On Wednesday, President Muhammadu Buhari declared that the war against Boko Haram is a “must win” so that Nigeria can forge ahead in its quest for even development and national stability. He added that the elimination of the insurgents from the face of the earth would not be compromised by his administration just as the safety and security of all Nigerians in any part of the country remains sacrosanct. The comments were made in Maiduguri while opening this year’s Chief of Army Staff annual conference.
The context of the speech is the escalation of the Boko Haram insurgency with a growing number of attacks on military formations and the routing of our soldiers on many occasions. In a sense, the mission of the President was to raise the morale of the troops and encourage them to step up the fight against the insurgency. It was in this context that President Buhari praised the Nigerian Army’s efforts that have led to the dislodgement of insurgents from areas hitherto viewed as their strongholds, the continued process of rescue of abducted persons and the return of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) to their homes. Normalcy, he assured the troops and Nigerians is gradually returning to the North East. I believe very few Nigerians would agree with this conclusion of the return of normalcy.
Nonetheless, I join the President in commending the selfless sacrifices of most members of our Armed Forces engaged in numerous operations in thirty-two out of the thirty-six states in the country. All Nigerians are distraught at the loss of life of so many officers and men of our security agencies. The President acknowledged the recent operational losses in the northern part of Borno, particularly in Jilli, Arege and Metele. A controversy has emerged between the media and the army on the casualty levels emanating from the attacks. After a long period of silence, the Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai, on Wednesday said only 23 soldiers were killed in the Boko Haram attack on Nigerian Army 157 Task Force Battalion at Metele. Reporting from the media have however revealed that at least 118 soldiers were killed during the November 18th attack at Metele. The Army only issued its first statement on November 24, following widespread media coverage and growing anger of Nigerians at the growing strength of the insurgency. The statement from the army merely acknowledged the terrorists had struck again in Metele and threatened social media users to desist from circulating false information.
Meanwhile, some of the names of the fallen officers and men have been researched and revealed and even their photographs have been circulating in the social media. Clearly, the approach of the armed forces is to minimize the loses and their media units have been castigating those talking of high casualty figures as unpatriotic. The fact of the matter is that both for the communities concerned and the armed forces involved, there is knowledge about the high casualty rates and that knowledge has been filtering back.
The greatest concern for all of us should be the concordant reports about the degraded arms, equipment and supplies of our troops. If the insurgents are scoring points, it must be because they are developing relative advantage vis-à-vis our troops and that’s what needs to be addressed. Refusing to admit loses, denying them or minimizing the numbers does not help the situation. The real threat to success in defeating the insurgency is the developing war economy in which resources for fighting the war are diverted by some unscrupulous officers.
Winning the war is however no easy matter. Asymmetrical warfare is very difficult to win because the insurgents can hide and strike almost at will. Winning the war is however virtually impossible if we are unable to address the conditions that led to the insurgency in the first place. Today, Nigeria finds itself in the frightening position of having the largest number of out of school children in the world, 13,2 million. At the same time, we now have the largest number of poor people in the world, the greatest number residing in the North East and North West. The war could be ended militarily but given the social conditions in the country, new fronts could easily re-emerge. Ending the war would also require extensive and intensive work developing and popularizing counter-radical narratives, so that potential recruits into violent extremism are dissuaded. The damage from the mass communication of Boko Haram ideology must therefore be counteracted and minimized. The clergy has an important role in challenging and deconstructing Boko Haram’s ideology. Already, any ulema have criticized the religious ideology of Boko Haram in numerous sermons and books, articulating robust theological refutations of Boko Haram ideology by highlighting the many Qur’anic verses, Traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as doctrines and tenets in the traditions of Islamic learning that are clearly opposed to violent extremism.
The challenge is getting this narrative to the millions of poor uprooted youth who see no viable future for themselves in Nigeria’s current trajectory of poor governance, corruption, collapse of the educational system and lack of jobs.
The effort to construct and publicize narratives against violent extremism should not be restricted to religious narratives only. The tragic consequences of violent extremism against the innocent are an important theme around which powerful counter-radical narratives can be articulated to respond to Boko Haram’s ideological construction of its own victimhood and struggle for justice. One way to do so is to publicise the horrendous consequences of violence on the lives of specific individuals who have been victims of Boko Haram attacks, which have traumatised people in so many different ways. Video recording of survivors’ testimonies should be massively aired. Similarly, the grave potential of radicalisation to escalate into violence should be amply illustrated, so that potential recruits are exposed to the terrible effects of violent extremism on fellow human beings.
Winning the war against Boko Haram is a medium-term agenda that has to go far beyond the military component we have been focused on. Meanwhile, the first step is indeed raising the capacity of the armed forces to continue to degrade the fighting capacity of the insurgents.