When the video of terrorists threatening to abduct President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria and Governor Nasir el-Rufai of Kaduna State was made public on 24 July 2022, many people felt it was a joke taken too far. Accordingly, Mr Lai Mohammed, Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Culture, described it as a mere propaganda, hence laughable. However, close watchers of the heightened increase in the activities of Islamic fundamentalists in Nigeria over the past 12 years are convinced that such a threat is by no means flippant. If the growing escalation of the heinous activities of Boko Haram and other Islamic fundamentalists is anything to go by, then the government’s counterterrorism approaches have performed below their expectations.
Widely seen as a Frankenstein’s monster because its origin is commonly linked to the contestations for state power by (northern) Nigerian politicians, the daredevil activities of Boko Haram and other allied Islamic fundamentalists are perceptibly condoned by President Buhari’s government’s lethargic counterterrorism responses.
While the military-led retributive option has remained the traditional and more imposing approach against Islamic fundamentalism in Nigeria, the government’s counterterrorism efforts have also included the ideals of restorative justice. The Operation Safe Corridor (OSC) initiative was founded in 2016 as a home-grown non-military counterterrorism programme designed to provide recruits with a voluntary exit route from Boko Haram insurgency. As a Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) programme, the idea of OSC stems from the realisation that Boko Haram insurgency cannot be defeated through exclusive reliance on military repression. The core target group of the programme is low-level jihadist recruits who perform combatant and/or non-combatant roles which have sustained the persistence of Boko Haram insurgency. According to a report by the International Crisis Group, the decision of these recruits to exit ranges from growing uncertainty over the insurgency’s prospects, exposure to violence, the danger posed to them and their families, aversion to the sect’s unfair and brutal internal crises, lack of material gain after years of service and, for some, the desire to escape a group they had joined under duress. Since its inception in 2016, the programme has rehabilitated and reintegrated no fewer than 1,000 Boko Haram fighters into society. Despite the incorporation of non-military approaches in counterinsurgency measures, attacks have continued unabated. In particular, the implementation of the DDR programme has been criticised on several grounds.
For some, the programme is nothing short of a catch-all for a wide range of individuals, including minors suspected of being child soldiers, a few high-level jihadists and alleged insurgents whom the government arrested and failed to prosecute, some of who were involuntarily enrolled in the programme. Report suggests that hundreds of those who have gone through or are currently in the programme are not from the target group. On the contrary, they are civilians who threw off Boko Haram’s yoke and who, after detention by security forces, were mistakenly categorised as militants and channelled into the DDR programme.
The government has also been criticised on ethical grounds for treating repentant Boko Haram fighters with coddling gloves while military mutineers who refused to fight the now repentant insurgents due to the unavailability of the right quality and quantity of weapons have been court-martialled and are currently languishing in jail.
Similarly, the victims of terrorism, especially women and children, are suffering in several internally displaced persons’ camps or elsewhere with little or no relief materials from the government, which fuel the widespread perception that the government is prioritising the wellbeing of terrorists. Among other ills, these displaced persons, most of who have lost the male heads of their households to Boko Haram insurgency in a largely patriarchal society such as Nigeria, are predisposed to mental health challenges due to trauma. They have little or no access to health and sanitary facilities, lack adequate nutritional and dietary requirements, and have greater exposure to sexually transmitted infections. As most displaced persons’ camps lack perimeter fencing and sleeping spaces and are not gender-segregated, girls and women are exposed to the risks of sexual harassment, both by outsiders and their fellow victims of internal displacement.
Furthermore, the government has been pilloried for enforcing selective administration of restorative justice. For instance, the traducers hold that the Nigerian state has used the fullest measure of brute force to quell or curtail the activities of non- and less-violent groups such as the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, the Yoruba Nation Movement, and the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). The Nigerian government successfully launched an operation that led to the extraordinary rendition of Maazi Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of the proscribed IPOB, from far away Kenya while Mr Sunday Igboho of the Yoruba Nation Movement was arrested in Benin Republic via diplomatic channels. While there is no mechanical connection between the OSC programme and the government’s lack of consistency in pardoning other insurrectionists, many believe the programme has inadvertently inspired other militant groups who perceive violence as the pathway to receiving the government’s favourable attention. While one is not opposed to the reintegration of rehabilitated militants because of its curative potency, the ideals of restorative justice will remain a wild goose chase in a complex country like Nigeria if the government embraces some insurrectionists with deodorants while others are killed with insecticides.
Finally, communities are unwilling to accept the reintegrated Boko Haram fighters back due to trust deficit. Hence, many of these ex-combatants have been attacked, stigmatised, ostracised and/or made to suffer socio-economic blockade in their communities. More disturbing is the statement by Governor Babagana Zulum of Borno State, the epicentre of Boko Haram insurgency, that “repentant” Boko Haram fighters ended up as spies for the terrorists. If this is indeed true, the reintegration programme is not yielding the expected results. Neither is the military approach.
Between 2009 when Boko Haram insurgency escalated and now, Islamic fundamentalism has persisted in Nigeria despite 40 different operations and exercises undertaken by the Nigerian army against various gradations of insecurity across the country, with different codenames. With respect to Boko Haram counterinsurgency, the Nigerian military has used several operations with codenames such as Zaman Lafiya, Lafiya Dole, Rattle Snake, Yancin Tafki, Last Hold, Positive Identification and Hadin Kai. Centrally, these operations were designed to promote the professionalisation of the military and expedite the end of the Boko Haram insurgency. Instead, Islamic jihadism has grown more exponentially menacing since these operations were introduced. Large swathes of land especially in Borno, Kaduna, Niger, Zamfara and other un- and under-governed territories are still under the firm control of Islamic jihadists where they enforce their own version of Islamic code and impose levies and “taxes”.
Apart from recurrent attacks on soft targets such as schools, recreational centres, markets and worship centres, the Islamic fundamentalists have also shown superior military capabilities by downing the Nigerian Air Force fighter jet in Zamfara State; killing some and abducting other military personnel at the Nigerian Defence Academy, Kaduna; bombing and abducting Abuja-Kaduna train passengers; attacking the Kuje Correctional Centre, Abuja, leading to the release of 879 detainees, including 69 Boko Haram terrorists; attacking President Buhari’s advance security convoy in Katsina State; and killing some officials of the 7 Guards Battalion of the Nigerian Army Presidential Guards Brigade. Also, there have been widespread security breaches in the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, and other adjoining states such as Kaduna, Nasarawa and Niger. Several schools in Abuja, Kaduna, Nasarawa, Niger and Zamfara States, including the Federal Government College, Kwali, Abuja, have been shut down following coordinated terrorist attacks.
In light of the bold and open abduction threats to President Buhari and Governor el-Rufai, there is need to improve the current military and non-military strategies to conscientiously deal with the growing threats of terrorism and other militant agitations in Nigeria. As absurd as the abduction threat seems, the audacity of the Islamic fundamentalists and the Nigerian government’s reluctance to deal decisively with them make the country’s journey to state failure much certain. If this was to be the case, other African countries will be overwhelmed by the massive inflow of refugees from Nigeria.
The time to act is now.