In April 2009, Nigeria’s President Yar’Adua told The Guardian newspaper, “Restoring respect for the rule of law is honestly one thing I would want to be remembered for.” A few months later, the military went on a brutal house to house rampage in Maiduguri, resulting in the public execution by the police of a controversial Islamic preacher. The response from his relatively obscure sect, now popularly known as Boko Haram, was retaliation and religious radicalization.
The Baga Massacre
Little has changed in the government’s strategy since then, except perhaps that the brutality by all sides has escalated. Nigeria is now bracing for another round of retaliation. Satellite images released last week have confirmed the worst about a new round of state violence, this time unleashed on the village of Baga in April 2013. The photos challenge the official version of the incident, which downplays the number of casualties and homes destroyed. The evidence from Human Rights Watch corroborates accounts from witnesses and community organizations, identifying at least 2,275 destroyed buildings. The New York Times and the Nigerian media have reported additional details from hospital morgues, where the military has been delivering dozens of bodies a day – again conflicting with official accounts.
Over the past several years, President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in several states, sent troops, set up a new counterterrorism unit, and (not very helpfully) compared the new wave of violence to the Biafran civil war. He has also utilized new executive authority acquired through anti-terrorism legislation to detain an undisclosed number of suspects, some of whom are reportedly in secret detention facilities according to news accounts and sources I spoke with in Nigeria. Civilians are caught in the middle of the violence. Like the Niger Delta rebellions in 2003-2008, which generated 480,000 internally displaced persons according to Nigeria’s National Commission for Refugees, those who survive the violence in the northeast today – whether perpetrated by Boko Haram or by the military – are taking refuge in the already overpopulated capital of Abuja or its environs.
Lessons from Nigeria’s Post-Transition Sectarian Rebellions
Boko Haram can be interpreted as an insurgency against a state with a fragile basis for legitimacy in flawed elections, a constitution decreed by a transitional military regime, a federal structure inhered from colonialism, and failed government performance in an acutely underdeveloped area of the country. From this perspective, a resolution to the violence plaguing the northeast will require many of the same political steps necessary to consolidate democracy, including public accountability for human rights abuses by the security services. The government’s counterterrorism strategy has had the opposite effect, creating victims instead of popular allies and deepening the state’s legitimacy crisis. State coercion is undermining local cooperation and breeding radicalism.
I develop this argument in a new essay, forthcoming in the Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding. You can download a free copy here, courtesy of the publisher, Taylor & Francis. Drawing upon Nigerian media reports, interviews, and primary sources, I compare and contrast the northeastern-based violence with Nigeria’s Niger Delta rebels. (The Niger Delta has received less attention lately, and the U.S. Institute of Peace just released a helpful new report outlining next steps.) Oil from these southern states generates about 85% of the country’s export earnings, according to recent estimates from the Central Bank. There are important differences between the rebellions, most obviously in the uses and scale of violence. I also identify core lessons from recent militant demobilization.
Both insurgencies sought credible outside mediation, an idea backed up by high-profile civil society groups; the government largely interpreted such requests as an invitation international meddling. Yet the value of a disinterested, independent outsider is one of the basic principles of conflict resolution. Recalling the historic negotiations in Northern Ireland that ended decades of terrorism there, an important question is, who could be Borno State’s George Mitchell? Is the newly formed Presidential Committee on Dialogue and Peaceful Resolution of Security Challenges in the North asking such questions? And more importantly, is it prepared to hold security forces accountable?
The Baga Massacre is a tragedy not only for hundreds of victims, but for Yar’Adua’s dream for rule of law in Nigeria. The militarized response to Boko Haram will internationalize the crisis, further radicalize the insurgency, and undermine endogenous sources of moderation including the nation’s traditions of federalism. The question is not whether the government should offer amnesty now. Instead, the matter at hand involves identifying the conditions necessary for a political solution, drawing upon some the historical and institutional factors (outlined in my essay) conducive to such a strategy. Accountability for human rights abuses, compensation for victims of the violence, and rebuilding damaged places of worship are good places to start.