Why Kenya, Nigeria and Mali need a fresh strategy to stem growing violence

The Sri Lanka counterinsurgency model is a cautionary tale…the object should not be to defeat the enemy but to win the public.

African states battling an upsurge in localised armed conflicts and insurgencies are faced with two stark choices: Find new and effective methods to quell the violence and resolve conflicts; or remain stuck in the current rut and risk unraveling.

With the deadly wave of violence that has shaken Kenya and Nigeria showing no sign of letting up; the shaky truce in Mali under great strain from renewed fighting in the north; and Libya teetering on the brink following an escalation in inter-factional violence, the need for a fresh strategy has never been more pressing.

In Kenya, weeks of attacks by armed men on remote villages in the Coast region has left over 100 dead and caused massive displacement of civilians.

Deadly alliances

The bloodletting is assuming ethnic, religious and regional overtones. Just as we have seen in Nigeria in the last three years, harrowing testimonies are emerging of how the killers are picking out Christians and members of certain communities deemed “non-indigenous’, before summarily executing them.

There is growing speculation the Somali militant group, Al-Shabaab, may have found common cause with local militants and the intent, as one security source told M&G Africa, would seem to be to “intrumentalise” long-standing grievances in the region against the state, and to foment an armed local insurgency.

Meanwhile in Kenya’s arid Northeast, a long-festering feud between two Somali clans – the Garre and the Degodia – much of it over land, has turned into full-blown fighting. Close to 90 people have died, and thousands displaced.

Despite the gravity of this under-reported conflict, the authorities in Nairobi remain consumed and distracted by the other violence in the Coast.

Boko Haram widens reach

In Nigeria, new evidence is emerging that Boko Haram attacks are now expanding beyond northern and central regions.

Seemingly unrelated, armed inter-ethnic skirmishes blamed on Fulani pastoralists, have increased in frequency in parts of the north, especially Taraba and Benue states.

Over the weekend, police said they have unearthed a major plot by Boko Haram to bomb the public transport system in Nigeria’s federal capital Abuja, using suicide bombers.

Two blasts in Apapa, Lagos, in late June, which at the time were blamed on gas canisters by the police, are now believed to have been the work of Boko Haram.

In a video broadcast on jihadi websites over the weekend, the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, claimed he had ordered the bombing as well as an earlier attack on a shopping mall in Abuja that killed over two dozen people.

Security sources believe the original target of the June 25 bombing may have been a fuel depot and involved a suicide bomber. Had the attack gone according to plan, they say, it would have caused mass civilian casualties.

Mali ceasefire ‘under strain’

In Mali, fighting was reported in the northern districts of Gao and Kidal, reportedly between two rebel factions - the Tuareg MNLA and Malian Arabs (MAA) – reviving fears the fragile ceasefire signed in Bamako in May 23 could be fraying.

Talks between the Malian government and factions of the armed rebellion are scheduled for July 16 in Algiers and the timing of the new violence is significant.

It is plausible the new upsurge in fighting between the rebel factions could be related to the talks, as groups maneuver for greater political and territorial power to shore up their positions at the negotiating table.

The growing schisms within the rebellion and serial violations of the truce are, however, certain to complicate matters in Algiers.

A collapse of the talks is likely to embolden the rebel alliance and trigger a return to full-scale conflict.

In such a scenario, the UN force peacekeeping force of around 12,000, the bulk of them drawn from West Africa, will find it increasingly difficult to hold back the insurgents.

In formulating strategies for conflict resolution and peace-building, countries such as Nigeria, Kenya and Mali need to enhance their understanding of conflict dynamics and adopt tactics that draw on good practices and lessons learnt from other contexts.

Conflict systems

The violence and militancy in Kenya’s Coast and in northern Nigeria and Mali are part of wider sub-regional conflict systems.

It is impossible to tackle the localised violence in these states in isolation, without tackling some of its cross-border and sometimes transnational roots. To do that, states will require building systems of enhanced regional coordination and cooperation to address these challenges in a comprehensive way.

And, invariably, this will often involve regional and international efforts to deploy troops to stabilise conflict hotspots, but, above all, the resolve and commitment to provide African resources for their upkeep and to stay the difficult course.

States must overcome petty rivalries and unhealthy geopolitical competition, which has in the past seen some of these militant groups enjoy state support.

The AMISOM project to stabilise Somalia is crucial and remains East Africa’s best bet to address one of the Horn’s most serious and long-running conflict systems that has sucked in countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda.

Sri Lankan model
Sri Lanka is not a model for counterinsurgency; it is a cautionary tale and a war crime. The defeat of the Tamil Tigers was achieved at horrendous human cost. The conflict has left huge bitterness and continues to simmer below the surface. And that must never be a price that Africa should seek to match, in its war against militants and insurgents

Hints by some officials in Nigeria that the state may adopt the “Sri Lankan model” to defeat Boko Haram are ill-advised.

The heavy-handed tactics used by security forces in Kenya and Nigeria alienates and radicalises huge segments of the population.

Whatever views one may hold about Iraq, the recent comments by US Gen David Patreaus, a key architect of the Iraq Surge, which from 2007-2012 saw an impressive community-led effort to fight back against Al-Qaeda, is worth paying attention to, because it points to the fundamental weakness at the core of the many strategies deployed to fight against militant groups in Africa.

“The [Iraq] surge was a surge of ideas, before it was a surge of troops. It was about changing the strategy - building partnerships with local communities,” Gen Patreaus said in a radio interview.

This view chimes with those of many counterinsurgency scholars such as David Kilcullen, who argued in his book, “The Accidental Guerrillas: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of Big One”, that the object of counterinsurgency is not to defeat the enemy but to win the public.

Only when the public is fully on their side will Africa’s security forces begin to reclaim the military and political initiative from the insurgents.

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