Jacob's Opinion


Disarming Boko Haram: Lessons from the DRC

Posted by Jacob Jacob on February 24, 2014 at 2:55 AM

Recently, the Governor of Borno State in Nigeria’s northeast region, Kashim Shettima said the Islamist sect Boko Haram is better armed and better motivated than the Nigerian military. The Nigerian federal government quickly dispelled the Governor’s claim and asserted that the military was on top of the situation. The following day the sect killed many more people in Borno State.


Though several hundreds of miles apart, the insurgency in Nigeria’s northeast reminds me of the conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo between 2006 and 2008. I was a PhD researcher then and was visiting DRC for field elements of my research on the UN Mission’s public information operations.


Although the UN peackeepers were very well trained and reasonably well armed, they struggled to contend with the poorly armed but seemingly better motivated rebel group, Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Rwanda (FDLR). Just like Boko Haram, the FDLR was a nightmare especially in South Kivu. Using classic models of guerrilla warfare, they carried out early morning raids on villages. They would kill, take away food, women and young boys. They would also carry out occasional raids on police and military outposts and cart away arms and ammunition and then disappear into the forest or into a civilian area.


Like Boko Haram today, it was practically impossible for the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUC) to militarily engage FDLR without incurring heavy civilian casualties. The terrain was also extremely difficult. The FDLR knew the forests like their palms and the UN didn’t. The huge forest provided a very good covering and hiding place for the insurgents and there was basically nothing the UN peacekeepers could do, except maybe use the US defoliation tactics in Vietnam. But that would have been outrageous. Further compounding the problem then was that most of the FDLR fighters were Rwandan Hutus who had fled Rwanda. Most of them were involved in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.


But despite the difficulties, MONUC solved the FDLR problem using a most unlikely tool - a radio programme it called ‘Gutahuka’ (meaning ‘go back home’ in Kinyarwanda – the language of the FDLR fighters). Broadcast every night on the UN-backed Radio Okapi and a range of other stations, Gutahuka appealed directly to individual fighters to lay down their arms and join the UN’s Disarmament, Demobilisation, Repatriation, Rehabilitation and Reintegration (DDRRR) programme. It also explained details of the DDRRR. Rehabilitated ex-combatants and ex-commanders were interviewed on Gutahuka. They talked extensively about life after fighting – how they have reintegrated into their communities and now raising families and working on a business. I interviewed several former combatants in Rwanda and in the DRC. More than half of those I spoke with admitted that Gutahuka influenced their decision to abandon the ‘struggle’, some others told me that after listening to the programme they lost the zeal to continue fighting. My critical discourse analyses of the Gutahuka showed strong elements of normative appeals which can be adapted in other information intervention programmes.


Nigeria is at a crossroads. Boko Haram has torn deep into the fabric of life in the northeast, particularly in Borno state. And if its leader Abubakar Shekau should be believed, the attacks will be extended to other parts of Nigeria. Considering how the Nigerian military is responding to the situation in Borno, it is unlikely they would be able to adequately protect its population and strategic assets in the oil industry if Shekau carries out his threat of extending operations to the Niger-delta. The Nigerian government will have to seriously consider using non-military means to persuade combatants to voluntarily disarm.  


Part of MONUC’s DDRRR and overall stabilisation strategy was the unique synergisation of humanitarian and military components of the mission. It was unprecedented in UN PKO history. Three new peacekeeping elements were developed to deal with the unique terrain and the difficult conflict. These were the Joint Protection Teams (JPTs), Company Operational Bases (COBs) and Temporary Operational Bases (TOBs). While COBs and TOBs were quick response military operational bases brought closer to vulnerable communities in the Kivus, the JPTs were a novel addition to MONUC’s civil-military approach. Through JPTs MONUC worked to improve community relations in the operational environments and this really helped to improve the human intelligence gathering capability of the mission and various other information flows. To defeat Boko Haram, these elements, especially JPTs will be an essential addition.


The Joint Task Force (JTF), the Nigerian military unit mandated to deal with the insurgency, can certainly do more.  Although they do have civilians working with them at the tactical field operations level, there is still more left to be done in working directly with communities and local religious leaders to prevent attacks and reassure communities of the military's protection. But a lot needs to be done to regain the confidence of local people. According to local media reports, Boko Haram operated in Izge and Konduga for several hours without a military response whereas there is a military post less than 30 kilometers away. The military has not explained why it took them so long to respond. It is unsurprising that local people have little confidence in the military's capability to protect them.


Finally, in addition to creating a radio programme to reach out directly to insurgents, the Nigerian military needs to improve its messaging. It just has to get beyond issuing wordy press releases. They must remember that its audiences are not only Nigerians at home and in the diaspora but also foreign investors and even potential Islamist sponsors in North Africa and the Middle East.


I hope the Nigerian government will seriously consider a full Strategic Communications and Information Intervention campaign to support the JTF. The power of communications should never be underestimated in counterinsurgency operations, especially the type Nigeria is dealing with now.




Photo credit: MONUSCO

Categories: Strategic Communications, United Nations, Peacekeeping, Information Operations, Propaganda, Psyops, Public Diplomacy

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Reply Jacob Jacob
8:20 AM on March 4, 2014 
Hi Miriam,
Thanks for getting in touch. Yes I will be pleased to grant you an interview. I am in Yola, Adamawa state (one of the affected states) at the moment.
I will send you an email with my phone / skype details.
Reply Miriam
8:27 PM on March 3, 2014 
Hi. I'm a journalist working at community radio station The Wire in Sydney (thewire.org.au) I'm doing a story on Boko Haram in Nigeria, and I'm wondering if either you are up for an interview. Are you available for a phone interview either sometime this week? It will not take long. I am interested in the security of north, if you feel the Nigerian government is taking action against Boko Haram, general fear.

I am very interested in speaking to people who are living in Nigeria, so if you are not available, is there anyone else you think could be interested? They would need to either be affected in some way or be able to have an well-informed opinion on Boko Haram/security in the north. If you know of anyone that could be good to speak to, please let me know.

Many thanks.

Miriam Alveberg