Ending Boko Haram’s reign of terror
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On the night of April 14, 2014, following an arduous day of state testing, the young women of a Government Secondary School in the northeastern town of Chibok, Nigeria, heard light-arms fire from less than a mile away. Following a sudden cessation of gunfire, a group of heavily armed men stormed the dormitory, threatening the girls with death if they did not comply with their orders. In total, some 276 young girls were kidnapped.  Many would eventually find themselves in one of eight Boko Haram encampments spread throughout the wooded terrain of the Sambia Forest. The young women were eventually married off to fighters, sex trafficked, repeatedly raped, and—in some circumstances—trained as suicide bombers.

Two years later, in the face of advances by Nigerian security forces, and the negotiated release of 21 girls, the majority of the Chibok girls remain unaccounted for as Boko Haram continues to claim the lives of thousands. Critics, both international and domestic, argue that the Nigerian government’s counterterrorism approach is heavy-handed, clumsy at times and overly reliant on military intervention. Its current practices ignore basic political, economic and social drivers that fuel the conflict and contributed to the organization’s growing recruitment and unfettered attacks.

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To effectively combat Boko Haram, President Muhammadu Buhari must pursue an integrated, multi-agency counterterrorism policy that properly utilizes diplomatic, military and economic resources. Additionally, the government of Nigeria should expand its counterterrorism partnership with the United States, and implement de-radicalization programs for the group’s apathetic fighters.

Nigeria’s historically strained relations with many of its neighbors precluded West African countries from conducting counter-Boko Haram operations on its soil. Unable to defeat Boko Haram unilaterally, Buhari publically welcomed assistance from neighboring countries. His efforts culminated in the restructuring of the Multinational Joint Taskforce’s (MNJT) mission to prioritize counter-Boko Haram operations along with foreign troops from Niger, Chad, Cameroon, and Benin operating within Nigeria.

Diplomatic and military support from regional forces reversed territorial advances made by Boko Haram. Now Buhari’s diplomatic overtures need to be greatly expanded. Like any coalition, the MNJT requires Nigeria’s constant diplomatic stewardship. Collaboration with the American Red Cross and Swiss government to secure 21 of the missing Chibok girls highlights Nigeria’s ongoing efforts to properly utilize diplomacy. The government of Nigeria should continue to increase interstate cooperation by bolstering its diplomatic efforts and strengthening international partnerships with military and civilian institutions such as the Economic Community of West African States and African Union.

As ideological support for Boko Haram continues to wane, so too does recruitment. However, the militant group continues to capitalize off of the vast economic disparities between the Northern Nigerian states and the rest of the country. With 72 percent of northern Nigerians living in extreme poverty, other incentives—money and jobs, access to loot and women—have become bigger draws. Broad-based efforts to address the deep socioeconomic disparities between the North and the South have not been implemented as they should to stem the flow of defecting Nigerians.

Largescale investment in the northern state’s critical infrastructure, health services, and education system would reduce inequality and help win the “hearts and minds” of would-be terrorists. To combat rampant corruption and nepotism, Nigeria should strengthen its toothless anticorruption bodies by adopting harsher penalties for unscrupulous officials and foster greater transparency by joining the Open Government Partnership. Although the direct impact of systemic economic changes would take years to manifest, early signs of equitable economic distribution would deal a decisive blow to Boko Haram’s propaganda, stifling the group’s recruitment efforts. 

De-radicalization should also play a large role in ending the insurgency. The Nigerian government made some progress on this front with the announcement of Operation Safe Corridor—a de-radicalization program meant to rehabilitate capitulating Boko Haram fighters. This is a good first step. But if this program is to succeed, security forces will have to dramatically alter their rules of engagement. Summary executions, retaliatory abductions, and torture must end immediately so that psychologists and counselors can do their jobs.

Finally, maintaining and strengthening the U.S.-Nigerian counterterrorism partnership will be essential.  Nigeria routinely ranks among the top recipients of U.S. bilateral foreign assistance in Africa. In addition to military aid, the United States has deployed dozens of Special Operations advisers to the front lines of combat on a loosely defined “train and equip” mission. The Buhari regime needs to work harder to maintain that partnership and avoid pitfalls like the 2014 freeze in relations when the United States blocked the sale of attack helicopters from Israel to Nigeria amid allegations of military abuses. The government must rein in the security forces and end human right abuses. With increased intelligence sharing, military aid, and special advisors, the Nigerian government will rout Boko Haram militarily.

The negotiated release of 21 of the Chibok school girls illustrates progress made in the fight against Boko Haram. However, if the government of Nigeria is going to be successful in ending the bloody insurgency, it must pursue an integrated counterterrorism policy that properly utilizes diplomatic, military, and economic resources, while ending corruption and addressing income disparities between the North and the South. Combined with de-radicalization programs and a counterterrorism partnership with the United States, this policy increases the chances that Nigeria can defeat Boko Haram and, someday soon, the rest of the Chibok school girls in captivity can come home.

John Steele is a first-year Security Policy Studies student at George Washington University's Elliot School of International Affairs.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.