The state response to violence in Northern Nigeria

In a previous post on Nigeria’s Boko Haram, I looked for patterns in the group’s use of violence against the state and against its religious rivals. In this post, I discuss the state’s response to the violence. This response is evolving and experimental. It has included the use of force, but has also featured efforts at making political reforms and addressing the grievances that motivate the movement.

Force has always been a major part of the state’s response to Boko Haram. When Boko Haram launched a full-scale uprising in 2009, state security forces cracked down hard, killing a number of the group’s members as well as its leader, Muhammad Yusuf. Since then the government has continued to use force. Last fall, the federal government deployed soldiers to the Northeast, where Boko Haram is based. In February, security forces raided several homes, arresting several suspects, recovering weapons, and killing a suspected financier for the group. In May, following an ambush on soldiers in Maiduguri, the army arrested 150 persons on suspicion of ties to Boko Haram. Just last week, fourteen more people were arrested in connection with recent attacks.

Killing and arresting suspected members of Boko Haram has proven sufficient for putting down mass uprisings, but these techniques have not halted the guerrilla tactics Boko Haram has increasingly used since the fall of 2010 – drive-by shootings, bombings, etc.

From the beginning, Nigerian authorities at the state and federal levels have looked beyond force to other techniques that could reduce the group’s appeal. These techniques have varied, but their common thrust has been a search for ways to break the tie between violent ideologies and populations susceptible to the appeal of those ideologies.

Authorities have attacked this problem from both sides. In the aftermath of the 2009 uprising, for example, they attempted to shut down inflammatory rhetoric by controlling who could preach. Restricting what came from the pulpits, they reasoned, would help control what came from the streets.

As time has gone by, though, authorities have concentrated more on reaching out to the rank-and-file of the group. This has been the case particularly since the elections this April. The new governor of Borno State (where Maiduguri is and where many of the recent attacks have occurred), Kashim Shettima, has proposed extending an amnesty to members of Boko Haram, in which militants would lay down their weapons in exchange for government-led efforts to address their grievances. Shettima believes that the problem required a political solution, and that force alone will not work. Governor Shettima recently emphasized education reform as a way to address the group’s grievances. This may appear ironic in light of Boko Haram’s well-known rejection of Western education, but Shettima’s logic is that improving education will help reduce poverty and thereby reduce the potential constituency for the group.

Boko Haram rejected the amnesty offer and has continued its attacks, but the idea continues to circulate, including at the federal level. In New York last week, President Goodluck Jonathan spoke of a “carrots-and-sticks approach” to Boko Haram. This Day elaborates, writing, “This involves an amnesty package for the group as well as strengthening security in the area to end the on-going blood-letting in the zone…To set the ball rolling, THISDAY gathered that the government will reinvigorate its intelligence gathering method to be able to nip in the bud further incidence of bombings in the area.”

The proponents of amnesty and other reforms, including Jonathan and Shettima, refer explicitly to the amnesty program in the Niger Delta, where militant groups have threatened oil production and clashed with security forces for years, as a model. The amnesty there succeeded in reducing violence for a time, but it has drawn its share of critics, including former militants who charge that the government has not fulfilled its promises to educate and re-train them. Some observers are equally skeptical of the amnesty proposals for Boko Haram.

As the government experiments with new ideas and attempts to refine its use of force, it faces criticism, especially from the press. Today’s editorial in Next attacks President Jonathan personally, and calls for “finding perpetrators of violence and bringing them to book” – a statement that reads to me as a call for mass arrests in the North. Next  compares the situation in the North to the situation in the Niger Delta, but as a lament, not a model: “Boko Haram has quickly replaced the Nigeria Delta militants as the major crisis facing our nation’s people.” Domestic and international pressure on Nigeria’s state and federal authorities is increasing, making policymakers’ jobs even more difficult. Experiments with carrots and sticks will receive a great deal of scrutiny.

One Response to The state response to violence in Northern Nigeria

  1. Pingback: Boko Haram Series « Sahel Blog

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