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The Loneliest War Nigeria’s Strategy against Boko Haram

The Nigerian Armed Forces and security agencies are capable of handling the security situation in Nigeria. All we need is the understanding, the support of well-meaning people all over the world, and those who want to be partners should be partners indeed… We are a sovereign nation… Indeed we are concerned for our sovereignty as a state and that we will defend at all costs.

—Rtd. Major General Chris Olukolade

With state fragility mounting as a result of extremist violence, African countries have employed varied and sometimes unexpected means in an attempt to protect their people and their borders. While countries such as Mali and Somalia have requested for the presence of combat troops from external allies in their fight against domestic jihadist militant groups, Nigeria continues to eschew such foreign military assistance, believing itself to be wholly capable of countering terrorist attacks within its territory.

The Buhari administration, like its predecessor, continues to pursue and employ a hard-line counter military action strategy against the state’s ongoing domestic terrorist threat. Counter military action, also referred to as a hard-line counterterrorist policy classification, particularly allows policymakers to use the force of arms against terrorists and their supporters, where typical resources are military assets, paramilitary assets, and covert operatives. By encouraging state security forces to pursue and destroy Boko Haram terrorists within the bound rules of engagement, this strategy addresses Boko Haram as a one-dimensional terrorist movement, isolated from any political environment or circumstance that may have fostered the rise of the group. Although the Nigerian military has been able to recapture territory formerly occupied by the terrorist group, this strategy has also proven to be ineffective in containing the group’s increasing lethality.

Countless women and children have been abducted and drafted as suicide bombers. A reported 4.8 million people lack access to food and safe drinking water, 450,000 children face acute malnutrition, and Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) are dying of curable diseases in IDP camps across the region. With these realities, the Nigerian government’s inability to ensure its people’s security by effectively combating Boko Haram has triggered what is being reported as the “worst humanitarian crisis in the world.”

Yet, and perhaps paradoxically, the current administration asserts that Boko Haram’s continued violence is a signal of its defeat. Not unlike Former President Goodluck Jonathan’s policy on foreign military assistance, President Muhammadu Buhari maintains a policy stance focusing on partnership and non-combat assistance, and continues to emphasize the country’s sovereignty as an autonomous state. As a result, the administration has remained reluctant to request or accept foreign combat assistance in delivering security to the millions affected by the Boko Haram insurgency within its territory.1

Foreign military involvement on Nigerian soil has thus remained limited to training and professionalizing the Nigerian military, as the government aims to continue to implement a predominantly unilateral approach in combatting Boko Haram within the state. The current administration, for example, despite regional cooperation with the African Union-authorized Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) has refused to allow MNJTF troops to deploy within the Nigerian territory.2 Instead, MNJTF troops continue to be deployed within neighboring countries to prevent Boko Haram’s regional expansion without infringing on the sovereignty of the Nigerian state.

Nonetheless, when compared to the cooperative strategies or policies of countries facing a similar crisis, the current administration’s insular military strategy is puzzling. In the case of Mali, the Malian military’s inability to stop the advance of Ansar Dine and their jihadist militant ally, al-Qaeda, prompted Mali’s interim government to alter its security strategy, officially requesting bilateral French combat assistance in 2013.

Similarly, the collapse of the Somali state and the rise of the transnational terrorist group, Al-Shabaab—particularly the group’s control of large swaths of territory in Somalia—prompted the African Union in 2007, at the bequest of the Somali Transitional Federal Government, to authorize the multilateral deployment of the UN-authorized African Union Mission in Somalia, which is comprised of troops enlisted from several African nations to ensure the delivery of security in the state.

Although the effectiveness of the Malian and Somali outside-facing strategies are contested, Malian and Somali authorities have nevertheless altered their policy stances and strategic positions in response to failing military strategies. Nigerian authorities, by contrast, have remained wedded to ineffective strategies, suggesting that they are, at a minimum, not putting the forces in the best position to improve the condition of millions of Nigerians, which begs the question: Why does the Nigerian government continue to pursue its current strategy despite its ineffectiveness in ensuring and delivering security to its local population?

Sovereignty and Saving Face

The tension between sovereignty and external intervention can be attributed to the very definition and concept of sovereignty. Traditionally, the concept of sovereignty—a state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force within a territory—is closely associated with political autonomy, defined as the exclusive right of a state to exercise supreme authority over a territory and the people within that territory. However, this traditional Westphalian conception of sovereignty has been challenged in the last two decades.

Today, sovereignty is increasingly conditional; political legitimacy at the international level is challenged by human right principles, which are seen as the proper basis of state sovereignty. As such, a state’s sovereignty is anchored in the rights of its citizens such that the respect, protection, and fulfillment of human rights (human security) determine the legitimacy and authority of the state, at both the national and international levels. For states unable to fulfill their state obligations, international human right norms, such as the Responsibility to Protect, allow the international community (broadly defined) to provide assistance and support.

Yet, in the case of Nigeria, the international community has played little to no role in bolstering Nigeria’s sovereignty, despite Nigeria’s inability to fulfill its state obligations.3 Ironically, the relationship between the Nigerian state and the international community is one in which, the Nigerian state plays an active role in the international architecture for peace, but does not welcome a similar role for other countries in its own domestic peace architecture. A founding member of the African Union (AU) and a standard-bearer for ECOWAS and the ECOWAS’ Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), the Nigerian state’s influence in West Africa and Africa as a whole cannot be understated. It is no wonder that the country still wants to maintain its current relationship with the international community and its ability to deal with its own internal threats.

Asking for combat troops may signal that the Nigerian government lacks the capacity to deal with Boko Haram, jeopardizing the country’s image and its ability to project power regionally and internationally. In fact, the country’s ability to project its power is especially paramount now given the growing debate surrounding UN Security Council reform and a need for African permanent representation on the UN Security Council. Requesting for foreign combat assistance might, therefore, signal Nigeria’s inability to represent Africa as a permanent member of the Security Council.

Additionally, the country’s history has seen the Nigerian state protect its sovereignty at all costs. The Nigerian government’s limited involvement in the face of a humanitarian crisis in the eastern region of the country, for example, was a strategy employed to crush the Biafran insurgency in the 1970s. This may explain why, despite huge civilian casualties and population displacements as a result of Boko Haram activities in the northeast region of the country, the Nigerian government continues to pursue its military strategy in combatting the group, hoping to also wear out Boko Haram as the conflict wears on.

This issue of sovereignty might also explain how analysts have assessed the relative effectiveness of the Nigerian government’s strategy against Boko Haram. In assessing a policy, analysts typically rely on different criteria, which often result in diverse policy conclusions. This is because definitions and measures are not technical or universal but politically constructed and contingent on a variety of circumstances.

In their assessment of the Nigerian government’s military strategy, analysts, for example, regarded the elimination of Boko Haram’s safe havens and the group’s inability to mount conventional attacks on the Nigerian security forces as indicators of an effective military strategy in eliminating militant jihadism.4

Scholars, however, have argued that these indicators are not reliable methods of measuring effective counter terrorism strategies. Alex Schmid and Rashmi Singh, for instance, note that “while in a traditional confrontation the destruction of armed forces and military equipment can be, and indeed has been in the past, used as a reliable indicator of success, in the case of counter-terrorism ‘the eradication of terrorist cells, decapitation of terrorist leadership, blocking of terrorist funds or the destruction of terrorist safe havens does not necessarily (and, in fact, rarely) result in the cessation of terrorist violence.’” An effective military strategy in countering terrorism might thus be one that emphasizes the need for the discriminate, surgical use of force so as not to alienate populations who might eventually support the government by (i) protecting the local population, (ii) promoting good governance, (iii) eliminating enemy safe-havens, and (iv) training the locals to take the fight to the insurgency.

Nonetheless, for the Nigerian state, the Nigerian government’s conception of its sovereignty, which is closely tied to its conception of national security as its ability to effectively control its own territory, has continued to influence how it assesses its strategy against Boko Haram.

Is there a role for the international community to play?

In offering military assistance to the Nigerian state, the international community must take into consideration the Nigerian government’s position on preserving its sovereignty despite the potential consequences. The Nigerian government’s approach to dealing with Boko Haram is coloured heavily by the state’s view of its sovereignty, and by extension, national security. Offers such as the deployment of foreign troops to combat the state’s ongoing domestic threat and offers that dictate how the Nigerian government should employ the assistance offered (be it intelligence, training, military aid, equipment support) are likely not to be accepted, given the country’s policy stance and strategy in dealing with domestic insurgencies. Perhaps when offers for assistance are based on the Nigerian state’s view on its sovereignty, the State may be willing to amend its strategies in protecting and ensuring the delivery of security to its local populations in its fight against extremist violence⎈

* This essay was funded by The Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa

  1. I refer to foreign combat assistance as foreign “boots on ground,” defined as the deployment of foreign forces (ground troops who are on active service) to a country.
  2. The MNJTF is composed of troops from Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Benin and Cameroon, has a “right of hot pursuit in the Nigerian soil,” and is mandated to operate without frontiers to combat Boko Haram.
  3. Nigeria’s formal foreign policy objectives—as outlined in the 1999 Constitution—are the promotion and protection of national interest, African integration and unity, and international collaboration, in that order.
  4. In 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari declared that Boko Haram “technically” defeated, as the group was no longer able to mount “conventional” attacks against security forces or population centres.