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The real battlefield against jihadist armies

In Iraq's struggle with Islamic State and Nigeria's with Boko Haram, each country has made some progress by embracing inclusive democracy. This, more than fighting, will fill the social vacuum that jihadist armies exploit.

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    Abubakar Bala, a displaced person in Nigeria's Adamawa State, displays his voter's card.
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The world now has two battlefields where jihadists have rapidly gained control over whole populations. One is Nigeria where Boko Haram rules in many northern areas. The other is Iraq where Islamic State reigns in several cities. Yet neither band of terrorists has so far faced much on-the-ground pushback by either nation’s military.

The reason? Because the real battlefield is not on the ground. It lies in the ability of each country’s people and elected leaders to rise above traditional differences – religious, ethnic, or tribal. They must assert a civic identity around democratic values. Only then can such unity of purpose help their armies make the sacrifices necessary to win on the physical battlefield, especially in gaining support of civilians in the embattled areas.

Last September, after ousting a deeply sectarian leader, Iraq finally began such a civic struggle against Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL). A new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has made progress by including minority Kurds and Sunnis in a Shiite-dominated regime. Sunnis have been appointed to a few key posts in government. The Kurds in northern Iraq now share in the country’s oil wealth. And Mr. Abadi has tried to win over Sunni tribes under Islamic State control.

Nigeria’s civic struggle against Boko Haram has been slower. President Goodluck Jonathan and the military have been weak in the face of frequent attacks by the group, such as the kidnapping of 276 girls and a recent massacre in the town of Baga. Nigeria’s politics have long been divided by north-south, Christian-Muslim, or tribal differences. Overcoming these splits requires generous leaps in trust and a search for common ground.

Last week, Nigerians made such a leap when all the candidates in a Feb. 14 presidential election signed an accord to ensure an issues-based campaign, encourage free and fair polls and, most of all, tell their supporters to refrain from violence before, during, and after the vote.

Kofi Annan, a former Secretary-General of the United Nations, was present for the signing ceremony, a signal that Nigeria cares about its image as a democracy. The accord will also be monitored by “peace committees” made up of respected leaders, including those from major religions.

Nigeria’s elections are notoriously violent, yet this one counts more than most in a need to be peaceful. First, as Africa’s largest economy and one of the continent’s leaders, Nigeria must show it can roll back Boko Haram by embracing a clean democratic process. Also, the presidential vote is the first real nationwide contest fought between two dominant political parties since the military relinquished control in 1999.

It is significant then that the two main candidates – President Jonathan, a Christian from the south and leader of the ruling People’s Democratic Party; and Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim from the north and leader of the opposition All Progressives Congress – embraced in the signing ceremony. Also to help win votes, Mr. Buhari has chosen a Christian as his running mate while Mr. Jonathan chose a Muslim.

“In a society where most citizens still owe allegiance primarily to their ethnic and religious groups, the leaders of these groups must bear responsibility for ensuring that their followers pursue their political interests lawfully and peacefully,” stated a recent report by the International Crisis Group.

Nigeria also deserves credit for holding an election during an armed conflict. Despite the difficult logistics of ensuring a fair ballot, the vote will help counter Boko Haram’s anti-democracy ideology.

These steps of progress in Iraq and Nigeria will help reduce the kind of extremism in politics that can open a door for extremism by Islamic fundamentalists. Both Islamic State and Boko Haram have been able to advance because of a vacuum in each country in maintaining a peaceful, inclusive democracy. The battlefield to watch is in their quality of governance and a broader and encompassing identity among their citizens.

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