Nigeria is losing this war: here’s how to win the fight against Boko Haram – By Andrew Noakes


The JTF on patrol in Maiduguri, Borno State.

After months of emergency rule and military operations in Nigeria’s north-east, a few weeks ago Boko Haram launched a comprehensive and audacious assault on Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state. In a multi-pronged attack, hundreds of insurgents reportedly targeted the city’s military barracks, Maiduguri University, and an area where civil servants are known to live.

In its temerity and scale the attack is reminiscent of the Taliban’s notorious 2012 assault on Kabul. It proves what many of us already suspected – that the state of emergency imposed last spring and the deployment of thousands of troops since then have done nothing to weaken Boko Haram. They are alive and well.

This attack has been in the making for a few weeks. More than 1,300 people have been killed in the last two months as the insurgents have ramped up the violence. They’ve been daring and brutal, attacking villages all around Maiduguri. Most often the military are not there to protect people. When they are there, they often  run away. And it routinely takes them hours to respond to any attack in full force.

But the problem isn’t just the military’s fighting performance. The security forces are accused of arbitrarily rounding up young men on the streets and shooting them. Amnesty International has long accused the security forces of burning homes and carrying out summary executions in response to attacks. Their most recent report claimed police are presiding over hundreds of deaths in detention. These tactics are entirely counter-productive. They strengthen the insurgency by alienating people and pushing them into the hands of Boko Haram – as sympathisers and recruits. In fact, if this conduct is routine, it is very possible that the extra troop deployments have made things worse rather than better.

How can Nigeria turn this around? There needs to be nothing short of a revolution in strategy and capabilities.

Improving capabilities should firstly be about training. It is quite clear that the army is not properly trained to carry out a counter-insurgency campaign. They are still being trained as if they were fighting a conventional war. But 95 percent of the time counter-insurgency doesn’t involve shooting at anyone. It involves denying insurgents space and support by providing reliable security and winning the confidence of local people. No soldiers should be sent north unless they know how to do this.

It’s also about numbers. Counter-insurgencies require large numbers of troops because, unlike the insurgents, you have to hold territory and protect the population. Nigeria should try and recruit some of the extra troops from the north, specifically from the Kanuri ethnic group where the insurgency is said to have most of its support. Kanuri soldiers will be more trusted by the local population and will be less likely to commit human rights violations. The downside is the risk of infiltration. The army will have to understand the importance of vetting from the very beginning, and should work through trusted local leaders to recruit. Elsewhere, they should try and recruit more from groups with whom the Kanuri have not historically had poor relations.

To boost both skills and numbers, Nigeria is going to need outside help. They will need Western advisors to help train the troops in counter-insurgency tactics, and they will probably need Western funding too. European countries and the USA should start thinking about a counter-terrorism assistance package. The problem is they will rightly be concerned about supporting an army that has been accused of so many human rights violations. That’s why they should insist on accountability for human rights violations. And they should also ensure that the training instils the need to respect human rights and protect the population right through the ranks.

Most critically, the strategy must change. Insurgents are only able to succeed when they have some support amongst the local population. Since they do not have the capacity to win a conventional war involving constant battles out in the open, they must be able to hide themselves and their equipment from the army in between surprise attacks. They must also recruit people into their ranks. Both of these require some level of local support. Boko Haram certainly has this, as the New York Times has reported.

The only way to defeat an insurgency is to drain it of this support. The battle, then, is primarily political rather than military. Put simply, you’ve got to make a better offer to the people than the insurgents can. You’ve got to encourage them to turn the insurgents in rather than shelter and join them.

How do you do this? The first step is to understand. Who are Boko Haram? Who might be sympathetic to them and why? How much support do they have and from which particular areas and villages? These questions need answers. There is an impressive amount of data out there about what Afghans think, for example, about the Taliban, NATO forces, and the Afghan government. There has also been a lot of effort put into identifying exactly who the Taliban are – where they come from and what they want. Naturally, a complex picture emerges of an insurgency with various different elements and motivations, and supporters with varying levels of sympathy and reasons for sympathising. There is undoubtedly a similar picture in north-east Nigeria waiting to be discovered, documented, and used for counter-insurgency purposes.

The second step is knowing what not to do. In general, heavy-handed tactics and human rights violations make things worse because they alienate civilians and increase sympathy for the enemy. Corruption is also highly alienating. These should be obvious points, but little progress seems to have been made on either front. The government should start by adopting a zero tolerance policy on both, and announcing prosecutions for past crimes. The Nigerian courts do not have the capacity to put every human rights violator or corrupt official on trial, so they’ll have to hope that a few high-profile, well publicised prosecutions are sufficient as a deterrent. All security forces should be given anti-corruption training, as well as human rights training. They should also be trained to avoid methods of fighting that are likely to accidentally kill civilians.

Finally you’ve got to know what proactive actions to take. Most importantly, you must provide security. Insecurity will undermine confidence in the state and encourage people to look for alternative sources of authority and protection. The number one focus of the counter-insurgency effort should be to protect the population. This is far more important than pro-actively searching for insurgents and killing them, which can even be counter-productive.

On a tactical level, it makes more sense to deploy small numbers of troops into different villages than to keep them all inside bases. They will be more able to respond to attacks and protect the population. You may think these troops would invite attacks on themselves and the villages they inhabit, but experience in Afghanistan counter-intuitively suggests attacks on small groups are actually much less likely than attacks on large bases. Smaller groups of soldiers deployed in villages will be able to develop relationships with villagers, gather intelligence, and deny the insurgents military and political space. This will be vital in defeating the insurgency.

But it shouldn’t be done unless the troops are well trained. If and when they are attacked, they’ll be far away from help. They’re also more likely to commit human rights violations if they’re living with villagers. So the soldiers that do this will have to be better at fighting and more respectful of the population than average troops. In Afghanistan, NATO soldiers were specially trained for “˜village stability operations‘. These were very effective in improving security, as demonstrated by several case studies. Nigeria should consider creating a special force for similar operations.

It’s also a good idea to work with local people. They will be trusted more by civilians and are less likely to commit human rights violations. Borno state’s civilian JTF initiative, championed by Governor Shettima, is a good model that could be rolled out across the three embattled states. The potential pitfalls are that paramilitaries may be more interested in using weapons to settle local disputes than to protect people from Boko Haram, and that they may attract more attacks on the civilian population. Alarmingly, there have been reports of Boko Haram killing civilians after accusing them of being in the civilian JTF.

The way to get round the first problem is to ensure local dynamics are fully understood before equipping a paramilitary force. If it seems likely they will use their weapons to simply attack another village, it’s best to avoid arming them. It will also be important to train them and ensure they are accountable both to the state and to the communities they serve. Indeed, Governor Shettima has gone to great lengths to train the civilian JTF. As for whether they invite attacks on civilians, the government will have to make a judgement as to whether this risk is outweighed by the benefits. I would argue it is, especially as the civilian JTF are credited with pushing Boko Haram out of Maiduguri last year – something the army were unable to achieve.

Economic development is also key. Governor Shettima has spoken of the need for a “˜Marshall Plan’ for the north. It is desperately needed. In the north of the country, 72% of people live in poverty, compared with 27% in the south. Poverty and lack of opportunities make it easy for Boko Haram to attract recruits and sympathisers. The government should also provide better services for local people. Insurgencies thrive when they are able to step in as service providers, which is what Boko Haram originally did.

Development will not be a quick fix. We are talking about a generational change. But it is vital that Nigeria starts now. Western governments and institutions should step in to help. This includes the World Bank, which is now focusing on conflict affected states. But a return to insisting on structural adjustment, which limits the government’s role as a service provider, would be unwise.

Another ingredient is the narrative. A successful counter-insurgency must create favourable political dividing lines between government forces and the insurgents. In theory, Boko Haram does not make it difficult to do this. They primarily kill Muslim civilians and are responsible for disorder and violence. The government has the opportunity to portray itself as a champion of security and development. But as long as troops continue to be ineffective and commit human rights violations, and as long as the poverty rate remains high, this will be difficult.

Nigeria can win this war, but they need to start turning it around now. The north needs economic development on a massive scale; it needs well-trained troops working with reliable local volunteers, and a visible security presence even in remote areas. And all of this needs to be packaged into a convincing narrative that can deliver that vital political victory. Without this, we can only expect things to get worse.

Andrew Noakes is a human rights activist and freelance journalist covering Africa.

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6 thoughts on “Nigeria is losing this war: here’s how to win the fight against Boko Haram – By Andrew Noakes

  1. Good piece but I think the Nigerians are capable and should pay for their own security at this point. It was announced this week that Nigeri is now the biggest economy in Africa. If the politicians and their cronies would stop looting the Treasury then perhaps they would have the money to pay their own way.

  2. Good article, COIN 101

    @Paulus I’m relatively sure no one asked for anyone to pay for Nigeria’s security.
    Nigeria has been paying its way and if we go far back enough contributed significant blood and treasure to Britains victory in WW2 so that statement is not just inaccurate but unnecessary.

  3. “They primarily kill Muslim civilians and are responsible for disorder and violence”

    This is not entirely correct. Boko Haram specifically targets Christians – & they still do so as we speak.

    Let me pick up on a few points you raised.

    1. The “Civilian JTF model” is not a magic bullet. We’ve seen it being used in Lagos (OPC) and in the South East (“Bakassi Boys”). It never ends well.

    2. It is very difficult to “retrain an army” in the midst of an insurgency and definitely not the Nigerian Army – which is the successor of a British colonial army (who’s modus operandi was “punitive expeditions” – exactly what our Army is doing to do).

    3. You cannot simply “recruit more Kanuri soldiers” without affecting the “ethnic balance” of the Nigerian Army. Anyone who knows anything about Nigeria will know this is politically impossible under the presidency of a Southerner.

    4. Northern Nigeria “needs a Marshal plan”, but “wishes are horses”. If the Nigerian government couldn’t do a “Marshal plan” for the Niger Delta. It sure cannot do one for the North (and definitely not the North East).

    So Northern governors (like Shettima) who have done an awful job of governing their states (appalling human capital indices that make Boko Haram possible in the first place) shouldn’t pitch for a “sympathetic ear” from gullible Westerners. They should work to develop their states.

    Final point, the Nigerian Army has always behaved in this way (massacre of innocent civilians). It happened in Asaba (1967), Kano (1980), Umuechem (1990), Odi (1999) & Zaki Biam (2001).

    It don’t see them changing their mode of operation – until a critical mass of young men with AK 47s begins to challenge them and the Nigerian state implodes as a result.

  4. In 2012, J. Peter Pham of the Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council said, “Despite the importance of Nigeria and the significance of the challenge it faces, what is actually known and reported [about Boko Haram] is amazingly limited. Some of the analysis can, at best, be described as wishful thinking. . . .” Unfortunately, I think little has changed in the last two years. So, when you argue that “the first step is to understand,” I have to agree. However, you then proceed to prescribe as a solution to the Boko Haram insurgency a population-centric counterinsurgency (COIN) military campaign conducted in conjunction with the administering of a massive Western-financed military and economic aid and development package. If such a program, comprising a combination of the application of military power and economic aid, could not turn the tide in Afghanistan—-which you cite for comparison—-when the program was administered by the United States and other Western governments, how do you expect the corrupt and enfeebled Nigerian government to implement a similar program with only limited direct Western involvement? Moreover, and perhaps more to the point, if such a program resulted in failure in Afghanistan, why would anyone want to recreate the program in Nigeria, a nation having a political landscape, I would suggest, exponentially more complex than that found in Afghanistan? And why especially in light of the fact that, as you say, vital information about the insurgency and what holds it together are yet to be “discovered [and] documented.” I think such prescriptions are extremely premature and even dangerous. Next thing you know, some policymaker in DC will think sending troops and money to Nigeria to continue the experiment with population-centric COIN—-a strategy which, though shed of its luster, still has proponents desperately seeking the right battlefield on which they may prove its efficacy—-is a good idea. God forbid.

    Throughout your proposal you have given the nod to population-centric counterinsurgency, but I think, despite whatever support Boko Haram has garnered from the general population of the North, reflexively, thoughtlessly following a population-centric approach to counterinsurgency in Nigeria—-or anyplace else for that matter—-is a prescription for failure unless, like the blind squirrel who manages to find a nut occasionally, one is willing to give over the responsibility for attaining military victories to chance. Effective counterinsurgency requires one thing: countering insurgents. Period. Over the last many years, however, many have been sold on the ideas of guys like Kilcullen, Nagl, Petraeus, etc., that all counterinsurgencies are population-centric and, thus, can be won by “securing the population.” The “center of gravity” of all insurgencies, so their narrative goes, is the support insurgencies receive from sympathetic populations which feed and shelter insurgents and act as a source of new recruits for them. No need to kill insurgents, simply deny an insurgency access to the population and it will wither on the vine. Horse feathers! The population-centric approach has failed in Afghanistan because it did not address the insurgency’s actual center of gravity, which I posit as being not the population of Afghanistan, Pashtun or otherwise, but the support the insurgency, in all its many facets, continues to receive from the government of Pakistan, including the insurgency’s safe havens inside the FATA. The Coalition has never been able to gain more than the limited support of Pakistan and, thus, has never been able to mount the kinds of operations which could result in the reduction of the Taliban’s safe havens and all that these provide to the insurgency. To suggest applying the same population-centric COIN strategy in Nigeria, especially without any real knowledge of Boko Haram’s actual center of gravity is, well, reckless at best. More likely murder.

    But let’s pretend, for a moment, that population-centric COIN is the right approach. So, what, then? Okay, train Nigeria’s armed forces to fight and act in the manner you prescribe: in small units, among the population. Population-centric counterinsurgency is—-according to its proponents—-troop intensive, time intensive, and, with all the construction projects and free refrigerators, training of indigenous military and paramilitary forces, and payola, necessarily expensive. Who will foot the bill? Moreover, any hope that deploying small groups of soldiers to populations across the North to conduct COIN operations will lead to success rests on the premise that these troops will have levels of training, competence, aggressiveness, morale, and loyalty equal to that which might be expected of U.S. Marines or Western Special Operations Forces (SOF). And even the best military forces must receive proper logistic, communications, and combat arms support to be effective. How many decades do you think it will take to train, equip, and support the Nigerian military to this standard? And let’s not run before we’ve even walked here. To train Nigerian military forces to conduct village stabilization operations (VSO) in the context of a population-centric counterinsurgency, let alone support those operations across all of Nigeria’s federal, state, and local agencies, well, that would be a tall order, indeed. From what little I’ve seen, it appears that much of VSO in Afghanistan concluded having achieved only limited, temporary successes and then only while SOF were present and active. . . that is to say, VSO were, in the end, unsuccessful. If you can’t expect Nigerian soldiers simply to not kill innocent civilians, how is one going to train them to conduct, and then support, sophisticated village stabilization operations that highly-trained Western military forces can hardly carry out effectively in time to counter the growing Boko Haram insurgency? You can’t. Not any time soon. They’ll have to go with what they’ve got. And, though many suggest, as you do, that it’s possible to talk one’s way out of the fight, instead of shooting your way out, this probably isn’t going to be the case either. So, it’s going to be ugly.

    But do we leave a security vacuum in the North until the Nigerian military is somehow transformed into perfect counterinsurgency practitioners? Probably this is not a good idea. But filling any such security vacuum in the North with paramilitaries? Also not a good idea. In fact, you are arguing against yourself here. You say “Most importantly, you must provide security. Insecurity will undermine confidence in the state and encourage people to look for alternative sources of authority and protection.” Then you advocate more militias? Aren’t militias like the civilian joint task force (CJTF) “alternative sources of authority and protection?” Nigeria has, and has always had, tremendous problems with private militias of all stripes and the CJTF is, in fact, responsible for numerous human rights violations of its own. Moreover, if you peer into the sordid histories of the many militia groups which arose in the wake of official security operations like Operation ZAKI, etc., or into the histories of the Oodua People’s Congress or the Bakassi Boys—-just to name those most are familiar with—-you will see that “self-help Nigerian style” does not look very pretty. I can only imagine the content of CJTF’s training schedule: “Do unto others, then split.”

    I’m just as dubious of the notion of entrusting Nigerian officials—-your so-called “trusted leaders”—-with aid dollars provided through a Nigerian “Marshall Plan.” In fact, such would constitute insanity. Nigeria is a wealthy country having leaders who, for generations, have chosen to squander Nigeria’s wealth on themselves. To Nigeria’s ruling class, the people are largely irrelevant, unless their vote is needed for an election which cannot be otherwise rigged in one fashion or another. These “trusted leaders” are likely, some or many, to be those behind the violence, behind Boko Haram. What Boko Haram is doing furthers the interests of the mainstream Northern ruling class, so even if they’re not actively supporting the insurgency, many are benefitting. Aid money entrusted to these trusted officials will likely go the way of “security votes”—-discretionary resources meant to enhance security but usually siphoned off for the personal enrichment of officials.

    What is happening in Nigeria is tragic, to be sure. Yet, applying the increasingly-discredited, one-size-fits-all population-centric counterinsurgency approach to the task of ending the Boko Haram insurgency without an understanding of what Boko Haram is and what holds it together—-in other words, without understanding its center of gravity—-is a prescription for military failure, more death, and the squandering of vast sums of development dollars. Which said, of course, leads us back to the beginning: “The first step is to understand.” And this is the best place to start.

  5. There seems to be cognitive convergence of Boko Haram of Nigeria and of Lord Resistance Army of Joseph Kony of Uganda.
    Seeing through the initial start of Kony in Uganda and following out what is happening in Nigeria, can we explore on this?

  6. Andrew thanks for your views. A few things to add. Northern Nigeria suffers from cultural phenomena which encourages social and class immobility. As the elite remain wealthy from oil receipts and business interests (almost entirely based in the more socially mobile south) they keep the majority of their population poor, uneducated and under a false glass ceiling based on religion. This has come back to bite them. And unfortunately Northern politicians have been able to convince their masses that the problem is caused by a Southern President who simply met a festering problem. The North doesn’t need a Marshal Plan and Nigeria doesn’t need external funding to support its military (thank you very much). We need a less corrupt political class. I wish we could be helped with that. But this is such a ‘family issue’ that we must confront the problem ourselves

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