Terrorism, politics and counter-insurgency in Northern Nigeria
Terrorism is largely viewed to mean the threat or use of physical coercion, primarily against non combatants especially civilians, to create fear in order to achieve various political objectives. Be it by individuals, groups, or States, definitions of the term will continue to be controversial and ambiguous. Nevertheless, Since World War Two, guerrilla warfare (highly mobile hit-and-run attacks by lightly to moderately armed groups that seek to harass mainly government forces and gradually erode his will and capability) together with terrorism by diverse insurgent (i.e. a rebel in a group involved in an uprising against authority or leadership) groups have spread greatly. Between 1969 and 1985 for instance, the number of major international terrorist incidents alone jumped from just two hundred to over eight hundred per year, leaving more and more people afraid and polarized in their opinions. Throughout the world, terrorism reinvents itself in new and more dangerous forms. As older groups are defeated or exhausted, more radical and more violent successors often take their place. According to military historians, the scenario of insurgencies over the years have usually followed this pattern: first the building up of cells; subversive operations such as strikes, demonstrations and riots; insurgency, with attacks by bombs and guns on persons and property; as more sympathizers are gained, groups take control of parts of the country; finally outright civil war followed by the collapse of the government, or the governments fall without civil war.
Hypocritically, nobody wants to admit that his or her group, or the group he or she supports, engages in terrorism. As a result, groups that carry out terrorist acts rather call themselves freedom fighters. But the contradiction between terrorist and freedom fighter is a false one because the term freedom fighter has to do with ends (e.g. the rebels goal of freeing his people from control by another’s perceived exploitative political system), while terrorism connotes the means of achieving this goal. Hence, one can be a freedom fighter who uses terrorism to achieve his purposes.
On the other hand, apart from Korea, most military operations since 1945 have been reactions to the guerrilla, the insurgent or the terrorist. This indicates how important in the modern age these major actors and the war they proclaim have become. When discussing these forms of warfare (guerrilla, insurgency, terrorism) Liddell Hart once wrote saying ‘’campaigns of this kind are more likely to continue because it is the only kind of war that fits the conditions of the modern age, while being at the same time well suited to take advantage of social discontent, racial ferment and nationalist fervours’’.
Generally, two fundamental challenges have confronted most Third World Countries such as Nigeria since independence: lack of national integration rooted in societal divisions along racial, ethnic, linguistic or religious lines, and economic underdevelopment (largely due to corruption and mismanagement). Therefore, it was not surprising to find inter group antagonism and distrust eventually giving rise to insurrections directed at governments, as well as psychological and cultural resistance to change among groups. Further worsening this situation is the frustrations aimed at political leaders who failed to make good on promises that they would improve their people’s standard of living. Such failures normally had one or more causes. In many cases leaders were incompetent, saw their own power base as threatened by needed changes, or simply were overwhelmed by the magnitude of their problems and their lack of resources.
Terrorism in Nigeria is evolving but unfortunately security arrangements are still largely conventional and predictable and therefore offer a limited challenge to the flexibility, speed and deception that characterise guerrilla style attacks by extremist groups. Victory in Counter-insurgency is not about rigidity but fluidity. It isn’t just about capturing and killing members of extremist groups. If one is destroyed, it will be locally recreated by the other and if both are destroyed, they will both be re-created by a new fusion of other groups from the outside. This was bitterly experienced by the French in the plain of Reeds in Indochina all throughout the Indochina war when the French conducted numerous mopping up operations before wearing itself down. As a military historian I can say that the warning signs concerning the evolution of terrorism in Nigeria have always been there. Unfortunately, some here at home over simplified things by arguing that we were not that sophisticated and that Nigerians loved themselves too much to take all the risk associated with terrorism ( particularly in terms of carrying out bomb attacks) as is constantly being witnessed in parts of the Middle East. From kidnappings to bombings, and now attempted international suicide bombings (by the privileged even when some had associated terrorism with only the poor), terrorism is progressing in Nigeria irrespective of class status. To further buttress this is the worry that some groups and individuals in relatively advantageous economic circumstances have been resorting to illegal political violence to prevent the loss of their privileged status. It is believed that when their previously held privileges are eliminated and they suffer a consequent economic decline, they at times turn to violence to try and restore their position and former relevance in society.
Either way, more troubling today is the problem of the growing number of bomb related acts and religious insurrection by extremist groups in Northern Nigeria. Prior to the Boko Haram (a group violently opposed to Western culture insisting that all aspects of human life should be based purely and only on Islamic law) clashes in 2009 which led to the deaths of over 700 people, reports have it that many Muslim leaders and at least one military official had warned government authorities about the group. Those warnings were reportedly not taken seriously. This happened at a time when many at the top had already ignored warnings from some United States officials in 2007 that Nigeria was a breeding ground for terrorist and in fact had elements of Al Qaeda; a group that has often defined its struggle with the West as one that aims to change the international order by creating a global caliphate (Islamic State). To do so, Al Qaeda vowed to conduct worldwide insurrection in countless places. While the extent of Al Qaeda’s presence and operations in Northern Nigeria still remain controversial, there are two things that are certain. The first is that Boko Haram and Al Qaeda have similar goals and the second is that Al Qaeda has a growing number of sympathizers in parts of Northern Nigeria. To recall, the Federal Government had put the Northern States of Kano, Kaduna, Katsina, Bauchi and Plateau on a very high security alert following reports of plans by some extremist groups to carry out ‘revenge attacks’ following the Killing of Osama Bin Laden. Most Nigerians were also shocked by some solidarity utterances coming out from some elements in the North and news of planned protest in places like Kano. This brings to light the issue of the growing indoctrination of some Muslim youths by these extremist groups. Ironically, the same groups that claim to be fighting for the masses against the elites are the same groups that attack the masses first in their slums and low cost areas at the outbreak of any crisis. The people of Egypt for example were able to achieve their goals because it was truly nationalistic void of religious or ethnic differences. As was seen during the recent Egyptian uprising, Muslims of different sects and Coptic Christians in Egypt literally protected each other during religious services and marched shoulder to shoulder under one banner in largely peaceful protest against poverty, unemployment, corruption, and dictatorship. Guess this is where the power of education, orientation, and awareness comes to play in trying to get terrorist, militant or insurgent elements all over Nigeria to see the ignorance of their actions.
Every terrorist or insurgent has a formidable asset: the ideological power of a cause on which to base his actions. In Plateau the problem seems to be centred on the indigene/non indigene issue made worse by ethno-religious differences that exist. The pre and post election periods in Nigeria was also used as a cover for some of these groups to carry out attacks. For example it would be wrong and misleading for any person to say the Congress for Progressive Change (C.P.C.) was formed as a terrorist party or to accuse its Presidential flag bearer of planning to carry out a Coup. Unfortunately the way in which the ranks of the C.P.C. were so easily infiltrated and taken advantage of by some fanatical forces in the North to unleash terror on all those viewed as Peoples Democratic Party (P.D.P.) supporters irrespective of religion, tribe or status is troubling. But even more troubling is the ethno-religious dimension it took as was seen in the attack on Christians (including Muslims from the South of the Country) and their places of worship. Perhaps some in the Party got carried away by the mass appeal and support it was getting in the North as a new Party that nothing else mattered much. This could be seen in many of C.P.C.’s impressively large but often spontaneous and rough rallies that took place in some Northern cities.
Kaduna has always been known for religious or Sectarian crisis but not for bomb blasts until recently. Kaduna is also somewhat more troubling because unlike Bornu and Bauchi which are Predominantly Islamic States, and Plateau which is a Predominantly Christian State, Kaduna is keenly divided between the Christian south of the State and the Muslim north of the State with a mix in the City Centre and small pockets of both religions in the Northern and Southern part of the State. While other States during the recently concluded April 2011 elections seemed to be purely voting gubernatorial candidates on merit and not on party affiliation, Kaduna was a bit more complex as voters largely (but not totally) went the way of the religious affiliation of the candidates which also affected the way the party was viewed by both sides of the religious divide. Thus, the Kaduna State governor, Mr Patrick Yakowa, didn’t have a smooth ride to victory irrespective of the fact that he was already making a lot of progress in the area of water, housing, welfare, education and road/bridge development in the State just within a period of one year in office. In fact the electoral margin was so slim (P.D.P’s 1.3 million votes to the C.P.C.’s 1.1. million) that many fear that merit might play little in future State politics if there isn’t a change in orientation by both Muslims and Christians in the State . Pitifully as this sounds, it seems what some have indirectly been saying all along is ‘’we will rather suffer under someone just because that person shares our religion than progress under someone who doesn’t’’.
The extent to which the Nigerian security forces can contain the growing threat of insurgent activity and terrorist groups largely depends on the extent to which the Forces understand the nature and character of the threats they are up against and the counter insurgency and anti-terrorism measures adopted to counter these threats. Historical and contemporary records show instances in which governments have misunderstood or falsely portrayed the goals, techniques, strategies, and accomplishments of their opponents. Of all the various factors that determine the progress and outcome of hostile groups, non is more important than government response. Thus, governments that anticipate difficulties and initiate preventive measures are in a much better position than those that wait for problems to emerge then react.
Recently President Goodluck Jonathan signed the new Terrorism Prevention Act. The Act establishes an Office to lay out measures for countering terrorist activities and to oversee the coordination of anti terrorist operations in the country. This move is highly commendable on the part of the President but the success of such an Act will largely depend on the ability of the Office to come up with practical solutions applicable to different scenarios as they relate to terrorist activities peculiar to the Nigerian environment. All branches (intelligence, operations, and political) should have both military and civilian staff working hand to hand. This shows the importance of having a coherent, well understood, and accepted doctrine to channel all efforts in a single direction.
Presently, there is also talk of a State amnesty programme for members of the Boko Haram sect in Bornu. While this move is worth the try (at least in order to make a way out for the repentant ones among the sect members) the policy makers should be aware that unlike in the Niger Delta where the country was dealing with basically reformist groups (those that see themselves as acting on behalf of aggrieved people perceived to be victims of relative economic and political deprivation and are often willing to compromise with any government as long as there is a more equitable distribution of wants and needs) the case of Boko Haram is different as they largely fall under the category of traditionalist groups since they seek to replace an existing political order along purely sacred/religious lines and feel contempt and hatred for those who don’t share their views.
I believe that there is already a lot of know among security planners concerning the importance of intelligence gathering and popular support among the population to any successful anti terrorism or counter insurgency campaign. No doubt, active supporters of terrorist groups in the North (those who are willing to make sacrifices and risk personal harm by either joining the group or providing the group with intelligence information, concealment, shelter, hiding places for arms and equipment, medical assistance, guides, and liaison agents) are in the minority. However our security agencies should be aware that even passive supporters; individuals who quietly sympathize with extremist groups but are unwilling to provide material assistance, are potential threats in themselves. Passive supporters are not apt to betray or otherwise impede the extremist, and this is important because the acquisition of information from the people is a key aspect of counter insurgency strategy for government units combating elusive terrorist.
But security forces in the country cannot achieve much if the population is not, and does not feel, protected against the extremist. The importance of popular support can be seen in the defeat of the National Liberation Front (F.L.N.) by the French in the Oran region in Algeria in 1956-1960. This campaign proved the importance of isolating rebellious groups from the population. Isolation not enforced upon the population but maintained by and with the population. However if the population fear retribution from these groups, civilians will not cooperate with officials and provide valuable information. This brings to fore the problem of the Nigerian Police Force. It is nothing new that on average majority of Nigerians hardly really like the Nigerian Police as a whole due to the corruption, distrust, inefficiency, and human rights abuses that plague the Force. Many complain that this lends little or no credence to the slogan ‘’the police is your friend’’ or ‘’to serve and to protect with integrity’’. Unfortunately, the average policeman now has to frustratingly contend with the outcome of this stigma from two ends: first is the refusal of the population to trust and corporate with the police. Secondly, is that the police has increasingly become a primary target of terrorist and insurgent groups. The problem of the Nigerian police goes beyond funding and welfare. It is that of orientation and attitude. This starts from the recruitment process. The question to be asked here is who are those that conduct the recruitment and who are those that train the officers and men after the recruitment? Politics in Nigeria has proven that even if an individual is well or even over paid does not guarantee efficiency, ensure discipline or prevent greed. Thus one would suggest that if existing police units cannot be trusted, then a specially and independently trained police unit can be created to carry out the more sensitive operations.
The fight against terrorism in Nigeria is one that can be won if the right measures are put in place. Luckily, terrorism in Nigeria is still relatively in its infant stage when compared to happenings in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Therefore, government is in a more advantageous position and must seize the initiative immediately with a careful blend of military and political options in order to halt any further progression of extremist activities in the North. The overwhelming majority of Nigerians do not support terrorism and those responsible for or support bomb attacks only constitute a minority that can be isolated by the people even in their host communities with the right government response.
BULUS NOM AUDU