Why Foreign Intervention in Nigeria is a Bad Idea

15 May 2014, 1753 EDT

This is the first of two posts about Boko Haram & possible US involvement in Nigerian counterterrorism operations. For the second, see “What is to be done in Nigeria?”. Note: two sentences added shortly after publication to clarify that my concerns encompass the full range of foreign intervention, from direct intervention to operational support to limited strikes to an expanded role in shaping Nigerian policy.

Yesterday, American drones began flights over northern Nigeria in hopes of locating the 276 girls abducted a month ago from a school in Borno State. American and British counter-terror experts are on the ground; Nigeria will attend a French-convened regional security summit. Continued foreign involvement seems likely, especially as the US has confirmed that Boko Haram is a top US foreign policy priority. This kind of concrete international action is an emotionally satisfying response to a particular narrative, one that stresses Nigerian government inaction as the heart of the Boko Haram problem. In this context, the example of the speedy and successful French intervention against Islamists in Mali in 2013 looms particularly large: could foreign intervention work similar magic in northern Nigeria? Might a more limited intervention provide the same kind of low-risk, high-reward opportunity?

There are powerful forces pushing both foreign and Nigerian decision-makers toward action, perhaps limited, perhaps more substantial. As with other advocacy campaigns, the #Bringbackourgirls movement has stressed the solvability of this problem: if “serious” investments were made or if the Nigerian government were “serious” about taking action, Boko Haram would be easily countered. This narrative elides the very serious – and very flawed — counterinsurgency campaign that has been waged in northeastern Nigeria since 2009. But it also likely overstates the likelihood of success even for the most well-implemented, well-coordinated military campaign. And, since more limited intervention is almost certainly what is being considered, the likelihood of concrete gains or definitive successes against Boko Haram is even smaller.

Here are three inconvenient facts that make Nigeria rocky terrain for interventionism.

The Nigerian military is part of the problem.

In addition to garden-variety problems of capacity, training, and provisioning, the Nigerian military has serious human rights problems. Since its deployment to the three states of northeastern Nigeria (Yobe, Borno, and Adamawa) in 2009, reports have consistently documented the military’s involvement in disappearances, masses of extrajudicial killings, and general terrorizing of the civilian population. On top of these clear and widespread human rights abuses, there are sanctioned counterinsurgency tactics, such as the military’s cordon-and-sweep operations in Maiduguri in late 2010, that likely sew local resentment and boost Boko Haram recruiting.

How bad are military abuses in northern Nigeria? Data from the Council on Foreign Relations estimates that the number killed by Nigerian security forces is nearly equal to the number of deaths attributed to Boko Haram itself.* Given the military’s tendency to pay fast and exceedingly loose with the label “Boko Haram militant,” it seems likely that a substantial portion – if not the majority — of military-attributed casualties are non-combatants.

Did military abuses play a role in radicalizing Boko Haram? Almost certainly. The military’s first attempts at suppression in 2009 eliminated the organization’s moderate wing – via the public summary execution of the movement’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf – and were likely a boon for recruitment. Boko Haram’s first civilian attack outside the Northeast, the Christmas Eve 2010 bombing of a Christian church in Jos, was directly preceded by extensive military deployment and repressive search operations in the Northeast (Boko Haram activity had died down from 2009 to late 2010).

We know next to nothing about Boko Haram. **

 The intelligence problems associated with Boko Haram are legion. Intelligence estimates of membership numbers are little better than guesswork; oft-repeated assertions of international linkage are flimsily substantiated; discussions of factionalism and strategy among Nigeria specialists are little more than informed speculation. The organization may or may not be linked to political militias associated with Nigeria’s powerful northern governors. The past months’ civilian massacres in the emergency states may be signs of an ideological movement gone mad, a latter-day Lord’s Resistance Army (Uganda) — or Boko Haram may be serving as cover for the opportunistic settling of local scores. Local vigilante groups may be effective bulwarks against Boko Haram, or they may be the reason that we see an increase in Boko Haram attacks against villages and civilian targets.

But we do know this: more visible American and European involvement will strengthen Boko Haram. It will boost recruitment; it will attract foreign fighters and funding; it will generate greater ambivalence toward the federal government in Nigeria’s northern sharia states. Importantly, it may also constrain Boko Haram’s own ability to negotiate with the federal government.

Nigeria is littered with non-state security providers.

In Mali, the problem in 2012 was how to reestablish the state’s control over areas of the North that had been occupied by Islamist and Tuareg rebels. Even in more fractured and volatile Somalia, the current phase of the conflict can be largely understood through the lens of territorial control. Nigeria, on the other hand, is a different landscape of state authority. For more on what that looks like, see Laura Seay’s excellent post on the Monkey Cage from earlier today.

Absent strong investment in state institutions, the 1990s and 2000s were characterized by the proliferation of state rivals in Nigeria. State governors attempted to coopt local self-defense forces and ethnic militia; in some cases, they directly outsourced state policing to these actors. Lots of people have worked on this issue: for a comprehensive list, see Laura’s post and the bibliography attached to my article (gated) on militias in Lagos and Nairobi. With respect to northern Nigeria more specifically, the implementation of sharia law resulted in the formation of hisbah, or religious police not formally attached to the state, which have sometimes received direct funding from state government budgets. The proliferation of militia and private security forces is a big part of the reason that elections in Nigeria are consistently so violence. And the state’s abdication of responsibility for security is why riots in central Nigeria continue to claim hundreds of lives each year.

In sum, the problem in Nigeria has not been the loss of state control so much as the state’s lack of interest in establishing a monopoly on the use of force. In this context, it’s hard to imagine that even a short, surgical foreign intervention – along the lines of France’s Operation Serval in Mali – would provide adequate space for effective state presence in northeastern Nigeria. If Boko Haram is to be contained or eliminated, what is required is a usable state in Nigeria, one that is capable of imposing a rule of law in both its core and its periphery. There need to be concrete incentives provided for local communities to dismantle the vigilante groups and militia that serve as credible state rivals across Nigeria.

Will foreign intervention help in that task? Sure, maybe, if it is organized to serve that purpose. But that kind of foreign intervention is not on the table – and the kind that is on the table is likely only to create even more challenges for aspiring state-builders in Nigeria. Tomorrow, I’ll offer a few suggestions of the types of policies that might contain Boko Haram while constructing an effective, non-predatory state presence across Nigeria.


* Note that the graphic on the NST page that most clearly showed the Nigerian military-Boko Haram balance of casualties was recently removed. See here for earlier statements by the CFR’s John Campbell.

** This is one reason that Nigeria specialists, including myself, opposed FTO designation for Boko Haram. It is important to point out that the organization’s actions and demands are overwhelmingly focused on the domestic theater, and there remains little direct threat to US interests.