Apr. 27, 2014 by Darius
When a bomb ripped through a crowded bus station in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, recently, killing 75 people and wounding many more, Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram claimed responsibility. In his acknowledgement of the attack, Boko Haram’s leader taunted the government and the Nigerian people, saying, probably quite accurately, “We are in your city, but you don’t know where we are.” If anyone ever summed up the challenges of counterinsurgency in one sentence, that would be it.
The Nigerian army has proved rather incapable of distinguishing Boko Haram’s fighters and operatives from random civilians, especially in the northeastern region. This inability to find the enemy has led the Nigerian government to err on the side of killing innocents. That, in turn, has sparked widespread (and justified) anger against the Nigerian government, leading many to sympathize with Boko Haram. Adding an urban dimension just makes the job that much harder.
When facing a particularly ruthless insurgent group like Boko Haram – which, in addition to the lethal bombing in Abuja, recently kidnapped 100 to 200 girls (accounts vary) from their school at gunpoint – the military’s over-kill sentiment may seem understandable. After all, it’s a very scary thing to not know who the enemy is. But Nigeria is a country of roughly 170 million people. The government is not going to root out Boko Haram without the people’s help. And the people are not likely to help when the government racks up civilian body counts that rival the enemy’s. Yes, Boko Haram may be in the cities, and yes, the government may not know where they are. But someone does. The challenge is getting the population to believe that the government’s cause is just and that the government is a trustworthy partner in the fight.