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.