Citizens Over Terrorists Lessons for Nigeria from Afghanistan

Unlike in Afghanistan, where the Taliban has routinely threatened the freedom of women, the Nigerian state must continue to prioritize empowering the most vulnerable in society. 

Following the 9/11 attacks, the US and its allies launched a global war on terror, aimed at degrading, dismantling, and defeating Al-Qaeda, the terrorist group responsible for masterminding the attacks against the US.  This war was also rooted in a preventive policy strategy, to stop the terrorists from being able to stage future attacks from Afghanistan.  The global war on terror, which has been costly, claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands and costing trillions of US dollars, has also seen the rise of various jihadist terrorist groups. Some of these groups have ties to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, across different parts of the world including Africa. What does this mean for the future of peace and security in Africa’s largest country Nigeria, known to have suffered significantly at the hands of Boko Haram in the past two decades? One might wonder, why Nigeria? However, writing in the Financial Times, in August 2021 President Buhari aptly captured the need to prioritize Africa and, therefore, Nigeria, as the new frontier of the global war on terror, given the unfolding events in Afghanistan.

New Lords of Nigeria’s North West

Having observed the collapse of the Afghan government, violent extremists within Nigeria such as Boko Haram, Islamic State in the West Africa Province or ‘ISWAP’ and Ansaru, are all likely to intensify the pursuit of their cause, while drawing inspiration from the Taliban. Whether these jihadist terrorist groups would wish to remain affiliated with the Taliban and by extension Al-Qaeda is unknown, given the Taliban’s appearance to be more ‘moderate’ as it seeks to establish some form of legitimacy in the wake of its victory in Afghanistan. Boko Haram and ISWAP may likely continue to resist the need to appear ‘weak’ in the face of their adversaries. The result of this resistance implies it is very likely that acts of terrorism will continue in Nigeria’s North East and by extension the North West, which is currently mostly affected by acts of terror caused by armed banditry and criminal gangs.

To avert the possibility of these threats, the Nigerian state must prioritize a multifaceted approach that combines both military and non-military measures, while paying close attention to addressing underlying root causes. These root causes include poverty, inequality, unemployment, corruption, weak institutions, and poor governance.  It is, however, important to note that poverty is not the sole driver of violent extremism. Having this understanding serves as the basis upon which any meaningful progress can be made in countering any emboldened acts of terror in Nigeria.

Previous attempts by the Nigerian government and its neighbours in the Lake Chad Basin through the Multinational Joint Task Force to bring an end to the activities of the jihadist terrorist groups have over prioritized kinetic measures over non-kinetic measures. The dangers associated with this is that such measures tend to over-militarize the conflict in the affected region while leaving little room to address the most salient conditions and root causes that allow for the influence of these groups to continually thrive.

After engaging in almost the same counterterrorism approach for the past eleven years, to achieve different results, Nigeria must adopt a new approach as a matter of urgency. Some of the challenges associated with achieving the goal of defeating Boko Haram and ISWAP include the need to first establish trust between the state and society particularly in the affected local communities. Another challenge has been the need to build resilience within local communities, on mutually linked security concerns related to defeating Boko Haram and ISWAP. Addressing both challenges requires a different approach to governance, which is essential for successfully discrediting the influence of these groups at their bases in Nigeria and beyond. Maintaining influence is among the most prominent challenges the Taliban is bound to face as it makes the transition from irregular warfare to governance. The situation on the ground whereby Afghans have continually protested Taliban laws, shows a lack of consensus between many Afghans and the Taliban.

Is all Jihad in Africa Local?

For a start, as part of its non-kinetic approaches to countering terrorism, the Nigerian government must do more to deliberately win the hearts and minds of the locals in the affected communities. Key to doing this is driving a shift from the predominant civil military relations to citizen-centric governance. This is particularly significant in prioritizing trust building and resilience building within these affected communities. Both Boko Haram and ISWAP are known to utilize quasi-governance structures to maintain their influence over the local communities from which they operate. For instance, ISWAP has sought to consolidate its gains in some of these affected local communities by providing money to children, distributing charitable goods to civilians, as well as preaching to elders and the youth. It is also known to conduct the collection of zakat from locals as a form of taxation, which is intended at legitimizing its hold over contested territories. The implications of these ‘influence operations’ are that terrorist groups are able to significantly increase their membership numbers through recruitment from local communities.

Prioritizing citizen-centric governance will mean focusing governance efforts on the role of citizens in the peacebuilding process. This appears to have been the missing link in Nigeria’s quest to degrade jihadist terrorist groups. Doing so efficiently and effectively requires that citizens can trust the government to provide them with the safety of their lives and property. The goal with this approach is to offer citizens a chance to play a direct role through partnerships that lead to defeating jihadist terrorist groups. This has the likelihood of also significantly reducing the challenge posed, for instance, by local informants who are sympathetic to the cause of the jihadist terrorist groups (informants have often served as an impediment to the activities of security forces). These gaps were demonstrated in terms of intelligence failures in Afghanistan leading up to the Taliban’s eventual takeover.

Furthermore, a change in approach that gives citizens ownership of the peace process is vital to building resilience in the affected local communities. This is because it fosters citizen participation and is usually more inclusive. Central to this is the need to embrace the voices of women and the youth, some of whom are the most affected but also the most side-lined in state intervention. Like all new initiatives, these steps are sure to encounter certain setbacks such as divergent interests. To address this, the government must be willing to exert ample political will in providing the much-needed support. When citizens in affected local communities truly feel that they have the full backing and support of the state, they are more willing to trust the state. They are also better emboldened towards building resilience against the jihadist terrorist groups. Unlike in Afghanistan, where the Taliban has routinely threatened the freedom of women, the Nigeria state must continue to prioritize empowering the most vulnerable in society.

The Ghosts of Chibok

While citizen-centric governance is key to turning the tide in the affected local communities in Nigeria, it must be complemented with efforts aimed at addressing underlying root causes. In the absence of these efforts, local sympathizers might be inclined to join terrorist groups, thereby eroding any long-term gains. If the unfolding events in Afghanistan might embolden jihadist terrorist groups in Nigeria, a new approach that strengthens trust between the state and society and supports citizens in building social resilience through inclusivity and agency will be central to mitigating the effects of jihadist terrorist groups in the country and to safeguarding Nigeria’s peace and security

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