Nigeria: The New Pakistan or the End of Boko Haram?
Nigeria’s army has been long recognized as one of Africa’s most well equipped and organized, but events over the past years including its failure to quell Boko Haram have called this into question. The case of Nigeria echoes that of the Pakistan and the Islamists in the Waziristan tribal regions, with both states having effectively lost control over large portions of their territory to Islamic extremist groups. It is worth examining the dynamics both conflicts, given how they are more alike than not.
The core elements of the problems in Nigeria and Pakistan have been very similar. Both states have evolved a radical Islamist insurgency in a region of the country whose people have for a long time felt marginalized. Additionally, there the militant groups tend to use radical guerilla tactics such as kidnapping and suicide bombing as means to inspire terror and increase political power. Both nations are also plagued by some rather lawless neighbor; Pakistan has had to deal with endemic violence in Afghanistan, and Nigeria has the uncontrolled Sahel region and the abundance of weapons mobilized for the Libyan civil war to contend with.
Boko Haram came to the fore in 2009 when it launched an attack against local authorities followed by some hit-and-run attacks on a number of towns in northeastern Nigeria. Seeing that the government lacked the power or resolve to defend Nigerian sovereignty in the northeast, Boko Haram began annexing villages in a parody of governance. Throughout this process, the international community and the Nigerian government were remarkably passive, letting whatever that was taking place in the region continue. It was only after the abduction of over 150 girls in Chibok that the government, and more importantly the international community, took notice of the crisis that was unfolding.
Yet even after this brazen act of terrorism, the Nigerian army and government continued its chaotic and disorganized response, as evidenced by their repeated false reports that the school children had been found. To date Boko Haram’s terrorism has killed 13000 people, comparable to the 35000 killed in the longer Pakistani conflict.
In Pakistan, attacks began in earnest in 2004, when Pakistan, pressured to contribute to the global war on terror, began flushing out militants in the mountainous Waziristan region. In the years following, there have been offensives and counteroffensives in a cycle of violence. There have also been sporadic attempts at peace, and the central government has consistently accused local tribal leaders of complicity with the Islamist militants. Moreover, the commercial centers of Lahore and Karachi have been barely touched by the insurgency, much like Nigiria’s Lagos being unaffected by Boko Haram.
So what of the recent success of the Nigerian military offensive in the towns once occupied by Boko Haram? Much like the case of Pakistan, the tide could turn against the Nigerian army in the near future in a lasting cycle of offensive and counteroffensive.
The fact that there have been reports that mercenaries are fighting on behalf of the Nigerian army, who then claim the victory for Nigeria, seems to support such a bleak outlook. After the mercenaries leave, the army will not be able to defend the contested regions once again. Additionally, some Muslim leaders from the Northeast have been accused of working for Boko Haram, much like the tribal leaders in Pakistan. As such, even if the military campaign is successful, it seems clear that militant activity in the near future remains a possibility.
Whereas in Pakistan the spectre of peace has always been present, with a known leadership structure on both sides available for negotiations, there is no such opportunity for Nigeria, whose leaders simply do not know who to talk to in the northeast. Consequently, no peace talks have ever been attempted and there is no chance that reconciliation will occur anytime soon.
Given also the recent pledge of allegiance by Boko Haram to the Islamic State, there have been suggestions that foreign jihadists will soon start moving to Nigeria, much as they have done in Syria. This was once the case with Pakistan, where jihadists crossing in from Afghan training camps replenished the ranks of the militant insurgents.
The attacks on Abuja market places in central Nigeria also resemble quite strongly the attacks on the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, both striking at the seat of the government. The ability of Boko Haram to mount such attacks is a testament to its guerilla warfare credentials. The recent victories by the Nigerian army can only be seen as a forceful answer to such attacks, much like Pakistan has done in the past when it has suffered from the same, and the gains are bound not to last.
The recent military victory should just be seen as a victory in one battle in what is set to be a much longer war. The situation in northeastern Nigeria will no doubt continue to deteriorate, threatening, like in the case of Pakistan, to turn the country into a failed state and to undercut recent economic successes.