Dear Secretary General,
We are writing this open letter as members of the Nigeria Security Network, a new collaborative group dedicated to promoting research and analysis related to Nigerian security, particularly the Boko Haram insurgency. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the organisations and institutions we work for, but they are grounded in our collective expertise and experience.
We commend the leadership you have shown in responding to the recent abduction of 276 schoolgirls by Boko Haram in Borno State, Nigeria, and we share your concern about the frequency of attacks on educational institutions there.
We are writing to ask you to use your continued leadership to help mobilise an effective response not only to the Chibok abduction but also to the broader crisis of protection in north-east Nigeria.
The Chibok abduction is one of the most shocking examples of Boko Haram’s campaign of terror against civilians in north-east Nigeria, and it is part of a wider pattern. As you know, many schools in Borno and Yobe states have been forced to close after Boko Haram attacks in which children have been murdered. Villages have also been razed to the ground and hundreds of civilians killed in attacks over the last few months, including in recent days.
The #BringBackOurGirls campaign has touched people all over the world and focused our attention on the plight of the Chibok schoolgirls. However, we want to caution both Nigeria and the international community. The publicity generated by the #BringBackOurGirls campaign has brought enormous pressure to bear both on the Nigerian government and on its partners, and we fear this may lead to rash actions and policy choices. Instead, the situation demands a carefully considered and strategic response, including a comprehensive programme of reform that will address the wider crisis of protection in north-east Nigeria.
Any response must be rooted in a firm understanding of the conflict and the needs of those affected. There has been a tendency in some quarters towards hyperbole and caricature in framing the Boko Haram insurgency and the Chibok abduction. Boko Haram is an extremely violent group, but the depiction of a band of extremists motivated only by bloodlust and fanatical beliefs overlooks not only their roots as a movement with a considerable following but also the more practical reasons why some may join their ranks, including financial reward in a region of extraordinary poverty.
It is also important to remember that though Boko Haram may not be popular in Borno, neither is the Nigerian state. Some of Boko Haram’s extreme actions have, moreover, been partly provoked by similar actions by the government – including detaining the children and wives of Boko Haram members in the past. The reality of the insurgency is naturally more complex than many media portrayals.
We fear that an overly simplistic understanding of the violence in Nigeria may lead to simplistic solutions. In particular we would like to warn of the possible risks of direct foreign military intervention. Assistance from the US, the UK, and others in the areas of counter-insurgency training and advice are very welcome and necessary, but it is important to remember that Boko Haram’s initial successes in recruitment arose in part as a reaction against Western education and values, which for historical reasons have become associated with the failings of Nigeria’s secular state, particularly social exclusion, corruption, and poor governance.
Direct Western involvement in the counter-insurgency campaign and the effort to find the Chibok girls, including through the use of drones and manned aircraft, may seem like a convenient solution. But one of the few strengths of Nigeria’s counter-insurgency at the present time is that it is conducted by Nigerians. There must be a partnership between Nigeria and the international community to tackle Boko Haram, but the advantages of overt Western military involvement must be carefully weighed against potential political damage.
There are, however, concrete measures the Nigerian government can take that may alleviate the situation in conflict-affected states. And there are steps that international partners can take to support them. Firstly, there are too few military resources being devoted to protecting communities and schools. The protection given to the school at Chibok, for example, was clearly insufficient to stop Boko Haram’s attack. This is partly because the Nigerian security forces have adopted a kinetic force posture, focusing on aggressively attacking and bombing suspected Boko Haram camps and then retreating to bases. Instead, there is a need for a more population-centric posture, in which soldiers spend more time and are deployed in greater numbers around civilian areas. Effective early-warning systems are also vital.
The abduction has also highlighted the need to build more public support for the counter-insurgency effort. It is remarkable that the government still does not know the location of the Chibok girls. Improved relations between the military and the local population would yield better local intelligence and, in some cases, also deny the insurgency a source of recruitment and shelter. This would in turn make it easier to protect the population.
However, instead of protecting the population and building public support for the counter-insurgency, the military has too often itself engaged in violent and alienating behaviour. There are regular reports of civilians being mistreated by soldiers, and there have been reports of extra-judicial executions of suspected Boko Haram members and civilians. The military uses a permissive legal framework under the state of emergency to carry out human rights violations with impunity. This must stop.
The security forces should also consider the particular protection needs of women and girls. Women and girls are especially vulnerable to conflict, particularly with respect to sexual violence. Moreover, the practice of detaining women and children in order to put pressure on family members suspected of being Boko Haram members must stop. We urge you to ensure UN Security Council Resolution 1325 is being fully implemented in Nigeria.
We believe the military and the government need to invest more in training and equipment to ensure its soldiers are prepared to fight Boko Haram effectively. Amnesty International has claimed that security forces knew about the Chibok abduction four hours before it was due to happen and failed to provide protection because soldiers were too frightened to engage the enemy. There have also been recent reports of troops mutinying because of inadequate equipment. The government has an important responsibility to ensure its soldiers have the equipment they need and the international community should be ready to assist with training.
Chibok has also highlighted the danger of Nigeria’s porous borders with Cameroon, Niger, and Chad. There have been unverified reports of some of the abducted girls being trafficked across these borders. There are also reports of Boko Haram recruiting fighters and carrying out operations in these countries. The UN could work with partners to ensure a coordinated regional response to improve security and protection of the population in these areas.
As an honest broker, we believe you are well positioned to unite Nigeria and the international community behind appropriate measures to protect the population of north-east Nigeria. In summary, we encourage you to:
Press the Nigerian government and military to place protection of the population at the centre of their security strategy and improve relations with local communities.
Press the Nigerian government and military to properly equip and prepare soldiers for combat against Boko Haram.
Focus the international community’s attention on training and advice to the Nigerian security forces and coordinating security along Nigeria’s borders, and ensure careful consideration of the dangers of direct foreign military involvement.
We look forward to your continued leadership on this issue and we stand ready to provide any advice or assistance as required.
Coordinator, Nigeria Security Network
African security risk analyst
Université Libre de Bruxelles
Nigeria Analyst and journalist
University of South Florida
Nigeria Analyst and journalist
African Affairs Analyst
More information about the Nigeria Security Network can be found at www.nigeriasecuritynetwork.org