Fighting Boko Haram — A Long Battle Ahead

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by Enia Bearzotti

Although largely ignored by most mass media outlets in Western countries, the activities of Boko Haram are still ongoing and are affecting a significant portion of Africa. The group first gained worldwide attention in April 2014 following the kidnapping of 276 girls from a school in Chibok, Borno State. These missing girls are, however, only a small portion of the people who have been abducted by Boko Haram. Amnesty International reports that since the beginning of 2014 more than 2,000 girls and women have been abducted. More than 1,000 civilians have been killed since January 2015 not merely in Nigeria, but also in Chad, Cameroon and Niger.

Founded initially by Mohammed Yusuf as a Koranic school in northeastern Nigeria in the early 2000s, Boko Haram rapidly developed into a fundamentalist organization conducting terrorist attacks at first solely in the state of Nigeria, then beyond its borders, in an attempt to overthrow the current government and set up an Islamic state. The organization’s capacity to operate in other countries in the Sahel region and to connect with other terrorist groups, including ISIS, recently became the focus of further research and analysis conducted by one of the teams participating in this year’s Regional Academy on the United Nations (RAUN) program in consultation with the staff of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The objective of the research project was to raise awareness about a topic which had not yet received significant academic research, to analyse it from a different angle and consequently, to provide sound policy advice.

Taking into account the rich ethnic diversity and economic disparities among communities in Nigeria, proposed recommendations were numerous. First, there is an urgent need for economic and social reforms aimed not simply at improving the standard of living, predominantly in Muslim areas, but most importantly aimed at eradicating the feeling among those population groups that they have been ignored by the central government compared to the wealthier Christian areas in the South. Second, there ought to be increased regional and international cooperation between Nigeria and its neighboring countries, when it comes to information and intelligence data, since a well-orchestrated common action would undoubtedly be much more effective. Third, Nigeria and it neighbors should take measures to foster improved border controls by increasing the number of officers and soldiers employed in these regions and by providing training in the latest technologies and techniques in order to raise the security of its own people.

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The reality, however, is not that simple, as was realised while debating the team’s research progress with George Puthuppally, chief of the implementation support section on Sub-Saharan Africa of the Terrorism Prevention Branch at UNODC. According to Puthuppally, there were two substantial reasons why these recommendations could simply not be implemented. The most obvious one is a matter of competence. No country in the world, not even the United Nations, is entitled to interfere in the internal affairs of another country without its permission or that of the Security Council. Therefore, the Nigerian government is solely responsible for actions taken against Boko Haram within Nigeria. The only thing third countries can do is assist the Nigerian government, as they already do, and hope to achieve their desired result via those means. With regards to the UN, Puthuppally explained that its interventions are limited to three steps: First, promoting the ratification of conventions on terrorism, corruption and transnational organized crime; second, introducing the content of the conventions into national legislation; and third, training professionals to work in compliance with the new laws. In reality, however, although the UN might be successful in helping start a new legislation process for adopting reforms, often intricate bureaucratic processes change the reform content and completely miss the goal.

The second obstacle, somewhat surprisingly, concerns Nigerians’ perception of social injustice. Muslim communities feel that the government has done nothing to help them, as the discrepancy between the standard of living in Muslim and Christian areas is still marked. It follows that many of them do not condemn Boko Haram, rather the contrary, as they believe Nigerian society needs a radical change in its political fabric. Therefore, a shift in mentality, such that Muslim Nigerians would finally be able to accept the fact that Boko Haram is not the solution, but rather the problem, is necessary. “Right now there is a lack of understanding of the importance and types of well-coordinated measures needed against Boko Haram, and to do so in compliance with the rule of law principles,” explained Puthuppally. In this regard, the UNODC and the European Union have been extremely active when it comes to conducting specific programs. These range from providing instruments and knowhow to fight terrorism, corruption and human trafficking, to delivering specialized training for police investigators, prosecutors and judges such that their actions are always in compliance with the rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedoms.

As Puthuppally’s advice revealed, the points originally presented were too idealistic and failed to take into account how politics operates in the real world and to understand the dynamics that bring change. Steps towards improvement, even when they are clear and known, are not that easy to implement due to legal obstacles and social resistance. Bringing change to Nigerian society is a phenomenon that will require a great deal of time. The Nigerian government is employing the army as well as South African mercenaries to fight Boko Haram with the hope of arresting or eradicating all members. History, however, has proven that ideas cannot be so easily killed, they propagate very quickly and without control.

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The Regional Academy on the United Nations was established in 2012 to train emerging scholars in issues related to the United Nations and the international system. Enia Bearzotti was one of several students who participated in RAUN’s second session held 16th-18th September at the University of Szeged in Szeged, Hungary. While there, participants had the opportunity to engage experts in discussion and to present the progress of their own research projects.

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