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“The soldiers are less motivated than the Boko Haram insurgents”
“The soldiers are less motivated than the Boko Haram insurgents”
« Au Niger, l’option militaire face à l’Etat islamique doit s’accompagner d’un projet politique »
« Au Niger, l’option militaire face à l’Etat islamique doit s’accompagner d’un projet politique »
Local hunter known as Vigilante armed with locally made gun and knife on way to support Nigerian army fighting with Boko Haram, 6 December, 2014. AFP/Mohammed Elshamy
Interview / Africa

“The soldiers are less motivated than the Boko Haram insurgents”

Originally published in SonntagsZeitung

In this interview, Nnamdi Obasi, Crisis Group’s Senior Nigeria Analyst, speaks about what exactly it is that the insurgents want, how their activities have evolved, and why the government is ill-prepared to handle the insurgency.


Throughout 2014, we saw a significant increase in the intensity and frequency of Boko Haram attacks. This has been compounded by further violent attacks at the beginning of this year, most notably a massacre in Baga in the northeast of Nigeria.

There have been contradictory reports about the latest attacks on Baga and other communities in the north east of Nigeria. Is it possible to tell how many people have been killed, how many houses have been destroyed?

Nobody has accurate figures. The government claims 150 people were killed in the attack on Baga. But the military has not been able to recapture the area, so it may not know how many people died inside the town. Residents from the area who fled to safety say they walked through countless dead bodies and therefore gave much higher figures. Also, many people may have died while trying to escape across the Lake Chad. Several Human Rights groups claim that 2,000 or even up to 2,500 persons may have been killed, but frankly, there is no certainty.

Has the aggressiveness of Boko Haram increased over the last weeks and months?

Throughout 2014, we saw a very significant increase in the intensity and frequency of Boko Haram attacks. In the past, they attacked in small groups, now they are attacking in large groups up to the size of military regiments. We also saw them making progress from using small arms and light weapons to motorised equipment, reportedly including a tank in one instance. In effect, they are now a real military force. Also, they have become much more brutal: they went from sending suicide bombers to female suicide bombers and now to underage female suicide bombers. And the casualties in 2014 were higher than all the previous years. So we can say that Boko Haram has become more aggressive in every aspect from 2014 until now.

When Boko Haram started, they were maniacs on motorbikes. How could they have become so strong?

Boko Haram has gained resources and strength through various means. These include bank robberies, ransom kidnapping, extortion of individuals and communities, as well as the looting of police and military armories in north east Nigeria. It has also benefited from assistance from outside the country. Nigerian security sources say they have captured weapons from the group, which came from Libya. After the fall of the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, a lot of the guns looted from his armories were trafficked southward to the Sahara and the Sahel, some of them ending up with militant groups like Boko Haram. We also have indications of possibly increasing collaboration between Boko Haram and similar groups like Al-Shabaab in Somalia, or al-Qaeda or Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIL), particularly as Boko Haram’s leader has repeatedly expressed solidarity with these groups. Boko Haram’s increased sophistication in recent times suggests it may be gaining material and training support from these other groups.

What role do the neighbouring countries play?

Boko Haram has also been enabled to grow by the poor security collaboration and cooperation between the Nigerian government and neighbouring countries, especially with Cameroon, but also with Niger and Chad. As long as the borders between these countries remain porous and security cooperation remains weak, the borders will continue to serve as channels through which Boko Haram brings in resources for its operations in Nigeria.

Is there a danger that Boko Haram will establish a caliphate as IS did in Syria and Iraq?

Yes. Boko Haram’s strategic goals have evolved over time. We could well speak of an expansion from being initially a local group to one with far more ambitious goals. Last August, the group’s leader declared that areas under its control were now part of a “caliphate”. Its attacks have since expanded from northern Nigeria to Cameroon and its leader recently threatened more attacks on Cameroon if the country’s leadership does not “repent”. As the conflict spreads to Cameroon, we could see Boko Haram’s caliphate claims also spreading in that direction. And as the Chadian government has now indicated it will lend “active support” to Cameroon, we could also, in the longer term, see Boko Haram seeking to establish some hold on Chadian territory.

In May 2014, President Jonathan said that: “I believe that the kidnapping of these girls will be the beginning of the end of terrorism in Nigeria”. Why is he not acting to bring the attacks to an end since then?

The Nigerian government underrated and misunderstood Boko Haram, and perhaps it still does. For a long time, people around President Jonathan thought that Boko Haram was a political creation of northern leaders to embarrass the Jonathan administration. And they thought it was something that would, as the president himself said, “fizzle out with time”. But this was clearly not the case.

Also, the Nigerian military suffers from many deficits that has made it unable to defeat Boko Haram. Could you explain that?

The army was not trained to fight an insurgency and it has been very slow in adapting to this new challenge. Then of course, it is undermanned and overstretched by its deployment to support the police in internal security duties in almost 30 of the country’s 36 states. Then it is also underequipped for an operational area spanning over 150,000 square kilometers, which is roughly four times the size of Switzerland, and some of it in very rugged terrain. Some soldiers and units refuse to fight because they say they are ill-equipped; and some commanders complain that they lack logistics, including helicopters they need to deploy and reinforce their troops in remote locations and evacuate them speedily, if necessary. Part of this problem of equipment is due to corruption in procurement processes and poor maintenance of assets on ground. The cumulative effect of all these is that morale is low. The soldiers are less motivated to fight than the insurgents.

What needs to be done?

The Nigerian government needs to overhaul its strategy. First, in order to stop Boko Haram’s destruction of communities and massacre of citizens, it needs to conduct its military operations more effectively. And, in order to win the hearts and minds of local people in the region, it needs to conduct its operations more professionally, more clinically and with greater consideration for the rights and lives of civilians. Secondly, the Nigerian government needs to greatly improve its diplomatic and military engagements with neighbouring countries and ensure speedy deployment of the multinational force which was formed by Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger in mid-2014. Thirdly, the government must roll out a more comprehensive counter-insurgency strategy that goes beyond military operations to address the socio-economic factors as well as the religious indoctrination that are fuelling the insurgency. And then of course the international community should lend greater assistance, military, economic and otherwise, toward ending the insurgency.

So the West should intervene with troops on the ground in Nigeria?

No. Many Nigerians do not want to see foreign forces in Nigeria. The country could benefit from foreign trainers, advisers and even technicians to maintain fairly advanced equipment, but most Nigerians still believe that the Nigerian army itself should be able to do the fighting. Boko Haram does not have foreign soldiers sent by any foreign government. So the Nigerian army does not need foot soldiers from any country.

Many people in the West showed solidarity after the attacks in Paris. However, there is little coverage about what happened in Nigeria. Does that make you angry?

There is a profound sense of disappointment and abandonment among people in north east Nigeria, the region most affected by Boko Haram. Most people across the region lament that the tragedy that has befallen them has been underreported, not only by the international media, but even by the Nigerian media, especially the government-owned media. They feel triply abandoned by the Nigerian government, by many of the Nigerian people and by the international community.

There will be elections in February between President Jonathan and the opposition party’s candidate, Muhammadu Buhari. What does that mean for the security situation?

Boko Haram had stated, repeatedly, that it is opposed, not only to Western education and the secular state, but also to democracy and elections. It says democracy and elections are forms of paganism, incompatible with the Islamic State. So it is stepping up attacks to prevent the electoral commission from proceeding with voting arrangements in the north east. The fear of its attacks has prevented the parties from campaigning and may also scare many voters on polling days. The election agency has already declared that elections cannot hold in some parts of the north east, perhaps in up to 70 per cent of Borno state. But Boko Haram aside, tensions between the major parties, and also along regional and religious lines across the country, all suggest a high risk of violence before, during and particularly after the elections.

Why is that?

In regional and religious terms, partly as a side effect of the Boko Haram insurgency, the country is more polarised now than ever before. Jonathan is from the largely-Christian Niger Delta, while Buhari is from the largely-Muslim far north. Many people in the Niger Delta are vehemently insisting that Jonathan must be allowed to continue as president till 2019, citing the fact that the oil revenue which largely sustains the country comes from their region. I was in the Delta in October and the message I got from many people was that if Jonathan is voted out, there will be renewed attacks on oil industry installations in the region. Similarly, the message from the far north, which is also being delivered with equal vehemence, is that if Buhari does not win, there will be violence in the region. The confrontational voices, uncompromising rhetoric and continuing threats of violence from both sides, signal that the country could slide toward an even more dangerous situation, particularly after the elections.

This interview was published with permission from SonntagsZeitung, where a German version of it appeared on 18 January 2015.

Op-Ed / Africa

« Au Niger, l’option militaire face à l’Etat islamique doit s’accompagner d’un projet politique »

Originally published in Le Monde

L’analyste Hannah Armstrong regrette que Niamey délaisse le dialogue avec les communautés frontalières de la région de Tillabéri, notamment les nomades peuls.

Le Niger est depuis des années l’Etat du Sahel central le plus résilient face aux insurrections menées par l’Etat islamique (EI) et Al-Qaïda. Cela n’a pas empêché les forces nigériennes de subir les attaques les plus meurtrières de leur histoire en décembre et janvier derniers. Ces deux attaques, qui ont fait plus de 150 morts, ont mis en lumière la manière dont la branche sahélienne de l’EI, particulièrement active entre le Mali et la région nigérienne de Tillabéri, s’est renforcée en exploitant le fossé grandissant entre le gouvernement et les communautés locales. Elles ont également amorcé un brusque changement de cap : l’Etat nigérien privilégie de nouveau le volet militaire, délaissant la politique de dialogue avec les communautés frontalières de la région de Tillabéri initiée mi-2018 afin de regagner leur confiance.

Quelques jours après la seconde attaque, les dirigeants des pays membres du G5 Sahel et de la France, réunis en sommet à Pau le 13 janvier, ont d’ailleurs appelé à un renforcement de l’action militaire en vue de défaire les groupes djihadistes, et plus particulièrement l’EI dans la zone du Liptako-Gourma, qui s’étend aux frontières du Mali, du Niger et du Burkina Faso et comprend la région de Tillabéri. Ils ont certes souligné l’importance des efforts de développement et de meilleure gouvernance, mais sur le terrain, le volet militaire prédomine en dépit des répercussions sur les communautés.

L’offensive de «Barkhane» et des forces du G5 Sahel pourrait réactiver des conflits communautaires.

En effet, l’offensive de « Barkhane » et des forces du G5 Sahel pourrait réactiver des conflits communautaires que l’EI sait parfaitement exploiter en se présentant comme un protecteur des communautés et une alternative à un Etat incapable de répondre aux griefs des populations frontalières, qu’il s’agisse des tensions autour de l’accès aux ressources foncières ou de la sous-représentation des nomades peuls au sein des forces de sécurité. Par ailleurs, les allégations d’abus commis par les forces de sécurité contre les civils sont en forte hausse depuis le début de la contre-offensive et font le lit du recrutement de nouveaux djihadistes. En parallèle d’une action militaire qui reste nécessaire, l’Etat devrait redoubler d’efforts politiques pour rétablir la paix entre et au sein des communautés, et surtout renouer des liens forts avec elles.

Tensions intercommunautaires

Au Niger, un document ayant filtré début avril recensait 102 civils portés disparus, des hommes issus de communautés nomades dont on soupçonne qu’ils ont été tués par l’armée nigérienne. Le ministre de la défense, Issoufou Katambe, a promis qu’une enquête permettra de disculper l’armée, mais sur le terrain le fossé continue de se creuser entre les communautés nomades et l’Etat. Le 30 avril, un rapport de la mission des Nations unies au Mali, la Minusma, a rapporté pour la période janvier-mars une augmentation de 61 % du nombre de violations des droits humains, dont 34 exécutions extrajudiciaires menées par l’armée nigérienne opérant au Mali.

Déjà, en 2017 et 2018, lors de la dernière offensive militaire d’ampleur dans la région frontalière, le Niger et l’opération « Barkhane » s’étaient alliés à des milices ethniques maliennes rivales d’autres communautés, des nomades peuls en particulier. Les offensives des milices maliennes ont d’abord semblé affaiblir l’EI dans la région de Tillabéri, mais elles ont ravivé les tensions intercommunautaires et causé le décès de nombreux civils. Cela a poussé de nombreux habitants de la région à rejoindre les rangs de l’EI et un nombre croissant de communautés, bien au-delà des seuls Peuls, à accepter la présence des militants djihadistes comme un moindre mal. Dès que l’étreinte militaire de « Barkhane » et des milices s’est relâchée, en 2019, l’EI est donc revenu plus fort que jamais.

En 2018 comme aujourd’hui, l’option militaire n’apporte à l’Etat que des succès à court terme s’il ne s’accompagne pas d’un véritable projet politique pour consolider ces acquis. Le Niger devrait le savoir, après avoir déjà emprunté une voie plus politique pour sortir des insurrections touareg des années 1990-2000. Les opérations militaires restent une composante essentielle de la résolution de la crise sécuritaire, mais la réponse politique dans la région de Tillabéri doit prendre les devants. Afin d’endiguer la montée en puissance de l’EI, le Niger – avec le soutien de ses partenaires étrangers – devrait commencer par reconnaître ses propres responsabilités dans la marginalisation des communautés frontalières et proposer un plan ambitieux pour répondre à leurs griefs.

l’EI ne représente pas qu’une menace sécuritaire, il constitue également une véritable alternative à l’Etat en matière de gouvernance.

Pour y parvenir, le Niger a des atouts à faire valoir. Contrairement au Mali et au Burkina Faso, il n’a pas eu recours à des milices ethniques et groupes de vigilance issus de ses propres communautés pour combattre les djihadistes, une mesure qui aurait exacerbé les tensions entre celles-ci. Le Niger a en outre déjà prouvé, par le passé, être capable d’intégrer des représentants de certaines communautés nomades à des hauts postes au sein de l’Etat central et des institutions sécuritaires. Enfin, Niamey peut s’appuyer sur des institutions telles que la Haute Autorité pour la consolidation de la paix (HACP), qui, si elle est bien utilisée, peut coordonner les actions de l’Etat et mener des actions rapides, par exemple pour apaiser les relations entre forces de sécurité et civils dans les régions frontalières.

Protection des civils et du bétail

Les précédentes tentatives de dialogue avec les communautés de Tillabéri ont bien enregistré quelques maigres progrès, mais elles ont souvent souffert de la primauté des actions militaires. Et même lorsque le dialogue était l’option privilégiée, il a été miné par un manque de coordination et de consensus au sein des cercles du pouvoir central. Le gouvernement nigérien devrait donner la priorité au dialogue avec les nomades peuls, groupe le plus marginalisé, tout en facilitant des accords entre et au sein des différentes communautés. Niamey devrait également développer des solutions pour résoudre la compétition autour des ressources foncières et du bétail, qui nourrit la plupart des conflits entre communautés dans la région.

S’il est difficile à envisager dans le contexte actuel, le dialogue avec les djihadistes devrait être également relancé. Il peut susciter des défections au sein de l’EI, y compris de commandants issus des communautés frontalières. L’Etat devra opérer avec prudence pour éviter des représailles des djihadistes contre ceux qui coopèrent avec les autorités. Afin de redorer son image auprès des communautés de la région de Tillabéri, Niamey pourrait par ailleurs demander à ses forces de sécurité de ne pas se consacrer exclusivement aux opérations contre-terroristes et les assigner à la protection des civils et du bétail. Parallèlement, les autorités pourraient assouplir les mesures qui limitent les mouvements de population ou l’activité des marchés, imposées pour des raisons de sécurité mais qui affaiblissent l’économie de Tillabéri et compliquent les liens entre l’Etat et les communautés de la région.

Au Niger, l’EI ne représente pas qu’une menace sécuritaire, il constitue également aux yeux des communautés frontalières une véritable alternative à l’Etat en matière de gouvernance. Il convient donc de lui apporter une réponse sur ces deux fronts, sécuritaire et politique.