What is to be Done in Nigeria?

22 May 2014, 2350 EDT

This is a follow-up to my earlier post, “Why Foreign Intervention in Nigeria is a Bad Idea.” That post focused on larger issues that make Nigeria a particularly problematic context for foreign involvement of any kind; this post focuses on what policies — mostly domestic — might work.

In the past week, things have not gotten better with regard to Nigeria and the effort to #Bringbackourgirls. On the US front, the administration began a blessed crawl away from direct US military involvement in Nigeria the day of my earlier post. In last Thursday’s hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a succession of military and State Department officials provided a needed reality-check:

  • It will be very difficult to find the girls. Specialists now guess that the girls have been split into smaller groups. For more on the logistical difficulties of an extraction, see here and here.
  • The Nigerian military is not a suitable partner. Pentagon and State officials noted that, even if the political will were present, the Nigerian military may not have the capacity to find the girls. The U.S. is significantly hampered in its efforts to help by the Leahy Law, which bars U.S. assistance of any form to foreign military forces that systematically violate human rights (in force in various forms since 1998). Said one Pentagon official, finding Nigerian military units that had not engaged in gross human rights abuses has been “persistent and very troubling limitation” on US assistance to the Nigerian Government.

This is why the Obama administration deployed 80 US military personnel to Chad, which borders Nigeria’s far northeast, rather than to Nigeria itself. By basing US surveillance and assistance efforts in Chad, we may help in the tasks of both closing the porous borders that have bedeviled the fight against Boko Haram and also disrupting the flow of small arms into Nigeria. These are good things, but they leave open the question of what to do inside Nigeria.


Within Nigeria’s borders, Boko Haram seems to be still further escalating violent attacks aimed at civilians. In Jos, sequenced explosions in a market place and bus station were intended to create as many casualties as possible. More than 120 were killed, many of whom were women and children. There is reason to be concerned that Boko Haram attacks in divided cities — like riot-prone Jos — could stoke communal violence.   Five were killed in Kano by another car bomb attack on Sunday. The death toll might have been higher if a second car bomb had not been intercepted.  And news trickled of attacks on villages in Borno State near Chibok, the town from which the girls were abducted.*

So what to do?

As others have pointed out, the Nigerian government is currently in an impossible situation. It is difficult to conceive of a military operation that could retrieve the Chibok girls without casualties. Negotiation with Boko Haram is the only politically feasible option, given international attention and the emotional resonance of #Bringbackourgirls, but this week’s bombings make a negotiated settlement even more likely to yield serious domestic political costs for President Goodluck Jonathan’s government. In addition, concessions both strengthen Boko Haram (by providing money or men) and make further hostage-taking more likely. If we care about the many unkidnapped girls and boys in Borno, Yobe, and Bauchi states, we don’t want this to be a straight-forward girls-for-prisoners exchange.

Political negotiations. The Nigerian federal government should reopen negotiations with Boko Haram. The organization has made it clear that it would be open to serious negotiations, and its unclaimed bombings of this week have been viewed by some as escalation designed to push the government to the table. Though there have been periodic rumors of backdoor negotiations, the federal government has always placed its faith in a military – rather than a political – solution to Boko Haram. This needs to change.

Discussions over the Chibok girls’ release should take place within the framework of more comprehensive negotiations, which should aim at             achieving a ceasefire. A ceasefire might provide space for other policies to take root, and a limited amnesty could conceivably win away Boko Haram’s          less committed militants. An exchange of prisoners for the girls – in this context – would seem less a concession than a confidence-building measure.           Importantly, political compromises would likely suck some of the oxygen out of Boko Haram. An organization that does deals is less appealing than one          that claims purity and uncorruptibility – especially in Nigeria.

Targeted development assistance & jobs creation. Should a ceasefire be agreed, the Nigerian government should funnel large amounts of civic works and visible development projects to the Northeast (Borno, Yobe, Adamawa states in particular). This should not be foreign aid, unless it is repackaged as direct assistance from the Nigerian Federal Government. The focus here should be jobs creation.

Boko Haram has been able to recruit – and, in (much) earlier periods, win some degree of popular sympathy — due to very deep, very real local         grievances. Northern Nigeria is disadvantaged vis-à-vis the South on every single measure of health and development, and the remote Northeast is the       worst off. As Nigerian specialist Kate Meagher points out over at African  Arguments, Nigeria’s vibrant growth (over 7% per annum) has merely exacerbated persistent regional inequality. Northern Nigeria’s largest city, Kano, continues to struggle with the deindustrialization that resulted from the      market-oriented reforms implemented in the 1990s, while booming Lagos is taking pages from Dubai.

These two components would create a similar starting strategy to that taken by the Nigerian government vis-à-vis its Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) in 2009. Has this worked with MEND? Yes and no. Between 8K and 15K MEND fighters came forward from 2009 to take advantage of the amnesty, but the group remains active, continues to carry out terrorist attacks, and has resulted in heavy-handed military deployment in the Delta states of the South. There are rumors in Nigeria that MEND commanders pocketed most the development funds aimed at local communities and the rank-and-file, and the resumption of more sustained violence remains a possibility.

What the MEND example suggests is that political negotiation and development money will never be effective policies unless they are undertaken in tandem with policies aimed at a true transformation of security and rule in law in Nigeria. This is not a rule of law crisis that is confined to the far Northeast or to the Niger Delta. For decades, Nigeria’s police force has been starved of resources, reinforcing its descent into pure predation. High levels of crime and communal violence have fueled the creation of formal ethnic militia and informal vigilante groups. Nigerian politicians or “godfathers” have coopted these groups — and sometimes created their own — for use during the country’s exceedingly violent election seasons.

Reform of State Security, Dismantling of State Rivals. As I commented in my first post, Boko Haram flourishes partly because most of Nigeria limps along without a rule of law. The state has almost entirely abdicated its responsibility to protect and provide security to its citizens. This is partly because it lacks the capacity, after decades of misrule, but it’s also partly a question of will. If a ceasefire with Boko Haram can be negotiated, the Nigerian state could embark on a major overhaul of its military forces, a reform that could start with the elimination of military leadership associated with gross human rights abuses. A set of visible military trials of those associated with the worst abuses, such as the 2013 massacre of villagers in Baga, would help to dismantle the impunity that feeds abuse. Training could be reformed in order to emphasize respect for human rights: there exist many models for the post-democratization reform of military forces. Reforms of the police forces would face the additional obstacle of hardened public distrust (one of the few things all Nigerians share), but significant investments in funding and improving conditions for police trainees and junior officers would be a good first step. As it stands now, police officers must demand bribes, as they can’t support their families without them.

In tandem with these institutional reforms, something must be done about the many non-state “specialists in violence” that have proliferated at a rapid pace since Nigeria’s transition to democracy in 1999. My own research on taxation suggests one thing that might be done: give them uniforms. To invoke Tilly (always), the process of state-building involves either eliminating (on the battlefield, if need be) or incorporating all the bandits that challenge the state’s monopoly on violence. Since Nigeria is weak, incorporation is the right path.

All of this sounds expensive, no? But there is money. Unlike most African countries, Nigeria has relied on minimal (no?) foreign assistance to fight its massive counterinsurgency campaign: roughly 27 percent of the country’s oil-flushed federal budget has been allocated to security for years running. If temporary settlements with both MEND and Boko Haram could be negotiated (and if … somehow … regional development funds could be placed in a lockbox with transparent expenditure rules), then money would be available for significant policing reform. If state governments follow the examples of Lagos and Cross Rivers State, the expansion of internally generated state revenues could also fund significant expansion of police forces (and the training and incorporation of vigilantes into normal police forces). All of this is improbable, of course, given Nigeria’s tremendous corruption problems. But a massive set of security reform proposals should be the centerpiece of the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) next year, and there are reasons to think that electoral turnover at the federal level could be a path to reform. Like many who’ve spent time in Lagos recently, I may overestimating the influence of the “clean broom” Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) in that coalition, but opposition party politics is in a better place now than it has been in past elections.

Of course, without popular mobilization and frightening demands for accountability, it is difficult to imagine any major shift in the political culture or the behavior of elites. Might the #Bringbackourgirls movement provide this disciplining muscle? As large-scale peaceful protests in Nigeria continue, let us hope that Nigerians’ fury at their government can be sustained and channeled into genuine political reform.


* In other regional news, large-scale conflict resumed in Mali this week. Despite the presence of French troops, Tuareg rebels have retaken Kidal and other towns in the North. The degree of involvement of Islamists (Ansar Dine) is not clear as of yet.