In Boko Haram country, Nigeria's new crackdown brings mixed feelings

At the epicenter of Boko Haram's bloody attacks, locals see new state of emergency as short- term solution. With youth poverty and alleged Army brutality, they don't trust anyone.

Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters
A woman crosses a deserted road in Bulumkutu, after the military declared a 24-hour curfew over large parts of Maiduguri in Borno State May 19. The military crackdown is the most concerted government effort to date to crush a group responsible for more than 3,000 deaths since 2010.

A tattered "Wanted" poster with an infamous screen shot photo of Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau promises a lucrative bounty for anyone who can help capture him or any of his commanders.

Yet there is little incentive for residents in this battered Nigerian city – epicenter of an ugly four-year revolt – to help find him. 

President Goodluck Jonathan weeks back has taken decisive action against Boko Haram by declaring a state of emergency across Nigeria’s northeastern states. A recent military crackdown at least briefly ended a discussion of an amnesty for the group that claims radical Islamist credentials.

But many here believe a declaration of war is not a real solution. They say the poverty and inequality that stoked anger and resentment towards authorities and aided the group’s rise must be addressed to secure long-term success in quelling the insurgency. 

“In the long run it is a social problem,” says Aisha Ibrahim, a journalist in Maiduguri. “Leaders should have been more sensitive to the idea of poverty. Boko Haram has attracted a lot of sympathy from the lower-class and the downtrodden.”

Boko Haram continues to be feared greatly by locals. They deal ruthlessly with suspected informants. “A meat seller was dragged off for speaking to police,” explains Ibrahim Abubakar, a trader, as he arranges purple onions into a perfect pyramid on his stall. “People know them and they know you,” he says of Boko Haram, whose members have carefully infiltrated the population in Maiduguri, embroiled in a bloody rebellion since 2009.

Violence in April caused some of the highest fatality numbers since the insurgency began, prompting President Jonathan to declare the emergency across Borno, Yobe and Adamawa areas. He admitted that the government had lost control in some parts of the states – some estimate that 10 of the 27 local government areas in Borno had come under Boko Haram rule.

The military crackdown is the most concerted government effort to date to crush a group responsible for more than 3,000 deaths since 2010.  An additional 2,000 troops were reportedly deployed to those states within 24 hours, accompanied by air and ground assaults on camps hoarding weapons.  

A week ago the military cut mobile phone service in much of the northeast as part of a strategy to “prevent intelligence from spreading within the group,” a military source in Maiduguri told the Monitor.

The military offensive on Boko Haram has “sent tens of thousands of residents” of northeastern Nigeria’s Borno State fleeing from their homes to find refuge in neighboring Niger and Cameroon, according to IRIN, the United Nations humanitarian news network. Security analysts fear that applying pressure on the three states may divert insurgents to other parts of Nigeria, such as Kano, where Boko Haram has already staged brutal attacks.

Maiduguri, once part of a thriving ancient empire, now hosts some of the poorest people in Nigeria. A lockdown on trucks entering the state has exacerbated problems for traders, who grumble about the climbing price of food.

“Farmers are complaining,” says Abdul Mukhtar, who struggles to sell a few broken carrots and bruised tomatoes. “They aren’t allowed to transport their food to the markets where the masses can buy them.”

The soldiers themselves have been received with mixed feelings. 

“When we saw soldiers we were afraid of their presence,” says Mr. Mukhtar. “But it has given us some confidence that peace will be restored. People are still afraid that Boko Haram will come back angrier than before.”

So far, the movement has proved to be remarkably resilient against Nigeria’s military might. Members are adept at melting into the country’s vast desert hinterlands, and have effectively regrouped in the past. Nigerian armed forces have "experienced more resistance than they had envisaged,” the military source says.

For more than a year, fragile states across the Sahel have struggled to police their highly porous borders. There has been a relative free flow of illicit weapons to the Sahel from fractured post-revolution states such as Libya. The permeable frontiers have allowed for Boko Haram to coordinate with Al Qaeda- affiliated groups.

Yet brutality by the Army in civilian areas has exacerbated the problem. There are concerns that arbitrary violence by soldiers against civilians will push more locals to join the rebel cause. At the African Union's 50th anniversary in Addis Ababa over the weekend, US Secretary of State John Kerry said there were “credible allegations” of “gross human rights violations” by the Army. Several weeks earlier Mr. Kerry urged Nigeria's military to adhere “to the highest standards" and not be found "engaging in atrocities." 

Flip-flopping approaches to the problem indicates a lack of coherency on the president’s part, according to some Nigerian analysts.

Boko Haram has repeatedly rejected peace talks, citing the government's insincerity following a series of failed mediated negotiations. The launch of the recent military operation may render hollow the president’s offer of an amnesty to insurgents who relinquish their weapons.

However, the government has agreed to release some women and children – one of the primary demands of the group. And some analysts say a tough crackdown may in fact be the opening bid for serious talks on amnesty. 

In the short term, Nigeria’s military are likely to record successes against Boko Haram. But the difficulty will be winning back the trust of the people in Maiduguri.

“Unless they can take the people with them, any victories by the military will gradually unravel,” according to a senior western diplomat in Abuja, the nation's capital.

The vulnerability of unemployed youth in Nigeria’s northeast leaves them open to Boko Haram’s narratives, which have only been augmented by weak governance and the poor delivery of basic services. Boko Haram members, who live in the city’s poor communities, command the loyalty of those who have languished into poverty.

“The ideology and the social roots are interdependent,” a government source offers. “The social issues provide a breeding ground, allowing the extreme ideology to take root. After 2009, the primary recruits were unemployed youths.”

“It is not the hardware of tanks and equipment that matter even though these are easier and more lucrative to some officials,” writes Kole Shettima, chairman of the Centre of Democracy and Development, in an editorial entitled “Bread not Bullets” published in a local paper.

“A population-centric approach is essential to the success of any counter-insurgency. It is popular legitimacy that will provide the intelligence necessary to fight insurgents and terrorists.”

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