Above: Men gather during a mass burial at Zabarmari, in the Jere local government area of Borno State, in northeast Nigeria, on Nov. 29 after a militant attack. (Credit: Ahmed Kingimi/Reuters)
Analyst of African and Eurasian Affairs,
The Jamestown Foundation
8 December 2020
The following opinion piece has been written by a guest author. The views expressed in it do not necessarily reflect those of the Strong Cities Network.
On 29 November 2020, Nigerian jihadist group Boko Haram massacred more than 40 villagers near Zabarmari in Borno State, Nigeria by beheading them. Unfortunately, this style of attack is not new in Nigeria, but reflects the types of attacks that Boko Haram repeatedly conducted over the course of the ten-year insurgency. After the massacre, a deputy of the Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, stated the killings were revenge for vigilantes near Zabarmari capturing a Boko Haram fighter and handing the fighter over to the Nigerian army.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari responded to the attack by announcing that he ordered the army “to take the fight to the insurgents” and “root out the terrorists.” This did not leave much optimism for the civilians of war-ravaged Borno State because this has already been the longstanding strategy. It was, therefore, a redundant statement that may have even seemed aloof to the human suffering in the state.
Another similar approach to countering the insurgents, however, has been advocated by Borno governor, Babagana Zulum. A professor, and not politician, by training, Zulum has generally promoted economic development and education-related alternatives to the military-based approach to countering Boko Haram. He regularly praises the military for its sacrifices but understands a more multi-faceted strategy is needed to ultimately end the war against Boko Haram in Borno, which was once known as the ‘Home of Peace.’
On the day after the Zabarmari massacre, Zulum proposed a new list of recommendations to tackle Boko Haram. The first involved recruiting more youths to serve as civilian vigilantes because the military is simply unable to cover the vast territory in Borno where Boko Haram and its rival faction, Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), operate. However, as seen in the Zabarmari massacre, it’s a risky proposition as Boko Haram are known to take revenge on civilians when civilian vigilantes apprehend Boko Haram members.
The second recommendation involved engaging Nigeria’s neighbours, Chad, Niger, and Cameroon, to assist in combatting Boko Haram and ISWAP fighters based along Lake Chad’s shorelines. This was understandable considering that both groups, like insurgents elsewhere, take advantage of the border region to recruit, train, and flee when any army puts pressure on them. Although in theory there is a multi-national joint task force (MNJTF) involving all Lake Chad militaries, it has not been particularly effective.
” A more multi-faceted strategy is needed to ultimately end the war against Boko Haram in Borno, which was once known as the ‘Home of Peace.’ “
After two military-oriented recommendations, it was surprising that the third recommendation involved Zulum’s call for mercenaries to fight Boko Haram in Abubakar Shekau’s main hideout in Sambisa Forest, Borno. Although mercenaries played a role in 2015 to eject Boko Haram from territories it conquered, their presence was short-lived. Moreover, depending on South Africans again, if not mercenaries from other countries, suggests the military is not taking responsibility for Nigeria’s own affairs.
After these recommendations, Zulum further advised the army to acquire more tanks to combat Boko Haram and ISWAP. This, too, is understandable, considering the army’s shortages of weapons and the lack of accountability that has hindered the military effort. At the same time, it appeared from these recommendations Zulum was distancing himself from his prior focus on economic development and education in favour of a more military-centric strategy.
Only after these recommendations did Zulum turn to issues such as repatriating Nigerians who are displaced in neighbouring countries back to their homes in Borno and enhancing the infrastructure in Borno, especially roadways. Zulum is correct that not until the hundreds of thousands of displaced people return home can Borno return to normalcy and that the poor roadways hinder economic growth. Both of these initiatives are welcome but also risky, considering that Boko Haram specifically targets passengers on roadways, and civilians who have recently returned home have been attacked by Boko Haram when their villages have lacked army protection.
Zulum should not abandon his initial economic and education focus to countering the insurgents. Amid Boko Haram’s recent massacre and other ISWAP and Boko Haram battlefield victories against the army, it is natural that Zulum wants the army to be better equipped. However, solving the Boko Haram crisis will require prioritisation not only of military affairs but also the job creation and related education policies that Zulum promoted when he first became governor in 2019.
The war against Boko Haram is clearly twofold. There is no other body but the military that can thwart the large convoys of Boko Haram fighters carrying out attacks. At the same time however, the situation in Borno where there is poor resourcing of schools and few economic opportunities, especially in rural areas, needs to be addressed. Zulum’s experience and authority comes from his knowledge of how education and economic development benefit long-term peacebuilding in Africa and elsewhere in the world.
As a result, one might hope Zulum does not become caught up too much in military affairs and that he can rededicate himself to economic and educational issues that so need his attention. Much of what had made Zulum so exceptional was his commitment to economic and education approaches to solving the conflict while the military apparatus would inevitably concentrate on battlefield affairs. Zulum was furthermore a model of emulation for governors of other Nigerian states, which were confronting Boko Haram, banditry, or other forms of insecurity, because Zulum prioritized the “soft approach” to conflict resolution that had be so sorely needed and long advocated by scholars and experts.
Whether because of the sheer magnitude of the Boko Haram problem, as well as military underperformance, Zulum recently seems to have changed. Let us hope he can soon reconnect with his foremost expertise on economics and educations. This is his added value and the contribution that has made him such an exceptional leader.
Jacob Zenn is an adjunct assistant professor on African Armed Movement at Georgetown University’s security studies program and editor of The Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor publication. Follow @BokoWatch