Why Nigeria's tactics with the militant Boko Haram may not work

The Nigerian government's strategy for dealing with Boko Haram is based on its experience with militants in the Niger Delta, but Boko Haram's different grievances means those tactics may not work.

By , Guest blogger

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    Shattered remnants are seen at the site of a bomb blast at a bar near a police barracks in the Nigerian northeastern city of Maiduguri on July 3. The explosion killed at least five people and injured 10 more, the latest apparent attack by radical Islamist sect Boko Haram.
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“If our dear late President Umaru Yar’Adua can restore peace to a more volatile area like the Niger Delta by extending Amnesty to the militants of the region and dialogue with them by resolving most of their grievances amicably, I don’t see why we can’t do the same to the Boko Haram.”

- Governor-elect (now Governor) Kashim Shettima of Borno State, Nigeria, May 2011

In 2009, President Umaru Yar’Adua launched an amnesty program that aimed to disarm, reintegrate, and employ militants in the Niger Delta. Prior to this, local anger over the failure of oil revenues to substantially benefit communities gave rise to armed movements that disrupted oil production. The government had deployed soldiers (the Joint Task Force or JTF) and militants, but only the amnesty seemed to offer a chance of lasting peace. The government’s two-pronged approach to the Delta – crackdown, then amnesty – helped tamp down the conflict there, though rumblings of discontent in the Delta, along with new threats from militants, indicate that it could resume.

Policymakers at both the federal and the state level largely see the problem of Boko Haram, the Muslim rebel group that is spreading violence outward from its stronghold in the Northeastern city of Maiduguri, Borno State, through the lens of the Niger Delta. The precedent of the Niger Delta force-then-amnesty policy, the perception of its at least partial success, and the existence of groups with significant experience in dialogue with militants, helps explain why some officials urge the application of the same formula in the northeast. The military is already in Maiduguri, and force has long been an element of the state response to Boko Haram. The persistence with which the idea of amnesty returns in government circles, though – even when Boko Haram rejects it time after time – shows how strongly the example of the Delta has shaped Nigerian policy responses to violent groups.

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The analogy with the Delta also shapes an understanding of what the root causes of Boko Haram’s emergence are. Figures like Governor Shettima, along with virtually every analyst, believes that northern Nigeria’s problems – poverty, feelings of political isolation, deficient infrastructure, lack of broad access to higher Western-style education, etc – play some role in sustaining Boko Haram.

The challenge lies in moving from a general understanding of factors at work in Boko Haram’s existence to a specific understanding of the movement’s grievances and, finally, to nuanced policy tools that could reintegrate members of the movement into society or undercut its grassroots support.

The analogy with the Delta is helpful in the sense that it encourages examination of root causes of violence; it becomes less helpful if policymakers stop at the level of generalities (e.g., “we need more schools”) instead of thinking about what factors make Boko Haram, and Northeastern Nigeria, unique.

One place where a general analogy between the Niger Delta and Northeastern Nigeria breaks down is in the differences between groups like the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) and Boko Haram. It would be a mistake to say that religion (Christianity, local religions, and even Islam) is not a force in the Niger Delta, but the grievances of MEND have to do with the distribution of wealth resulting from one natural resource, oil. The grievances Boko Haram expresses are more diverse, less material, and are explicitly articulated as religious politics: Boko Haram wants stronger shari’a, it wants a purification of society, etc.

If the grievances are different, the solutions to address them must of necessity be at least somewhat different. More schools could help reduce feelings of marginalization in the North. But to reach a group whose very name connotes a rejection of Western education, not only as a phenomenon but also as a symbol of “un-Islamic” governance in Nigeria, an educational initiative would have to be introduced carefully indeed.

Shettima, who has shown substantial political courage, recognizes this, of course. Shettima has been the foremost proponent of an amnesty for Boko Haram, but he has also begun putting forward religious arguments against violence, invoking Islam as both theology and as a historical way of life in the Northeast:

According to him, targeting innocent souls for attacks irrespective of religion and ethnicity, among others, was alien to Islam.”The targeting of innocent and unarmed civilians regardless of their ethnicity, race and or religious beliefs is alien not only to our norms and culture, but alien to the fundamental doctrines of Islam.”

He said Borno, as a home of Islam over the years, had enjoyed great harmony among the different tribes and religious groups.

“In over the 1,000 years that Islam has taken roots in Borno, it has indeed affected the lives of our people positively, and has through its doctrines guided our daily lives.

“It also guided our interpersonal relations ranging from social to economic interactions.”

These arguments underscore the historical, cultural, and political differences between the Niger Delta and the Northeast.

There are certainly lessons that policymakers can take from the former conflict and apply to the latter. But past a certain point, general similarities end. The problem of Boko Haram will require its own solutions.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of Africa bloggers. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of Africa bloggers. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here.

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