible enough to shift strategies in the face of a changing threat environment and movements of opposing forces. Despite having its leader, Mohammad Yusuf, and 800 of its members killed by police extra-judicially in 2009, the group went underground, factionalized, and resurfaced more radical and deadly two years later with the bombing of the UN building in Abuja. Despite being chased by five different militaries and South African mercenaries, Boko Haram continues to perpetrate violence, seemingly without a discernable strategy.

This is why Buhari’s vision for defeating Boko Haram, which he outlined in a recent NYT op-ed, is potentially so problematic:

Boko Haram feeds off despair. It feeds off a lack of hope that things can improve. By attacking a site of learning, and kidnapping more than 200 schoolgirls, it sought to strike at the very place where hope for the future is nurtured, and the promise of a better Nigeria. It is our intention to show Boko Haram that it will not succeed.

My government will first act to defeat it militarily and then ensure that we provide the very education it despises to help our people help themselves. Boko Haram will soon learn that, as Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” (emphasis added)

To be sure, education is an indispensable bulwark against radicalization and can assist in ameliorating some of the underlying causes of the conflict, such as poverty and socioeconomic underdevelopment.  But prioritizing a military solution above all else, is likely to only perpetuate the problem.

Examining 648 terrorist groups between 1968 and 2006, a seminal RAND study found that “military force has rarely been the primary reason for the end of terrorist groups,” with evidence suggesting that the majority of terrorist groups ended with “a transition to the political process.” The report found that in situations where terrorist groups were unable or unwilling to enter into transitional, nonviolent talks, local police and intelligence gathering were the most successful in “penetrating and disrupting” terrorist organizations in comparison to the military. This lesson is apparently lost on Buhari’s, who is opting for a strategy of deploying military units from other regions of Nigeria to the Northeast. These same units will inevitably lack local understanding of the threat environment, context, legitimacy, and accountability in the Northeast and will find it challenging to extract intelligence from a populace long-terrorized by the military.

So far, a counterproductive military-first approach in Nigeria has been characterized by brutal abuses and profiling committed by predatory military and police forces with impunity, resulting in marginalization of an entire religious group. Emboldened and supported by the West’s War on Terror, Nigerian security forces hunted down and killed Muslim men indiscriminately and terrorized communities throughout the North employing methods hardly distinct from Boko Haram.  Despite this, Buhari proposes employing a tool that is definitively a part of the problem.

A professional military, let alone a predatory military, cannot “confine” what is at the heart of Boko Haram’s appeal—a refuge and a sense of purpose for those who feel alienated, marginalized, persecuted and ultimately rejected by a system they perceive to fuel inequity and injustice.  We can only hope that the Buhari Administration is committed to what will be a long and arduous process of security sector reform, disruption of corruption, and building an inclusive society, necessary for sustained stability, rather than relying on military actions that provide immediate security, but have proven to come at a cost to regional stability and civilian life.