Nigeria is not “lost,” and it is wildly premature to put the question of the threat faced by the government of Goodluck Jonathan in such stark terms. However, President Jonathan is up for re-election in February, and it is fair to ask: Is Nigeria at risk of seeing half its territory amputated and seized by a revolutionary movement like the Islamic State?
Last week, federal troops under attack from a band of Jihadists reportedly cut and ran from the garrison town of Baga in the far northeast, next to Lake Chad. There is a reason this is a garrison town and there is a reason it was targeted by the Boko Haram insurgency that has plagued the northern tier of the west African powerhouse, at 180 million the most populous nation on the continent, one of the largest (900 square km), and by any measure an absolutely indispensable strategic ally of the U.S.
How so? Well, just imagine the impact of Nigeria, a country with a half-trillion dollar GDP, disintegrating like, say, Somalia. This is not going to happen. But it is not inconceivable that the country will be, de facto, cut in two, the way Mali was for over a year when radical Islamists replaced government authority in a Texas-sized swathe of territory north of the Niger river, imposed sharia, and threatened to set up a caliphate in Bamako, Mali’s capital.
Nigeria’s northern radicals are not substantially different in their aims and methods from Mali’s. There are differences in leadership, in the tribal and “ethnic” core bases (and in the core enemies), and in the whole historical backgrounds of these distinct regions of the continent. That is certain. But it is also certain, from the evidence of their own behavior, that there is a similarity in the ruthless, death-driven political motivations of these violent Islamic movements. Put another way, these groups are not substantially different in their aims and methods from the folks running al Qaeda and Islamic State and the Taliban.
If they can hold Baga, their logical next target is Maidugiri, the state capital of Borno. They need not march on Maidugiri right away, however. They can feint to the east and raid villages in Chad and threaten the capital of Njamena, which is near; they can turn north and attack army posts in Niger. Why, if they are a Nigerian movement? It would suit them because it would drive a wedge among the regional allies — the fourth member is Cameroon, to the east and south, and Boko Haram has raided villages in that country too — or at least force them to consider how many resources and men they can devote to the hastily formed MJTF (Multinational Joint Task Force, set up in the face of clear evidence Boko Haram represents a regional threat, and which was until last week headquartered at Baga) without exposing their own territory to raids.
In fine, the terrorists are pretty much following the book on revolutionary warfare. Mix it up. Hit and run. Confuse the enemy. Sow dissension among his tactical allies.
And, of course, show the population the government cannot defend them. That is crucial. Do it ruthlessly: kill village heads or officials or patriarchs. Kidnap girls, boys, young men: turn them into sex workers by any other name, hard-labor slavers, or even child soldiers. The West Africans — the Africans generally — have decades of experience with child soldiers. Adroitly exploited, such kids are useful to ruthless radicals. They are terrified. They are psychotic. They are expendable. This is revolutionary war.
The government — the several governments who joined together to form the MNJF — are doing their parts. This almost always happens: an elected government averts its eyes from security issues in a remote and poor region. It sends forces that are perhaps not well prepared for what awaits them. More trouble follows, and with it propaganda points for the instigators: look, they say, the government is doing you more harm than good.
Since the Boko Haram insurrection began in 2010-11, there has been very little if any security in the north. Kidnappings have become routine. The Nigerian army has not imposed security. Baga itself was the scene of heavy fighting and was briefly held by the Boko Haram forces in 2013; in retaking it the army reportedly did not care if locals were in their line of fire. And some reports claim it has contributed to insecurity by retaliating against bystanders for hit and run attacks on its patrols. This is likely a bad rap; soldiers react with force and they cannot always be expected to differentiate between the enemy and the population that, willingly or not, shelters and feeds him, but they are not likely to punish populations they are under orders to protect. But this is the kind of rap that tends to stick, as revolutionaries know.
If the Nigerian army can restore order and security in the north, it will be forgiven a lot. But it will have to gain and keep the population’s confidence by maintaining order and security and by resisting the temptation to behave like an occupying force that lives off the (conquered) land. This means at least two objectives.
The first objective is a long-term commitment to police the north to prevent a resurgence of radical Islamic terrorism. This is no easy task, as the multinational force in Mali has learned. It requires lots of manpower, trained and equipped both to fight and to really behave like the national army, in the service of all Nigerians.
Second, there must be a long-term goal of what in those parts is called eradication, the crushing of revolutionary Islam. That means ruthless war and policing, and generous rehabilitation of villages, allowing local governance to sprout and bloom so that when you run for city council or school board — they have those institutions — you are not automatically signing a contract for your own murder.
Can it be done? Time will tell, of course; but it is the case that for years now, even before the turn of the century, the U.S. has been developing programs, through trial and error, to help turn African militaries into useful citizens. Not that they are not that already, in some places; but it is a fact freely admitted in many if not most African countries that they fall short of the standards and discipline they demand of themselves.
Frankly, after over a decade of sustained combat and social and political reform in countries beset by revolutionary Islam, and drawing upon lessons from other “savage wars of peace” that we have had decades to learn from, neither the predicament Nigeria faces now, nor the different ways it can be addressed successfully — for our own interests as well as Nigerians’ — should be a puzzle. We know what is going on and we know what can be done. We know what cannot be done — conciliation and making nice with revolutionaries who hate us: in fact, “boko haram” is derived from a slogan that roughly translates as “Western values out.” We know we must be realistic and gauge the price before proceeding, and be clear about how much of this price we are be prepared to pay. There will be all manners of small surprises, many of them hideous and some of them heartening, but basically we know. The question is not there. It is whether Nigerians want to be free from revolutionary terrorist depredation. It is whether they have the political will to do what it will take. And it is whether we want to do what it will take to help them.