Restoring Peace in Northern Nigeria

2012-10-15 05:18

The appointment of Sambo Dasuki as Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s National Security Adviser has raised the intriguing prospect of negotiating with Boko Haram Islamists who have so terrorized large swathes of northern Nigeria. Indeed he has made it clear that he seeks to enter into a dialogue with the group during his recent tour of the north.

For some, the prospect of a political solution makes sense on account of the failure of counter-terror measures. There has after all been a 50 percent increase of Boko Haram attacks from last year to this year and in some states like Borno, that increase is 64%. Detractors, however, argue that a political settlement might be seen as a reward for terrorist atrocities and might actually further encourage the militants. Indeed, recent statements from the group crowing about fresh new atrocities on innocent Nigerian civilians as well as ordering President Jonathan, a Christian Southerner, to convert to Islam speaks volumes about their state of mind.

The prospect of a negotiated settlement is also muddied by the fact all parties are not on board. On the part of the government, Major-General Sarkin-Yaki Bello, a senior member of Nigeria’s National Security Council, believes that Boko Haram must be defeated militarily. On the part of Boko Haram’s 32-member Shura Council, there are also divisions with hardliners like Mamman Nur, the second-in-command, pushing for intensifying the sect’s military campaign. Nur was responsible for planning the attack on the United Nations offices in the capital Abuja last year.

Boko Haram’s close ties with Al Shabab in Somalia, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, based in Mali may also preclude it from opting for a negotiated settlement. To put it differently, to what extent is the group motivated by local grievances as opposed to prosecuting a global jihad in the Nigerian territorial space?

Negotiations and a military option may however be opposite sides of the same coin. International experience also suggests that successful counter-terrorism requires both. A sharper and more effective security response might well result in the weakening of the hardliners within Boko Haram and consequently make the group more amenable towards a political settlement. Boko Haram has also raised some legitimate local grievances like the economic underdevelopment of the north. It is a fact that whilst 27 percent of the population residing in the south live in poverty, the figure for northern Nigeria is 72 percent.

What is then needed is a robust, intelligence-driven security operation against the sect coupled with a policy to address the legitimate socio-economic grievances of northern Nigerians. The security dimensions of the strategy must be focused internally to weaken the group’s military arms and externally to disrupt its regional global support networks from Mali to Somalia and Yemen. The development strategy must be focused to economically uplift the poorest in the north- who form the core of Boko Haram’s support base.

Both these measures will be aimed at strengthening the hands of the moderates within Boko Haram and thereby increasing the likelihood of a political settlement.

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