THE BLOG

Nigeria's Leader Can Change World's Approach to Insurgencies and What Drives Them

22/07/2015 17:34 BST | Updated 22/07/2016 10:59 BST

I was brought up in an Army that operated on battlefields where civilians were refugees and herded out of the way, a second priority to defeating the enemy. In Afghanistan and Iraq, this was overtaken by the development of Counter-Insurgency doctrine. That approach is already looking dated. Experience over the past decade has taught me that our current mechanisms for the application of military force do not address the complex security challenges we face today.

In Northern Nigeria Boko Haram has forced more than a million people from their homes and kidnapped thousands of women and girls. Some estimates suggest that more than 17,000 lives have been lost, including hundreds in the past weeks, as Boko Haram force children to blow themselves up in busy mosques and market places. The conflict is destabilizing a large part of Sub-Saharan Africa and threatens the integrity of the powerhouse of West Africa.

On Monday, newly-elected President, Muhammadu Buhari, fired the heads of the Nigerian Armed Forces. He is setting out a new approach to defeating the Boko Haram insurgency - one that the international community should back.

President Buhari is looking beyond the use of force to defeat the insurgency: he is looking to the grievances that are driving it. Before the election, he committed to a 'Marshall Plan' for North East Nigeria: investing in the communities, first meeting their humanitarian needs, but also reconstruction and development for the region. This rightly addresses the wider aspects of human security: jobs, food, health, political, community and personal security.

There will still be a need for some very hard fighting against a determined enemy. But this must not be done at the expense of the support of the population whose aspirations are at the heart of success. Any military force, particularly one which may feel that it has been in a tough fight, will find it testing to adapt to a position where it has to put pure military objectives second to the need to protect civilians.

This is a challenge I have witnessed as part of a Western coalition. General Stan McChrystal's main emphasis, when he revised the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan in 2009, was to 'protect the population', not to 'destroy the enemy'. This was met with nervousness in Western capitals; the idea that the military should put their own lives at extra risk in order to avoid unnecessary civilian casualties challenged an unstated priority to keep military casualties low, largely for domestic political reasons. And, even with McChrystal's innovative direction, I question whether we were able to work sufficiently closely with the Afghan administration and the Private Sector. To do so would have meant placing the huge physical security mechanisms in a supporting role, relying on coordination procedures that do not appear to exist outside the military, and concentrating on developing a sustainable economic environment to generate jobs, and satisfy Afghan aspirations.

To realise his ambitions, the Nigerian President and his new military chiefs will need to show inspired leadership and strong nerve: they will need to ensure that the Armed Forces abide by the standards they are defending and prevent or investigate abuses that in turn drive grievance and further violence; President Buhari should indeed be praised for committing to investigate any abuses by his troops. And they will need to unite all the elements - international and Nigerian, public and private sector - needed to restore security for the people of Northern Nigeria.

Commanding the support of international partners, the new military chiefs can take the President's commitments and design plans bringing all the relevant sectors together according to the wider aspects of human security and human rights, putting a greater emphasis on monitoring and investigating civilian casualties, and making better use of intelligence to reduce wrongful arrests.

Nigeria's international allies should support bold leadership from the new President of Africa's largest democracy. The UK appears to be especially supportive of the new President, and the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, is right to be reinvigorating the country's support for Nigerian efforts, establishing a cross-government unit to coordinate support from different Government departments. We should subordinate our national requirements whenever we can to those of the Nigerians. And as part of this endeavour the UK Military have masses of expertise that could contribute to maintaining and developing the effectiveness of the security effort, and critically integrating it into a wider, long-term, human security plan.

The measure of success in Northern Nigeria is whether civilians feel free from fear. Nigeria's sovereign government, with international partners lending their expertise, should be able not simply to clear the battlefield, but to satisfy the reasonable aspirations of the people to a secure and prosperous future. That could be a lesson for the rest of the world to learn.