During the past three months, hundreds of people, mainly women and girls, have been abducted from villages across Nigeria’s northeastern state of Borno. To date, only a minority of those kidnapped have regained their liberty, often as a result of their own efforts to escape. The kidnappers, who have identified themselves as members of the terrorist group Boko Haram, have been widely condemned both at home and abroad. Yet so has Nigeria’s federal government. Its failure to protect the inhabitants of these villages, slow and ineffective efforts to secure the victims’ release, unsympathetic and heavy-handed response to the demonstrations of solidarity organized in Abuja,[1] and unwillingness to accept international assistance or work with foreign partners have all served to tarnish its already battered reputation.

Indeed, the unprecedented global campaign to find and free the 250 girls taken from the village of Chibok was in part directed at the federal authorities. The inexplicable withdrawal of the soldiers guarding the school from which they were taken, Abuja’s reluctant and week-late admission that they had been kidnapped, and the security forces abject failure to pursue what leads they had in a timely fashion gave rise to serious doubts about the federal government’s competence and desire to save the girls.[2]

This article considers what these kidnappings reveal about Boko Haram and the federal government’s counterterrorism strategy. It finds that Abuja’s failure to defeat or even significantly contain the group is due, at least in part, to four significant flaws in its strategy: its overly kinetic focus, limited potential for further escalation, low level of regional cooperation and confusion with north-south political rivalries.

Boko Haram and its Continued Development
The kidnappings offer important insights into both Boko Haram and Nigeria’s counterterrorism strategy. Since its renaissance as a fighting force in late 2010, Boko Haram has been in a state of perpetual evolution. It has actively embraced innovation and adaptation by constantly changing what it does, where and to whom. Abductions were added to its repertoire only a few years ago, and its early victims were mainly European and North American citizens living and working in northern Nigeria.[3] Ransoms were demanded which, depending on the nationalities of those who were seized, were sometimes paid.[4] These kidnappings were similar to those carried out in the south of the country by groups like the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND).[5]

The mass abductions of the past few months, however, are a new activity not only in the north, but in the whole country. Never before have so many individuals been snatched all at once, nor have the victims been ordinary people.[6] Unlike earlier kidnappings, these abductions are motivated less by money since none of the friends and families of those who have been taken can afford to pay significant ransoms. Precedents for these kinds of attacks do exist elsewhere. In a number of African countries, young men have been rounded up and pressured into service in guerrilla groups.[7] In Algeria in the 1990s and early 2000s, in a perversion of the religious laws on sex and marriage, women and girls were forced to temporarily marry insurgents before being discarded once the husbands’ conjugal rights had been satisfied.[8]

The parallels between what took place in Algeria and what is now happening in Nigeria provide circumstantial evidence of al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) growing influence over Boko Haram.[9] Indeed, and when considered alongside other developments in Boko Harm’s campaign—the expansion of its area of operations, the escalation in the frequency of its attacks, its successful prosecution of more sophisticated assaults, and ever greater presence outside of Nigeria’s borders—AQIM’s effect appears to be both inspirational and material. It is now beyond doubt that there are links between the groups.[10] Nevertheless, there is much about this relationship that remains unknown including the true extent of AQIM’s influence and the precise forms it takes.[11]

The Weaknesses of Nigeria’s Counterterrorism Strategy
In contrast, more concrete conclusions can be drawn about Nigeria’s counterterrorism strategy. Based on what the federal government has attempted and what has taken place since the introduction of the states of emergency in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe just over a year ago, four sobering deductions can be made.[12]

The first is that Abuja’s counterterrorism strategy focuses overwhelmingly on kinetic actions. There are a range of reasons for this. The most significant is simple expediency. The introduction of the states of emergency confirmed the federal authorities’ own doubts about their ability to effectively confront Boko Haram within the existing legal framework. Abuja’s recourse to special measures highlighted its fears that the group was growing more, not less, dangerous (as some senior officers and politicians had claimed), while its decision to continue them for another six months suggests that, despite its extraordinary efforts, the faction still poses a significant threat. In these circumstances, the federal government has little choice but to try to reassert its control.

Yet there is a more worrying reason why the federal government’s response to Boko Haram is mainly kinetic: it possesses neither the means nor the inclination to respond in other ways. This much has been confirmed by its decision to close many of northern Nigeria’s schools,[13] and periodically suspend the region’s mobile phone network.[14] By responding in these ways, the federal government has not only acceded to one of Boko Haram’s core demands and, in so doing, compromised the education of thousands of students, but it has also severed the main means of communication for millions of people. In such circumstances, there is little the armed forces can do other than attempt to crush Boko Haram militarily. Indeed, it was the federal authorities’ sustained failure to better address the north’s numerous, serious socioeconomic problems that at least contributed to the emergence and radicalization of Boko Haram in the first place.[15]

The second concern is over Abuja’s ability to further escalate its campaign if it needs to. In addition to its declaration of the states of emergency, the federal government has increased defense spending significantly over the past eight years with most of the extra money spent on the counter Boko Haram campaign.[16] While this action provides further confirmation of the government’s determination to confront the group, the palpable lack of progress is concerning. Not only have the bolstered security forces failed to gain a decisive advantage, but they have also failed to greatly reduce Boko Haram’s freedom to act or ability to continue developing its armed campaign. With defense spending set to now fall, what more can Abuja do to turn the tide of war in its favor?[17] This question makes the federal government’s unwillingness to work more closely with the United States and the United Kingdom even more concerning since these and other international partners could provide valuable if not decisive assistance.[18] One of the ways in which these powers could help Abuja is by facilitating closer regional collaboration.

The third major concern is the low level of security cooperation between Nigeria and its immediate neighbors. Over the past four years, Boko Haram units have been actively engaged in Cameroon, Mali and Niger, and the group continues to recruit new members from each of these countries.[19] Indeed, it is believed that some of the missing Chibok schoolgirls are being held in northern Cameroon.[20] Boko Haram’s ability to exploit national borders has enabled its leaders and forces to plan, prepare and recuperate in relative safety, and avoid detection and neutralization by Nigeria’s security forces. Yet there are three major impediments to greater regional collaboration. The first are the inadequate capabilities of some countries. Niger, for example, is poorly equipped to meet the threat.[21] The second is the absence of properly developed mechanisms to enable such collaboration to occur.[22] The third is cultural: the proven reluctance of Nigeria’s various agencies to work with each other, let alone with those of other countries.[23]

The final significant flaw in the federal government’s counterterrorism strategy is its confusion with Nigeria’s north-south politics. Since the restoration of civilian rule in 1999, political life has been guided by the unconstitutional convention of power-sharing and rotation.[24] According to this agreement, the president and other senior government members must be replaced by candidates from other parts of the country. Yet ever since President Umaru Yaradua’s untimely death in May 2010, this convention has been in disarray to the considerable unhappiness of many northerners who feel that one of their own should be president rather than the southerner Goodluck Jonathan.[25] Domestic analysis of and official statements about Boko Haram cannot be separated from northern opposition to Jonathan’s presidency, as events like the abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls are heavily politicized to attack or defend President Jonathan’s administration.

At the very least, therefore, this north-south rivalry undermines trust between the presidency and the northern state governors and military commanders.[26]

During the past three months, hundreds of people have been kidnapped from their homes in a series of raids mounted by Boko Haram. The abductions have generated a great deal of international concern, not least because they raise serious questions about the efficacy of the Nigerian federal government’s counterterrorism strategy. Indeed, and contrary to at least some official reports, the war against Boko Haram is not going well. Boko Haram is not on the cusp of defeat but continues to mount attacks and evolve. Without a clear and consistent political and military strategy, Nigeria’s forces will struggle at the operational and tactical levels.

Dr. J.N.C. Hill is Reader in Postcolonialism and the Maghreb in the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London based at the UK’s Joint Services Command and Staff College. He has published widely on Algeria, the Maghreb and Nigeria. His book Nigeria since Independence: Forever Fragile? was a winner of the CHOICE Outstanding Academic Titles for 2013.

[1] “Nigerian Police Arrest Protest Leader for Girls Abducted by Boko Haram Militants,” Guardian, May 5, 2014.

[2] “Nigeria Refused Help to Search for Kidnapped Girls,” Washington Post, May 11, 2014.

[3] Doubts remain over who carried out this abduction. One of the prime suspects is the Islamist terrorist group Ansaru. According to the International Crisis Group, Ansaru is one of six factions which together make up Boko Haram. See “Curbing Violence in Nigeria (II): The Boko Haram Insurgency,” International Crisis Group, April 3, 2014, p. 22; “Italian Abducted in Nigeria Freed,” BBC, June 2, 2012.

[4] “Nigerian Kidnappers ‘Received Ransom Downpayment,’” Guardian, March 11, 2012; “Italian Priests, Canadian Nun Kidnapped in Cameroon,” Reuters, April 5, 2014.

[5] Although the survival rate of victims seized in the north was lower than for those taken in the south, these abductions were similar as they were motivated, to a significant degree, by the kidnappers’ desire to extract ransom payments. See James Bridger, “Kidnapping Resurgent in the Gulf of Guinea Piracy,” USNI News, March 14, 2014.

[6] Most recently more than 60 women and children were taken in a series of raids mounted by suspected Boko Haram militants. See “Nigeria’s Boko Haram ‘Seizes Women’ in Borno,” BBC, June 24, 2014.

[7] Alcinda Honwana, Child Soldiers in Africa (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), p. 5.

[8] Marina Lazreg, “Consequences of Political Liberalisation and Sociocultural Mobilisation for Women in Algeria, Egypt and Jordan,” in Anne-Marie Goetz, Governing Women: Women’s Political Effectiveness in Contexts of Democratisation and Governance Reform (New York: Routledge/UNRISD, 2009), p. 47.

[9] Jacob Zenn, “Boko Haram and the Kidnapping of the Chibok Schoolgirls,” CTC Sentinel 7:5 (2014), p. 5.

[10] “Boko Haram: Emerging Threat to the U.S. Homeland,” U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, November 30, 2011, p. 2; “Boko Haram: Growing Threat to the U.S. Homeland,” U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security, September 13, 2013, p. 3.

[11] Kirk Ross, “Why Boko Haram Wages War Against Western Education,” USNI News, May 16, 2014.

[12] The states of emergency were declared and renewed in accordance with section 305 of the 1999 constitution: “Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999,” Federal Republic of Nigeria, May 5, 1999, section 305.

[13] “Life for Schoolgirls in the North,” al-Jazira, May 15, 2014.

[14] “Nigeria: ‘Cut Off’ Under Emergency Rule,” BBC, May 27, 2013.

[15] Akinola Olojo, “Nigeria’s Trouble North: Interrogating the Drivers of Public Support for Boko Haram,” ICCT Research Paper, October 2013, p. 6.

[16] “Nigerian Defence Spending to Fall for the First Time in a Decade,” IHS Jane’s 360, January 8, 2014.

[17] Ibid.

[18] It is not entirely clear why Abuja is unwilling to work more closely with either the United States or the United Kingdom. Likely reasons include national pride and a possible reluctance to expose the Nigerian military’s operating practices to closer scrutiny. Certainly Nigeria’s army has been heavily criticized on occasion for its heavy and indiscriminate use of force. See “Nigeria: Military Raid Destroys Villages and Kills Rebels, Witnesses Say,” New York Times, December 24, 2013. Nevertheless, the Nigerian armed forces have, in the past, proved their willingness to work with international partners especially other African states. See Jon Hill, “To Survive or Lead? The Two Sides of Nigeria’s National Security,” in Andrew M. Dorman and Joyce P. Kaufman, Providing for National Security (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014).

[19] “Fears in Cameroon of Boko Haram Recruitment,” Integrated Regional Information Networks, April 16, 2014.

[20] “Chibok Abductions: Nigeria Girls ‘Taken Abroad,’” BBC, April 29, 2014.

[21] “Curbing Violence in Nigeria (II): The Boko Haram Insurgency,” p. i.

[22] Mechanisms such as properly established and resourced headquarters and their necessary staff.

[23] “Army, Police Clash in Minna,” Daily Times, December 20, 2013.

[24] The rotation of power between politicians from different regions is established practice but is not required by the constitution. In fact, it is anti-constitutional as Nigerian voters should be free to select whomever they chose regardless of which region they come from. See J.N.C. Hill, Nigeria Since Independence: Forever Fragile? (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), pp. 58-59.

[25] This regional divide also mirrors Nigeria’s main religious divide as the northerners are predominantly Muslim and southerners Christian. There are, however, significant numbers of Christians living in the north and Muslims in the south.

[26] These tensions have been fueled by accusations of collusion between northern politicians, most notably Ali Modu Sheriff, and Boko Haram. See “Curbing Violence in Nigeria (II): The Boko Haram Insurgency,” p. 11.

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