Why Nigeria may not defeat Boko Haram soon: Re-visiting the counter-operations

Chief of Army Staff, Gen. T. Y. Buratai

Chief of Army Staff, Gen. T. Y. Buratai

During the last presidential electioneering, General Muhammad Buhari (Rtrd, now President) must have scored a significant political point through his promise to terminate the Boko Haram insurgency within one year of his take-over. Probably desperate to actualize this highly ambitious electoral promise, the Presidency declared in December 2015 that the Boko Haram insurgents had been defeated. As if to quickly declare the Presidency a Liar Entity, the Movement struck rather brazenly in the same month killing 20 in a mosque bombing in Adamawa on 21st December 2015 and terminating the lives of 16 in an inferno in Kimba, Borno on Christmas day. Early in the new year, and specifically on 8th January 2016, a Boko Haram suicide bomber detonated an explosive device at a mosque in Kolofata, Far North Cameroon, killing 2 and injuring one, repeating same in another mosque after five days (13th January, 2016) in Kouyape, also Far North Cameroon, killing 12 and injuring one, and recording yet another one at another mosque after another five days (18th January, 2016), killing four. From 13th February, 2016 till date there have been multiple Boko Haram attacks in Borno and its environs including the one in which worshippers were forced into a mosque and shot, leaving several fatalities and casualties including Nigeria’s Army’s most gallant commander, Muhammed Abu Ali a lieutenant colonel, Major D.S Erasmus, Lt. Col. K. Yusuf and several senior officers who were killed by the insurgents between September 25 and December, 2016.

Although the Nigerian troops gave the insurgents a hard fight and killed a good number of them, the perturbing question is, why have Nigerian soldiers continued to fall at the feet of the trigger-active insurgents who have been blissfully declared defeated and whose defeat had even been publicly celebrated by the Presidency one year ago.

To what extent can the Presidency’s self-proclaimed victory against Boko Haram be true? The purpose of this discourse is not to argue for or against the presidential claim whose invalidity is as clear as the sunlight in broad daytime. Hakeem Onapajo, a South Africa-based political scientist and post-doctoral fellow at the University of Zululand, has recently fulfilled that in a scholarly appraisal. The purpose of this discourse is rather to offer a situational analysis and expose the missing link that has rendered unattainable the laudable presidential promise of defeating Boko Haram within one year!

The present analysis conjectures that Nigeria does not know the enemy she is fighting. It also conjectures that Nigeria has not been sensitive enough to the Boko Haram ideology and recruitment strategies. Again, it conjectures that Nigeria’s counter-terrorist strategy is essentially military, a kind of fire-for-fire approach, and neither sufficiently ideological nor adequately orientational. There again is a grossly unstrategic approach to intelligence, on the part of the Nigerian troops. I shall engage critically with these four conjectures through some theoretical explanations with a view to demonstrating that firearms, (which have been Nigeria’s only ammunition) alone cannot defeat Boko Haram who, at times, prove more militarily sophisticated and battle-strategic than the Nigerian troops.

Before approaching such an engagement, it should be noted that Boko Haramism is not a strange phenomenon. It is rather a sub-set of a global trend as there across the world now is a growing concern over the emerging dimensions of what is now characterized as a “new globalized Islam”, as a result of the Muslim clamour and “search for a New Ummah”. Consequently, the concern became obvious as the attention of the contemporary world began to shift gradually to the Muslim world since the unprecedented attacks of September 11, 2001 to which the media has connected several events and incidents of bombings in various parts of the world. Such a shift of pendulum in the attention of the world has culminated in the intensification of research and reporting on Islam especially with regard to its propagation and expansion. Consequently, scholars and researchers on the subject zoomed unto the Middle East and South Asian countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan both of which have been portrayed as operation bases for professional terrorists and potential bombers. The eventual killing of Al-Qaeda leader, Osamah Bin Laden by the United States Special Forces during an early morning raid on a military settlement in Abottabad, Pakistan, on May 1, 2011, later aggravated the negative image that had been created for Pakistan.

In the aftermath of all that, there has been a sustained interest among scholars from various disciplines on the nature of expansionist and revivalist activities of the Muslims with a view to exposing extremist elements or extremist potentialities that are capable of propelling the likelihood of such unprecedented attacks on the super power. The perspectives offered by various notable scholars of Muslim Politics, though appreciably critical of the general concept of Political Islam, do not really mark a total departure from the central concept. In fact, it could be inferred from their views that it is in a bid to pursue the Political Islam agenda that Muslim activists, at times, find themselves caught in the web of what is often tagged as “Extremist Islam” or Islamic Extremism, as will also be demonstrated later in this discourse.

Consequently, there is an emerging concern over the continued radicalization and militarization of Islam in some parts of the Muslim world. Although there have been different interpretations of this scenario by various scholars, there is little evidence of complacency on the part of the Muslim, in the face of external aggression the like of which spurs them into reacting radically. Such an experience, which is fast becoming a new trend, has contributed in no small measure in promoting the arguably erroneous perception that “Islamic extremism” and Extremist Islam are inseparable allies and products of Islamic revivalist efforts. The growing concern has culminated in the emergence of a sophisticated body of scholarship in various fields where research interests are inclusive of the ideological concepts of revivalism, extremism, militancy, terrorism, extremism and related others. Boko Haram may be accurately located in such an ideological context as will be demonstrated in the following lines.

The relevance of the word ideology to any discourse on Boko Haram lies in the conception of the idea of ideology as related to commitment to designing a programme for the purpose of improving the human condition, through a struggle that requires the recruitment of followers and partisans committed to the realization of the target. In what later turned out to be a template for subsequent ideological programmes, there was not to be an appeal to the general public but the key actors were to be chosen with care. It is obvious that the Boko Haram Movement of Nigeria, like such other notable Islamic groups as the Jama’at Islamiyya of Egypt, the Jama Islamiyya of Indonesia, has kept faithfully to this principle.

A careful look at the style and mode of operations of the Movement may also provide some insight into its ideology. Its repeated unveiled claims that its members have been sent on training in various parts of the Muslim world, such as Algeria, Mauritania, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, have been described as an indication that the Movement modeled itself after notable Militant Islamic groups like the Taliban which the group has always acknowledged as though it is their source of inspiration. Such claims provide some clues for the Federal security operatives in Nigeria.

The central theme of Boko Haram message was that Islam is averse to Western secular education. In a similar token, the group maintains that evangelism, which is being deceitfully given the colouring of Western education, is Islamically unacceptable. It may be reiterated here that this particular anti-Western education stance can not be regarded as an initiative of the Boko Haram leader, Muhammad Yusuf, given the fact that literature is replete with information concerning the apprehension of Northern Nigerian Islamic scholars who had been unrepentantly critical of Western education, which they saw as a potential instrument for possible conversion of their unsuspecting children and wards to Christianity. It may however be acknowledge for the record, albeit arguably, that this age-long practice was what Boko Haram exploited and deceitfully presented as the nucleus of its ideology.

Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Sa’ad Abubakar III

Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Sa’ad Abubakar III

As time progressed, illiterates and jobless youths flocked around Muhammad Yusuf to embrace his doctrines. Some of the educated ones among his followers were said to have torn off their certificates in demonstration of their total commitment to the path of Yusuf. Yusuf’s claim was that their mission was to fight the satanic system and enthrone the Shari’ah in the country. However, the group was able to attract to itself few members of some of the most influential families in Maiduguri, such as Maikanti Indimi and Bana Mulima. According to Muhammad Murtada who wrote in 2010, it was Yusuf’s persistent attack on anything western that made him a hero and role model, as he was believed to have been using his Islamic knowledge to justify his mission to his followers. Evidence abound in research that people are attracted to a movement owing to their subscription to such social forces with potential to stimulate a break-out in rebellion against the system as being experienced in the Boko Haram case.

As recently pointed out by Henry Borom, the unrepentant nature of Boko Haram Movement suggests the somewhat rewarding nature of the outcome of their recruitment strategy where established members are charged with the responsibility of recruiting others by seeking to identify those who are most likely to agree to act, if asked, and to further the cause. This way, the leadership of the Movement charges its rational prospectors with the use of intelligence to find likely targets after which recruiters provide further information and deploy inducements to persuade recruits to say “yes”. This strategy, which relies on social bonds and relationships, has been a source of strength to the Movement, especially with regard to its ever-expanding recruitment networks. It would be an appreciable counter-terrorist strategy for the Presidency to investigate the specific attractions that have prompted recruits to continue to join the Boko Haram insurgents.

For instance, a top military officer who is regarded as having “deep knowledge of the North-East operations” against Boko Haram seemed to have exposed the deficient nature of the intelligence and counter-intelligence capacity of the Nigerian troops where he revealed (as published in Premium Times of November 7, 2016) that Boko Haram attacked the very night immediately after “one officer and 49 soldiers were withdrawn from Mallam Fatori in the morning’ and that suggests that they possibly had advance information of the troops reduction in number”. The military source confirmed that “Boko Haram seems to have good strategists who study our modus operandi and cause them to adjust accordingly. The Nigerian military may need to reappraise its approach to counter-insurgency operations”.

What the above revelation by a top military officer says directly is very clear. However, what it says indirectly is loaded and voluminous in the estimation of scholars of terrorism and counter-terrorism. For instance, Boko Haram’s capacity for advanced collection and sophisticated use of operational intelligence in a manner capable of wrecking havoc that will subsequently inflict mass casualties. It was the hybridized strategic intelligence of Boko Haram that influenced its operational decision to strike without delay. How the insurgents were able access useful security reports on the Federal troops and, at the same time, create a security umbrella that concealed the development and shielded the operation from exposure at any stage, is good operational intelligence! Their performance in this regard is analogous to a flight hijackers operational knowledge that the best time to storm the cockpit is 10 to 15 minutes after takeoff by which time the cockpit is normally opened for the first time and an action or counter-action must not be a minute late!

Besides, despite the centrality of the role of identity in terrorism and radicalization, as evident in literature, Nigerians cannot claim to really have any clue as to who is involved in Boko Haram strategizing or any idea of how the insurgents see themselves. Such a strategic investigation has the potential to provide insights into the issue of religious identity of the membership of a religious extremist group in a pluralistic setting like Nigeria. Gaining access to details of what the Movement has as group identity which may include shared experiences, attitudes, beliefs and interests of in-group members, may provide further insights into the possible ways of engaging with such a group which is allegedly committed to the achievement of a collectively professed aim to rid Nigeria of its corrupt and abusive government and institute religious purity. Nigerians will appreciate some updates on new discoveries by the Nigerian troops about Boko Haram as a way of assuring the citizenry that it is all under control. The security implications of such an undertaking are psychologically assuring rather than counter-productive.

Social scientists have proffered four explanations to the group identity question namely depersonalization, social cohesion, conformity and obedience, as well as bipolar worldview. The depersonalization dimension may be explained by the fact that the Boko Haram insurgents may see themselves as interchangeable members of an organization and are therefore motivated to make uppermost in their hearts the interests and goals of the organization. As regards the social cohesion dimension, it may be explained by the collective identity shared by members of the group as such identity binds them together and promotes positive relationships and the spirit of togetherness. The conformity and obedience factor concerns the need for an unrestricted identification with terrorist organizations through an unrestricted identification with the norms that guide the member’s behaviour.

Concerning bipolar worldview in connection with the insurgents, it is interesting to note that they nurse disdain against and develop negative feelings about people outside their group, as a result of the motivation they derive from their unrepentant identification with their group. The implication of this in the estimation of terrorists is that the world is divided between ‘us’ and ‘them’. They see themselves as bastions of the values and interests of an ethnic or religious community. It is theoretically predictable that the self-identification of terrorists as members of a much larger community will help them to fulfill their avowed goals. This may be an explanation for the unrepentant nature of Boko Haram and a competently designed systematic national counter-ideological orientation may prove efficacious in this regard.

The Boko Haram Movement is generally situated within the broad area of fundamentalism which scholars have identified as the most marginal of the dominant streams of Islamic thinking in contemporary Nigeria. They associate it with anti-system movements that express aversion to the established political authorities, which are regarded as being grossly secular. These movements are not only opposed to the government but also to established religious elites whom they perceive as lethargic. According to David Chalk, “the fundamentalists cite the dysfunctional conditions of the secular Nigerian state as a reason to challenge current moral and political order through religion.

Their aim is a society guided by the rules and principles of Islam, and they are willing to suffer, struggle and actively embrace martyrdom to achieve this end. Whether Boko Haram insurgents are sincere or deceitful in such a claim, does not invalidate the perception that this is a good indoctrination that has been working to their favour, for sometime now and there may be need for Nigeria to urgently design counter-actions along that line.

In a recent study, David argues that a state’s inability to fulfill its obligations to the citizenry constitutes an enabling environment for terrorism. He adds that the responsibilities of a state comprise “adequate discharge of political good and social welfare to its citizens and effective territorial control given its monopoly of the use of force” and argues that the state’s failure to discharge these responsibilities may pave way for “various forms of politically motivated violence including terrorism” Describing a failed state as one that is unable to discharge specific roles that are regarded as functions of a properly functioning state, he rationalizes that the failed state thesis has potential to enhance our understanding of conflicts in the country as occasioned by the rebellion of the so called terrorist or extremist group.

From another direction, the strength of the Boko Haram insurgents may be explained through the concept of cosmic war which concerns period of suffering, injustice, and trials in which the truly faithful will prevail. This period of trial and suffering is not the end but rather navigates a path to a new era of justice which things are put in a proper shape. Cosmic war normally invites individuals to participate in something greater than themselves and to give their lives to the ultimate cause. There are two ways out of a cosmic war namely total victory or defeat, or “redirecting the theology by offering interpretations of the faith that contradict the apocalyptic imaginings of cosmic war and its need for violence”.

However, this explanation offers indications that the factors that potentially work against the interest of militant groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS may be favourable to the goals of Boko Haram Movement in Nigeria, because, Total victory…is difficult to realize given that militant Islamic movements that aim to establish or reestablish the faith in social and political realms do not operate on a unified front; there are Shi’a and Sunni groups fighting for these goals such as the Lebanese Shi’a Hizbullah and Sunni Al-Qaeda. However, Sunnis and Shi’as have different understandings of what political and religious leadership should look like. Moreover, within these sects there are groups that are fighting for different goals, such as the Sunni Hamas, which has Islamic and nationalistic goals for Palestine, and Al-Qaeda, which has pan-Islamic, post-nationalistic goals. In other words, these movements’ concepts of “total victory” are not unified in practice.

The above is untrue of the Boko Haram Movement.

Wanderlust for revivalism thesis is another considerable explanation with potential to expose the essence of the Boko Haram operations. This may be situated, to an extent, into the redirection of theology argument, advanced earlier in this discourse. The term jihad, which literally means struggle or strive, is at the centre of it all. Most Muslims are able to distinguish between the greater jihad, which implies a spiritual struggle to overcome temptations and live a pious life, and the lesser jihad, which is the physical struggle in defence of the faith, which involves the use of force. However, militant Islamists like Al-Qaeda, and now Boko Haram, emphasise the lesser jihad but there is a room to challenge their interpretation and reemphasise the priority of the greater jihad. This is where there is another challenge to Nigeria in her counter-terrorist drive.

President Muhammadu Buhari PHOTO: PHILIP OJISUA

President Muhammadu Buhari PHOTO: PHILIP OJISUA

It should be underscored that it was the September 11, 2011 experience that prompted the United States to pay attention to the age-long portrayal of Islam as under attack and the call on Muslims to rise and defend their religion with their lives. It should equally be underscored that the contemporary leaders of Militant Islamic movements like Shaykh Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden, and Ayman al-Zawahiri were not the originators of this line of interpreting Islam. Rather, their ideology has its roots in the writings of mid-twentieth-century Muslim revivalists like Hassan Al-Banna of Egypt, Abu Ala’la Al-Mawdudi of South Asia, Sayyid Qutb of Egypt and Abd al-Salam al-Faraj also of Egypt.

These individuals enjoined Muslims to disregard alien ideologies and embrace Islam as a total way of life, socially, spiritually, politically, and economically. These activists describe Islamic societies as being in a state of crisis caused by the penetration of Western, secular ideologies – particularly Capitalism and Marxism – and the failure of Muslim political and religious leadership to direct society in the right path of Islam…the path of Islam requires Muslim societies and their leaders to return to Islam, and look within their faith for the template to live a rightly guided life as individuals, societies, and nations. In the Nigerian context, this may not necessarily mean the need for the enthronement of Shari’ah at all levels and strata. It may just simply mean justice and equity.

It is instructive to point out that although Hassan al-Banna is regarded by most scholars as the founder of modern day Islamic revivalism of which militant Islam is an offshoot, his vision for redirecting the Egyptian society to the right Islamic path was not built on violence but the concept of grass-roots revival that would, in turn, transform society and eventually the government. (p. 191). However, Mawdudi, who in his own struggle, also argued that Muslim society was under threat and had become an appendage of the West, emphasized that the only way out was to restore its strength by returning to Islam.
Consequently, Qutb derived inspirations from the works of both Al-Banna and Al-Mawdudi. Qutb did not hide his disdain for the dominance of the secular ideologies of Capitalism and Communism and thought it appropriate to navigating way for the enthronement of an Islamic ideology “that would not only replace the secular ideologies of Capitalism and Communism, but would surpass their moral bankruptcy and provide a true and complete way of life. It was pursuant to the realization of their dream and vision that the Muslim Brotherhood collaborated with Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Free Officers movement to overthrow the king and enthrone a republic in Egypt.

Qutb and other members of the Muslim Brotherhood saw that development as signaling the time for the pursuit of the revivalist ideology using the machinery of the government but did not find a cooperative ally in Nasr who rejected their idea. Today, the Al-Qaeda ideology appears as a kind of replication of the arguments pursued by Banna, Mawdudi, Qutb, and Faraj. However, given that the essence of alluding to these various groups in this discourse is merely to expose the interplay of various variables in Boko Haram insurgency, specific details of the core principles and ideological orientations guiding the Boko Haram thought and operations in Nigeria and its environs shall be a subject of another article.

There appears to be lack of rigour in some of Nigeria’s actions against the insurgents given the media inaccuracies or other form of inexactitude that informed such actions. Given the Government’s actions, in several notable instances, based on conflicting information, the false or multiple claims of responsibility for attacks, and official censorship and disinformation, it shall be of great value for the Defence Headquarters to be more sensitive and meticulous in its handling of its various sources of information. This admonitory thinking by the present writer is based on the inspiration derived from Oftedal who recently wrote that, Boko Haram appears not to have issued any comprehensive ideological declaration stating its objectives and strategies. A manifesto exists signed by Boko Haram, but most experts believe it is a falsification. However, the group has released several shorter statements in which they have claimed responsibility for attacks, issued threats or reacted to public criticisms from powerful Nigerian figures. The group’s …leader has released other statements in videos or audio-clips on YouTube. In addition, local and international media have been able to interview some of Boko Haram’s leaders. Several recordings of sermons by the founder Muhammed Yusuf are available on DVDs circulated in Nigeria, as well as on You Tube. These primary sources are important for identifying some of Boko Haram’s most central ideas and objectives.

Several sectors have to collaborate with the Armed Forces if the Boko Haram defeat must materialize. Prominent among them are the media, the religious institutions, and most importantly, the education sector whose intervention may take the form of what I call anti-insurgency curriculum conceptual and design principles for ultimate translation to an anti-extremist curriculum for Nigerian senior secondary schools. But, do we really have an attentive government?

• Rufai (Ph.D. Curriculum and Pedagogy, Ph.D. History and Security Studies) is Ag. Dean, Faculty of Education, Sokoto State University, Nigeria.