How Exactly Do We Get Rid of Boko Haram?

With the complications of politics, economics, culture and religion, Boko Haram is a conundrum for terrorism experts and military advisers.

Demonstrators hold placards and banners reading “I Am Nigerian” (left) and “Stop Boko Haram” during a gathering in Paris Jan. 18, 2015, to protest the terror group.  
Demonstrators hold placards and banners reading “I Am Nigerian” (left) and “Stop Boko Haram” during a gathering in Paris Jan. 18, 2015, to protest the terror group.   LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images

The closer we get to Nigeria’s upcoming presidential elections, set to take place Feb. 14, the worse it gets as Boko Haram is emboldened. What started off as a raggedy outlaw movement accessorizing Qurans is now a headlining existential threat to the African continent’s largest economy.

If you thought Boko Haram could do no worse than its infamous kidnapping of more than 250 Nigerian schoolgirls last summer, think again. In the past month, the Islamist insurgency has unleashed unspeakable terror throughout the region, from overrunning military bases along the Nigerian-Cameroonian border to now dispatching child suicide bombers in hits on populated centers. The most vicious offensive was the senseless genocidal-scale massacre of more than 2,000 men, women and children in the town of Baga three weeks ago. Critics continue to blast Western media outlets for the lack of news coverage.

But as Boko Haram becomes increasingly more violent and effective against Africa’s fifth-largest military, a more important matter remains elusive: How exactly do you defeat Boko Haram?

Can’t You Just Blow Them Up?

At the moment, not only will they not go away but they also seem to multiply.

From a pure defense perspective, at the least, you’ll need a competent and nimble military that’s able to meet Boko Haram wherever it hits. “You need a military that has the right equipment and training—and you need a military mindset that puts community safety first,” says Jennifer Cooke, the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Africa Program director, in a conversation with The Root.

Still, Cooke understands that this isn’t quick and dirty. She’s the first to tell you that it’s “a multilayered problem that must be addressed from multiple layers at once.” In that sense, you’ll need an overall strategy that encompasses the military, the economy, the intelligence and the community engagement.

And while strategies to suppress Islamist terrorist groups like the Islamic State group and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula seem relatively more direct, attempts to shut down Boko Haram are twice as complex. The West African regional terrain is messy on numerous levels: politically, culturally and economically. That Nigeria’s own government, under current President Goodluck Jonathan, is reluctant to publicly acknowledge the magnitude of the crisis makes the situation that much harder.

“The military and economic tools are certainly important,” says Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical analysis for Stratfor, a prominent global intelligence and advisory firm. “But no strategy or tool is more important than the ideological.”

Why Not Reason With Them?

Stewart tells The Root that rampant corruption and human rights abuses by the Nigerian military validate a broader “us vs. them” narrative that fuels rising animosity toward the current government. “Until they get that issue resolved, there’s not much hope.”

Hence, defeating Boko Haram really boils down to a virtually impossible hearts-and-minds calculus that’s bigger than Boko Haram. Any strategy would entail finding a way to radically ease long-standing tensions between the country’s North and South, or its largely Muslim and Christian political camps, respectively. It’s a classic poor-vs.-rich scenario, a case in which an impoverished North feels neglected and abandoned in the dust of a petroleum-rich South having a greater amount of loot to share.