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Nigeria to open 'soft power' front against Boko Haram

18 March 2014, 18:23

Abuja - Nigeria on Tuesday unveiled a new "soft power" plan to defeat Boko Haram, hoping to win hearts and minds in the restive northeast, as the military said it was tightening the net on the ground.

National security adviser Sambo Dasuki said the government was to introduce schemes to encourage local communities to shun extremism as well as "de-radicalise" suspected militants awaiting trial.

"It's a stick and carrot approach... We believe that we can win the war against terror by mobilising our family, cultural, religious and national values," he told a news conference in Abuja.

New tactics were required because the Islamists had infiltrated communities in the remote region, enabling them to spread their message more effectively than the government, he added.

Dasuki's comments come after an upsurge in Boko Haram-linked violence that has killed more than 700 people so far this year -- one of the deadliest rates since the insurgency began in 2009.

Since emergency rule was imposed in the northeast states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa last May, some 300,000 people have been displaced, piling pressure on local authorities and relief agencies.

Last Friday, militant fighters launched a daring strike on the Giwa barracks in the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, hurling explosives to break out dozens of their brothers in arms from custody.

The attack came after a wave of strikes on civilians in rural Borno as well as on a boarding school in Yobe, that saw students slaughtered in their beds and prompted international condemnation.

- 'Marauding out of frustration' -

The increase in violence has raised fears that the Boko Haram insurgency is out of control and created the impression that the militants can roam the northeast with impunity and attack at will.

The military's counter-insurgency tactics have been called into question, while there have been doubts about whether troops are adequately equipped to deal with the threat quickly and decisively.

Overall strategic direction has also been criticised as lacking, although there are signs that the new defence minister, former army general Mohammed Gusau, is trying to get everyone into line.

Defence spokesman Chris Olukolade said claims of deficiencies were overblown and the recent violence was down to a surge in troops as well as tighter curbs on the militants' ability to seek safe haven.

"We believe we are winning," Olukolade told AFP in an interview at Defence Headquarters in Abuja last Friday.

"Our plan is to decapitate this body, to make it completely powerless and that's why we're saying that very soon, the result will be incontrovertible."

The military deemed the attack on the Giwa barracks -- where hundreds of suspected militants and their sympathisers have been held in conditions slammed by rights groups -- as desperate.

Officers say the militants have sustained heavy losses and need more fighters, while the discovery of arms caches and makeshift camps in the bush has left them short of weaponry.

Border closures between Adamawa and Cameroon, where fighters have sought refuge, and tighter security on roads to Borno has led to Boko Haram "marauding out of frustration", said Olukolade.

- An election campaign issue -

Defence analysts and Western diplomats maintain that Nigeria cannot defeat Boko Haram with force alone and have called for massive economic development programmes in the impoverished north.

The northeast, like Boko Haram itself, is dominated by people from the Kanuri ethnic group and getting local leaders on board has been seen as vital.

The military began working closely with the Kanuri community last year, providing training and support to civilian vigilante groups which had formed to fight the Islamists.

Success will be judged in the run-up to next year's general elections, when security will likely feature as a campaign issue.

Local elections passed off without incident in Yobe late last year and President Goodluck Jonathan will no doubt want to at least contain the threat before campaigning begins.

"Everything will be calculated with the election in mind," said Jacob Zenn, a fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in the United States, who has written extensively on Boko Haram.

Elections officials have warned that the unrest may make voting impossible, but, if conditions improve, Jonathan may trumpet his security crackdown to win votes in the opposition-leaning northeast.




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