The Russian Military’s People Problem
It’s Hard for Moscow to Win While Mistreating Its Soldiers
Boko Haram is on the run. Chad’s January intervention against the group, coupled with a new Nigerian offensive launched in February, appears to have inflicted a series of military defeats on the terrorists. At the moment, Boko Haram fighters have been expelled from many of the towns they once held. The organization has tried to carry on its struggle against Abuja, and it has made a reported pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). But that likely reflects desperation on the part of Boko Haram’s leadership; indeed, recent events point to the group’s inevitable (if not immediate) defeat.
But that doesn’t mean that Nigeria is in the clear. As outside observers have focused on defeating Boko Haram, few have paid attention to the looming postwar reconstruction effort, whose success will determine whether northeastern Nigeria continues to be a source of instability in West Africa. The profound demographic, socioeconomic, and political upheavals triggered by Boko Haram’s activities in the northeast, particularly in Borno State, have further impoverished a region that was already struggling and have deepened communal tensions. If these issues aren’t addressed, it will only be a matter of time until new violent nonstate actors emerge.
International observers believe that the Boko Haram insurgency has uprooted over a million people in northeastern Nigeria (the actual number could be much higher) and killed at least 12,000. The majority of the victims have come from Borno, which, with an estimated prewar population of approximately 4.5 million, confronts the prospect of resettling as much as a quarter of its inhabitants. The mass displacement has devastated Borno’s already destitute economy. The flight of farmers from the violence-plagued countryside reportedly caused agricultural output to contract by 26 percent in 2014 alone, and most of the commercial class—made up disproportionately of Christian southerners—has abandoned the state.
Meanwhile, schools and health-care centers in Borno’s rural regions have largely been deserted due to chronic insecurity. Even before the Boko Haram uprising, Borno’s literacy rate of 59 percent stood as one of the lowest in Nigeria. Now, the reported destruction of over 900 schools since 2011 has placed an entire generation of young Bornoans at risk of coming of age without access to even a rudimentary education. The exodus of medical practitioners, meanwhile, has also unsurprisingly led to an upsurge in preventable diseases, with reported outbreaks of measles and cholera sweeping parts of the state.
The Boko Haram insurgency also appears to have upended Borno’s sociopolitical system. Traditional leaders who have customarily served as moral authorities and arbiters of local disputes have seen their already declining influence in society largely disintegrate. The Kanuri, Borno’s most populous ethnic group, historically respected the primacy of wealthy elders; however, that generational hierarchy has been shaken to its core by the attacks on these individuals by Boko Haram fighters, who are largely impoverished youths. Although unproved, accusations that many prominent politicians continue to patronize Boko Haram have also likely caused irreparable damage to the Bornoan elite’s legitimacy.
The heavy presence of Kanuri among Boko Haram’s rank and file has further unsettled Borno’s political balance by exacerbating preexisting ethnoreligious tensions. Although no ethnic group has suffered more from Boko Haram depredations than the Kanuri, Boko Haram has nonetheless become closely associated with the group in the eyes of other Bornoan communities, particularly those based in the region’s culturally diverse south. The widely held, albeit erroneous, belief that Boko Haram serves as a proxy for Kanuri interests will likely poison communal relations for years to come.
As if mending Borno State’s torn economic, social, and political fabric were not enough of a challenge, victorious Nigerian authorities will also have to contend with the complex process of reintegrating surviving Boko Haram fighters into society. Many of these individuals have committed acts of violence against their own communities, which will make their return to normal civilian life nearly impossible. Socially alienated, former Boko Haram foot soldiers could easily be recruited to other armed groups, including criminal gangs and new violent extremist organizations.
In addition, there are now thousands of Bornoans serving in the anti–Boko Haram vigilante groups that have emerged over the past two years. Back in the civilian sphere, these men would, presumably, face considerably less hostility than former Boko Haram fighters. However, with the Bornoan economy in shambles, they will still likely struggle to find jobs and could thus become tempted to engage in illicit activities such as smuggling, armed robbery, kidnapping for ransom, and extortion.
Complicating post-conflict Nigeria still further will be the Nigerian state’s own predilections. As West Africa’s traditional powerhouse, Nigeria has historically adhered to Pax Nigeriana, a grand strategy aimed at achieving preeminence within both West African and pan-African affairs. Abuja’s past commitment to hegemony contributed to a deep reluctance to let outside forces play a role in its internal security. From refusing to allow the Organization of African Unity to interfere in its deadly civil war (1967–1970) to a dogged insistence on tackling militancy in the oil-rich Niger Delta alone, Nigeria has jealously guarded its sovereignty from perceived foreign meddling.
Following this tradition, Abuja has consistently exaggerated to outsiders its ability to handle Boko Haram. When Boko Haram’s alleged massacre of up to 2,000 civilians in and around Baga this past January compelled the African Union (AU) to pledge a 7,500-strong military force, Nigeria expressed its preference that only states adjacent to its territory provide personnel. Abuja seems to have determined that its clout within West Africa and the Lake Chad region would allow it to retain considerable control over the trajectory of the anti–Boko Haram offensive.
Absent a serious change in Nigerian attitudes, post-conflict Borno State will probably be devoid of any large-scale multinational presence. Abuja’s reported refusal to permit Chadian, Nigerien, and Cameroonian forces from pursuing Boko Haram fighters beyond Nigeria’s northeastern borderlands suggests that even neighboring countries will have limited access to Borno. It is nearly inconceivable that Nigeria will welcome a multinational peacekeeping force similar to the United Nations operations in Darfur, Liberia, and the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo or the AU contingent in Somalia. In other words, responsibility for the preservation of order will likely fall on a Nigerian security sector that stands accused of gross human rights violations and is ill prepared to conduct post-conflict reconstruction.
The Boko Haram insurgency has decimated the socioeconomic and political environment in Borno State. If left unaddressed, these grim conditions will likely help generate new turmoil even in the event of a Boko Haram defeat. Those outsiders invested in reviving this blighted corner of Nigeria will need to take into account Abuja’s fear of foreign interference. And that could prove a greater stumbling block than Boko Haram ever was.
How to Fight Back Against Boko Haram’s Newest Strategy