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On the Record

The state is hardly always just in suppressing militancy

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In this interview, Vanda Felbab-Brown addresses issues of terrorism, organized crime, and state responses within the context of Boko Haram’s terrorism, insurgency, and militancy in the Niger Delta. She was interviewed by Jide Akintunde, Managing Editor of Financial Nigeria magazine.

Q: The Boko Haram menace has been with Nigeria for seven years. Why is it that the group does not appear to have run out of resources?

A: Boko Haram has been able to sufficiently plunder resources in the north to keep going. It has accumulated weapons and ammunition from seized stocks. It also taxes smuggling in the north. But its resources are not unlimited. And unlike other militant and terrorist groups, such as ISIS or the Taliban, Boko Haram faces far more acute resource constraints.

Q: Boko Haram is both an insurgent and a terrorist group. Does this explain why it is arguably the deadliest non-state actor in the world and the group that has used women for suicide bombings the most in history?

A: Boko Haram’s record in 2015 of being the deadliest group is a coincidence. Very many other militant groups have combined characteristics of an insurgency and a terrorist group. Its violence belies its weaknesses as much as its capacities.

Boko Haram’s resort to terrorism, often unrestrained terrorism and unrestrained plunder, reflect its loss of territory and most limited strategy calibration and governance skills. Its terrorist attacks, including by female suicide bombers, also reflect the limitation of the military COIN (counter-insurgency) strategy. For instance, after the international clearing, little effective control and “holding” is still exercised by the Nigerian military or its international partners.

Q: Although many views have rejected economic deprivation or poverty as the root cause of the insurgency, almost everyone agrees that military victory over the group would not help much if economic improvement is not brought to bear in the Northeastern Nigeria – the theatre of the insurgent activities. Is this necessarily contradictory?

A: Economic deprivation is hardly ever the sole factor stimulating militancy. There are many poor places, even those in relative decline compared to other parts of the country, where an insurgency does not emerge. But relative economic deprivation often becomes an important rallying cause. And indeed, there are many reasons for focusing on the economic development of the north, including effectively suppressing militancy but it also goes beyond that. Improving agriculture, including by investing in infrastructure and eliminating problematic and distortive subsidies in other sectors, would help combat insurgency and prevent its reemergence.

Q: While Nigerians remain befuddled about the grievances of Boko Haram, we are clear about the gripes of the militants in the oil-rich Niger Delta: they want resource control, since the Nigerian state has been unable to develop the area that produces 70 per cent of the federal government’s revenue. So, is the state always just and right in suppressing militant groups?

A: Indeed not; the state is hardly always just in suppressing militancy, even as suppressing militancy is its key imperative. Economic grievances, discriminations, and lack of equity and access are serious problems that any society should want to tackle. Even if there are “no legitimate grievances,” the state does not have a license to combat militancy in any way it chooses. Its own brutality will be discrediting and can be deeply counterproductive.

The Nigerian state’s approach to MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta) is fascinating: essentially the cooptation of MEND leaders through payoffs, but without addressing the underlying root causes. The insurgency quieted down, but the state’s approach is hardly normatively satisfactory nor necessarily sustainable unless new buyoffs to MEND leaders are again handed over. But that compounds problems of corruption, accountability, transparency, and inclusion.

Q: We can raise the same issue about economic justice in the way criminal and terrorist organizations operate their underground economies. How flawed have you found the alternative social orders that the leaders of criminal and terrorist organizations claim to foster?

A: The governance – the normative, political, and economic orders — that militant groups provide are often highly flawed. They often underdeliver economically and they lack accountability mechanisms, even when they outperform the state in being less corrupt and providing swifter justice.

However, the choice that populations face is not whether the order that militants provide is optimal or satisfactory. The choice that matters to people is whether that order is stable and better than that provided by the state. So the vast majority of people in Afghanistan, for example, say they don’t like the Taliban. But they don’t like corrupt warlords or corrupt government officials even. It’s not the absolute ideal but the relative realities that determine allegiances or at least the (lack of) willingness to support one or the other.

Moreover, the worst outcome is constant contestation and military instability. A stable brutality is easier to adjust to and develop coping mechanisms for than capriciousness and unstable military contestation.

Q: The Nigerian amnesty programme seemed to be a model in resolving issues between the state and the non-state actors in the Niger Delta, given the quiet in that region in the past few years of the programme. But since the political power changed at the federal level, we are seeing signs of the return of sabotage of oil installations. What models, say in Latin America or elsewhere, can help foster more sustainable peace between governments and non-state actor militant groups?

A: I don’t think that the MEND programme is a model, precisely because of the narrow cooptation I alluded to. Many of the middle-level MEND commanders as well as foot soldiers are dissatisfied with the deal. And much of the population in the Delta still suffers the same level of deprivation and exclusion as before. The deal was a bandage without healing the wounds underneath. It’s a question how long it will continue sticking. Despite its many urgent and burning tasks and a real need to focus on the north, the Nigerian government should use the relative peace in the Delta to move beyond the plaster and start addressing the root causes of militancy and dissatisfaction there. 

This interview was originally published by

Financial Nigeria

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