Children play in the Dalori camp, near Maiduguri in northeastern Nigeria, for people displaced by Boko Haram’s violence.
The war against extremism is not just one of arms and contestation over territory; it is very much a battle of value systems as well. The latter is a more permanent campaign, in which the party with the strongest set of norms, not the most firepower, has the upper hand. Governments can win the war against violent extremists only by offering a better alternative.
In February, I visited Nigeria’s Dalori camp for internally displaced people (IDPs), and the sight of helpless women and children was unbearable. Victims who have experienced years of Boko Haram’s horror and exploitation are yet to overcome their nasty memories. After years of sexual, physical and psychological torture, they are now confined in camps where they are totally reliant on the camp authorities and can seek neither livelihoods for themselves nor the help of family and friends. What is worse, they still fear for their lives because of Boko Haram’s continued attacks on IDP camps. I remember whispering to myself at one point, “These are among the most vulnerable people on earth.”
While I was still struggling to get over the disgust I witnessed on that one-day visit, there came an unsettling report from Amnesty International. The report, released on 24 May and entitled “They Betrayed Us”, alleges that thousands of women who survived Boko Haram’s terror have had to endure another cycle of horrendous abuse. It asserts that starving women faced an organised system of rape and sexual exploitation at the hands of state officials, who abused their victims with impunity.
This is not the first time Amnesty International has released such a damning report. It has published several others with similar allegations since Boko Haram’s insurgency began almost a decade ago. As with previous reports, Abuja swiftly dismissed the latest, calling it “a wild goose chase”. This reaction suggests that any official investigation into the claims has been closed before even being opened.
Yet charges that people in authority in camps like Dalori acted with impunity against the kind of women I saw there deserve more than a swift dismissal by Abuja. Amnesty International is not alone in making these accusations: Human Rights Watch made similar allegations in October 2016, suggesting that the claims may not be wholly unfounded.
And there are other reasons why allegations such as these should be investigated. First and foremost, governments must offer a better vision of society than Boko Haram. Like other extreme groups, Boko Haram rejects democracy, constitutionalism and the rule of law. It eschews civilised justice systems and peaceful co-existence between people of different faiths and of no faith. The group is out to impose its barbaric norms and its brutish idea of justice. Thus, in fighting them, governments must offer something different, a more civilised and transparent worldview. After all, if those who are meant to uphold the rule of law behave in the same way as the extremists, then the authorities discredit their value system and legitimise that of the extremists. That will be a gift to Boko Haram.
Secondly, as both a consequence and a manifestation of the rule of law, those accused of crimes must be investigated—to prosecute and punish them if they are guilty, or to clear them, restore their reputation and set the record straight if they are innocent. Alleged victims may also deserve to be compensated, and society must be reassured that the extremists’ view is an aberration of justice.
Thirdly, investigating allegations and punishing any culprits will prevent the emergence of grievances that could drive people to extremism. Ill-treatment of members of society, especially women and children, breeds resentment against state actors. Extremists, in turn, exploit this resentment to recruit and indoctrinate local people.
This analysis is supported by “Journey to Extremism in Africa”, a report published in September 2017 by the UN Development Programme. The study revealed that of the 495 respondents who voluntarily signed on to the jihadi groups studied—mainly Boko Haram and al-Shabaab—79 per cent identified “government action” in the form of a traumatic event, usually related to the killing, arrest or loss of a family member or a friend, as their “tipping point” to joining the group.
This concern is all the more worrying now that a faction of Boko Haram is making serious efforts to build grass-roots support, recruit more aggrieved youths and establish its own brand of an Islamic state. In May, Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international public broadcaster, revealed that the faction, which is known as Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) and recognised by the ISIS leader, administers territory “spanning an estimated 100 miles [161 kilometres]” across northeastern Nigeria.
Earlier, a similar report by Reuters exposed how the group digs wells, distributes seeds and provides safe pasture for herders to induce people to cooperate with them. The report said the group uses preachers to recruit locals and encourage IDPs to return to their communities, in a bid to boost the population they control and their revenue. And it indicated that areas controlled by the militia extend to parts of Niger.
Undoubtedly, the Nigerian military has been committed in its fight against Boko Haram and has succeeded in dealing the extremists a deadly blow. However, allegations such as those in the recent Amnesty International report seriously dent the army’s image. A transparent investigation into the claims and, if they are found to be true, a process to bring those responsible to justice would mark a sharp difference between the authorities’ and the extremists’ value systems, and would go a long way to winning people over to the side of the authorities.
This would save the likes of the unfortunate families I met in Dalori camp—and thousands of others elsewhere—from unscrupulous security officials, and would prevent youths who might have suffered or witnessed the alleged maltreatment from journeying to extremism. In the end, not only would Boko Haram be defeated, but similar groups would also be denied ground on which to grow and flourish.