Foreign mercenaries will worsen the Boko Haram insurgency

Nigeria aftermath of bomb

Salvaging belongings after a bomb blast in Jos, Nigeria, 2014. Diariocritico de Venezuela under a Creative Commons Licence

Seven years ago, a group of US private military contractors massacred a crowd of unarmed civilians at a busy traffic junction in Baghdad. The contractors, who were employed by the notorious private security firm Blackwater, killed 17 people using heavy machine guns and grenades.

Together with the torture scandal at Abu Ghraib in 2003, the incident became one of the most ignominious episodes in the Iraq War. It solidified anger towards the US and added fuel to the fire of Iraq’s insurgency. That year, 2007, ended up being the bloodiest for US forces in the entire war, with nearly 1,000 American soldiers killed.

When photographs of Western-looking private military contractors atop armoured vehicles in north-east Nigeria appeared on Twitter a couple of weeks ago, they sent shivers down the spines of analysts, for whom the memory of the Blackwater atrocities was still fresh.

The photographs were followed by reports of a South African military advisor being killed by Nigerian troops in a friendly-fire incident, and then by explosive reports in the New York Times and Voice of America that Nigeria has hired hundreds of foreign mercenaries to clear Boko Haram out of its northeastern strongholds.

The reports include claims that mercenaries from South Africa, Ukraine and Georgia are carrying out night-time ground attacks against Boko Haram and conducting airborne bombing runs against the insurgents.

The Nigerian government has denied the reports, claiming the mercenaries are simply advisors who are training soldiers to use and maintain newly acquired military equipment.

It’s unclear how much the reports are exaggerated. But Boko Haram, an Islamist insurgency now in its sixth year, had the Nigerian army on the run up until February. The sudden reversal in fortunes in recent weeks, with the Nigerian government pushing Boko Haram out of almost all its former territory in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states, seems remarkable.

Saviours of Borno?

It’s easy to think foreign mercenaries might be the quick-fix solution Nigeria needs to stop Boko Haram. Last year, as the insurgents rampaged through the countryside capturing town after town throughout the northeastern region, the Nigerian army seemed overwhelmed.

Hampered by badly maintained equipment, insufficient resources, and inadequate training, soldiers often had little choice but to flee the communities they were tasked with protecting. Mercenaries offer an obvious solution – if the Nigerian army can’t defeat Boko Haram, hire one that can.

The arrival of Western military advisors in northeast Nigeria may have set Boko Haram back militarily, but in the long term, it could be a political gift for them

And Borno state badly needs a quick solution to Boko Haram, as it has been the worst hit by the group’s violence. At the end of last year, the insurgents had pushed the government out of as much as 70 per cent of the state’s territory. Those left behind in the areas controlled by Boko Haram were subjected to forced conscription, summary executions and rape.

The population of Borno’s capital city, Maiduguri, is swollen with people who have fled Boko Haram’s terror. Its residents, new and old, have been living under the threat of an imminent Boko Haram takeover for months. Anecdotal evidence suggests some are relieved to see foreign advisors intervening to protect them.

One former resident of the city told me last week that his friends who remain there are ‘happy to see them [foreign advisors]’, while a local human rights activist told me ‘they are being celebrated as saviours’. But the true picture is likely to be more mixed.

Fuelling insurgency

When US troops first rolled into Baghdad in 2003, many Iraqis were seen celebrating the end of the regime, but the images obscured a more complex reality. That lesson should be instructive for Nigeria.

Boko Haram was not always a militant group. It was originally a grassroots movement of Salafi Muslims based in Maiduguri. The group first became violent after security forces attacked its members who were attending a funeral in the city in 2009. After a series of skirmishes, its founding leader, Mohammed Yusuf, was summarily executed. Boko Haram thereafter dedicated itself to armed insurrection.

Before the violence, Boko Haram operated freely out of a mosque in Maiduguri, where Yusuf would preach. In his sermons, he blamed colonialism and the West for the moral corruption of Islam and Nigeria, saying in one sermon that because of ‘the Europeans destroying Islam and its values… the Europeans created the situation in which we [Nigerian Muslims] find ourselves today.’

He argued contemptuously that when the colonial powers withdrew from Africa, they ‘insisted on the secular nature of the contemporary state and established democracy and human rights in all sorts of different places. Islamic flags and symbols were replaced with national flags and symbols. The sharia, Qur’an and Sunna were replaced with secular law.’

Yusuf’s anti-Western sermons were popular with locals in Maiduguri, and the group’s mosque was often well attended. Before 2009, Boko Haram is believed to have had thousands of members who identified with its political and religious messages.

Though some may now welcome the foreign military advisors to Maiduguri, there is clearly also a constituency there for Boko Haram’s stridently anti-Western sentiments.

Indeed, anti-Western insurgencies can be counted on to become a lot more popular once Western boots are on the ground. The arrival of Western military advisors in northeast Nigeria may have set Boko Haram back militarily, forcing them to return to their hideouts in the countryside and wage the guerrilla war they are more used to fighting, but in the long term, it could be a political gift for them.

In recent months, the insurgency has struggled to attract voluntary recruits and stay on the right side of public opinion, due to its increasingly brutal tactics.

The arrival of Western soldiers on Muslim lands may well reverse that trend, bringing Boko Haram more support, swelling its ranks of fighters and reinvigorating the insurgency for a war not just against the Nigerian state but, if the insurgents can set the narrative the right way, against the old colonial enemies.

The right side of public opinion

To avoid fuelling the fire of insurgency even more, the foreign military advisors would do well to stick to the mission the Nigerian government claims to have given them – to train, advise and maintain equipment. They should stay as far away from combat zones as possible.

Public opinion is only likely to turn sharply against them once events require assigning blame. The moment Western soldiers start killing Muslim civilians, whether accidentally or deliberately, the slide will begin. Human rights abuses and atrocities in particular are a lightning rod for hostile public opinion.

Nigeria could badly do without a foreign mercenary scandal like Blackwater. Though foreign advisors may have a positive role to play away from the battlefield, ultimately only the Nigerian government and armed forces can win the war against Boko Haram.

If foreign mercenaries get directly involved in this fight, now or in the future, the short-term gains on the ground could soon be eclipsed by the dire long-term consequences.

Andrew Noakes is a counter-terrorism expert, human rights activist, and Director of the Nigeria Security Network.

What does Boko Haram want?


Tim Green under a Creative Commons Licence

Political and economic marginalization

Finally, over two weeks after it first made headlines and brought rare hope to the parents of the abducted Chibok girls, the supposed ceasefire deal between Boko Haram and the Nigerian government has been exposed as a fake.

At the end of last week, the leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, released a video with a clear message: ‘There is no ceasefire or dialogue with anyone; instead, it is war.’

Even before the video, the doubts had started to set in. Who was this Danladi Ahmadu, the self-acclaimed Secretary General of Boko Haram who represented the insurgency during the negotiation, and why had nobody familiar with Boko Haram ever heard of him?

Ahmad Salkida, a journalist well known for his close contact with the insurgents, instantly dismissed Ahmadu as a fake. News was also flooding in of fresh Boko Haram attacks, even abductions. Two deadlines set for the release of the Chibok girls came and went.

With Nigeria’s international reputation tarnished by Chibok and a presidential election due in February 2015, it seems the government let the political pressure of a deal get in the way of its better judgement.

And yet, despite this setback, the idea of negotiating an end to the insurgency remains attractive.

It’s notoriously difficult to defeat insurgencies using force alone, and even if you do, the underlying causes are usually left to fester and drive future conflicts. So after this abortive attempt, it seems fitting to ask what it would actually take to do a deal with the insurgents – should it ever happen for real.

Bloodlust and fanaticism?

Anyone who has watched one of Boko Haram’s videos could be forgiven for thinking there’s nothing the Nigerian government can offer the insurgents.

Shekau has a habit of communicating in the form of violent, angry rants. In a typical example from earlier this year, he claims that ‘our religion and our way of worship is nothing but killings, killings and killings’. It is hard to discern any kind of concrete grievances or political programme from such messages.

When he’s not talking of killing, Shekau is usually talking about Islam. In a message shortly after the Chibok abduction, he said: ‘If you say, “I pledge to Nigeria my country,” it is wrong and [an] act of paganism. For me, I pledge to Allah.’

‘There is no ceasefire or dialogue with anyone; instead, it is war’

Sentiments like this suggest Boko Haram has transcended tangible political or socio-economic goals and, as such, can’t be bargained with. As Ahmad Salkida has said, ‘the fuse that drives Boko Haram’s terror is the sect’s doctrine.’

Their religious ideology, often described as a form of Salafi Jihadism, focuses on purging Islam of corrupting outside influences and returning to the ‘pure’ Islamic practices of the past. Nigeria’s secular democracy is fundamentally at odds with this vision.

Nonetheless, there is also a broader political and socio-economic context to the insurgency. As in many other conflicts, there is a long history of human rights violations, under-development and marginalization feeding into the insecurity. Understanding these factors and how they can be addressed may hold the key to dealing with Boko Haram.

An army of occupation

Earlier this year, the governor of Adamawa state, in northeast Nigeria, wrote an open letter provocatively entitled, ‘On-Going Fully-Fledged Genocide in Northern Nigeria’.

It referred not to the tactics of the insurgents but to the actions of the Nigerian security forces, and reflected a deep sense of resentment in the north about the tactics of the police and army in their fight against Boko Haram.

Amnesty International has accused the security forces of mass extra-judicial executions, indiscriminately rounding up and arresting young men, burning down houses and torturing prisoners. Following Boko Haram assaults, it has become routine for the security forces to respond by attacking innocents.

As one resident of the northeastern city of Maiduguri explained in a 2012 Amnesty report, ‘They are just killing men, any youth from 16 years old; if something happens in that area you are gone.’

On 14 March this year, the military was accused of executing as many as 600 prisoners on a single day in response to a Boko Haram attack in Maiduguri.

The ceasefire deal between Boko Haram and the Nigerian government has been exposed as a fake

These tactics are not just an unpleasant by-product of the counter-insurgency campaign. They are a major driver of the conflict, and have led to a breakdown in trust between civilians and the security forces.

In many parts of northern Nigeria, people resent the government just as much as they do the insurgents. As one resident of Kano told a visiting New York Times journalist in 2012, ‘At any time I am ready to join [Boko Haram], to fight injustice in this country.’

Human rights violations by the army have undoubtedly made it easier for Boko Haram to recruit fighters. They have also enraged Boko Haram itself.

The group always had an inclination towards violent jihad, but up until 2009 they had largely been peaceful. In June of that year, the police and army helped light the fire when they attacked a group of Boko Haram members participating in a funeral procession in Maiduguri.

A few weeks later, they arrested, detained, and extra-judicially executed the group’s then-leader, Mohammed Yusuf. The security forces also detained the wives and children of many of the insurgents, with rumours of rape in captivity.

Any peace deal must include a commitment to end human rights violations and ensure accountability for what has happened in the past.

The government will have to release the families of Boko Haram members, draw up a new covenant governing the conduct of the armed forces, and prosecute those responsible for previous human rights violations – particularly the execution of Mohammed Yusuf.

Political and economic marginalization

Visiting southern and northern Nigeria is like stepping into two different countries. The booming economy of the south stands in stark contrast to the poverty and deprivation of the north. In the northeast, three-quarters of the population live below the poverty line and literacy rates are astonishingly low.

Northerners watch as southerners get rich on oil profits and foreign investment, while the government does little to address inequality. It has caused many to withdraw their support from the institutions of the Nigerian state, creating fertile ground for any insurgency.

At the same time, deprivation has also made an army of unemployed youth available to Boko Haram’s recruiters.

Northern marginalization is political as well. The Federal government is dominated by southerners. Where once military heads of state would often hail from the north – Babangida, Buhari, Abacha – the current president, Goodluck Jonathan, is a southerner from the Niger Delta.

The military was accused of executing 600 prisoners on a single day in response to a Boko Haram attack

Since Nigeria’s transition to democracy in 1999, there has been an unwritten rule that the presidency should alternate between a southerner and a northerner. But Jonathan, determined to run again in the February 2015 election, has broken with that convention. Northerners now feel locked out of power.

This kind of disinheritance and exclusion allows Boko Haram’s message and acts of revolt to converge with popular anxieties about marginalization.

A peace deal with Boko Haram would certainly have to include jobs or payments for its members, but it should also include measures to address the broader sense of marginalization.

Some have spoken of a ‘Marshall Plan’ for the north – a massive programme of investment, public works, education and job creation. It is desperately needed, as is a restoration of the zoning rule that ensured the north and south could share power through the presidency.

Doing the deal

Negotiating a settlement with Boko Haram is easier said than done. When the insurgency first started, its members were on the run and their main demand was justice for Mohammed Yusuf.

Now, Boko Haram controls vast swathes of territory in the northeast. Why should Shekau do a deal when he has the upper hand? The military must regain the initiative if they’re going to force Boko Haram to the table.

The insurgency’s core leadership has also radicalized over time. More moderate leaders have been purged and the group has become more extreme and violent. That said, many fighters are said to be growing weary of life in the bush. If a genuine and ambitious deal is offered, the leadership may find it difficult to resist pressure from below.

The will to address some of the socio-economic and political drivers of the insurgency does exist in the Nigerian government.

Only a few months ago, the former Minister of State for Defence, Musiliu Obanikoro, said that ‘years of mass illiteracy and the politics of underdevelopment in the north has contributed to birthing the scourge called Boko Haram’.

He also said ‘we must… ensure that we never harm civilians and show respect for our citizens in all our military operations’. This new awareness of the conflict’s drivers should give us cause for hope.

A deal is possible. But many questions remain unanswered. How Boko Haram’s religious ideology could be accommodated remains the biggest elephant in the room.

Whatever the case, it’s unlikely this conflict will ever be resolved through force alone. To bring peace to northern Nigeria and bring the kidnapped girls back, negotiation is the only way.

Andrew Noakes is a counter-terrorism expert and Co-ordinator of the Nigeria Security Network (NSN). He tweets @andrew_noakes.

Playing politics with Nigeria’s insurgency risks civil war

Boko Haram illustration

'Boko Haram' AK Rockefeller under a Creative Commons Licence

Unlike in Iraq, there is no civil war in Nigeria. But it can have one if it wants one.

Boko Haram, whose insurgency is concentrated in the northeast of the country, is a dangerous but fringe movement. It is not a popular northern insurrection.

It has little support either among the people or, for the time being, the northern élite. Its appeal to northerners is limited because of its violence against Muslims. The dominance of the Kanuri ethnicity in its ranks also undermines its appeal to the Hausa-Fulani – the biggest and most powerful ethnic group in northern Nigeria.

But things can change quickly. Nigerians should look to Iraq, where a fringe band of fanatics in the form of ISIS have suddenly united Sunni tribes against the Iraqi state.

Boko Haram does not presently have the capacity to threaten the integrity of the Nigerian state. But as politicians continue to play politics with the insurgency, they risk a broader conflict that could do just that.

The upcoming presidential and National Assembly elections in February 2015 present a moment of danger for Nigeria.

Tensions between north and south have been simmering for some time. Ever since President Jonathan decided to stand again for the presidency, the north has felt locked out of power. In Nigeria, there’s an unwritten rule that the presidency should rotate between a northerner and a southerner. Jonathan, from the south, has broken it.

Now he wants to run once more.

There are rumours the government won’t allow people in the three northern states most affected by the insurgency – Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe – to participate in the elections. The reason commonly given is security concerns, but some fear the real motive is to deny the opposition party critical votes in part of its northern stronghold.

Already shut out of the presidency, many northerners may soon find themselves shut out of the election.

The Nigerian state is already loathed in the north. Seventy-two per cent of northerners live in poverty. The people there look to the prosperous and oil-rich south and the extravagances of the wealthy élite, and they see the state is failing them.

They live in fear of Boko Haram, which the government has been unable to defeat. Instead, and far too often, they’ve suffered atrocities at the hands of Nigerian soldiers. When the governor of Adamawa State spoke out against the excesses of the army, he was promptly impeached and removed from office.

Everything is seen through the lens of the elections. And in the febrile world of Nigerian politics, everything is fair game for politicization. Are people angry and disinclined to vote for the governing party because of poverty and conflict? Disenfranchise them. Is an opposition governor complaining about the excesses of the army? Remove him from office.

The latest casualty is the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) party. Some in the governing People’s Democratic Party (PDP) have started to accuse the APC of actually supporting Boko Haram. They imply the APC is just a front for a radical and violent Islamist agenda.

The aim is to confine the APC’s appeal to the Muslim north. But the more Nigeria’s politics becomes solely about north versus south, Muslim versus Christian, the more likely it is that the north will start to draw battle lines. The more northerners are denied their part in the political process and their share of power, the more they will turn against the already unpopular state.

The nightmare scenario is that Boko Haram is superseded by, or transformed into, a broader northern insurrection. This isn’t just fanciful thinking. The recipe is there – the poverty and inequality, the human rights violations, the political exclusion. All that’s needed is the fuel to light the fire.

It’s not just the governing PDP who risk playing politics with conflict. The APC have have spent too much time accusing the PDP of causing the insurgency and not enough time offering constructive solutions.

A few days ago, the National Assembly refused to grant President Jonathan a $1 billion loan to fund the notoriously under-equipped army. The APC criticized the loan, accusing the government of corruption. Corruption there certainly is, but the army still needs resources if it’s going to stop Boko Haram’s territorial gains in the northeast. Denying the loan was irresponsible politicking.

The government may gain from painting the opposition as Boko Haram sympathizers and denying northerners the vote. The opposition may also gain from highlighting the government’s failure to halt the insurgency. But the biggest winner will be Boko Haram itself.

While politicians have been busily throwing accusations at each other, the insurgents are making alarming gains. They are reported to have thrown the army out of the town of Damboa in Borno State and hoisted their flag. Now they threaten the state capital, Maiduguri.

The insurgents have also renewed attacks on Nigeria’s middle belt. This includes a string of bomb attacks in Abuja, and an assassination attempt on former military ruler and likely presidential contender Muhammadu Buhari in Kaduna.

Even more troubling is Boko Haram’s first successful attack in Lagos, Nigeria’s sprawling commercial capital. A few weeks ago a female suicide bomber blew herself up next to a petrol tanker. At first the authorities claimed it was an accident, but now it seems clear Boko Haram was responsible.

But the country’s leaders are distracted. A disturbing electoral haze has appeared before their eyes, blinding them to the gains made by Boko Haram, to the need to equip the army for battle, to the immense dangers of further alienating the north.

There are some voices who give us hope. The Minister of State for Defence, Musiliu Obanikoro, has spoken of the need for depoliticization. In June he said of Boko Haram, ‘Our political leaders, irrespective of their party affiliation, must now band together to defeat what is clearly our common enemy… Politicizing the war against Boko Haram is causing a lot of trouble.’ Some APC leaders, too, have called for a national unity conference to agree on a plan to tackle Boko Haram.

We need to hear more of these voices, and they must speak louder. Otherwise Nigeria will pay the price for politicization – an insurgency strengthened and emboldened, and a country tearing in two.

Andrew Noakes is a counter-terrorism expert and Co-ordinator of the Nigeria Security Network (NSN). He tweets @andrew_noakes

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