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Nigeria Seeking an Effective Response to Boko Haram
16 November 2011

Nigeria's internal security remains extremely volatile following a spate of recent shootings, bombings and suicide assaults in the country's northern cities of Damaturu, the Yobe State capital and in Maiduguri in the Borno State. Almost every week, there are reports of attacks or threats putting the security agencies on high alert. Fear of attacks have compelled the most populous country in Africa to hold a low profile National Day in October 15. As the sect's capacity is growing, can the Federal Government be up to the task of defeating it to save its economic transformation agenda and preserve peace in the country?

Linked to the Islamist group, Boko Haram (whose name literally translates to 'Western education is forbidden'), the attacks resulted, according Nigerian media reports, in the killings of 136 people - the deadliest in recent months. Some reports, however, allege the involvement of irredentist and even criminal elements in the killings.  Of the 136 people who died, 135 were reportedly male and one female, while 17 others were injured. This latest wave of attacks has targeted police stations, banks, military installations, and churches and mosques, reinforcing the impression that a mixture of political, economical and religious agendas motivated the attackers.

A look at the government's responses shows that it has found it difficult to eradicate Boko Haram but worryingly so, the group seems to be reinventing itself and its strategies. It has increasingly embraced suicide bombing; a strategy that ensures concealed attacks to inflict casualties. The Nigerian government has, so far, employed about seven different response mechanisms. The latest involves door-to-door security searches for weapons, particularly, in the northeastern state of Borno. This initiative follows the expiry on 31 October of the deadline for amnesty for those who would have surrendered their arms. Previously, the government initiated the controversial proposal to grant amnesty to Boko Haram. When the move did not work, it followed it up with another controversial attempt at negotiations.

The third move was to launch an inquiry into the group's support base and supposed links with Nigerian political actors. Subsequently, the government engaged the services of former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, in what turned out to be a failed mediation that resulted in the death of the Boko Haram Leader, Babakura Baba Fugu, in a reprisal attack by other Boko Haram members. The fifth attempt involved the deployment of approximately 20 000 military personnel across the country with a full mandate to deal with the increasing security challenges around ethnic and religious violence, violent crimes and terrorist activities.

The government then went further to set up of the Presidential Committee on Security Challenges in the North-East Zone, which submitted its report in late September. The committee found out, among others that, the increasing violence was a result of weak governance and failure to deliver services to the people, especially against the backdrop of huge resources accruing to government.  The report also observed that the security agencies had not been able to contain the violence because of palpable operational lapses, rivalry, under-funding, under-equipment and lack of collaboration between the various security agencies. In a pointer to the muddled nature of the situation, the Presidential Committee also observed that some politicians and certain individuals contributed to the lingering violence by funding private militias, using them and then sometimes dumping them. This created a problem because the groups were not only trained but also had dangerous weapons. The Presidential Committee again proposed amnesty to members of Boko Haram willing who surrender and a comprehensive socio-economic strategy to address people's needs.

While the Nigerian government took up the amnesty proposal, it again raised controversy with some arguing that it would not succeed due to the sect`s radical views. The expiry of the government's amnesty offer on October 30 is what led to the door-to-door security searches. Whether the door-to-door search will offer a lasting solution is subject to debate. Judging from the incessant attacks, it appears the Nigerian government has not yet found a clear answer to the radical violent militancy phenomenon.

Unfortunately, Nigerian politics has thrived on strong patronage networks and rampant corruption thus making it difficult for the government to be speedily responsive to people's needs. A key question that needs further and throughout investigation relates to the existing links between the Nigerian sect and Al-Qaida. With U.S. and other intelligence sources suggesting that Boko Haram members have been trained outside Nigeria and have connections with Al Qaeda`s North African wing, the Nigerian government will need to move quickly to seize the moral and political legitimacy, especially in regions where young people are willing to join insurgents for lack of better socio-economic opportunities. Hard evidence is not yet available as to how consolidated are the external links of the sect but three indications could help making sense of the foreign dimension of the sect's activities.

Firstly, the sophisticated tactics deployed by the group - suicide bombing and the weaponry could not have been of domestic making.  Also, attempts to hit transnational institutions could have the double objective of extending to capacity of the group to attack beyond Maiduguri and perhaps beyond Nigeria and attract international media attention. Secondly, with the downfall of Col. Muammar Gaddafi, a significant amount of weapons have been unleashed in the Sahel. Some of these weapons could fall into the wrong hands including the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb whose members are likely to lend support to Boko Haram fighting 'the western infidels'. In the same vein, Kenya's assault against Al Shabaab could have a collateral impact of dispersing them into the Sahel providing another source of support for the irredentist groups challenging the security of the region.

Boko Haram should not be underestimated and its threat to take the fight southward needs to be dealt with carefully. The danger here will not only be the deterioration of the precarious post-amnesty environment in the Niger-Delta but also retaliation from Niger-Delta militants who are looking for an opportunity to attack Boko Haram. President Goodluck Jonathan's mandate is clearly under threat and current security challenges run the risk of distracting his administration from it economic transformation agenda. Careful, balanced yet decisive actions are needed for him to defeat the scepticism about his ability to ensure peace and security of citizens and protect Nigeria's territorial integrity.

A victory may not necessarily mean the destruction of the insurgent fighters but rather the winning of the hearts and minds of the local population through the restoration of state authority. It calls for comprehensive military, socio-economic, political and civic actions. The government will not only need to increase its intelligence gathering and preventive measures, but also use local influential individuals to pacify the groups and, much more importantly, address the local historical grievances that have produced the 'push' and 'pull' factors.

David Zounmenou, Senior Researcher and Arthur Chatora, Intern, African Conflict Prevention Programme, ISS Pretoria 

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