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.
“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.”Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.