(By 'Funmi Olonisakin and Godwin R. Murunga)
Nairobi, June 30, GNA – Last week, the African Leadership Centre in Nairobi in collaboration with the Institute for Development Studies, University of Nairobi hosted an International conference on Security and Society in Africa. The idea of the conference was mooted in October 2013 with the support of Riksbankens Jubileumsfond: The Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences.
No one would have anticipated that the conference would occur at a moment when Kenya and Nigeria, countries that are pillars of their respective regional economic communities, would experience such serious security challenges as we have witnessed in recent weeks.
Though the conference did not focus directly on Kenya and Nigeria, it provided a basis to highlight issues that citizens, leaders and policy practitioners will find valuable. For a start, the key dangers of Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Shabaab in Kenya do not rest in what damage they inflict to the current regimes.
The danger rests in the potential destructive impact the movements cause to society, either in terms of their ability to radicalise segments of society in support of their agenda, the damage within the locales that are attacked or in their ability to cause internal squabbling that fragments communities and opens a vent for further insecurity.
These dangers are real in Nigeria and Kenya and in West and East Africa generally. The terror unleashed by Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Shabaab in Kenya reveals certain similarities in aspects of their evolution, the accompanying elite behaviour and response patterns. This pattern helps explain why neither of these countries is winning its war against these terror networks.
Northern Nigeria, for instance, has a history of socio-economic exclusion, inequality and neglect. Although the region had a previous history of influence by radical Islam, as witnessed by the Maitatsine crisis of the 1980s, the influence of a radical version of Islam advanced by "Jama'atu Ahl As-Suna Li-D'awati Wal Jihad" alias Boko Haram, dates back to around 2002.
This group did not initially spread violence. In fact, like the predecessor to Al-Shabaab also illustrates, its ranks were fuelled by local unemployed youth and refugees fleeing conflict in neighbouring Chad because Boko Haram provided them food and shelter.
Under Mohammed Yusuf (its former leader), Boko Haram became influential, attracting local sympathisers and supporters. It was initially sustained through members’ contributions and a farm maintained by the group. An armed group grew out of this militant group.
Al-Shabaab also has a genealogy in contexts of deprivation, war and state collapse in Somalia with its ranks being informed by those returning from fighting in Afghanistan. As a group, it grew out of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a group that sprung up by recruiting poor youth in Somalia.
The ICU grew to provide basic service and organise society after years of neglect of the collapsed Somalia state. Shortly afterward, the international community driven by myopic US interests redefined the movement as a terrorist group. The US then supported a shadow war against the ICU with Ethiopia as proxy.
It was in this context that led to the rise of Al-Shabaab. When it was declared a terrorist group, Al-Shabaab controlled most of Southern Somalia through governance structures that functioned better than those of institutions backed by the West. It engaged in development work, building roads in the south of Somalia, etc. Taxes were paid to Al-Shabaab by most organisations that operated there. Al-Shabaab was defeated in the end by AMISOM troops and lost territories under its control.
Broadly speaking, elite attitude and behaviour transformed Boko Haram's own behaviour and influence on that society just like similar transnational elite intervention explains the transformation of ICU into a radical group.
Local politicians silently contributed to Boko Haram financially and wooed its leadership, seeking political support and protection. So did wealthy business people who wanted their protection from attacks, etc. A member of the sect, Fuji Boi, was appointed as Commissioner for Water Resources in Borno State – which led naturally to Boko Haram's support for the government. He was killed in 2009.
Although the group was said to have increased its financial base through occasional armed robbery of banks and of wealthy individuals, it became violently radicalised due to the action of the political elite. Clashes with state security forces began gradually but came to a head in 2009 when Boko Haram supporters were attacked massively by security forces while they were carrying their dead members for burial.
The group began by attacking police stations and this attracted a heavy onslaught in combined police and military operations. The bloodiest of the operations in 2009 led to the destruction of BK's headquarters and its mosque, as well as the arrest of Mohammed Yusuf who later died in police custody.
Boko Haram's resurgence under the leadership of Abubakar Shekau has spread terror beyond Borno to other northern states and pursued their grievances with vigour.
The situation has escalated as BK has become better connected and better resourced. Stories of support by part of the elite continue to spread. Its weapons system is more sophisticated and its connections in Cameroon, Chad and the larger Sahel are threateningly evident. It adopts a narrative which demands Islamic rule and uses methods advanced by Al-Qaeda and Al- Shabaab, but its grievances are very local and require localised solutions.
Regardless of the roots outlined above, the Nigerian and Kenyan governments have consistently pursued one narrative and one strategy. Their narrative is that BK and Al-Shabaab are part of a problem of global terror.
This caters to their global audience and invariably attracts actors like the US to Nigeria and its covert involvement in Kenya. In both cases, the only strategy is a military one even though this has failed miserably and has failed to forced a change of strategy. Al-Shabaab, like BK, continues indiscriminate attacks targeting police and civilian targets.
The arrest of suspected BK members and their families including innocent people has fuelled support and sympathy for BK in the region. Similarly, the recent indiscriminate arrests of people of Somali ethnicity, a statement of their collective guilt, has alienated the Somali and generated indifference in many quarters to Kenya’s genuine security concerns.
Here, the government is losing the one constituency of actors who would have served as peacemakers and negotiators, with Somali business people seeking to exit and take their businesses elsewhere in the region where they will not be profiled.
But the ruling elite continues to see everything in terms of its immediate political interests and it has no useful method of introspection and no tools in its box that allow it to be creative about what solution to pose in the face of growing complexity of the security challenge.
Although the casualty rate is kept under wraps, the Nigerian military has lost so many men to BK and victory is not in sight. Negotiations are not being pursued despite the opening provided by the Chibok abductions.
Nigeria's ruling elite risks escalating this crisis because of its own political agenda and a potential interest in keeping the crisis going until after the elections next year. If moments of opportunity are not seized to contain this phenomenon through other strategies, this BK crisis risks becoming regional like the Al-Shabaab threat which has grown to cause panic in Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya.
The French coordination of a new regional bloc - Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Benin – is the beginning of a new dynamic. Meanwhile, BK is already spreading its terror into Cameroon.
Nigeria is heavily influenced by the US which refuses to negotiate with "terrorists". Yet over 200 girls remain in BK custody. Here, a major chance to transform things through negotiations is being lost. And yet, France, the UK, and the US have been known to negotiate when their own citizens are under siege.
It is sheer folly not to find solutions other than military ones. Britain under Margaret Thatcher negotiated with the IRA after decades of terror attacks and open refusal to negotiate. It is sheer folly not to see this as a distinctive local/national challenge.
These African societies are crying out for a secure environment and a security response that is not held hostage by their ruling elite and external allies. The moment for us to learn lessons across borders and think innovatively about security responses is now.
(Dr. ‘Funmi Olonisakin is Founding Director of the African Leadership Centre while Godwin Murunga is the current Acting Director of the Centre.)