Since assuming office in May, President Muhammadu Buhari has declared an all-out war against the Boko Haram terrorist group that have been running amok in Nigeria, particularly in the North-Eastern region for the past five years killing 15,000 people so far and at a point controlling territory the size of Belgium. His first act of office was ordering the relocation of the military high command to Maiduguri, the epicenter of the insurgency in his inauguration speech. He has also made quite a number of trips to neighboring countries to galvanize regional action against the insurgency and has set the deadline of December 2015 to end the insurgency.
But the question is: is the deadline of December 2015 realistic? Can we say it is possible that by the turn of this year, we can begin to live in peace, safe from the blood-thirsty actions of these terrorists? It depends on what we define as victory against them:
It is quite possible to completely rout out the terrorists from all their strongholds, such as the ones in the Sambisa Forest in Borno and have every inch of Nigerian territory under our firm control; it is even possible to kill its top leadership and declare victory. However, these actions will not by themselves that there will be no more Boko Haram attacks.
The greatest threats at present from the terrorist group are not raids or attacks on towns and villages, but the planting of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and suicide bombings in towns and cities across Nigeria. Over the past month, there have been close to 30 of such attacks, five coming in 24 hours and the threats for more still exist with frequent security warnings.
As such, it is risky for President Buhari to declare victory if hopefully by December, these terrorists are completely dislodged and their top leadership eliminated, and then relax after that. It will be akin to former American President declaring victory after three months of warfare against the Saddam administration in Iraq in 2003, only to be sucked into an insurgency that has spiraled and morphed into different forms of crises, killing more than a million Iraqi people and 12,000 American soldiers.
There is also the little matter of President Buhari risking unpopularity by not being able to keep his promise of ending the insurgency by December. It will be used to consistently criticize him by citizens and political opposition.
The solution to the Boko Haram insurgency is not in the military, but instead, in better intelligence and policing. Evidently, there exists terrorist cells across the country that plan and execute these IED and suicide bombing attacks; terrorists who have blended in with the general population that can only be ferreted out through the use of intelligence.
This means that the Buhari administration will have to make the reform of our intelligence-gathering agencies such as the Department of State Security (DSS) and the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) in order to make them very effective high priority. There needs to be more investment in gathering intelligence and being a step ahead of these terrorists.
Although the military has been effective in eliminating these terrorists by the hundreds and even thousands, they remain a potent, deadly force because the most important factors that sustain them are still in place. For example, they evidently still have access to financing, their supply lines are still open and they can still get their hands on ammunitions and bomb-making material. Also, most of the terrorists killed are foot soldiers that are expendable; however, the top leadership of the terrorist organization is barely even known not to mention being eliminated. All this clearly show a failure of intelligence-gathering.
To compare Boko Haram with their former ally, the Al-Qaeda – the latter has been quite crippled because over the past four years, not less than 18 of their top commanders have been eliminated or arrested, including top leader Osama bin Laden and the leader of the sect in the Arabian Peninsula, Anwar al-Awlaki have been taken out. It is not just about the number of terrorists being killed – it is also about the significance of those being killed to terrorist operations.
Not only that, it is the effectiveness of intelligence on the American soil that has been able to foil many planned attacks, even with a few taking place such as the Boston Marathon bombing and the Times Square bomb that failed to go off.
The work of intelligence services is one that must go on 24/7, especially as terrorists need only one moment to catch them napping to cause the killing of lives and destruction of property.
The Boko Haram insurgency as well as other internal security threats in the country also continues to emphasize the need for Nigeria to undertake drastic reforms of its policing system. Not only are we an under-policed country (350,000 policemen for 160 million people or a ratio of 1:480), our policemen are extremely poorly trained in both crime prevention and crime solving. We have allowed conditions for our police force to so deteriorate that rather than it attract the smartest minds, it is those who have failed educationally and other ventures that join, not to mention enlisting processes that allows those with questionable history to join.
It is also long overdue for us as a country to discard this federal system of policing that obviously works and introduce via legislation and operational framework state policing so that states can be directly responsible for policing issues rather than everything being controlled from Abuja.
[Here is an article I wrote three years ago advocating for state police which remains relevant today].
Furthermore, governments at all levels have to be proactive and relentless in changing the conditions of their areas of jurisdiction that make it possible for terrorism to emerge and even thrive. One thing is definite is that terrorism does not exist in a vacuum: it is a mixture of factors such as extremist ideology, unemployment and lawlessness in even the smallest of issues. Unless these factors are eliminated, it will be easy for another terrorist group to take the place of Boko Haram when they are eliminated.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but we are likely going to be in for a long haul of terrorist attacks, especially by suicide bombers and IED attacks on soft targets. However, this long haul can be shortened if we start doing what is necessary to make sure that the terrorism bedeviling us is gone from our land for good.