from Africa in Transition

A “Soft Approach” to Nigeria’s Boko Haram

April 29, 2014

Blog Post

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Sub-Saharan Africa


Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Wars and Conflict

Civil Society

Many of Nigeria’s foreign friends have urged the Jonathan government to pursue a northern strategy that makes use of "softer" methods rather than a sole focus on "counter-terrorism" to respond to militants labeled "Boko Haram." While "Counter-terrorism" places an emphasis on military action against the insurgency; there needs to be a greater focus on addressing its root causes, to “win the hearts and minds” of local people wherever possible.

The "counter-terrorism" approach has been accompanied by horrific human rights violations by the security services, documented by credible human rights organizations. Apparently, one of the worst happened on March 14 when the security services slaughtered hundreds of detainees charged with no crime in the aftermath of a Boko Haram attack on Giwa Barracks in Maiduguri. It is common in the north for Nigerians to be as afraid of the security services as they are of Boko Haram. It seems likely–though impossible to prove–that security service abuses are a driver of Boko Haram recruitment.

In fact four days after Giwa Barrcks, National security Adviser Mohammed Sambo Dasuki unveiled an elaborate "soft approach" strategy. Kudos to Chatham House’s Elizabeth Donnelly, who called attention to it in her April 21 op-ed in London’s Guardian, and which is a fine overview of the current northern Nigerian crisis.

Dasuki’s speech outlines new bureaucratic structures designed to improve coordination within the federal government and with state and local governments. Perhaps the most important is the Counter Terrorism Centre (CTC) in his office. The speech addresses approaches to the educational and economic drivers of Boko Haram and lays out a public relations strategy. Unusual for a senior official, he acknowledges that Boko Haram has "…proven so attractive to our youth.” The speech does not directly address the security service abuses of the civilian population, though there are broader rubrics under which it might fit.

Elizabeth Donnelly sums it up: “This new "whole-of-society" strategy is significant, offering a rounded framework, but as long-time observers know, the right words do not always lead to the right action in Nigeria.” It will be particularly difficult to implement this new strategic approach in the absence of security in the North.