from Africa in Transition

Will Nigeria’s Strategy Toward Boko Haram Shift?

January 23, 2014

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After four years of military action against Boko Haram and Abuja’s declaration of a state of emergency in three states eight months ago, Boko Haram’s depredations continue. Just last week, Boko Haram claimed responsibility for killing nineteen in a Borno village.

Until now the Nigerian government’s approach to Boko Haram has been to mount an anti-terrorism campaign against it. Rather than use political methods to “win the hearts and minds” of the northern population, it has relied on military force to counter Boko Haram’s violence with violence. This “counter terrorism” has not worked. Boko Haram’s human rights violations have been documented by credible human rights groups. More disturbing has been the extensive documentation of human rights abuses committed by the Nigerian military and other state agencies while engaging in their “counter terrorism” policy. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama have raised the issue of human rights abuses with Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan.

There may be signs that the government in Abuja is rethinking this strategy. Last week, President Jonathan replaced all of his military service chiefs save one that he shuffled to another post. The Nigerian media credibly speculates they all had to go because of their failures against Boko Haram. After months of internal struggle within the ruling People’s Democratic Party, there is a new party chairman, Ahmadu Adamu Mu’Azu. Furthermore, President Jonathan sent twelve names for cabinet positions to the Senate for confirmation.

One of those names is Aliyu Mohammed Gusau. A retired general and the long-time national security advisor under President Olusegun Obasanjo, he is a northern Muslim with a power base of his own. He is known to have first-class political and administrative skills but he has been considered outside of Jonathan’s inner circle.

The press speculates that if confirmed Gusau will be named minister of defense. However, names sent to the Senate for confirmation are not tied to specific cabinet posts. Hence, Gusau could be appointed to any of the current cabinet vacancies. According to the Nigerian media, some weeks ago, Gusau laid down conditions for his service as minister of defense that would seem to reduce the president’s control over the military and security services. There are therefore many unanswered questions. Has the president accepted Gusau’s conditions? If not, will Gusau accept the position of minister of defense? Will he even be offered it?

Nevertheless, these extensive personnel changes may open the space for Abuja to pursue a more effective policy toward Boko Haram.