No Hearts, No Minds, The War on Terror in Africa Part 1 is a new ZAM-AIPC transnational investigation. It shows that a 'war only' strategy creates more and more terrorists in the eastern and western regions of the continent. In this chapter: Nigeria.
Credit where credit is due, Radio Dandal Kura was a brilliant idea of the Americans. It had been a mega-discovery that, in the area around Maiduguri, the birthplace of Boko Haram, ten million people spoke nothing but Kanuri, not to mention that no radio or newspaper (except the deadly boring Radio Borno) spoke to these people in their own language. This meant that the ruthless and extreme Islamic fundamentalist Boko Haram had a monopoly on dialogue with the local community on important social issues. Their promises of ‘salvation’ and their ‘solutions’ to the widespread poverty and misery in Nigeria’s neglected north-east were the only messages the locals were getting, alongside the justifications of the movements bloody mass attacks on villages: they would say that these villages had simply not been ‘faithful’ enough to the movement’s fanatically anti-Western and anti-Christian ideology.
Until Radio Dandal Kura, Boko Haram had a monopoly on dialogue with the local community
In the powder keg of neglect and bitterness that is this mainly Muslim region of deep poverty, corrupt rule, abuse by authorities and army, and overall distrust of the Christian government in Abuja, Boko Haram’s use of their ‘own’ language next to their purported ownership of the ‘correct’ religion was a recruitment and loyalty factor of note.
That is, until Radio Dandal Kura began broadcasting in April 2015. For the first time, locals heard fellow locals talk about the problems in Maiduguri and surrounding areas in a different way. They learned that Boko Haram was not the only local ‘authority’ and that others also had ideas and pondered alternatives to poverty and violence. “For the first time, we were told something about the how and why of our dreaded Boko Haram,” says Grema Modu, a young resident of the Shuhuri neighbourhood. “Dandal Kura allows our youth to speak,” adds farmer Salma Ali. “And our people take them seriously, especially the fellow youngsters. Just because those on the radio speak their own language.”
Kolomi Kareem, a young volunteer soldier in the Nigerian army, is convinced that Dandal Kura has led to desertion from the ranks of Boko Haram. “It happened to me at least four times that Boko Haram members came to surrender because they were swayed by Dandal Kura.”
From distrust to dialogue
Thousands of young people like Kolomi Kareem have, over the past year, registered for service in the civilian reserve of the Nigerian army, the Civilian Joint Task Force. That is not only because of the new radio station, but also because the army (particularly under the influence of new Nigerian President Buhari, who is a Muslim and a northerner himself, as well as an army man) has changed its approach to the locals. Traditionally known for hostility, abuse and arbitrary arrests and torture of local young men on the suspicion of ‘sympathies for Boko Haram’, it has lately adopted a ‘softer’ approach and made a concerted effort to win over the youth in the area.
The new approach, which had already started in 2014 on the initiative of northern political and military leaders, was given more power when fellow-northerner Buhari became president in April 2015. In the one and-a-half years since then, three batches of Boko Haram suspects (of between 100 and several hundred each) have been released.
The Nigerian army has lately developed a 'softer' approach
Simultaneously, the CJTF was built up. It started inadequately and haphazardly in 2013, and regrettably with many victims among young enthusiastic vigilantes as a result. More than six hundred CJTF members have been killed since then, especially in Boko Haram’s suicide attacks. “When they see a suicide attacker, they run towards them and try to stop the explosion,” CJTF consultant Barr Jubril Gunda told a regional security conference in June this year. “Then the bomb explodes, resulting in the deaths of both the attacker and the vigilante.” Since the involvement of the national Buhari government in the coordination of the CJTF, its members have been equipped a bit better, with weapons and equipment including bulletproof vests.
Though the risks of service are still substantial to the youth flocking to the task force, the trust of the local communities in the government and army has been somewhat restored. Food and medical aid to ravaged villages have also helped, in spite of still omnipresent corruption plaguing the supply chains. Families have even started to talk with soldiers about Boko Haram, providing information about rebels’ hide-outs.
CJTF volunteer Abba Musa (18) has just finished his final exam (with five distinctions) and hopes for a future in the military, “defending the sovereignty of Nigeria”. But he’ll also take a job as a police officer. His friend Hajja Gana also expects that she will be able to get a job through the CJTF “after the war”. “I believe in our mission. I believe that my friends and I will be well if we can beat Boko Haram,” she says.
The hero of the sheep
These days, in the terrorism-ravaged states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa, the several thousand CJTF youth are widely seen as heroes. Unlike the regular soldiers, who often come from other areas, the local youngsters know the terrain, the people and the language. It is a big advantage. There is, for instance, the story told of a CJTF-vigilante in Biu, who noted that a passing truck with sheep had its animals piled up in a weird way. When he stopped the vehicle and climbed in, he saw forty rebels hiding under a shelf on top of which the sheep stood. Fortunately, the army was in the neighbourhood, and the Boko Haram members were arrested.
Mohammed Usman, military officer in Konduga, tells a similar hero story. “In March this year, seventy-three Boko Haram members were arrested in one go because of a CJTF youngster who had climbed on top of a telephone pole and saw the group of armed militants coming,” he says. “They deserve gold. Even gold as a reward would not be enough,” says Falmata Mohamed, an official in Maiduguri. “Without them, the military would still be confused about our local community. They are heroes.”
The management, armament, supply and motivation of the Nigerian army still leave much to be desired. But friends and foes agree that much has changed with the advent of Buhari and the increased attention to local communities. “Today we no longer panic when we see the army. We know they are only looking for the real terrorists and will not harm us,” is how one resident of Maiduguri puts it. And Abba Musa now has a bulletproof vest, for which he is thankful. “It means that the soldiers did not want me to die,” he says.
On a more cautious note, military and social experts warn of a “sorcerer’s apprentice” effect similar to what happened after the Americans trained the Taliban in Afghanistan. “We must realize that these military trained and armed young people are also a potential time bomb,” says a security expert, retired officer Salihu Bakari. “They have to get jobs after the war. Otherwise, they can pose a danger to the state.”
Even now, there is talk of excesses in the CJTF. This is perhaps not surprising, considering that all its members have grown up amidst traumatic violence, and have themselves experienced pain and the deaths of loved ones. There are reports of unlawful detention, torture, and even murder of Boko Haram suspects by CJTF members. Two staff members of the former municipal director for poverty reduction in Maiduguri, Hajiya Yagana Muazu, were lynched by CJTF members on suspicion of collaborating with Boko Haram, she says. “My children and myself escaped narrowly. Fortunately, the regional army commander came just in time to save us.” There are also other complaints against vigilantes, such as the careless leaking of confidential information on military manoeuvres.
But Borno Judicial Commissioner, Shehu Lawan, thinks these evils can be overcome. “The youngsters mean well. We are now working to provide them with more formal training. Ultimately, the goal is indeed to have a youth force of 20 000, and to find jobs for them after the war. If there are not enough formal jobs, we will provide assistance to them to set up businesses.”
The drought factor
It remains to be seen whether such employment interventions will be sufficient to address the miserable poverty and despair in the region that provided such fertile grounds for the Boko Haram insurgency in the first place. At the recent COP21 Summit on Climate Change, president Buhari pointed out that the drying up of Lake Chad in the region was perhaps one of the most important factors in the emergence of the war. Where a decade ago layers of fertile soil and an excess of fish in the lake provided livelihoods, there is now only dry sand and hunger. Anger and violence against the government as a result of drought also play a role in northern Mali, where it has hardly rained in the past eleven years. Drought has also been raised by experts as a decisive factor in the emergence of the rebellion against Assad in Syria.
The drying up of Lake Chad has been an important factor in the emergence of the war
Perhaps the greatest task in the (re)gaining of the 'hearts and minds' of local people susceptible to jihadist propaganda, then, lies in addressing the adverse effects of climate change and its resulting misery, and to compensate those affected by it. “But then you do need a strong government that cares for its own people,” says AIPC member and author of this volume’s chapter on Nigeria, Hamza Idris. “Our new president Buhari is one of the few leaders in Africa who fits into that category. At this moment, at least.”
Meanwhile, the main issue arising from this transnational investigation is the question of why Western powers so uncritically support hated governing elites in Kenya, Mali and Somalia. “That only reinforces the feeling that 'the West' are the 'bad guys',” says Ibro Ibrahim. “Even people who really detest extremism and terrorism have started to feel that.” And that is certainly not winning any hearts or minds.
Photo: Nigerian police training in 2013. INUSMA/Marco Dormino, used courtesy under Flickr creative commons licence.