Finally we are in the eyes and ears of the world for despicable reasons. Nigeria has been exposed less as a nation state and more as a colony of saboteurs, a den of looters, a congress of bigots and ethnic chauvinists; a geographical hellhole of terrorists that is merely a couple of miles removed from Afghanistan and Yemen. Now that the wind had exposed the ugly behind of our fowl, perhaps we can begin to confront our problem squarely. To defeat Boko Haram, we must understand terrorism from how other nations confronted it and learn from their successes and failures. The first step is to understand that our homegrown terror group plays by the book. They are a small set of extremists fighting against Nigeria, a nation whose population mostly wants peace and quiet. Boko Haram terror group was spawned in the pond of religious intolerance and extremism catalyzed by corruption, lack of education, deprivation and social neglect. The good news is that Boko Haram can be defeated but first we need to understand how they can be kept away, how they can fight back, and finally what works and what doesn’t.
One salient fact about criminals and terrorists is that it is not the police, the soldiers or the courts that keep them at bay. It is the society. Law enforcement cannot apprehend every criminal or every terrorist. It is the ordinary people who call the police when they hear something untoward; it is the people who can report suspicious movements or suspicious things around them. Law enforcement only works when the ordinary people back it up.
Unfortunately the police have no moral currency with Nigerians. The disdain for law enforcement and the lack of confidence in their ability to be just is the main reason why terrorism, kidnapping and ritual killing are rife in this society. In 2009, the founder of Boko Haram was summarily executed in police custody without letting him have his day in court. By that singular act, the police allowed an otherwise contained group to metastasize into what we have today. Since then, the Joint Task Force has not helped. They have killed innocent citizens in retaliation anytime a terror act is committed or whenever one of their own gets killed. Extrajudicial killings of confirmed terrorists will only further terror. Terrorism can only be defeated when citizens feel they can trust the authorities to maintain law and order and work for the common good. That is when ordinary people will turn in terrorists long before they strike.
Boko Haram grew on us because the government is hated and not trusted. That is why before the current spate of violence, they found support and hiding places among sympathizers who are not willing to become terrorists themselves, but are not willing to support the government. Terror groups most often strategize on how to drive a wedge between the governed and the government, such that ordinary people see them as fighting for environmental protection and resource control as in the case of Niger Delta terrorists; religious faith as it relates to Boko Haram or some other deeply held values and convictions. The biggest danger facing terrorists is loyalty to the state and trust in government. They gain strength and freedom to operate when trust is weakened or destroyed between the people and the government as we have seen in this country.
When we heard of Hamas and Hezbollah suicide bombers in the past, we often wondered what kind of animals would do that? Now we know. The classic terror act is to blow up some innocent people but terror acts are often misunderstood. Killing and destruction of targets are not the actual goal of terrorism. The real goal is to provoke massive retaliation, while the symbolic goal is that a powerful government, establishment, person, target or enemy can be successfully harmed. Terror groups feeds on retaliation. The aim is to incite the government to act in a way that erodes the people’s trust in them. The more horrible the terror strike, the better, as it will provoke a more drastic retaliation that will destroy the people’s trust in the authorities and strengthen the terrorists. That is why killing worshippers in a Church or Mosque or abducting girls from dormitories at night are a benefit, not a cost to Boko Haram.
The cliché goes that those who do not learn from the lessons of history are condemned to repeat it. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a textbook case on terror. There is no military benefit to a suicide bomber hitting a wedding party. The incentive comes from the retaliation from the Israelis that leads to killing innocent Palestinians along with terrorists, bulldozing homes, building settlements, and creating major economic hardship for majority of Palestinians who wants to live in peace with Israel. Israel on its part stakes peace to stopping the terrorists, which ordinary Palestinians have no control over. When Israeli hardliners create new settlements in Palestinian territory, or strike ordinary Palestinians in retaliation, they provoke more suicide bombers to slaughter innocent Israelis, which in turn promote hatred against Palestinians. This nebulous path strengthens terrorism on both sides, and makes the chances for peace remote. Osama Bin Laden’s attack on the World Trade Center killing 3,000 people was designed to provoke America’s retaliation against Islam and unite Muslims against the United States in a bid to sweep away moderate regimes in the Middle East.
How To Defeat Boko Haram
The war on terror will be won when terrorists are isolated, viewed with suspicion and reported to law enforcement when they turn violent. Pure military tactics and strategy will fail against Boko Haram because military sweeps almost always come at significant death toll to innocent bystanders even more than the intended target. As a result, some relatives of terrorists become new terrorists thus creating more terrorists than were destroyed. The more the government takes this course, the more it looks like orchestrated genocide, and the terrorists’ ability to recruit new members deepens. Another reason behind military failure in routing terror is that the same books on warfare, strategy and tactics by Sun Tzu, Mao Tse Tung, Chaka Zulu and Ho Chi Minh read by military strategists are the encyclopedia of choice for terrorists. To defeat Boko Haram, Nigeria must chart a new course aimed at wining hearts and minds. We the people and those entrusted to run our government must embrace these simple strategies :
(A). Be aware of your surroundings and avoid getting killed. The best strategy in counterterrorism to foil attacks before they happen. This line of action renders terrorists ineffective. Terrorists prefer death to being ineffective.
(B). Restore the glory of our military and make it clear with the help of our allies that overwhelming power is available, but avoid deploying it. It is important for the government to project the power of our military because the last few days have been disastrous for our military. The world is now aware that our military is as corrupt as other institutions within the country, is “afraid to engage”, unpaid and morally defeated. The government must begin to change that immediately by ordering the needed equipment and paying overdue wages, salaries, allowances and making sure our defenders are fed and well cared for. It is important that the message is sent to Boko Haram that acts of terror cannot defeat our forces.
(C). This government and subsequent ones must work hard at gaining the trust and cooperation of Nigerians through measured, deliberate, and appropriate response to attacks. Our military must not be seen as agents who kill people and destroy their properties. This means we must begin the immediate re-training of our troops for this kind of war. They must learn to police communities and act as social workers as well as arbitrators.
(D). The government must be truthful, open and tolerant of dissenting opinion.
(E). Law enforcement must create, publicize, enforce, and respect every citizens (including terrorists) fundamental freedoms and rights under the constitution. Even though the ideological motivations of Boko Haram are extreme, they must be treated as ordinary criminals. They must be tried and punished under full legal rights and protections under the law. They must not be tried for their beliefs, but for their actions as it affects the state and its citizens.
(F). Agents of government responsible for maintaining law and order must demonstrate fairness and justice. They must shun extrajudicial killings they have grown accustomed to. They must avoid retaliation even when recording casualties in their ranks. Captured terrorist must be tried publicly with guaranteed safeguards for their rights in affirmation of law and order in our society.
(G). The government must promote economic justice and education as a way out of poverty across the country especially in the North.
My appeal is for us to see the war on Boko Haram as the war to promote pluralism, tolerance, peace, and law and order. We must not allow religion, ethnicity, money or anything buy off our sense of obligation to the Nigerian state. If we do, it will have far reaching consequences and we will be doing more harm than good to our country and ourselves. Trust is the only weapon that can stand against and defeat terrorism. We must acquire and keep it.