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The Nigerian government’s brutal reprisals to Boko Haram attacks are fueling support for the terrorist group in northern Nigeria, as it establishes an international foothold in Sahelian Africa.



Since Boko Haram’s founding three years ago, the Nigerian Federal Government (NFG) has struggled to contain the threat of its violence. Since 2009, terrorist incidents have increased substantially. Boko Haram’s attack rate increased by 50 percent from 2011 to 2012. Though the majority of incidents have taken place within the country’s northern Kano state, this violence has touched even the country’s central capital Abuja, most notably when a car bomb killed 21 people at the city’s UN offices. This attack in particular prompted international observers to consider the growing international reach and sophistication of Boko Haram activity in Northern Nigeria.

These attacks were not born in a vacuum, however. Since its beginnings, Boko Haram has rooted its aims partly in political and economic grievances against the Nigerian government at the municipal, state, and federal levels. Two weeks ago, Amnesty International concluded that Nigeria’s security forces’ actions against Boko Haram militants are exacerbating the insurgency. This activity takes the form of extra-judicial killings and prolonged detainment of suspects without lawyers or trial.

Boko Haram has at times sought to take full advantage of its expectation of the government’s indiscriminate retaliations. Reports have surfaced of militants firing into the air at the scene of its bombings to provoke the security forces to fire upon fleeing bystanders. Most accounts observe Boko Haram as a diffuse but increasingly adaptable organization in conflict with the NFG’s mostly hard-line, inflexible strategy of coercion and intimidation.

The realities of economic disparity between the north and south are immensely relevant to Boko Haram’s growing appeal. In the past decade, corruption, intimidation, and extra-judicial killings by security forces have perpetuated economic stagnation in Nigeria’s north. These actions—combined with corruption and inadequate access to roads, electricity, education, and medicine—prevent thousands of businesses and individuals from prospering. As a result, more and more impoverished Nigerians in the north are enticed by the empowerment Boko Haram and other criminal groups offer.

The NFG granted sweeping legal powers to its security forces engaged in counterterrorism efforts. One example is the 2011 Prevention of Terrorism Act which grants police and security forces immunity “from civil or criminal liability for the use of force as may be necessary for any purpose that results in injury or death to any person or damage or loss to any property.” Police thus feel free to fire haphazardly into groups of people when given intelligence about Boko Haram meeting places.

In the face of growing insecurity and criticism for his handling of Boko Haram, President Goodluck Jonathan dismissed his National Security Advisor last June and replaced him with Colonel Sambo Dasuki. A northerner from an influential Muslim family, Dasuki is a minority among Jonathan’s more hard-line military advisers due to his efforts to facilitate dialogue with Boko Haram. As part of these efforts, Dasuki completed a tour of Nigeria’s north immediately following his appointment, during which he held discussions on how best to deal with the problem.

Dasuki is not the only policymaker urging dialogue, however. More policymakers are beginning to see the merits of the NFG-appointed Presidential Committee on Security Challenges in the Northeast Zone’s (PCSC) recommendations. A year earlier, on a private initiative to assume a mediatory role, former Nigerian president and southern Christian Olusegun Obasanjo paid a visit to the family of slain Boko Haram leader Muhammad Yusuf in Boko Haram stronghold Maiduguri. This gesture, however, was rejected by Boko Haram; sect members killed Obasanjo’s host (one of Yusuf’s in-laws). In the same month, the PCSC released its final report on Boko Haram which urged dialogue and encouraged granting amnesty to sect members willing to lay down arms.

Early September 2012, Boko Haram recently set its terms for negotiations with the NFG. A few weeks ago, the NFG and Boko Haram representatives secretly met in Senegal to conduct negotiations, although details of the discussions remain unclear. The discussions were reportedly successful but unsustainable due to military hawks advising President Jonathan against agreeing to the terms.

As violence continues to ramp up, Boko Haram is working to create a foothold in Sahelian Africa. Boko Haram like many other terrorist organizations is seeking to establish a pipeline of fighters, weapons, and finances. Last April, reports surfaced of “dozens” of Boko Haram members in rebel-held northern Mali. Three months earlier, Niger’s foreign minister confirmed a link between Boko Haram and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM); Boko Haram was receiving explosives training from AQIM and Al Shabaab. Africom Commander General Carter Ham also recently confirmed the sect’s growing ties to militant Islamists in Sahelian Africa, namely to AQIM.



[-]  Boko Haram is becoming a terrorist organization with increasingly international scope. Their extending reach signals a growing opportunity for national, regional, and international actors to urge Nigerian government officials to pursue dialogue with the politically and economically estranged north. The small promise of dialogue between the NFG and Boko Haram may be extinguished however by the ongoing pattern of escalating tit-for-tat violence.

[+]  The 2011 assassination of the man who hosted Obasanjo was a clear message that not even members of Yusuf’s family are immune to punishment for dealing with the NFG’s gestures. Nevertheless, Boko Haram’s recent willingness to negotiate signals a reversal of this trend, which may lead to more successful negotiations in the future.

[+]  The NFG’s counterterrorism strategy is mostly built on a still-nascent grasp of what it takes to conduct successful counterinsurgency operations. President Goodluck Jonathan’s 2011 pivot to a more conciliatory approach in his appointment of Sambo Dasuki and the PCSC’s promotion of dialogue indicate the beginnings of a change in Nigeria’s national security strategy. In addition, the recent, albeit unsuccessful, negotiations with Boko Haram illustrate growing political support among Jonathan’s administration for dialogue.

[-]  Dasuki’s conciliatory strategy remains unpopular among Jonathan’s more hard-line advisors. This lack of consensus inhibits more sweeping change needed to help resolve Nigeria’s north-south political and economic divides.

[-]  The NFG’s hard-line, inflexible strategy of coercion and intimidation continues to exacerbate the violence. Such a strategy not only galvanizes northern support for Boko Haram, but also helped provoke Boko Haram’s genesis in the first place. Most accounts observe Boko Haram as a diffuse but increasingly adaptable organization, which in the short-term gives the group the strategic edge in undermining Nigerian security forces.

[-]  Current indications of Boko Haram militant activity in Africa’s Sahel region highlight training received from AQIM and Al Shabaab. It is unclear whether these Islamist links extend to providing large quantities of arms or munitions. This highlights the urgent need for regional and international security cooperation to prevent these links from becoming further entrenched.


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