Nigeria: Military Campaigns, Amnesty Talk, Security Sector Reform, and Boko Haram

As I started to articulate in this post, the Nigerian government’s response to the militant sect Boko Haram has often seemed ad hoc – and, I will add here, cyclical. The cycle involves (a) military crackdowns, (b) talk about security sector reform, and (c) talk of “amnesty” for Boko Haram fighters. Or maybe the word “cyclical” is inappropriate at the present moment, when all three elements are in play.

Following the imposition of a state of emergency on several states on May 14, Nigeria launched a new military offensive on May 15. The campaign has included raids, arrests, air raids, and the destruction of camps. The offensive has been particularly intense in Maiduguri, a northeastern city that has been an epicenter of Boko Haram’s activities. The Nigerian military has stated that this operation has been carefully planned and may last for quite some time. VOA has an interesting piece on how the Nigerian military’s training and experiences do and don’t prepare it for the experience of fighting a guerrilla war.

How does this offensive’s intensity relate to the amnesty that Nigerian elites debated in April? Perhaps the offensive is meant to serve as the “stick” pushing Boko Haram fighters toward the “carrot” of amnesty. The government has not abandoned the idea of amnesty. In an interesting move, the administration ordered the release of Boko Haram-affiliated women and children prisoners earlier this month – their release had been one of Boko Haram’s preconditions for talks. More here. How will the government follow up on this move?

Meanwhile, the military offensive and amnesty talk (insofar as amnesty talk calls attention to addressing root causes of Boko Haram’s violence) raise a third issue: security sector reform. While the military campaign and the amnesty proposal are Nigerian-generated ideas, talk of security sector reform often comes from the outside – in one recent and notable example, for US Secretary of State John Kerry. In addition to the human rights issues posed by soldiers’ abuses of civilians, these abuses seem to exacerbate the conflict between the government and Boko Haram, suggesting that security sector reform will need to be part of any sustainable solution. But serious demonstrations of accountability for soldiers have not yet taken place.

Military operations, amnesty, and security sector reform may all, indeed, be ingredients in a sustainable solution. The problem I see is that these components do not seem to work together. Moreover, talk of amnesty and talk of security sector reform have not yet been effectively translated into action. Until the government can pursue these different aims in a coordinated and efficacious manner, the de facto policy appears likely to remain crackdowns (with rising and falling intensity) accompanied by inconclusive efforts to promote political solutions.

2 thoughts on “Nigeria: Military Campaigns, Amnesty Talk, Security Sector Reform, and Boko Haram

  1. I’ve studied & lived in Nigeria long enough to understand the behaviour of the Nigerian political elite and the Nigerian people.

    Firstly, there is no difference between this Military crackdown and Shagari’s crackdown on Maitatsine (in 1980) or Buhari’s crackdown on “Musa Makaniki” (Maitatsine’s disciple) in 1984 and 1985 or Obasanjo and Yar’adua’s crackdown on the Niger Delta.

    The only different thing is the politics – it tends to be quite heated when the president is from the South (and ab initio extremely unpopular in the North) and violence is in the North.

    Secondly, anyone one who is genuinely surprised at the lack of enthusiasm for “security sector reform” doesn’t understand Nigeria’s political economy. To put it bluntly, a reformed police force is not in the interests of politicians who rig elections (and they abound in both PDP and the opposition).

    The leading lights of the opposition are all people who used the security services brutally when they held positions of authority, so they cannot propose reform without being accused of hypocrisy – that is if they have any interest in reform to begin with.

    Thirdly, Nigerians lack empathy or empathy is regional. The South East suffered from the Civil War and there was little empathy shown elsewhere. Ogoni people and the rest of the Niger Delta suffered from brutal military crackdowns (starting from Abacha) – not only was there little empathy shown by the rest of the nation, most leading Northerners were openly supportive of Abacha.

    So sadly, the perception among many in the South is that it is “their (the North’s) time to suffer from a military they have long dominated and refused to reform”.

    This was brought home by a discussion I had with an Ogoni man, I asked him: “don’t you feel any pity for Northerners suffering under Boko Haram?”. He retorted: “Hausa (Northerners) dey pity person?”.

    His lack of empathy is probably driven by Abacha’s brutal crackdown on the Ogoni’s (Abacha was an ethnic Kanuri, but was brought up in Kano).

    Finally, when Western analysts talk about “post-conflict” reconciliation in Nigeria, they seldom probe what happened after the Nigerian Civil War (in which up to a million people died). If the Nigerian state had very little commitment to “post-conflict reconciliation” then (at a time when the economy was more buoyant), what gives them confidence that “post-conflict reconciliation” will be pursued with seriousness today?

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