Spotlight on 16.1 - Inequality: Collective Insecurity in the Sahel: Fighting Terror with Good Governance

(User AK Rockefeller, Flickr Commons) On 14 April 2014, gunmen from the Nigerian Islamist extremist group Boko Haram seized more than 250 girls from their school dormitory in the remote northeastern town of Chibok as they prepared to take their final examina­tions. The attack was only the latest in an escalating series of bombings, murders, and kidnappings committed by the group—a nihilistic, fragmented coalition of Islamists, crimi­nals, political agitators, and embittered young men nomi­nally committed to overthrowing the Nigerian government in the name of fundamentalist Islam. It prompted a typically lethargic response from the authorities, who took no action despite a campaign of daily demonstrations in Abuja led by Nigerian civil society activists.

Unofficial campaigning for the 2015 national elections continued without pause. For nearly three weeks, President Goodluck Jonathan offered no public comments about efforts to retrieve the girls. Parents of the missing girls, exasperated by the Nigerian military’s inertia, risked their own lives by pursuing the attackers into the forest.[i]

While Nigeria’s political class appeared unmoved by the tragedy, it struck a chord with the global media, which pro­pelled the story to the top of the news headlines. Pressure mounted on the Nigerian government to accept international help. Soon, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, China, and others were pro­viding assistance, including surveillance assets, intelligence-sharing resources, hostage negotiators, and military advi­sors. But while expectations surged that the girls would soon be freed, more than three months later there was little sign of progress. Not a single girl had been released and Boko Haram’s attacks continued apace.

Why is it that Nigeria, urged on by its international partners, has been unable to make a breakthrough in tackling Boko Haram? This article argues that overcoming regional terrorism is an arduous, long-term endeavor requir­ing a combination of elements that have been absent from Nigeria’s response so far. They include the deployment of professional security forces that respect human rights, community engagement, and cooperation with neighboring states. Most of all, defeating region­al terrorists requires genuine politi­cal commitment to tackle some of the underlying governance challenges and economic grievances that provide the motivation—and recruitment tools—for violent extremist organizations (VEOs). The international community must also rethink its strategy for supporting Afri­can allies confronted with terrorism. Too often, efforts are confined to tack­ling the symptoms of violence through military “train and equip” programs rather than focusing on terrorism’s root causes. By doing so, countries like the United States and France buttress governments whose incompetence and venality help fuel and sustain insurgen­cies. Similar lessons apply to countries confronted by terrorism in the broader Sahel region, the band of fragile states spread precariously below the Sahara Desert. They include Mali, where a cor­rupt civilian government was toppled for bungling its response to a nation­alist uprising that was subsequently hijacked “by extremist groups,” includ­ing al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). International actors—the key bilateral partners in this region being France and the United States—must resist the temptation to pursue quick fixes to deep-seated security problems and must balance engagement with gov­ernments with strategies to encourage broader governance reform. In tandem with these efforts, a long-term strategy must be devised to foster sustainable, African-led solutions to insecurity that draw in regional and sub-regional organizations like the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).


The Rising Terrorist Threat in Nigeria and the Sahel

Parts of Africa have encountered terrorism for many years, but the threat has tra­ditionally been confined to two dis­tinct areas: coastal east Africa and the Maghreb. During the past decade, how­ever, the zone of terrorist operations has expanded to include the Sahel, an impoverished region incorporating all or part of ten countries extending from Senegal in the west to Eritrea in the east. This region is now the epicen­ter of extremist activity, and a glance at its political, economic, geographic, and demographic features helps explain why.

The Sahel is one of the poorest regions in the world. It contains fast-growing populations with few economic opportunities. Its people have learned to survive in a hostile, food-insecure environment, but their coping strate­gies are coming under intolerable pres­sure from climate change, which is accelerating the southward push of the Sahara. The core states of the Sahel— Mauritania, Mali, and Niger—are near the bottom of the UN Human Devel­opment Index, with Niger occupying the very last position, at 187.[ii] Nigeria is an exception. It has Africa’s largest population, largest GDP, and is the largest oil producer on the continent.[iii] These riches produce a different set of problems, breeding a political elite dependent on oil rents and oversee­ing public corruption on an indus­trial scale. When the head of Nigeria’s Central Bank, Lamido Sanusi, accused Nigeria’s national oil company of fail­ing to account for almost $20 billion of revenue, he was threatened with prosecution and forced out of office.[iv] Nigeria’s headline GDP figure obscures its deep economic inequalities. The six states that comprise Nigeria’s north­east are the most impoverished in the nation, with high unemployment, poor educational outcomes, and non-exis­tent public services.[v] It is a political backwater, neglected by a central gov­ernment cocooned in Abuja and con­tent to see an opposition stronghold wither. It is no coincidence that this is the region that produced Boko Haram.

While countries like Mali and Nige­ria appear to have little in common, they share a woeful record of public governance that has helped add extra fuel to the flames of violent insurgen­cies.[vi] Since independence, their ruling elites have governed in bad faith, oper­ating unofficial networks and favor­ing special interest groups, whether regional or ethnic. Corruption has run rampant. Security forces have acted with impunity, protecting incumbent regimes rather than the public. Economic mismanagement and a lack of strategic vision have combined to deny opportunities for their increasingly young populations, whose aspirations for education and employment have been unmet. These conditions provide fertile ground for the growth of VEOs and organized crime networks that prey upon the thwarted ambitions of the region’s young people.

For both countries, the results have been catastrophic. In Nigeria, Boko Haram has morphed in the space of a decade from an obscure religious sect into a vicious insurgency that has cap­tured territory and murdered more than two thousand civilians in the first half of 2014 alone.[vii] In Mali, the gov­ernment’s failure to quell an uprising in the north led to a mutiny in 2012, a coup d’état, and the transformation of the northern security crisis into a ter­rorist insurgency that rapidly engulfed two-thirds of the country before the French military intervened. Terror­ism, therefore, is a manifestation of deep-seated problems in these African societies.

The Response So Far: Halfhearted and Ineffective

Efforts by Nigeria and its neighbors in the Sahel to deal with terrorism have failed. In Nige­ria, Boko Haram poses a more potent threat than at any time in its existence. In Mali, the terrorist grip on the north of the country was only loosened by a French intervention that was supported by West African states. The Malian authorities were mere observers.

A number of factors explain this ineptitude. First, the scale and com­plexity of the threat must be recog­nized. Western nations and civil soci­ety activists who chastise the Nigeri­an government for failing to rescue the Chibok girls do not sufficiently acknowledge that any attempt to res­cue such a large number of hostages, held in multiple locations by merciless fighters, would inevitably result in mass casualties. More broadly, conducting successful counterterrorism opera­tions is a challenging task requiring patience, skill, and a long-term strat­egy—as the United States learned to its cost in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even so, Nigeria’s counterterrorism efforts have been woefully inadequate, even coun­terproductive. There are major doubts about the commitment of the Nigerian authorities to tackle Boko Haram. As Nigerians in the northeast have been attacked, kidnapped, and had their homes destroyed, the ruling elite in faraway Abuja has shown more interest in using the crisis to trade accusations and seek advantage over their politi­cal opponents than in coming up with a serious response. The indifference shown by the Nigerian government to its own population illustrates just how detached Nigeria’s political class has become from its citizens.

In neighboring Cameroon, a desire for self-preservation explains why the authorities were so slow in taking the offensive to Boko Haram. President Paul Biya was only jolted into action when his close confidante narrowly escaped a kidnap attempt in July. In Mali, the former government of Ama­dou Toumani Touré was long suspected by its neighbors of turning a blind eye to the activities of AQIM in the north, perhaps out of fear that a military assault would upset a fragile rapproche­ment with former rebel groups. What­ever the reasons for this inactivity, it turned out to be a costly miscalculation when the group overran vast swathes of the country in 2012.

In light of this official indifference, it comes as no surprise that populations in the region have sometimes displayed ambivalent attitudes toward the non-state actors operating in their midst. This is particularly true in Mali, where groups like AQIM gained a foothold in communities by offering public ser­vices that the state was either unwilling or unable to provide. The almost total absence of any social compact between the state and its people is further illus­trated by the way state security forces have interacted with civilians in areas affected by terrorism. In Nigeria, the federal Joint Task Force has almost matched Boko Haram in its brutal treat­ment of civilians, meting out collective punishment of communities suspected of harboring Boko Haram members, detaining young people at random, and doing little to minimize civilian casual­ties. Human rights groups have made allegations, backed up by apparent vid­eo evidence, of extrajudicial killings carried out by the Nigerian military and officially sanctioned vigilante groups.[viii]

The general incompetence of the military response has been stagger­ing. The security forces in most of the Sahel lack training and leader­ship; they are demoralized, unprofes­sional, and in some cases deliberately under-resourced by coup-fearing civil­ian leaders.[ix] In Nigeria, regular troops with the 7th Division have on several occasions refused to fight in Borno state, claiming their superiors have siphoned off funding that was meant to feed and equip them.[x] As a result, they are poorly prepared to launch counter­insurgency operations against a brutal, committed enemy.

Among the governments of the region, there is little appetite to think beyond military responses to terrorism and confront its root causes, because that would involve reflecting upon their own governance shortcomings. While Nigeria’s National Security Advisor, Colonel (ret.) Sambo Dasuki, attempt­ed to outline a more comprehensive approach to Boko Haram, including de-radicalization programs, commu­nity engagement, and efforts to address economic grievances, the Nigerian government has made little apparent effort to implement the plan.[xi] Time and again, requests for international assistance involve little more than the submission of wish lists for military equipment.

A final, missing ingredient in Africa’s response to the terrorist threat posed by groups like Boko Haram is the failure of states to work effectively together. The relationship between Nigeria and Cameroon highlights these shortcom­ings. Close cooperation between these two neighbors is critical for countering Boko Haram, which moves with ease over the poorly guarded internation­al border, launching attacks on both sides. However, Nigeria denies Camer­oon’s military the right to pursue ter­rorists into its territory. In Cameroon, there are strong suspicions that the authorities, despite their denials, have fueled the insurgency by colluding with European powers in paying ransoms to free European hostages held by Boko Haram.

Embryonic efforts are underway to boost regional cooperation through the Lake Chad Basin Commission security initiative, including moves to set up a Regional Intelligence Fusion Unit.[xii] These plans offer some cause for opti­mism, but it has yet to be seen whether this unit will be more effective than other regional efforts. A program to tackle AQIM—which involved estab­lishing a Joint Operational General Staff Committee in southern Algeria with participation from Algeria, Mali, Niger, and Mauritania—has had negli­gible impact. Meanwhile, the African Union is years away from developing the kind of sustainable, rapidly deploy­able peace enforcement or peacekeep­ing capacity that would deter and defeat armed terrorist groups. Its planned African Standby Force is way behind schedule and an interim mechanism, the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises, is only just get­ting off the ground. The Mali security crisis demonstrated that the regional ECOWAS body was willing to act but incapable of doing so effectively.


Searching for Solutions: Inter­national Engagement, its Short­comings, and Ways Forward

There are no easy solutions to the scourge of Boko Haram and other VEOs. What is clear, however, is that the countries and regions in which they reside bear primary responsibility for dealing with them. Their governments could start to salve some of the griev­ances that provide the extremists with their recruitment message by ruling in a professional, accountable, just, and transparent manner. Unfortunately, the worst-affected countries lack the leadership, the political will, and—in some cases—the resources to achieve this. The international community fac­es a quandary. It must deal with the terrorist problem in the short-term in order to protect its own security inter­ests while trying to nurture homegrown institutions in these regions that will be able to tackle the problem in the long run.

While an assortment of actors is engaged in Nigeria and the Sahel—both bilaterally and multilaterally—the United States and France are two of the most important. French involvement has been mainly security-focused. In July, it unveiled a new regional security strategy called Operation Barkhane to follow its military offensive in Mali. The United States has a range of pro­grams, including broad-based security, development, and diplomatic engage­ment with Nigeria and an ambitious—and stuttering—civil-military effort to address the causes and symptoms of vio­lent vio­lent extremism in the Sahel, the Trans- Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership (TSCTP).

These efforts are well-meaning but overly focused on technical fixes that do not sufficiently appreciate the political economies of the countries in which they operate. It is all very well to try to build strong institutions, but these are countries that are led by dominant individuals or groups, ruling through informal networks. Institution-build­ing, important as it is, must be accom­panied by pragmatic strategies to work with, and through, political elites. The key challenge is finding ways to work with these elites, whose buy-in is required in order for anything productive to hap­pen. A careful balance must be struck between addressing their self-interests without undermining core objectives of long-term stability and sustainable development. A perpetual problem for the United States and other donors is that flashy military equipment and training is gladly accepted by African governments who then block or subvert additional support that runs against their interests, such as assistance to countervailing institutions like legisla­tures and civil society. The result of this engagement is to strengthen incumbent regimes whose very continuance acts as a powerful recruitment tool for armed opposition. One wonders whether Western counterterrorism objectives in the Sahel are best served by programs that enable increasingly illegitimate leaders, like Paul Biya of Cameroon and Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso, to remain in office even longer.

Too often, it appears that short-term, reactive responses to terrorism trump longer-term efforts targeting its root causes. The demand for quick wins means it is easier to fire off a Hellfire missile than devise a long-term approach to counter-radicalization that may take years to bear fruit or fail to produce measurable outcomes of the type demanded by budget-makers in Congress.

It is partly for these reasons that the United States privileges military approaches over civilian ones. While there are merits in increasing the capacity of African military institu­tions (although police should not be ignored), these efforts merely empower the next generation of coup-makers if they are not subordinate to civil­ian authority. In Mali, a military that benefited from generous U.S. support mutinied in the face of an armed threat, and a U.S.-trained officer, Mamadou Sanogo, took the opportunity to over­throw the civilian government. Should the United States be strengthening the security forces of countries where civil­ian rule is shaky, such as Mali, Niger, and Nigeria, nevermind non-demo­cratic regimes like those in Chad and Cameroon? The security services in these countries may be incapable of fighting VEOs, yet they are still the most powerful domestic institutions, influencing politics and gobbling up funds in the name of national security that could be used to improve educa­tion and health outcomes.

The “train and equip” approach to developing Africa’s security institutions appears to be broken, but few alter­natives have been put on the table. President Obama’s announcement at the U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit last August of a new fund to develop a rapidly deployable peacekeeping capac­ity was more of the same. Of the six countries chosen to receive funding worth $110 million for each of the next three to five years, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Uganda show no interest in estab­lishing democratic rule.[xiii] Meanwhile, the United States Agency for Interna­tional Development has no mission in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, and Niger; neither Cameroon nor Niger has U.S. ambassadors due to Congres­sional delays in approving President Obama’s nominations. The absence of key personnel makes it harder for the United States to demonstrate its seriousness in tackling the diplomatic and developmental challenges of this complex region and weakens efforts to energize host countries into taking a regional approach to insecurity.

The United States has tried to take on board some of these critiques through its flagship engagement program in the Sahel, TSCTP. This State Depart­ment-led program spreads a relatively small amount of money across a large, ten-country region. It has also been weakened by interagency coordination issues and policy differences. However, the TSCTP at least signals an attempt to take a more comprehensive approach to extremism and its underlying causes. The United States and its international partners should be offering a simi­larly comprehensive menu of support to Nigeria in its fight against Boko Haram. This should include economic assistance to the northeast, education reform, counter-radicalization strat­egies, community engagement, secu­rity sector reform, and more account­able, inclusive governance. All of these ingredients are required to turn the tide against Boko Haram and all depend upon the buy-in of a Nigerian government that to date has shown little interest. For the time being, however, limited deployments of advisors and intelligence-gathering assets appear to be the order of the day, although they have done little to bring back the Chibok girls or tackle the wider scourge of terrorism that wreaks an ever-greater toll on the citizens of Nigeria.

[i]Drew Hinshaw, “In Nigeria, Parents Tor­mented by Stumbling Search for Girls Kidnapped By Boko Haram,” Wall Street Journal, 8 May 2014, Inter­net, (date accessed: 29 November 2014).

[ii]United Nations Development Program, “Human Development Reports 2014,” Internet, (date accessed: 29 November 2014).

[iii]U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Nigeria Country Analysis Brief Overview,” 30 December 2013, Internet,­tries/country-data.cfm?fips=ni (date accessed: 29 November 2014).

[iv]BBC, “Nigeria Central Bank Head Lamido Sanusi Ousted,” 20 February 2014, Internet, (date accessed: 29 November 2014).

BBC, “Nigeria Central Bank Head Lamido Sanusi Ousted,” 20 February 2014, Internet, (date accessed: 29 November 2014).

[v]See International Crisis Group, “Curbing Vio­lence in Nigeria (II): The Boko Haram Insurgency,” 3 April 2014, Internet,­ing-violencein-nigeria-ii-the-boko-haram-insur­gency.pdf.haram-insurgency.pdf (date accessed: 29 November 2014). Also Ambassador John Campbell, “Why Nigeria’s North South Distinction Is Impor­tant,” Council on Foreign Relations, 7 February 2011, Internet, (date accessed: 29 November 2014).

[vi]Since independence in 1960, Mali has experi­enced two coup d’états, a revolution, and three Tuareg rebellions. Nigeria suffered four successful coups and a civil war before an aborted civilian handover in 1992 led to yet another military takeover. Civilian rule was restored in 1999, but the country has since endured insurgencies in the Niger Delta and northeast as well as serious bouts of communal violence in the Middle Belt.

[vii]Human Rights Watch, “Nigeria: Boko Haram Kills 2,053 Civilians in 6 Months,” 15 July 2014, Internet, (date accessed: 29 November 2014).

[viii]Heather Murdock, “Amnesty International: ‘Gruesome’ Videos Show Human Rights Abus­es in Nigeria,” 5 August 2014, Internet, (date accessed: 29 November 2014).

[ix]For an overview of the challenge of professional­ism facing militaries in the region and specific exam­ples of the Malian military’s shortcomings in respond­ing to the northern rebellion, see Emile Ouedraogo, “Advancing Military Professionalism in Africa,” Africa Center for Strategic Studies, July 2014, Internet, (date accessed: 29 November 2014). Also Philippe Leymarie, “The Sahel Falls Apart,” Le Monde Diplomatique, April 2012, Internet, http://mondediplo. com/2012/04/05sahel (date accessed: 29 November 2014). Also Oladiran Bello, “Quick Fix or Quicksand? Implementing the EU Sahel Strategy,” FRIDE Working Paper 114, November 2012, Internet, Strategy.pdf (date accessed: 29 November 2014).

[x]See Sahara Reporters, “Near Mutiny at Army Barracks in Maiduguri Over High Number of Nigeri­an Troops Casualty in Gwoza,” 7 August 2014, Inter­net,­ber-nigerian-troops-casualty-gwoza (date accessed: 29 November 2014).

[xi]International Crisis Group, “Curbing Violence in Nigeria (II): The Boko Haram Insurgency,” 3 April 2014, Internet, (date accessed: 29 November 2014).

[xii]For more details, see Lake Chad Basin Com­mission, “Remarks of the Executive Secretary at the Meeting on Insecurity,” 22-23 July 2014, Internet, (date accessed: 29 November 2014).

[xiii]White House factsheet, “U.S. Support for Peace­keeping in Africa,” 6 August 2014, Internet, (date accessed: 29 November 2014).