Photo Credit: NASA Hubble Space Telescope via Flickr
This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Pérouse de Montclos, M. (2020). The Nigerian military response to Boko Haram: A critical analysis. African Conflict and Peacebuilding Review, 10(2), 65–82.
- The Nigerian military response and local politics contribute more to the resilience of Boko Haram and the protraction of the conflict in the Lake Chad region than Boko Haram’s affiliation with the Islamic State does.
- The behavior of various government forces in the Lake Chad region, shaped by the war on terror, has created a context of asymmetric warfare and humanitarian disaster where Boko Haram can more easily cast themselves as resistance fighters and increase their recruitment among local civilian populations.
- More than half of the fatalities in the armed conflict in the Lake Chad region are attributed to government forces, calling into question the government’s official narrative of the conflict and highlighting the urgent need for a peace process that accounts for wrongdoing by all stakeholders.
Key Insight for Informing Practice
- Closer analysis of the domestic implications of the U.S. war on terror—namely the enormous price tag and the current precariousness of American healthcare, housing, and democracy, along with overarching economic insecurity—reveals it did not make Americans safer.
In 2015, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari claimed that Boko Haram was defeated. However, Boko Haram remains a persistent threat, controlling territory and surviving assassinations of key leaders. Further, hostilities persist between Boko Haram insurgents, the Nigerian government, and regional forces organized through the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), an anti-terrorism coalition developed in partnership with Niger, Cameroon, and Chad, with terrible consequences for the civilian populations caught in the cross-fire. Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos investigates why the conflict between the Nigerian government and Boko Haram has lasted for over a decade. Between 2010 and 2017, he conducted numerous interviews along the Nigerien-Nigerian border and in Chad with various stakeholders including victims, politicians, Boko Haram members, and security forces, enabling him to formulate a critical analysis of Nigeria’s response to Boko Haram. His findings suggest that the Nigerian military response and local politics contribute more to Boko Haram’s resilience and the protraction of the conflict than Boko Haram’s connection to the Islamic State does.
Most analyses explaining Boko Haram’s resilience assert its strong alignment with and allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) originating in Iraq and Syria, suggesting a highly organized global terrorism network. However, observers on the ground describe fragmentation and little coordination between the two groups. For instance, a faction of Boko Haram aligned with IS announced its new leader in March 2019 without going through official IS communication channels and fell into disarray later that year. Within the context of the global war on terror, the Nigerian government has overstated IS’s impact on the ground to justify military action and solicit international support, thereby “absolv[ing] [Nigerian authorities] of their own responsibilities in the prolongation of hostilities.”
After noting the inadequacy of the argument explaining Boko Haram’s resilience with reference to its (tenuous) alliance with IS, the article details how the behavior of government forces—both the Nigerian military and the MNJTF—has created an asymmetric warfare environment and humanitarian disaster. By entrenching themselves in urban “super-camps” and only venturing out in large armed vehicle convoys, government forces have allowed the insurgents to roam free in the countryside. Their failure to protect civilians has decreased civilian trust in and delegitimized government forces. The economic sanctions implemented by the MNJTF have increased food insecurity for civilians, motivating some to join Boko Haram. Further exacerbating the humanitarian crisis, the Nigerian military has intercepted and retained aid, while also prohibiting relief organizations from accessing areas controlled by Boko Haram, to deprive civilians deemed sympathetic to the insurgency.
The framing of the war on terror, namely its emphasis on defeating, capturing, and killing suspected terrorists, has shaped military behavior and, ultimately, prolonged the conflict. Justifying their activities as part of the war on terror, government forces have engaged in arbitrary arrests (often en masse and without trials), extrajudicial execution, and torture in prison, all of which have further fueled public resentment. In this context, Boko Haram has been able to effectively portray themselves to the local population as resistance fighters against the “occupying troops” from other parts of Nigeria, increasing their ability to recruit new members. Further fueling the conflict, many insurgents believe that they do not have the option of surrender and would be killed either by their fellow combatants or by the Nigerian military if they tried to do so.
Local politics, namely the threat of a military coup, have also shaped military policies and management and created dysfunctional security forces. To limit the likelihood of a coup in ethnically diverse Nigeria, troops are prohibited from deploying to their home region to prevent collusion with the locals. However, this has adversely impacted the fight against Boko Haram, as the soldiers sent to protect northeast Nigeria often cannot speak the local language. Additionally, rampant corruption, including misappropriation of salaries and fraudulent contracts, has reduced the credibility of government forces.
Contrary to the Nigerian government’s narrative that Boko Haram is the sole perpetrator of violence, government forces are involved in massive human rights violations and have bombed civilian populations in Nigerian localities (the article cites two examples: Baga in April 2013 and Rann in January 2017). The University of Ibadan’s Nigeria Watch documented that 55% of the conflict’s victims (a purposefully vague term reflecting the blurry line between civilians and insurgents) between 2007 and 2019 were killed by government forces. Furthermore, the Nigerian government has consistently manipulated the number of casualties reported in the conflict by pressuring journalists, establishing biased commissions, or coercing family members to misrepresent their deceased loved ones. This research highlights civilians as the main victims in the fight against terrorism, as they are often targeted by both Boko Haram and government forces alike. Given the government’s role in committing violence against civilians, a peace process should acknowledge wrongdoing by all stakeholders—including the government—and establish a compensation fund for the victims of both insurgent and government violence.
Reflecting on the decades-long unsuccessful efforts by Nigeria and others to counter Boko Haram, this research draws us to a larger question: Are military responses the most effective way to address security threats? What kind of sacrifices do governments expect of their citizens in pursuit of national security against terrorist threats—especially if citizens are directly or indirectly harmed over the course of a military campaign? As the war on terror winds down and U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan, closer analysis of the domestic implications of U.S. military action in the war on terror indicates it has not been effective at making Americans more secure.
The U.S.-led global war on terror was sparked by the attacks of September 11, 2001. Since then, the U.S. military apparatus has proliferated throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Asia in an effort to protect Americans from the threat of terrorism abroad. Extending the war on terror to the domestic sphere, the U.S. government has focused almost exclusively on preventing and countering violent extremism in American Muslim communities for the past two decades. For example, as a direct result the of September 11 attacks, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was created and has become notorious for targeting and criminalizing Muslim communities in the U.S. Meanwhile, violent white supremacist groups have been proliferating in the U.S., posing a more serious threat when it comes to domestic terrorism. Despite warnings from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2009 of right-wing extremism and violence, the U.S. government response, spearheaded by Congressional Republicans, was to politicize and squash the report. Considering the most serious recent threat to American democracy—the insurrection of January 6—was perpetrated by violent white supremacists, the war on terror’s focus on a particular type of perpetrator, to the exclusion of others, did not make Americans safer.
In addition to obscuring the very real threat presented by violent white supremacy, the war on terror demanded extensive financial resources. The U.S. has spent a staggering $5.41 trillion on the war on terror since 2001. However, despite the multi-trillion-dollar effort to keep Americans secure, the last year has showcased how woefully insecure Americans really are. Beyond the obvious susceptibility of the country to a deadly virus, the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic also revealed that, for many Americans, access to healthcare is precarious. Typically, Americans receive health coverage through their employer, and the massive layoffs during the pandemic meant many Americans lost access to their employee-sponsored healthcare. As the pandemic unfolded, the inequities of the American workforce became increasingly hard to ignore. There is a growing chasm between lower-wage earners in industries that rely upon human interaction who do not accrue sick leave or paid time off and higher-wage earners who can work remotely with a computer. Amid a deadly pandemic, lower-wage earners were forced to go to work or else they did not get paid. These realities—already present but brought into relief by the pandemic—are the result of decisions about where to invest resources. Instead of spending $5.41 trillion on the war on terror, U.S. taxpayers could have spent that same money securing healthcare for 27.5 million adults, providing 128 million households with solar electricity, and sustaining 2.1 million jobs at $15/hour with benefits—all over the same 20-year period—while also creating 2 million additional public housing units. General economic precarity along with the lack of reliable and affordable health insurance, inadequate and unaffordable housing, and a looming climate disaster all make Americans insecure, yet the U.S. government spent $5.41 trillion not on investments addressing these problems but on overseas military interventions that arguably generated their own cycles of violence. Insecurity, therefore—not security—is the legacy of the war on terror. [KH]
What would more effective responses to terrorism—ones that don’t reinforce cycles of violence—look like?
How can American foreign policy be crafted in a way that serves, rather than extracts resources away from, people’s everyday security?
American Friends Service Committee. (2020, May 19). National Muslim-led coalition says no to Department of Homeland Security grants. Retrieved June 15, 2021, from https://www.afsc.org/newsroom/national-muslim-led-coalition-says-no-to-department-homeland-security-grants
National Priorities Project. (2019, April). Trade-offs: Your money, your choices. Retrieved June 14, 2021, from https://www.nationalpriorities.org/interactive-data/trade-offs/?state=00&program=32
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Semuels, A. (2020, March 4). ‘If we don’t work, we don’t get paid.’ How the coronavirus is exposing inequality among America’s workers. Time Magazine. Retrieved June 14, 2021, from https://time.com/5795651/coronavirus-workers-economy-inequality/
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Key words: Nigeria, Boko Haram, war on terror, Lake Chad, insurgency, military, violence, violence against civilians