Boko Haram

Nigeria’s war against terrorism is winnable but there has to be a comprehensive reform of the national security and law enforcement establishment and a radical change in the way we think about protecting the realm.

A curious thing happened on the evening of October 2. At 9 p.m. the NTA News opened with a report of yet another deadly suicide bombing in Maiduguri the previous day. The correspondent’s report followed subsequently, except that it was from the Nigerian Air Force Base in Yola, not Maiduguri. In fact, the report made no mention of the bombing in Maiduguri at all and focused entirely on the NAF’s recent acquisition of an MI-17 combat helicopter – an addition that the report said could only enhance the military’s war against Boko Haram. The report ended with an air force officer enthusing about how the military was degrading Boko Haram’s camps in the Sambisa Forest and the correspondent claiming that the acquisition of the combat helicopter meant that victory was all but inevitable.

Shortly after the news broadcast, Abuja itself was hit by multiple deadly bombings. Ironically, even as the NTA was showcasing the latest addition to Nigeria’s aerial firepower, residents of the terror-stricken Abuja suburbs of Nyanya and Kuje were soon to be counting their dead. That report sums up all that is currently wrong with Nigeria’s counter-terrorism campaign. To begin with, an MI-17 helicopter has little bearing on the sort of suicide bombings that have rocked Maiduguri, Damaturu and most recently Abuja.

The Buhari administration’s claim to be winning the war on terror is easily belied by the fact that over a thousand Nigerians were killed in the first four months of the new government – a ghastly body count that actually exceeds the terror group’s kill rate during the Jonathan era. This incongruence is a continuation of a bizarre pattern in which the military announces its liquidation and capture of impressive numbers of insurgents while astronomical numbers of Nigerians are murdered daily by a group that has allegedly been on its last legs since 2013. Something is not adding up.

Fundamentally, the administration’s insistence on using the term “winning” in relation to the counter-terrorism campaign does not cohere with reality. It would be more accurate to say that the military has recorded gains in its effort to dislodge Boko Haram from its stronghold in the Sambisa Forest and to retake areas that the group had seized control of last year. The military’s counter-insurgency operations in the North-Eastern frontier have made significant advances (aided by regional neighbouring militaries) and will be positively impacted by additional firepower in the theatre of operations. But the broader counter-terrorism campaign is actually floundering for a variety of reasons.

…as long as the influx of weapons and fighters across our borders is unimpeded, Boko Haram will sustain its campaign at the expense of Nigerian lives. The task of securing Nigeria’s borders lies primarily with the Customs Service, yet its name is barely heard in the current counter-terrorism matrix. For decades, while Nigeria’s porous borders permitted the almost unhindered passage of smugglers, bandits and other undesirables, the customs service has tended to be defined (and to define itself) as a revenue generating agency rather than as a border security agency. This has to change in the light of the unprecedented influx of armaments into Nigeria.

First, there has been a tendency to define terrorism as a problem for the military to solve and as a result there has been an exaggeration of the military’s role, achievements and failings in relation to the threat. In reality, orthodox terror – the bombing of public places and soft targets in civilian-populated urban and suburban spaces – is a problem which the military lacks the tools to confront. This is properly the province of pre-emptive policing and intelligence gathering. When tragedies are wrought by suicide bombers, we should not be looking only to the military but to agencies such as the Department of State Services, the police and even the National Intelligence Agency for answers.

Given the successes claimed by the military, Boko Haram’s resilience suggests that it remains capable of recruiting into its ranks at a faster rate than it is losing fighters. This inability to stem the group’s supply of men and weapons is principally a failure of intelligence services. It also indicates a failure to adequately manage the psychological aspects of counter terrorism and to counter extremist ideologies by contending for the hearts and minds of a young population being seduced by Jihadism. This effort would necessarily involve the use of the media as well as aiding the religious clerics and community leaders on the ground who are challenging Boko Haram’s nihilistic theology at great risk to their own lives.

Given the asymmetrical dynamics of terrorism, the military has been placed in an impossible situation and unfairly tasked to deliver an improbable victory. The military is being used as a quick fix where what is required is a comprehensive recalibration of Nigeria’s national security apparatus. For instance, as long as the influx of weapons and fighters across our borders is unimpeded, Boko Haram will sustain its campaign at the expense of Nigerian lives. The task of securing Nigeria’s borders lies primarily with the Customs Service, yet its name is barely heard in the current counter-terrorism matrix. For decades, while Nigeria’s porous borders permitted the almost unhindered passage of smugglers, bandits and other undesirables, the customs service has tended to be defined (and to define itself) as a revenue generating agency rather than as a border security agency. This has to change in the light of the unprecedented influx of armaments into Nigeria.

The use of the military for urban policing, manning checkpoints and protection of critical assets constitute a grievous abuse of a specialist combat institution. The Police Mobile Force which was set up to deal with insurrections, unrest and low intensity conflict should be manning checkpoints. The National Security and Civil Defence Corps which is statutorily mandated to protect critical infrastructure and strategic national assets should equally be deployed as part of an enlarged counter terrorism toolkit.

The use of the military for urban policing, manning checkpoints and protection of critical assets constitute a grievous abuse of a specialist combat institution. The Police Mobile Force which was set up to deal with insurrections, unrest and low intensity conflict should be manning checkpoints. The National Security and Civil Defence Corps which is statutorily mandated to protect critical infrastructure and strategic national assets should equally be deployed as part of an enlarged counter-terrorism toolkit. Strangely, the police and the NSCDC are not considered essential actors in the counter-terror campaign.

The Jonathan administration sidelined the NSCDC while issuing lucrative contracts for the protection of pipelines to militant gangs – a tragic example of how institutions are undermined by cronyism and opportunistic profiteering. Fortunately, the Buhari administration has since revoked those contracts. Using the NSCDC, for instance, to protect military bases and other critical installations will free up more troops for combat and thus serve as a force multiplier. Had the NSCDC been deployed to protect the Ashaka cement factory in Gombe, the establishment might not have been stormed by insurgents in late 2014, who successfully carted away tonnes of explosives.

In reality, military force or hard power constitutes a small component of a proper national security matrix. A more comprehensive understanding of the subject would accommodate social security, economics, food security, energy security and, broadly, human security. This broader conception of national security is inextricably linked to governance – the delivery of developmental goods such as education and employment, those vectors of hope, that steer a young population away from the vortex of violence.

Nigeria’s counter-terrorism campaign suffers from a basic manpower deficit. She is a nation of 160 million people with less than one million men and women under arms across her law enforcement agencies, armed forces and security services. This deficit calls for innovative solutions. The Police Act empowers the Inspector General of Police to deputise a special constabulary in times of need. In the North-East, it would be possible to deputise locals involved in community vigilante and neighbourhood watch groups after adequate screening and training as such a special constabulary. Their familiarity with the terrain would be an added advantage in terms of sourcing intelligence, pre-empting attacks and rooting out terror cells. The increased police footprint would also liberate the military from its distracting policing chores and enable it to focus on what it does best – terminating enemy combatants with extreme prejudice.

Ultimately, the biggest problem with the counter-terrorism campaign stems from the very definition of national security. Stemming from the long decades of military rule during which the principal security threat was state capture via coup d’etat, successive governments have actually not invested in national security so much as regime security – the preservation of the regime in power often at the expense of addressing actual strategic national vulnerabilities such as porous borders and an unpoliced coast.

This paradigm has itself led to the militarisation of the Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA) – statutorily the anti-terrorism policy hub – and the erroneous conflation of national security with military force. Since 1999, all the national security advisers have been retired army officers. This bias towards militarism in the management of national security and law enforcement reached its symbolic apogee when the police adopted a garish camouflage outfit which has now thankfully been withdrawn. It has also ensured that the counterterrorism campaign is defined in strictly military terms.

The evolution of smart weaponry, unmanned aerial vehicles and electronic intelligence demonstrates the potential of technology to tip the scales in favour of nation-states confronting hostile non-state actors. The use of surveillance drones and satellite reconnaissance for border security, for instance, could mitigate, if not entirely negate, the manpower deficit that has so far crippled border policing.

In reality, military force or hard power constitutes a small component of a proper national security matrix. A more comprehensive understanding of the subject would accommodate social security, economics, food security, energy security and, broadly, human security. This broader conception of national security is inextricably linked to governance – the delivery of developmental goods such as education and employment, those vectors of hope, that steer a young population away from the vortex of violence.

The military should not be used as a genie to be whimsically summoned to magically dispel the governance failures of elected politicians. Ultimately, this war will not be won simply with military armaments but by the state practically demonstrating how 21st century Nigeria offers more tangible possibilities for self-actualisation than the terrorists’ mythical renditions of ancient Arabia or Al Jannah.

Shorn of its cloak and dagger overtones, intelligence gathering is just as much the domain of political economists, criminologists, social psychologists, sociologists, cultural anthropologists and financial analysts as it is of spies. The point, after all, is to generate critical knowledge and actionable intelligence regarding national security threats and ideally to abort them before they mature into monstrousity.

Human intelligence remains relevant and there is no substitute for the infiltration of terror cells, having clandestine sources within extremist movements, comprehensively mapping the socio-cultural, politico-economic and psychological environments that incubate terror, identifying the international confederates of local jihadists and cutting off their funding channels, tracking various religious sects, mapping their trajectories and being able to anticipate their radicalisation.

The transition from the industrial age to the information age has witnessed the triumph of brains over brawn as the primary currency of the knowledge economy. A similar paradigm shift has occurred within the domains of defence, security and warfare. Firepower matters; but brainpower matters even more. The evolution of smart weaponry, unmanned aerial vehicles and electronic intelligence demonstrates the potential of technology to tip the scales in favour of nation-states confronting hostile non-state actors. The use of surveillance drones and satellite reconnaissance for border security, for instance, could mitigate, if not entirely negate, the manpower deficit that has so far crippled border policing.

Human intelligence remains relevant and there is no substitute for the infiltration of terror cells, having clandestine sources within extremist movements, comprehensively mapping the socio-cultural, politico-economic and psychological environments that incubate terror, identifying the international confederates of local jihadists and cutting off their funding channels, tracking various religious sects, mapping their trajectories and being able to anticipate their radicalisation. These tasks involve far more work than can be solely accomplished by additional firepower or more boots on the ground. Nigeria’s war against terrorism is winnable but there has to be a comprehensive reform of the national security and law enforcement establishment and a radical change in the way we think about protecting the realm.

Chris Ngwodo is a writer, consultant and analyst.