Buhari Continues Military Response to Boko Haram: Q&A with Virginia Comolli

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari addresses the Summit of Heads of State and Governments of the Lake Chad Basin Commission. Abuja, Nigeria, June 11, 2015. (Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters/Corbis)

While Nigeria’s new President Muhammadu Buhari has promised to promote economic development and address other causes of instability in the country’s north, the official approach to tackling the Boko Haram insurgency will continue to be heavily militarized.

This is the view of Virginia Comolli, research fellow for security and development at the International Institute for Security Studies and author of the new book Boko Haram: Nigeria’s Islamist Insurgency.

Speaking with International Peace Institute Research Fellow Lamii Moivi Kromah, Ms. Comolli said Buhari had indicated he would work towards diversifying Nigeria’s economy away from the oil industry, and look to increase investment in those areas with high levels of unemployment and poverty, including in northern areas.

“So I think that we can be mildly positive or mildly optimistic from that point of view, but I still think that for the foreseeable future, the militarized approach is going to be the one employed by the Nigerian government,” she said.

Ms. Comolli said it would be “essential” for the military approach to involve the forces of countries bordering Nigeria, where Boko Haram had been present from its earliest days.

“However, this also underlines that the key approach remains the one of military forces, and there is very little discussion on how the intervention of neighboring countries can actually help address the social and economic and political grievances that might actually fuel the insurgency,” she said.

The conversation took place at the International Peace Institute on June 15.

What is the current state of Boko Haram?

Establishing with any certainty the numbers and size of Boko Haram is quite difficult. The most recent estimate puts the number of fighters between 4,000 and 6,000. With regard to territory control, in the course of 2014, Boko Haram managed to take control over several towns and villages in the northeastern part of Nigeria, controlling a very sizeable part of the Borno state in particular.

Actions by the Nigerian military forces and some remarkable successes were achieved in the early months of 2015, and as we are now in June, most of that territory has been recaptured. However, a number of question marks remain. Recent Boko Haram videos claim that lots of this territory remains under Boko Haram’s control and it is very difficult at this stage to provide definite answers on the extent to which Boko Haram controls territory.

The extent to which Boko Haram and similar extremist groups can be called “Islamic” has been a major topic of debate, particularly in the West. Has this also been the case in Nigeria and Africa at large?

We have seen in Nigeria with Boko Haram—and with other extremist groups in the world—that often the religious message has been distorted and used to mobilize people and to increase the strength or size of a group. Unfortunately, although Boko Haram does not represent Islam, and there are many Islamic voices that have made this very clear, it is also true that some elements within society have played on the rise of Boko Haram to inflame religious tensions that are already present within Nigeria.

In the book, you point out that the past response to Boko Haram has been largely militarized and has foregone alternatives such as offering amnesty for those prepared to renounce violence. Is that approach likely to intensify under Nigeria’s new president Muhammadu Buhari, an ex-military leader, and if so, what are the likely results?

President Buhari is under great pressure to deliver results and to put an end to the insurgency. I expect that the military approach is the one that is likely to continue to be prioritized over the next few months. However, during his election campaign, and also upon his inauguration, President Buhari made it clear that he would also very much work towards diversifying the economy of Nigeria away from one that is very focused on the oil industry, and that he would ensure that no state is left behind and therefore help investments across Nigeria, even in those states, particularly in the north, where there are very high levels of unemployment and high levels of poverty. So I think that we can be mildly positive or mildly optimistic from that point of view, but I still think that for the foreseeable future, the militarized approach is going to be the one employed by the Nigerian government.

President Buhari has recently announced a partnership with France to target Boko Haram, with a large focus on intelligence gathering. Is this something that Nigeria has lacked in its past fight against Boko Haram?

Nigeria’s approach to Boko Haram has for several years been driven by a joint task force that, until August 2013, when the army’s 7th division was established and put in charge of the counter-insurgency campaign, was leading the effort. A strong task force consisted of elements of the police, army, custom and prison services, but also of the intelligence services. This multi- or cross-departmental effort had many shortcomings, but on the positive side brought greater collaboration between intelligence and the other security and defense services.

Following this switch from this joint task force with the 7th division of the army, I fear that there has been less cooperation or intelligence exchange within the Nigerian approach, and additional resources and additional intelligence such as France might be able to provide, especially given France’s bases in neighboring Niger, would be a very welcome addition to the counter-insurgency efforts.

The campaign against Boko Haram has also involved Nigeria’s neighbors and African Union forces. Have these partnerships worked, and could they also be adapted to tackle the root causes of the insurgency, rather than just the effects?

Boko Haram has been present in Nigeria’s neighbors from its very early days and over the course of 2013, 2014, and increasingly in 2015. We have also seen an increase in attacks in Niger, Chad, and Cameroon. This means that the involvement and the military forces of those countries are essential in order to put an end to the violence and ensure that Boko Haram does not spread even further. However, this also underlines that the key approach remains the one of military forces, and there is very little discussion on how the intervention of neighboring countries can actually help address the social and economic and political grievances that might actually fuel the insurgency.