Exploring counter-narrative strategy in counter insurgency operation in Nigeria

By  Zainab Suleiman-Okino

Nothing can be as demoralizing and energy-sapping like an endless war. When a conflict rages for too long, soldiers on the front line become war-weary. The latest casualty figure in the over 10-year insurgency war was the killing of about 50 Nigerian soldiers in an ambush near Goneri village in Yobe state. The attack said to be the deadliest in recent time occurred “as the military tried to launch an offensive against the armed group”, which laid an ambush for them from the rear, despite their best effort and gallantry. For the Nigerian troops to have been ambushed at a time they were planning a major offensive against BH, says a lot about strategy, technical default and even communication leakage. Yet, Boko Haram was said to have been technically defeated.

There is no accurate data on the number of our military men lost in this battle, but it is in tens of thousands put at a rough estimate of over 36,000 deaths and over two million displaced. Meanwhile, for the first time, Chadian forces lost 92 of their soldiers, non-commissioned officers and officers about the same time with Nigeria.

These losses are becoming too many and frequent in between. For a conflict that began in 2009 as a mere local insurrection, to have taken such an international dimension including affiliation with Al-qaeda and Islamic State of West Africa, an offshoot of ISIS, says a lot about the possibility of a clear victory for Nigerian army in a few years to come. This therefore requires that we employ a new narrative and ideas to be able to defeat BH. Luckily, the Nigerian government has already initiated Operation Safe Corridor with a major objective of De-radicalization, Rehabilitation and Reintegration. The programme being coordinated by Major General Bamidele Ashafa seeks to ”encourage, train and reintegrate willing and repentant BH insurgents to surrender and embrace peace”. 

In the history of mankind’s several wars in his quest to conquer and dominate others, there has always been one form of truce,negotiation, discussion, dialogue to end such wars. The bloodiest wars in history all still ended in one form of negotiation or the other. The World War II fought between 1939 to 1945 claimed 70 million lives. It ended at a negotiating table and formation of global binding and enduring United Nations. The Mongol conquests of the 13th century, World War I, the Manchu conquest of China and Napoleonic wars in the 18thcentury are today reference materials in the act of ending aconflict at a “round table”.

The latest of such dialogues in search of peace was US President Donald Trump’s peace deal  with the Taliban to possibly put an end to the 18-year Afghan war. Trump said he had faith in the agreement because “everyone is tired of war”. If a hot-headed world leader like Trump could agree to a deal with their “enemies”, the Talibans, Nigeria should seek the path of peace with Boko Haram as one of the alternative options open to the government. Going by the examples above, the argument that the insurgents took up arms against their country, and had killed and maimed and therefore do not deserve amnesty or peace deal is faulty. Even the history of conflicts in Nigeria is replete with such peace deals. A good example is the Nigerian civil war that ended with the “no victor, no vanquished” slogan of the General Yakubu Gowon era. In actual fact, there was a clear winner, but in order to give peace a chance, everyone sheathed their sword for a warm embrace as one Nigeria under God.

As recently as 2009, the late President Umaru Yar’adua granted amnesty to the Niger Delta militants to douse tension, empower them and allow peace to reign in the region and the country. More than 10 years on, no subsequent government has had the effrontery to annul the programme, because the cost of the militants going back to the creeks is much higher than the tokenism of the amnesty programme. So those who supported the amnesty programmme for the Niger Delta militants and are opposed to any form of deal with BH are being clever by half.

Then in 2015, when Operation Safe Corridor was initiated by the government, the antagonists opposed it vehemently. However, five years after, the story is different. Besides, my visit to their camp in Malam Sidi in Gombe state recently was revealing. The programme has not only changed the narrative in the war with BH, it is changing lives; a life of near hermits in its raw form being made productive and useful outside the BH enclave. 

In the first instance, the OPSC was meant to integrate repentant and willing BH members who surrendered to the government forces. Most of them were forcefully recruited or were brainwashed to join and indoctrinated, while others did so because of some environmental and socio-economic factors. Above all, after some years in the trenches, they denounced their membership of BH and willingly submitted themselves to the military before they were admitted to the camp, as attested to by those I spoke to. Thus,  as I write this, 606 ex-BH members are in the camp, and into one form of vocation or the other, while 280 had long “graduated” and left the camp without issues so far. My interaction with them (ex BH members) in the camp did not betray continued loyalty to BH on their part anymore. What I saw were people happy about the choice they had made; the choice to embrace peace with the hope to reintegrate with their families as soon as possible and with a vocational skill to boot. 

And contrary to the perception that they would be recruited into the army after de-radicalization, Brigadier General Musa Ibrahim, the commandant emphasized; “we are only giving them the opportunity to become useful citizens and return to normal lives using a non-kinetic method in order to put an end to the war and avoid further bloodshed”. General Ashafa who said the OPSC was first of its kind in West Africa is also optimistic that the programme would end the war in no time, as more and more BH desert the war front and embrace peace.

Notwithstanding their optimism, the BH war is not really a conventional war where hostile groups take up arms against each other. Ideological wars are much more difficult to end, and de-radicalizing the mind and soul is not as easy either. However, with the right education starting from childhood, it is hoped that the generation after the current BH members will be better equipped in knowledge, skills and employment opportunities to withstand any form of radicalization, brainwashing, and indoctrination.