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Boko Haram: Military Is the Problem, Not the Solution

15/06/2014 21:33 BST | Updated 15/08/2014 10:59 BST

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Boko Haram: a fearsome force in Africa. Source: Boko Haram

Conventional military confrontation has so far failed to vanquish the Al-Qaeda network and it's offshoots, yet this week's much-vaunted London conference on Nigeria's Boko Haram insurgency - based in Nigeria's northeast - continues to press ahead with another hapless military campaign.

A corrupt and demoralised military

Aid to the Nigerian military is based on the false assumption that, like European armed forces, it is neutral and under the control of civilian authorities. The Nigerian military is inseparable from the society in which it exists, prone to the same sectarianism, criminality and flaws as every other institution.

Due to ineptitude, corruption and indiscriminate violence, the military is one of the causes of the insurgency, which now forms a strategic part of an arc of jihadism that stretches from Algeria to Somalia. Giving funds and resources to the Nigerian armed forces risks exacerbating the problem.

Boko Haram thrives on the endemic corruption that has characterised post-independence Nigeria. Far from being anti-establishment, the group enjoys the patronage of parts of the political and military establishment, either through intimidation, sympathy or opportunism.

This week, 10 generals and five other senior military officers were found guilty in courts-martial of providing arms and information to Boko Haram extremists. Most believe collusion spreads far deeper than these few corrupt generals. It is likely that Boko Haram, which has suspiciously good knowledge of the military's movements, has been more adept at infiltrating the security forces and gathering intelligence than the military.

The problems also exist at the bottom of the military hierarchy. After over a year of a "state of emergency" in the northeast, demoralised and underpaid soldiers manning checkpoints routinely take bribes from better paid, better fed and better armed Boko Haram insurgents. A recent leak alleges that Nigerian troops deployed in the north are only issued 30 rounds of ammunition, and that soldiers must bribe their superior officers to receive proper equipment; many die due to poor equipment, so why would they fight?

In an oil-rich country like Nigeria, there is little excuse to send young men into conflict with no incentive to fight. Yet, in an oil-rich country that has seen so many disastrous military coups, civilian leaders fear that if the military is too well run and effective, it becomes a danger.

Military ineptitude has exasperated local officials who complain they are abandoned in the face of Boko Haram. During the kidnapping of the 276 girls in Chibok, security forces refused to act on credible intelligence, failed to intervene and initially denied receiving a request for help - indeed, they accused Amnesty International of spreading falsehoods.

When the military does engage, it is indiscriminate and brutal. Amnesty International reports that hundreds have died of starvation, suffocation and summary execution in detention facilities run by Nigeria's military Joint Task Force (JTF), mostly in Maiduguri. Many of those arrested have no relationship with Boko Haram.

Political collusion with Boko Haram

The military's failings are a symptom of endemic corruption and violence that characterises the Nigerian political system, which is dominated by former military men. There is compelling evidence of collusion between the political establishment and Boko Haram.

The notorious mastermind of the Christmas 2011 bombings of churches, Kabiru Sokoto, was arrested while staying at the Borno State Governor's Lodge in Asokoro, Abuja. He later escaped with the assistance of police and military personnel, but was re-arrested. Presiding over Sokoto's trial, Justice Ademola noted: "The members of the organisation have permeated all levels of government."

Governors, senators and authorities stand accused of giving financing Boko Haram, either as protection money to stop attacks or to carry out attacks on rivals. The Christian Association of Nigeria this week called on the federal government to probe governors on their links to attacks by Boko Haram and Fulani militants.

Jihadism will persist, even if Boko Haram is defeated

Even if Boko Haram was defeated, another movement would take its place. As the group's leader Abubakar Shekau said: "Even if you kill me, other fighters will rise better than me; I am nothing and worthless before Allah who I am working for."

Indeed, every effort to defeat the terrorist group has seen it grow exponentially. Boko Haram is the successor of the Muhajirun, which sought to deal with corruption through the strict application of Islamic law. Founded in 2003, the Muhajirun was short lived and was finished off in an army operation.

Muhajirun radicals formed Boko Haram, based in Borno state. The capture of its founder Muhammad Yusuf and his death in custody merely intensified the group's violence, now under Shekau.

With the assistance of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which through Tuareg allies controls smuggling routes through the Sahel, and helped by porous borders, Boko Haram has rapidly upscaled its insurgency. Weapons from Libya and central Africa as well as training - some believe by former military officers, others claim in Al-Qaeda training camps in the Sahel - have rapidly transformed the Nigerian militants into a formidable force. Over a short period, the group has moved from crude fire-bombing churches to staging co-ordinated attacks using artillery and armoured vehicles. Undeterred by the State of Emergency imposed on the northeastern states, Boko Haram has advanced its devastating terrorist attacks on the capital and expanded operations to neighbouring countries.

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Trans-Sahelian arms supplies are controlled by AQIM, Boko Haram's ally and benefactor. Source: Author's research

Structural Failure and Imperial Legacy

While commentators may frame the conflict in terms of its religious dimension or socio-economic inequalities, there is a strong ethnic and regional element to the insurgency. Boko Haram arose in the context of inevitable state failure. It was inevitable because Nigeria was an invention of the British empire.

Diverse and historically hostile or otherwise unrelated ethno-linguistic groups - Muslim, Christian and Animist - were forced into a country that made little sense in terms of nation state building. Not for the first time has European partitioning created the seeds for future conflict.

Around 80 per cent of Boko Haram's recruits are believed to be ethnic Kanuri. Encompassing a region that includes parts of modern Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon, the Borno Empire ruled and populated by the Kanuri dominated a significant swathe of the Sahel for over half a millennium until it was gradually ground down by the Fulani Jihad and European imperialists. Kanuri land was carved up by the British, French and German empires. The people of the once great empire of Middle Africa are now dwarfed by larger ethnic groups in the north, the Fulani and the Hausa.

The typical Kanuri from northeastern Nigeria is less likely to identify as Nigerian due to their distance from Abuja and the lack of government services there. Instead, they possess strong trade relations with fellow Kanuris in neighbouring countries and across the Sahel.

In this sense, the Kanuri share the sentiments of many other ethnic groups, while their leaders compete for the patronage of the central government. Boko Haram is a symptom of a political disease that has its roots in colonial administration.

Boko Haram is by no means the only security challenge. The Middle Belt has seen vicious battles between Fulani herdsmen and non-Fulani sedentary farmers. The Fulani-Tiv crisis earlier this year is a classic example of soldiers and local politicians turning ethnic groups against one another - having stood aside and watched Tiv civilians being slaughtered by Fulani militants and allegedly participating in the violence against Tiv villagers, soldiers burned down Fulani villages and stole cattle. Until the State of Emergency in northeastern Nigeria, these sectarian attacks were the biggest cause of violent death in the country - greater than those killed by the jihadists. These sectarian conflicts have been encouraged and even instigated by local political elites as they vie for power and privilege.

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Sectarian violence remains a major cause of instability. Source: Created by author using data from Nigeria Security Tracker

Much of Nigeria's recent political instability relates to the controversy over the re-election of Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the South, in spite of the informal agreement within the ruling party to rotate the presidency between Christians and Muslims. Jonathan has used his presidency to the advantage of his backers in the South, who include former commanders from the Delta insurgency, while the civilians in his home region have gained little materially from his rule.

Structural problems ultimately require structural solutions. Nigeria requires a revolution that empowers the people, gives them a stake in a hopeful future and creates greater institutional accountability, particularly within the military. These are tall orders and may not be easy to institute, but if Nigeria continues along its current trajectory and world leaders unquestioningly support a discredited military, the likely outcome will be civil war.