ISS: Lessons from Nigeria: How not to handle radical groups


African governments are hungry for models. In that sense learning from the Nigerian experience can help other states to nip nascent terror threats in the bud, says Oxford Analytica senior analyst and Institute for Security Studies (ISS) consultant Jolyon Ford.

By following a rule-of-law approach, respecting human rights and treating radical groups as criminals rather than ‘the enemy’, countries can avoid the escalation of violence, Ford said at a seminar at the ISS last week.

Notwithstanding the complexity of the problems facing Nigeria, it is clear that the tough approach by the government against the radical Boko Haram – starting with the summary execution of the group’s leaders in July 2009 – sent the wrong message to groups that subsequently became more and more radicalised. The last two years have been particularly devastating for Nigeria with a rising death toll from Boko Haram’s gruesome attacks across the north of the country. While the Nigerian government didn’t create the problem, its actions did exacerbate it, says Ford.

In a paper launched at the seminar entitled ‘Counter-terrorism, human rights and the rule of law in Africa’, Ford writes that with these extrajudicial killings the Nigerian state ‘abandoned its primary weapon’ – the moral high ground – in the fight against Boko Haram. Lately, the appointment of a new presidential national security advisor has led to the abandonment of an intelligence approach in favour of a military or counter-insurgency style of response.

While this might have been necessary in Borno State in mid-2013, the state will have to rethink its strategy in order to be successful, says Ford. ‘The state will struggle to impose normality if it does not carry out legal prosecutions of Boko Haram elements and instead continues to treat the problem as a tactical military one.’

What can other states learn from this? Close by, a number of other littoral West African countries face many of the same dynamics present in Nigeria, namely the north-south divide, Muslim-Christian friction and a rich coastal region vs. a poor hinterland. ‘How can we make sure there aren’t any Boko Harams in Ghana or Cote d’Ivoire?’ Ford asked at the seminar. Further afield, countries in the Sahel, as well as places like Kenya and Tanzania in East Africa (which face latent radicalisation along the so-called ‘Swahili coast’) could also benefit from the Nigerian experience.

The main lesson is that it is best to follow a rule-of-law approach, i.e. arresting and taking those to court who attempt to intimidate and threaten the state by terrorising civilians.

Designating radical groups as ‘terrorist’ provides them with unnecessary propaganda and states should guard against this, says Ford. The decision by the US authorities in 2012 not to label Boko Haram as a terrorist group ‘showed awareness of the undesirable propaganda effect that designation can have’. Also, over-exaggerating the international dimension of terror groups can be counter-productive.

Some commentators might differ from Ford when he says that the al-Qaeda threat in Mali has been ‘over-exaggerated’, and that those who pushed for an international military intervention in 2013 based on the ‘jihadist threat’ largely ignored the local dimension of the crisis in Mali. Ford says that most groups espousing radical Islamic ideologies in this region tend to be home-grown factions and do not, as such, constitute a threat to world peace. In fact, he believes Western military intervention can have a contrary effect by strengthening the resolve of potential militants and helping to recruit new members.

However, others might say that the hostage-taking and spectacular operations such as the attack on the Algerian gas installation at In Amenas in January 2013 do point to a strong link between the various terror groups operating across the Sahel.

Ford believes the same of the Islamists of Al-Shabaab, who, he says, should be seen through the lens of the Somali ‘civil war’, rather than as being representative of international terror networks with a global agenda. The emphasis on the jihadist element of these groups of course stems from the US ‘war on terror’ that followed the World Trade Centre bombings in 2001, which Ford says left a ‘sinister legacy’.

Luckily though, conditions are far better now for states that want to determine their own counter-terrorism measures and not be dictated to by outsiders. In the first decade after 9/11, African states were bound to follow a Western-led agenda. Still, ‘politicians are still using old counter-terrorism rhetoric for something that is essentially local’, he warns. Peaceful political protests by the opposition can easily be couched in this alarmist rhetoric.

In East Africa, both Kenya and Tanzania face challenges from ‘greater assertiveness’ by some groups, like those in Kenya’s Coast Province, that happen to be Muslim. There is a danger that small pockets of radicals can provoke the state to act irresponsibly, says Ford. Adhering to principled responses, however, could prevent the situation from getting out of hand. Importantly, governments should search for local responses rather than those imposed through a ‘Western lens of counter-terrorism’.

Ford believes that another factor in favour of a more measured approach to counter-terrorism going forward is the benefits North Africa has reaped from the Arab Spring. ‘The two- to three-year period from 2013 arguably presents a narrow but significant window of opportunity to translate the essence and energy of the Arab Spring into a more enduring rule-of-law culture.’ In places like Morocco or Algeria the Arab Spring that swept the region has also led to reforms, even though the leaders were not deposed by the popular uprisings like in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.

It is probably too soon to say whether Ford will be proved right on this point. Some analysts are already pessimistic about the gains in countries they now believe are in the second phase of the Arab Spring. Or is the Arab Winter? The Egyptian security forces’ tough treatment of peaceful demonstrators supporting the ousted president Mohammed Morsi certainly does not bode well for a rights-based approach in Egypt. In Tunisia, on the other hand, authorities seem to be taking a wait-and-see approach to the mounting terror threat from Islamists – to a great extent a spillover from the Libyan crisis.

But even if states strive to fight radicalisation and terrorism through the criminal justice system, this is not easy. Building the state’s capacity to deal with terror-related offenses is the only long-term strategy and needs resources and political will, says Ford. It also requires a ‘culture of respect for due process’. Donors who aim to help African countries against a terror threat should, therefore, focus their attention on the skills of police officers, prosecutors and others responsible for internal national security.

Written by Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant

Republished with permission from ISS Africa. The original article can be found here.