Boko Haram: Civilian cost of the military offensive

By Economist

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Five months after the Nigerian federal government launched a military offensive to crush the deadly uprising in northern Nigeria by an Islamist extremist group, Boko Haram, there is little to indicate that peace will soon return to this troubled region. The death toll and level of human suffering caused by the conflict remains high, although it is not clear that anyone has been systematically counting the economic and social costs. What is evident is that the counterinsurgency campaign of the government’s military Joint Task Force (JTF), which combines the armed forces and police, has not defeated Boko Haram but is changing the dynamics of the conflict, possibly putting vulnerable local populations at greater risk. Since the president, Goodluck Jonathan, imposed emergency rule in the north-eastern states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe and deployed more troops there in mid-May, Islamist attacks against civilians in these areas have not only persisted but appear to have worsened. Boko Haram and other offshoot Islamist groups have over the past four years carried out hundreds of gun and bomb attacks, but mainly targeting government and security establishments. However, as the government tightened security at official sites and the military’s counterinsurgency operations intensified, the insurgents have shifted their focus to softer targets, mostly in the countryside, outside the better-guarded cities. One consequence of this shift is that the conflict is having greater impact on civilian lives.

A shift in militant tactics There have been large-scale attacks on travellers along major highways. In September suspected Boko Haram gunmen, using fake checkpoints, killed a total of 159 people in two roadside attacks in the north-east. In the latest of such random attacks Boko Haram militants disguised as soldiers butchered 19 people at a fake checkpoint on October 20th in Borno state, near Nigeria’s border with Cameroon. The group has also lately attacked Christian churches and moderate Muslims. Furthermore, Boko Haram, whose name means “Western education is sinful”, is targeting educational establishments in the north, a region that is already the least literate part of Nigeria. In late September militants murdered more than 40 students while they slept in a dormitory at an agriculture college in Yobe state. This followed an earlier raid on a boarding school in the state in which 29 pupils and one teacher were killed.

The rise of the vigilante Spurred by the government drive against Boko Haram and the need to defend their own communities against attacks, local civilians have set up vigilante groups to fight the Islamist insurgents. These groups, known collectively as the Civilian Joint Task Force or Civilian JTF, mostly comprise youths who have been assisting the military to capture Boko Haram militants by helping to identify members and finding their locations. The vigilantes, some of who are paid by the state government, have been credited locally as being key in the success of the military in driving Boko Haram from much of Maiduguri, the movement’s birthplace. However, unsurprisingly these untrained civilian militias have become a target for Boko Haram, a shadowy, loosely formed movement that has thrived partly because the security forces have lacked local intelligence. In August about 24 young vigilantes were killed on a mission to capture some Boko Haram terrorists in their camps in Borno state  when their group of over 100 was ambushed by suspected members of the movement.

Excessive use of force will increase resentment Human rights activists argue that the military’s counterinsurgency campaign has been marked by excess use of force, which has added to the spiral of violence. Some Nigerians who have been shocked and terrified by the Islamist insurgency would counter that the high casualty numbers from the military response should be viewed in the context of a nation struggling to maintain its security and integrity in the face of an unrelenting onslaught by barbaric fanatics who have killed thousands of people. But the numbers of suspected militants alleged to have perished during military operations in recent months appears to be disproportional to the perceived small size of Boko Haram and other Islamist groups, which are believed to number in the low thousands. This suggests that some of the victims have been innocent civilians. Similarly, innocent civilians are likely to feature in the large number of suspected Boko Haram members that languish, untried, in prison, especially as many are being arrested on the basis of often unsubstantiated claims from vigilante groups. Furthermore, in a report released on October 15th Amnesty International claimed that more than 950 people, mostly those accused of being Boko Haram militants, perished in military custody in the first six months of 2013. The London-based rights group said most of deaths occurred at two detention centres in Borno and Yobe states, where many prisoners died from shootings, suffocation or starvation. Amnesty called on the Nigerian government to investigate the abuses. There has been no official response to the allegation, which is largely based on information from an unidentified senior officer, as well testimonies from former detainees. Indiscriminate detention and killing of prisoners—some of whom are likely to have been innocent—invariably perpetuates the cycle of violence as local resentment against the injustice grows and alienates affected communities from the government, providing recruitment grounds for extremists.

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