from Africa in Transition

The Surge of Insurgency/Terrorism in Recent Times: Social and Economic Consequences

June 2, 2016

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The following text is the entirety of John Campbell’s speech delivered at the Nigeria Summit on National Security held by the Council on African Security and Development in Abuja, Nigeria, on May 25, 2016. 

Thank you for your warm introduction. It is a pleasure to be at this important conference, to see old friends, make new ones, and to be back in Nigeria.

I am honored to be billed as a “principal speaker.” But, let me begin my remarks with a disclaimer. I retired from the U.S. Foreign Service in 2007. Since 2009, I have been at the Council on Foreign Relations. So, in no way do I speak for the Obama administration or the U.S government. Nor do I speak for the Council which does not adopt formal positions on international, political, or other issues. However, I am a friend of Nigeria of longstanding. Long ago my imagination was captured by the vision of Nigeria as a multiethnic, pluralistic democracy based on the rule of law with the heft to give Africa a seat at the table – the “Nigeria Project.”

So, my views may be of some interest, if only from the perspective of how things look to a highly sympathetic observer.

The title of this session is “The Surge of Insurgency/Terrorism in Recent Times: Social and Economic Consequences.” To state the obvious, from Boko Haram and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in the west to the so-called Islamic State redoubts in Libya to al-Shabab in the east, African states are increasingly facing terrorism and its consequences at the hands of radicals who claim to be Islamic. This morning, I am mostly going to refer to Nigeria, the West African country I know best. And that means my remarks will be dominated by Boko Haram, its consequences, and the response to it by Nigeria and the international community.

Let there be no misunderstanding. Boko Haram is evil, to use theological language that will be understood in this deeply religious country. Nevertheless, trying to understand it is not the same thing as endorsing it or tolerating it. Failing to think hard about it can lead to a misreading of its consequences and result in poor policy choices.

Boko Haram and its ilk are new. Not a single sovereign state endorses the kind of vicious and indiscriminate violence perpetrated by Boko Haram. Its crimes go way beyond rebellion against duly constituted authority. Its adherents are, among other things, murderers, kidnappers, rapists, smugglers, and extorters. They attack schools. They butcher teachers, murder young boys, kidnap young girls, of whom the Chibok girls are the best known. Boko Haram uses the term marriage to describe what is actually rape.

Recovery from the social and economic consequences of Boko Haram is a challenge for Nigeria, and also for its international partners and friends.

We need to step back and look at what we are up against.

Pew Trust polling over the past year finds that about one Nigerian Muslim in five is favorably inclined toward the Islamic State. A separate Pew poll finds that ten percent of all Nigerians are favorably disposed toward Boko Haram.

Polling data is always subject to question, and the Pew data is counterintuitive in many ways. Nevertheless, it does indicate that though only a small percentage the population may be favorably disposed toward Boko Haram, it would still appear to be large enough to provide Boko Haram with a significant reservoir of recruits for a long time.

Boko Haram’s stated goal is the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth through justice for the poor by strict implementation of sharia. This can be a powerful message in a region that is increasingly impoverished and feels itself marginalized.

Marginalization is both a cause and a result of Boko Haram. A consequence of Boko Haram is a mindset resembling the product of brainwashing. This is a reality that projects to deradicalize Boko Haram participants will have to take into account.

Perhaps we should start with the observation that while Boko Haram has roots in the past, in its present form it is new.

It might be useful to recall its trajectory.

In 2004 as American ambassador I could travel throughout all of Nigeria—and did so. At about the same time, malam Mohammed Yusuf established his commune at the Railway Quarter mosque in Maiduguri. This group would eventually become known as Boko Haram. We at the embassy knew about the commune, but paid it little attention. At that time it was not associated with violence. Moreover, its members would have nothing to do with western diplomats.

But, by 2007, on occasion Boko Haram was murdering religious and political rivals. Subsequently, Boko Haram began aggressively to attack Nigerian state personnel (especially soldiers and police). In 2009 it launched an insurrection centered in Maiduguri. While putting it down, the police and security services extrajudicially killed Mohammed Yusuf and hundreds of his followers. (A video of Yusuf’s murder went viral in northern Nigeria.)

The group then went underground until 2011 when under the leadership of Abubakar Shekau it mounted successful jail breaks and its first suicide attacks. By 2014 it had captured a portion of northeastern Nigeria the size of Belgium and appeared to be threatening Maiduguri. Boko Haram’s success undermined popular confidence in the Jonathan administration’s ability to protect the people—a fundamental responsibility of any government.

In response to the success of Boko Haram and looking toward the impending 2015 national elections, the Nigerian, Chadian, and Nigerien security services assisted by South African-led mercenaries pushed Boko Haram out of most of the territory it controlled. It was during this time period that Shekau pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.

We now understand that Boko Haram’s remarkable success in the 2011-2015 period owed something to the shortcomings of the army and the police, at least in part because corruption deprived soldiers of what they needed to fight.

The struggle continues and Boko Haram is tactically flexible. In the face of a much stronger Nigerian military response, Boko Haram has moved away from occupying territory. Instead, Boko Haram has increased its use of suicide bombers, most of them female, against “soft” targets. Moreover, the UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports that forty-four children were involved in suicide bombing in 2015, up from four in 2014. Seventeen were in Nigeria, the rest in Chad and Cameroon. That, too, is a new and evil consequence of Boko Haram. Suicide has always been culturally anathema in West Africa, unlike in the Middle East, where it first appeared in a political context as part of the Palestinian resistance to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1983.

The social and economic consequences of Boko Haram are dire. Violence between Boko Haram and the security services has resulted in an estimated more than two million internally displaced persons and hundreds of thousands of refugees outside Nigeria’s borders. There are government estimates that Boko Haram has caused at least nine billion U.S. dollars in property damage.

Little planting and less harvesting raises the specter of famine. OCHA estimates that three million are food insecure. It estimates that some 486,000 children in Borno and 242,000 children in Yobe are suffering from Global Acute Malnutrition. In addition, some 73,000 children under two years of age need urgently to receive ready-to-use supplementary specialized nutritious food. Without intervention an estimated 67,000 children from six months of age to fifty-nine months who suffer from severe malnutrition are likely to die in Borno and Yobe in 2016.

What should we do? By ‘we’ I mean Nigeria and its international partners.

The first is the need to counter and overcome Boko Haram efforts to impose radical extremism on Nigerians and their neighbors. Here, the Buhari administration has made important progress.

But, beating Boko Haram on the battlefield is only the beginning. We must strike at the root—the root causes of Boko Haram. And we cannot do that unless we understand what those roots are. So let me return to the question of why people might join or support or acquiesce to Boko Haram.

Some individuals within Boko Haram are driven by ethnic and religious allegiances or by membership in patronage networks that are allied to it. Others support it in response to oppression, especially human rights violations by the security services. Some likely have a selfish and shortsighted political agenda. Still others, however, are radicalized for reasons that have little to do with religion or politics.

Some people appear to embrace Boko Haram because they have trouble finding meaning in life or economic opportunity; because they are deeply frustrated, and because they hope that Boko Haram will give them a sense of identity or purpose or power that they have not received elsewhere.

When people have no hope for the future and no faith in legitimate authority, when they have no outlet for expressing their concerns, their frustration festers. And no one knows that better than Boko Haram. Accordingly, Boko Haram can be a consequence of personal alienation, and at the same time a cause of personal alienation. Boko Haram does all that it can to promote individual alienation from Nigerian society.

In other countries challenged by radical terrorism, not just Nigeria, young people are essentially the swing votes in the fight against violent extremism. We need them to make wise choices, and yet, that is less likely if they grow up without faith in government, without an education, without the chance for a better life.

Overcoming such challenges includes improving the climate for domestic and foreign investment. It means streamlining bureaucracies and preventing cronies from crowding out private enterprise. It means giving women and girls an equal chance in the classroom.

Bribery, fraud, and other forms of venality feed terrorism and organized crime. Narcotics and arms traffickers are often links among terrorist networks, perhaps including Boko Haram and the Islamic State redoubts in Libya. This reality means that President Buhari’s fight against Nigeria’s culture of corruption, already a major achievement of his presidency, is a security priority of the first order as well as a cornerstone of improved governance.

Boko Haram’s trajectory with its focus on Nigeria may be changing. Shekau’s pledge of allegiance to the self-proclaimed Islamic State may be “internationalizing” it.” The pledge has provided a layer of legitimacy to Boko Haram among radical extremists, giving it a greater ability to attract likeminded individuals in the region.

There are reports of small numbers joining Boko Haram from elsewhere in West Africa, particularly Senegal, and of Boko Haram operatives joining the fight in Libya. While marginal at present, this could potentially be a lasting source of concern.

U.S. Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc claims a weapons convoy from the Islamic State in Libya was stopped as it moved toward the Lake Chad Basin where Boko Haram is active. This convoy could be one of the first concrete examples of a direct link between the two extremist groups. It was carrying small-caliber weapons and heavy machine guns, equipment Boko Haram is likely to need.

An “internationalized” Boko Haram could result in its expanded operations elsewhere in Nigeria, and also outside the country. So, as Boko Haram’s trajectory shifts, so too do the social and economic consequences of it.

Conventional wisdom is that by providing good governance and restoring popular confidence in the government, Nigeria can address the consequences of Boko Haram. This is a tall order, especially in a time of declining government revenue, and naturally raises the question of outside assistance.

But, a very fundamental question is how much impact outsiders—such  as the United States and the EU—can have on Nigeria’s fight against terrorism and its trajectory toward democracy and good governance. I think we can help, but only at the invitation and initiative of Nigeria.

With respect to Boko Haram, it would seem imperative to integrate security interventions with political and economic initiatives. For a start, this will require serious diplomatic engagement by Nigeria and its partners, especially the United States, with the other countries in the region, and also with the Saudis and the Gulf, and, I would suggest, with countries as far away as Malaysia and Indonesia.

There is also the need to overcome distrust. Not only do governments and the governed distrust each other in certain areas, it is fanned by Boko Haram. The governments in the regions themselves often instinctively distrust each other. Boko Haram, too, fans that distrust.

Elsewhere in this conference we will be looking at ways to move forward. In the meantime, let me throw out five ideas that might be worth thinking about as ways to respond to the social and economic consequences of Boko Haram and the struggle against it.

First, I am hearing that the EU-funded, deradicalization programs appear to work. The trouble is they are too small. They should be greatly expanded if they are to have transformative impact. The programs are expensive at exactly the time that Nigeria’s oil-based revenue has fallen by up to 40 percent. Nigeria, the EU, and the U.S. could approach Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States for increased financial assistance to ensure their expansion.

Second, security service abuses have been a driver of Boko Haram recruitment. They limit the field of military cooperation with, among others, the United States. They often appear to be the result of poor training, ill-discipline, and resource constraints. Security service human rights abuses must be addressed in a way that is convincing to harness the international community abroad and everyday people at home to the struggle against Boko Haram and also for the reconstruction of the northeast.

One way to proceed might be for Nigeria to establish a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” or something like it, that would investigate credible allegations of both security service and Boko Haram abuse. It would include amnesty to those who confess. Like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, it could be made up of distinguished Nigerians from all walks of life—not just the security services. It should be conducted in public and transparent in its operations. A successful TRC might have the potential to restore a degree of trust among the shattered communities in the northeast where in liberated areas there is suspicion that returnees are Boko Haram converts.

Such a body might meet the requirements of the Leahy amendment and the UK equivalent, opening the possibility for more U.S. cooperation with the Nigerian security services.

The Civilian Joint Task Forces (CJTF) has been accused of human rights abuses and lack of discipline. President Buhari has raised incorporating them into the police and the military where they would be subject to discipline. That would be a positive step toward restoring trust between the civilian population and the security services.

As for training, the United States, the UK, and other friends and partners should greatly expand the opportunities for Nigerian military officers to attend their advanced war colleges—in the American case, notably the Army War College at Carlisle, the Air War college at Maxwell Field, and the Naval war college at Newport. Nigerian officers are already enrolled in all three, but in very small numbers.

Third, over the longer term, the reconstruction of the northeast will require an international effort. As for now, to promote international understanding of the magnitude of the task, it is to be hoped that the security services will facilitate visits to the region by the international media, NGOs, and also by potential investors.

National and international organizations, too, will need the ability to visit and assess humanitarian need. The intervention of the World Food Programme and relevant NGOs is likely to be essential if famine is to be avoided. Over the longer term numerous international agricultural agencies could have a highly productive role in the rebuilding of northeastern agriculture.

The region has long been among Nigeria’s poorest, even before Boko Haram. The traditional economy in the northeast is largely destroyed. A new economy will have to be built, one that takes into account climate change and desertification.

What would a post-Boko Haram reconstructed northeast look like? The process of visioning should begin now. Proposals for a Northeast Development Commission are steps in that direction.

Fourth, the education system has also been destroyed. In a region were literacy was already low, estimates are that Boko Haram has destroyed 910 schools and forced an additional 1,500 to close. Rebuilding education so that graduates can function in the modern world and at the same time in the context of the region’s strong Islamic identity is a challenge. Here, too, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Malaysia, and Indonesia could be of help.

Fifth, the health system, too, already weak, has largely been destroyed, raising the specter of epidemic diseases. International organizations and partners should be approached for help. Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from other countries that have experienced disaster, such as Haiti. I note that Cuba is offering an expanded health partnership and assistance to Nigeria. Such offers deserve serious consideration.

These are musings that may or may not deserve further discussion.

In conclusion, I would observe that Nigeria is a fellow pilgrim with the United States and other countries on the road to democracy. Nigeria moves on that road in a way that reflects Nigeria’s own history, experience, and challenges, just as America’s does. (Who would have predicted that Donald Trump would be the outcome of the Republican presidential nominating process?) My own personal view is that when we are talking about the post-Boko Haram reconstruction of the northeast in the context of democracy, government transparency and the rule of law are essential components. And transparency and the rule of law build trust between the government and the governed.

Thank you.

More on:

Sub-Saharan Africa


Civil Society

Terrorism and Counterterrorism