Nigeria: Bread Not Bullets – Broadening Counter-Insurgency Strategy , By Kole Shettima



kole_shettimaThe international reputation of Nigeria’s security agencies in peacekeeping is high. Since our first peacekeeping operations in the Congo in the 1960s, the military and the police have been involved in more than 40 missions.

For example, it is fair to say that the democracies of Liberia and Sierra Leone are watered with the blood of Nigerian soldiers. In the headquarters of the military and police are commendations, awards and laurels from all over the world for their exemplary role in peacekeeping operations.

Even in our national context, those displaced by communal conflicts take refuge in military and police barracks because they are regarded as professional institutions that have sworn to protect the lives of Nigerians.

Current counter insurgency strategy and practice pose significant reputational risk and risk in terms of achieving the goals of our security agencies. Despite hard learnt lessons from all over the world, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Algeria, and Iraq among others, the main thrust is a militaristic solution. Every country that fights insurgency makes the same mistake only to realize much later the futility of what someone refers to as “fire for fire”. Max Boot noted that “it is one thing to generate such hard won lessons. Altogether more difficult was to get them accepted by military officers whose ideal remained the armed blitzkrieg and who had nothing but contempt for lightly armed ragtag fighters”. But, terrorists and insurgents have advantages over regular armed security agents.They are nomadic and highly mobile; they use hit and run tactics; and surprise and unpredictability are their assets. Lessons learnt suggest that in fighting insurgents, conventional tactics don’t work. It is not the hardware of tanks and equipment that matter even though these are easier and more lucrative to some officials.

The major focus should be on securing the local population. A population-centric approach is essential to the success of any counter-insurgency. It is popular legitimacy that will provide the intelligence necessary to fight insurgents and terrorists.

It was David Galula who said that the fundamental principle of counter-insurgency is “minimum of fire”. Instead every soldier “must be prepared to become a propagandist, a social worker, a civil engineer, a school teacher, a nurse, a boy scout”. I may add that a modern soldier shouldn’t only be schooled on how to handle a rifle but must have some knowledge of anthropology, sociology, law and linguistics. This is what has come to be popularly known as winning the hearts and minds of the people. I would love to see security agencies digging boreholes, constructing roads, rebuilding burnt classrooms, providing health services, controlling traffic and teaching in schools in addition to their regular work of maintaining law and order. For example the farmers on the shores of Lake Chad would give support to the military if they are protected to harvest 7,000 hectares of irrigated land which they can’t do because of the atrocities of insurgents. Empathy with civilian population should be expected from our security agents. Lest we forget, the group popularly known as Boko Haram, in their peaceful days, had asocial scheme in agriculture, finance, education and health. One of the reasons they succeeded in recruiting members was provision of an alternative social system to the dysfunctional state. This practice was one of their best propaganda against the Nigerian state. It is logical that if we want to counter Boko Haram, part of the counter insurgency practice is to provide services superior to theirs. Unfortunately, there is widely shared perception that security agents involved in counter-insurgency are occupation force. This perception is born out of experience of the populace. Let me illustrate with several of examples.

First are checkpoints. It is understandable that security agents establish checkpoints to monitor movements of criminals and terrorists. Data from other climes suggest that checkpoints don’t deter criminals. Indeed the New York Times interviewed the leader of Ansar in Abuja having travelled with his body guards through all the checkpoints. I do doubt if checkpoints contribute in any significant way to curb insurgency. Instead, members of the public recount their horrors at checkpoints. Commercial drivers in particular must “drop” at these checkpoints. Nigerians are sometimes delayed for up to more than an hourat these checkpoints. These checkpoints breed more resentment amongst the populace.

Second is the practice of deployment of non-indigenes. Conventionally the military deploys non-indigenes to trouble areas. Presumably this is done to avoid partiality on the part of the troops. At the high point of insurgent activities in the Niger Delta, the troops deployed were mainly

from northern part of the country. In the current fight against insurgency in the northeast many of those responsible are from the southern part of the country and non-Muslims from the northern part of the country. This practice in reality goes against current trend of counter-insurgency. If the security agents deployed can’t speak the language of the main population; if they don’t

even know the religion of the main population and don’t understand the cultural practices of the people, how can they win the trust of the people and who will give them intelligence? They are essentially “aliens” in “alien” land. The concern about danger of infiltration should be balanced with the need to build trust through security agents knowledgeable about local environment.

Third is the attitude and behaviour of security agents. Almost everyone in Maiduguri and Damaturu has a story of humiliation and degradation to share. Take the example of a professor at the University of Maiduguri. He joined a queue for more than an hour to get money from an ATM Machine.

A military officer jumped the queue to get money from the machine.The professor protested which landed him in trouble. He was slapped by the officer for daring to question his ‘power’ to jump the queue. Fortunately the professor noted the name of the officer and reported him to his seniors. It ended professionally because the officer was disciplined. But for the fact that

the victim is a professor and he knew senior military officers, nothing would have happened to the officer and but for the fact that the complainant is a professor something worse might have happened to him. No ordinary person would have questioned the ‘power’ of a military officer to jump a queue. In fact for the military officer it is a right. Another example is that of a pregnant woman who was stopped at a military check point by a soldier. The soldier asked her if she was carrying a Boko Haram. The woman was outraged. She grabbed a bottle and hit the soldier

in the forehead. Two examples too painful to recall are that of the former Borno State governor, Mohammed Goni, who is probably the most respected former civilian governor of both Borno and Yobe states and that of Vice Marshall Daggash (rtd) who was a Chief of Defence Staff in the 1990s. Both the lower and upper classes are humiliated and mentally and psychologically abused.

Indifference by security agencies and government officials is fuelling the sense of being abandoned by civilian population affected by insurgency. It seems as if soldiers no longer respond to victims of Boko Haram violence unless it affects one of them. In Maiduguri many people have been killed like late General Shuwa within the vicinity of soldiers and nothing happens. Several cases of rape, extra-judicial killings and theft are never attended to. Hundreds of young people are languishing in detention without them being brought before the court of law nor released.

The President’s visit to Maiduguri which would have been an opportunity to assuage the feelings of the people was squandered. Instead the perception of indifference to the sufferings of the people was reinforced. I must say these attitudes and behaviour provide fertile ground for recruitment by insurgents.

I am worried about the professional integrity and legitimacy of our military. I am not sure if at the international level our military will be welcomed to play their historic peacekeeping role in the future. Internally the bond of trust between the military and the populace is undermined by the current counter-insurgency. We need to broaden our current strategy and practice to protect and promote the professionalism of our troops. Let’s restore public confidence on our security agents, the best counter insurgency strategy.                        

Dr Shettima is of the Centre for Democracy and Development.


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