In late September, I wrote about Nigerian authorities’ redoubled efforts to dismantle the Boko Haram rebel sect by force. Mass raids have occurred in Northeastern states like Yobe and Adamawa, killing dozens of Boko Haram fighters as well as several leaders. This weekend, another major battle occurred between soldiers and sect members in Damaturu, Yobe State:
About 30 suspected members of the militant Islamist group Boko Haram have died in a gun battle with troops in north-east Nigeria, the military says.
Army spokesman Lt Eli Lazarus said the battle in Damaturu lasted several hours and 10 arrests were also made.
He said the militants killed included a senior commander known as one-eyed Bakaka.
Nigeria’s military has recently reported major success in its campaign against Islamist militants, who have often targeted Damaturu, in Yobe state.
However, human rights groups say army operations in northern Nigeria have also left many civilians dead and they complain that arrests are often indiscriminate.
The last sentence is key, because a high civilian casualty rate could bring political backlash even if the crackdowns are successful from a military standpoint.
An incident yesterday in Maiduguri, Borno State, which has historically been the epicenter of Boko Haram, spotlights the tragedy of civilian casualties. Soldiers, this time on the defensive, seem to have lost control in reaction to a bombing:
Nigerian troops have opened fire and burned buildings in the north-eastern city of Maiduguri, reportedly killing 30 civilians.
The shootings came after a bomb blast targeting the army had injured two soldiers.
“Initially, soldiers that came after the explosion harassed residents, whipping them,” one person told AFP news agency.
“But later they went on a shooting spree and started setting homes and shops on fire.”
In an indication of the incident’s seriousness, Borno State’s deputy governor, Alhaji Zannah Mustapha, “later visited the area, urging the people to be calm, just as he assured that normalcy would be restored by the security agencies.”
The kind of political backlash I am describing when I talk about civilian casualties does not center on politics in the sense of elections, campaigns, and leaders. It has to do with the micro-politics of ordinary people’s everyday relations with authority, especially authority personified as soldiers and police officers. Trust in the security forces is notoriously low in Nigeria generally and in the Northeast particularly. The Northeast has seen high-casualty crackdowns before, notably in 2009 during Boko Haram’s mass uprising. In a sense, what is important about the dynamic at work in Maiduguri yesterday is not that it is new but that it is recurring, that violence by security forces against civilians maintains an atmosphere in which many civilians will be reluctant to share information with authorities or cooperate with them beyond the basics necessary for self-preservation. At worst, of course, brutality by the security forces could drive some recruits toward Boko Haram. But even without that possibility, the atmosphere of mistrust, fear, and tension – which clearly affects the soldiers themselves, as well as civilians – undermines efforts to dismantle Boko Haram.