President Buhari addresses troops[photo: Federal Government of Nigeria]

[This is an excerpt from a research article appearing in the current edition of The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.]

Rethinking counterterrorism

The 11 September 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States changed the contours of the war on terror. Terrorism, since then, became a global threat that was to be thwarted through the use of force; phrases like ‘we cannot negotiate with terrorists’ gained popularity within governments’ agencies across the world. This saw a ferocious crackdown on groups and individuals whose activities were seen to be bordering on terrorism and since no negotiations could be done between governments and groups/individuals perceived to be engaging in terrorist activities, the use by governments of force aimed at annihilating such groups/individuals continued with little criticism. It cannot be gainsaid that governments are justified in protecting citizens and property within their territories because terrorists continuously target innocent civilians, state installations and private properties to inflict as much damage as possible on governments.

But the use of force has come with serious ramifications on the part of governments, and this has been the case in Nigeria. While the government’s approach is based on the use of military power, Boko Haram has, in the past, successfully managed to expose the government’s approach as underwhelming while also creating a feeling of the government’s incompetence among the general public in the north. The group also capitalised on the government’s use of force to spread its ideologies among vulnerable youths and enabled it to imbue its followers with rabid thoughts about the government’s inconsiderate approach.

Since the adoption of military power as the sole mechanism for dealing with terrorism fails to achieve, at least in the long term, the government’s goal of annihilating the group, politicians seem to be taking advantage of such failures to further their political goals by linking their opponents to terrorist groups in exchange for cheap political advantage. As such the politicisation of grave matters bordering on national security like terrorism only serves to deny the government the much needed popular support and legitimacy at home even when it has the backing of the international community.

Against this backdrop, the main question is: how can the government effectively counter the activities of Boko Haram? To achieve its objectives, the government must reconsider its hitherto costly and failed approach to counter-terrorism and by doing so, consider new non-violent strategies. Complete annihilation of the group has proved to be a strategically and militarily impossible endeavour since most members of the group are ordinary artisans who can blend well into the general population. Annihilation of the group would then mean total destruction of the entire northern region. Therefore, there is a need to deter, compel and persuade the group to bring the crisis to an end on terms that are propitious to the government without the use of costly military power. As such the government must address historical grievances by examining the origin and ideology of the group in a manner that builds confidence not only among the general public but also among the members of the group.


A cursory look at the Boko Haram crisis and the government’s response to it indicates that it is one of the major security challenges to have confronted Nigeria since independence. The Nigerian government and its security apparatus have faced an arduous task in bringing the crisis to a successful end since the group has morphed frequently and employed multifarious strategies to confound and confront the government. The conflict has, at different times, assumed different guises following the group’s adoption of conventional and unconventional strategies and the government, at some point, appeared to be incapable of dealing with the group due to other domestic issues that like corruption, poverty and inequality which required its undivided attention. Interestingly, despite the change of government and strategy – especially if one compares the approaches of the Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari regimes – Boko Haram seems to bounce back. Indeed, President Buhari set an ambitious goal to defeat the group by the end of 2016, a promise he has failed to keep. This can partly be attributed to international dynamics and the support that the group may have sought from the Islamic State (IS) organisation as well as the lack of an enthusiastic response in other important sectors such as economic and political reforms.

A state’s fragility is a corollary of a state’s inability to fulfil its responsibilities including the provision of security and social-economic services with greater efficacy and efficiency. The nexus between the state’s inability to respond to challenges, the emergence of terrorist groups and the state’s response to threats posed by those groups effectively was the main concern of this article. This article has argued that while governments are quick to brand groups as terrorists, they often fail to recognise and address factors that lead to the emergence of such groups and instead resort to the use of brute force in response. While this could be justified in relation to securing the safety of its citizens and properties, it forms an incalculable liability in evaluating its net utility.

This article, therefore, concludes that the military approach as a counterterrorism measure is not only costly but also inimical to the broader objective of addressing domestic terrorism especially in contexts where insurgent groups thrive as a result of a government’s failure to provide vital public goods and services. It emphasises the need to utilise a combined approach that factors in military, economic, legal and non-lethal/soft measures. Addressing the root causes of the emergence of insurgent groups and addressing historical injustices does not make a government weak but works to build national cohesion and save the government from costly military operations.

Israel Nyaburi Nyadera is with the Department of Government and Public Administration, University of Macau, Taipa Macau and the Department of Political Science, Ankara Yildirim Beyazit University, Ankara, Turkey. Michael Otieno Kisaka is with the Department of Sociology, Hacettepe University, Ankara. Billy Agwandais with the Department of African Studies and International Relations, Istanbul Commerce University, Istanbul.