IN the past week, the unfolding events in Afghanistan have dominated the media space. The seemingly unimaginable happened.
The Taliban forces marched into the capital, forcing the president of Afghanistan and his officials to take to their heels; Western diplomats and a few Afghans privileged to be airlifted or unfortunate to cling on the wheels of aeroplanes in desperation to leave Afghanistan for good.
Leaders in corridors of powers in Western capitals are desperate to frame the failed mission in Afghanistan as a self-inflicted defeat by the Afghans, and their spin doctors are busy trying to convince the world that the West, especially, the US, has played its role and left the Afghans to pilot their affairs and shape their destiny.
As Nigerians were watching events unfold, the big question in the minds of most is how this will impact Nigeria. The imagery of Taliban bestriding like a colossus and devouring city after city as it made its way to the capital is reminiscent of Boko Haram and Islamic State West African Province, ISWAP’s videos littered all over the social media that Nigerians are used to, albeit on a smaller scale.
These groups pillage, rape and kill many Nigerians at the fringes of our borders and various ungoverned spaces, whilst the herders/farmers conflict is bloody and ubiquitous across the country. Boko Haram and the Taliban have similar footprints and may even be acting from the same script. The big elephant in the room is: can Boko Haram, ISWAP or “militia-herdsmen” become the Nigerian ‘Taliban’? Can they march to Abuja and overthrow our legitimate and constituted government? What strategic lessons should Nigeria learn from the fall of Afghanistan to avoid a similar scene? These questions call for an appropriate assessment of the situation, soul-searching and the answers should influence how Nigeria tackles these intractable problems from now on.
To appraise whether Boko Haram terrorists can overrun the country like the Taliban were able to do in Afghanistan, we need to take a closer look at what drives and sustains Islamic extremists. In as much as the West, through their powerful media, depict the Taliban as a group of ogres who impose medieval punishment on the citizenry and deprive women of fundamental freedom and rights, the group has a level of support within the local Afghan population.
This support enabled them to maintain a considerable level of resistance to the occupying American and allied forces in the country for 20 years, which led to the death of tens of thousands of Westerners and their Afghan collaborators. It also enabled them to overrun the country immediately after the Americans pulled out.
In the Nigerian context, the Boko Haram terrorists still draw some support from large swathes of the local population. These people give overt and covert support to the insurgents, which has enabled them to mount a sustained resistance to the Nigerian military. To address this problem, we must tackle the root causes of terrorism, including poor governance, corruption, poverty, dearth of economic opportunities and lack of social and basic amenities. The strategy of many terrorist groups in recruitment is always to target disgruntled people, people suffering from social and economic injustice, who feel left behind by the elite and the political class.
It is instructive to note that the hotbeds of Islamic extremism and terrorism in Nigeria are in areas with the country’s most extraordinary incidents of perverse poverty and educational backwardness. These are areas where people lack basic amenities, areas with high unemployment rates and high illiteracy levels. The experience of the US military in Afghanistan means that effectively tackling terrorism is not just simply about military warfare.
The Americans and their allies invaded Afghanistan after 9/11, routed the Taliban and installed a government seen by many Afghans as massively corrupt and inept. This anomaly extended to the Afghan military, constituted mainly by people who were in for the financial security and opportunities presented by the American occupation. That was why the ‘highly trained’ force of 300,000 quickly fell to a ragtag army of 75,000 in just a matter of days. Therefore, good governance and its twin development is a must to root out terror and to cut the supply lines of terrorists.
Military might, in ideological wars, no matter how powerful, would only lead to short term victories. In an article published recently in the Financial Times, President Muhammadu Buhari alluded to this when he emphasised that US military forces on the ground in Africa is not what is most needed. He said what Africa needs most is US investment in infrastructure to help provide jobs and economic opportunities for the rapidly growing population.
Another vital point to note is that it was clear that the Taliban effectively infiltrated the Afghan military from unfolding events in Afghanistan. It means that part of the resources deployed by the US in Afghanistan was ironically used to train and sustain ‘the enemy’. The Nigerian military in 2016 launched Operation Safe Corridor, an initiative for the deradicalisation and rehabilitation of ex-Boko Haram members.
The aim of the operation, the military said, was to reintegrate repentant Boko Haram members into society. Through this programme, the Nigerian authorities have recurrently pardoned and released Boko Haram fighters under the guise of repentance, negotiation, surrender, rehabilitation and deradicalisation. More than 500 ex-Boko Haram members have already completed the programme.
However, as can be gleaned from the events in Afghanistan, this measure can be counterproductive. Professor Zulum, governor of Borno State, said some time ago that the deradicalisation of repentant Boko Haram members was not working. Zulum posits that the initiative needs to be reviewed because some ex-Boko Haram members only come to spy on communities and then return to join the group.
In addition to this, some legal experts believe that the authorities discretionally setting free those who ordinarily should be facing grave charges relating to terrorism and other war crimes is illegal. For one, until those arrested are tried and convicted in a court of law, they cannot be legally branded terrorists. And the Nigerian Army is not a court of law, which has the power to determine the guilt of suspected terrorists. For the fact that every suspect is presumed innocent until proven guilty by a court of law, how can a supposed innocent person be pardoned? Aside from the fact that the Nigerian military lacks prosecutorial powers, they also cannot release suspects accused of terrorism.
There are stories that most of the terrorists ‘repenting’ are of Boko Haram and not of the ISWAP terrorist sect. The latter, which has been in command of most terrorist activities in the recent past after the killing of Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, has strict punishments for fighters who engage in stealing and other nefarious activities. These ‘repentant’ Boko Haram members are alleged to be unable to cope with this directive, hence their decision to ‘surrender’ to the authorities. So how could people who renounced terrorism because it hindered their opportunities to steal and plunder be good citizens of the society?
Apart from the fact that some indigent persons who were never terrorists might decide to exploit the opportunities to join the ‘repentant’ group for material gains, there is always likely to be great resentment in the local population as they are forced to live with people who killed their family and friends and who forced them out of their homes. For now, it seems only remotely possible that Boko Haram or ISWAP can replicate the successes of the Taliban in Nigeria. But as the Nigerian military continues an extensive military offensive against the terrorists, there is a need to address issues of poverty and inequality, which would help root out terrorism in the country.
What basic lessons can Nigeria learn from events in Afghanistan in the past few weeks? The core theme in this Afghan story is that nation-building is a local project. No other nation or people can build our country for us. Their self-interest governs any external stakeholders, and if and when that interest is not adequately served, they will abandon the country to its doomed fate.
The Afghan locals are the casualties and are left to face the Taliban whilst foreigners are moved to safe places. So, when people stoke the embers of violence and war, they should remember that no external Western forces may come to their aid; instead, they will quickly remove their citizens from the ensuing inferno.
The next lesson for Nigeria is that we should never forget that the idea of democracy, popular sovereignty, and the rule of law, though universal, must be rooted in local culture, values and peculiarities to have a meaningful impact. The clash between fundamentalist Islamism and democracy is real, and instead of exacerbating this ideological conflict, Nigeria should work out a model where both are assimilated and adapted to fit our local peculiarities.
Aspirations of the people (not those of foreigners) must be the foundation of democracy and development. Therefore, we must adequately evaluate any attempt to import Western values to ensure they fit with local values. It is the citizens that should agree on rules of social, economic and political engagement. These should not be imposed on them.
Again, it is local political leaders and visionary leaders that build institutions and not multilateral agencies or foreign governments. If the local leaders are not involved in the building of the institutions, they will not own them. Therefore, shared vision and effective communication are critical in all nation-building efforts. The interests of locals are served better by a stable, independent and prosperous state, and therefore, they must work together to protect it. Economic opportunities and good quality of life for all citizens are the incentives.
Fourthly, military crackdown alone against ideology (Taliban, Boko Haram, Biafra, etc.) is unsustainable. The solution must involve a battle of the hearts and minds of the people. Dialogue and negotiated compromise may be necessary rather than only a show of strength. Government should get the locals to understand the implications of supporting the Jihadist movement on Nigeria existence.
Fifth, Nigeria must immediately address all its fault lines to foster unity and cohesion to fight the common enemy of extremism. Unity is needed now, not fighting multiple wars. Restructuring and creating a sense of nationhood now is inevitable if Nigeria is to succeed. The Fulani herdsmen movement and incursion in other parts of the country and the allegations of land grabbing deserves focused attention by the leaders.
The 2023 general elections must not be allowed to divide or polarise Nigeria. It will leave Nigeria weak. The last lesson is that a grand strategy to end insurgency in Nigeria must be developed and implemented rigorously by the government in conjunction with the private sector, regional and international collaborators. There should be a rallying call for all Nigerians to understand that Nigeria is at war and must channel resources and efforts to execute that war to the end.
Instead of being reactive, the government should initiate a grand offensive against all insurgents to defeat the terrorists once and for all times, whilst using the carrot and stick approach. As seen in the Taliban case, firm resolve, local knowledge and support, and material, psychological and ideological incentives help all stakeholders work at the common goal of defeating the opponent irrespective of the supposed strength.
Nigeria should adopt this.
In conclusion, we are far from seeing insurgency in Nigeria overrun the state. However, it is not impossible. We must proactively solve this problem before it gets out of hand and turn Nigeria into the next Afghanistan.