The truth about the Boko Haram insurgency

By Jibrin Ibrahim

My column of November 30 was on winning the war against Boko Haram and I was responding to President Muhammadu Buhari’s declaration that the war against the insurgent group is a “must win”; so that Nigeria can forge ahead in its quest for even development and national stability. I return to the same theme today because securing peace has become the most urgent issue in Nigeria. Just three days ago, the former chief of defence staff, Alex Badeh was gunned down on his way back home from his farm. Absolutely no one is safe in Nigeria today. Last Friday, the Professor Ibrahim Gambari-led Savannah Centre organised a workshop on the theme of finding pathways out of Nigeria’s counter-insurgency quagmire that complemented a lot of the points I raised three weeks ago. Also, this week, Nextier, the research and dialogue think-tank organised a symposium on exactly the same theme.
Participants in both events emphasised the high level of obfuscation about the insurgency and agreed that we should start by telling ourselves the truth.
The first truth is that we should stop deceiving ourselves that we have fully recovered the 17 local governments seized by the insurgency and earlier declared as the Islamic State of West Africa. Yes, the insurgents have been chased out of the local government headquarters and their ability to fight degraded but they are still there and engaged in deadly operations against not only soft targets but also the military. If we do not admit their strength, we would be unable to contain it.
The second truth we should tell ourselves is that we have a real insurgency on our hands and it will remain active in the medium term. The insurgents are able to sustain their war against the Nigerian State and, unfortunately, we are having increased levels of rogue action from our own military, some of who have developed a stake in the war economy and are in no hurry to see the end to the war. In addition to rogue action, corruption has made it difficult for our military to respond to the war with adequate logistics and supplies. Our troops are often exposed to enemy fire with inadequate supplies.
The third truth is that we do not have an effective strategy against the insurgency. The National Security Council has not met in the past three years to engage in strategic considerations. The war strategy for the past decade appears to be to militarily defeat and annihilate the enemy. In other words, we are acting out a conventional war strategy against an enemy that is engaged in an asymmetrical warfare, in which the insurgents can hide, operate in small cells and strike later, almost at will. Precisely because of our conventional strategy, we have not invested sufficiently in developing the intelligence that could enable us win the war. We therefore need an urgent rethink of our political strategy and how the military operationalises it.
The fourth truth is that it’s a governance, rather than a security, crisis that we are facing. The North-East is vast, poor, lacking in infrastructure and completely marginalised. For these reasons, it has a lot of ungoverned spaces, which create safe havens for the insurgents. To win the war, we have to lift the standard of life and build livelihoods for the people, so that it becomes clear that governments – federal, state and local – have a better offer for the people than the insurgents. In other words, good governance is the key to victory.
The fifth truth is that our war commanders have ran out of ideas on what to do next and rather than intensify the war against the insurgents, they are currently seeking excuses by blaming human rights and humanitarian organisations for the lack of progress. We must address the issue of the leadership of the war effort to seek new pathways out of the insurgency.
The sixth truth is that we do not appear to fully understand the regional and international dimensions of the war, with our neighbours – Cameroon, Chad and Niger – severally engaged with the Americans and the French. We do not appear to know who is on our side and who is on the other side and we therefore lack a clear strategy. We also stuck, for too long, to the narrative that we are confronting arms flowing in from the Libyan crisis, without sufficient evidence. In other words, our knowledge of the drivers of the war and its dynamics has been defective.
Most of our troops are committed to winning the war and we must all commend the selfless sacrifices of most members of our Armed Forces engaged in numerous operations in thirty-two out of the thirty-six states in the country today. We are all distraught at the loss of lives of so many officers and men of our security agencies. In this context, the seventh truth that we should tell ourselves is that the approach of the armed forces is to minimise the losses suffered and boost their public relations units to refute what is being revealed about the negative aspects of the war. The fact of the matter is that, both for the communities concerned and the armed forces involved, there is knowledge about the high casualty rates and that information has been filtering out.
As I argued three weeks ago, the greatest concern for all of us should be the concordant reports about the degraded arms, equipment and supplies of our troops. If the insurgents are scoring points, it must be because they are developing relative advantage vis-à-vis our troops and that’s what needs to be addressed. Refusing to admit loses, denying them or minimising the numbers do not help the situation. The real threat to success in defeating the insurgency is the developing war economy in which resources for fighting the war are diverted by some unscrupulous officers.
We need a national conversation about the true conditions surrounding the insurgency as a precondition for developing a workable strategy and tactics to restore peace in our dear country. This requires simultaneous and effective actions by government and the military. Society has an even bigger role to play in ensuring that the conditions that breed the insurgency are addressed at the level of the family and community.

A professor of Political Science and development consultant/expert, Jibrin Ibrahim is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Democracy and Development.

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