Taliban’s success carries lessons for Nigeria

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Many Nigerians watching last month’s collapse of the Afghan government to the Taliban have felt a sense of familiarity and some dread, a reminder of the dangers of allowing violent extremism to proliferate.

As a Nigerian, I experience the ripple effects of my country’s own violent extremist fight, even though our insurgency is almost a thousand miles away on the other side of the country. Since Boko Haram began its fight against the government, more than 2.4 million people have been displaced by the conflict. The effects can be in southern states like Lagos, Kwara, Kogi and Oyo, where children from the Northeast run after cars for alms and families sleep on the streets.

These are daily reminders of the cost of violent extremism and the necessity of tackling its causes, such as poor governance, violation of human rights and rule of law, and unresolved conflicts. All these drivers live and breathe in Nigeria and many countries across Africa.

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Despite their cultural differences and distance apart, Nigeria and Afghanistan share similarities. Like Afghanistan until recently, Nigeria’s conflict with Boko Haram in the North East has been forgotten by much of the world and even by some in Nigeria. But, like the Taliban in Afghanistan, the conflict continues to threaten Nigeria all the same. In addition to causing violence and displacing people, insurgencies in Nigeria and throughout Africa cause as much as $97 billion a year in lost economic activity.

One of the root causes of unrest is the use of state violence such as extrajudicial killings instead of relying on the rule of law. Though Boko Haram began its insurgency in 2002, its most notorious acts of violence–the use of children as “suicide bombers” and kidnapping of girls–did not come until after the arrest and extrajudicial killing of its founder, Mohammed Yussuf in 2009. The killing of Yussuf, rather than end the insurgency, brought forward new leaders and unleashed even worse violence.

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But rule of law on its own is not enough — good governance is also necessary. Before he was killed, Yussuf had also been arrested and released without facing trial. From my experience as a lawyer, it is not uncommon for police to prosecute with insufficient evidence. This practice has led to many potential criminals walking free and undermines confidence in the legal system. In this case, it led to a missed opportunity to make Yussuf face his crimes in a court of law.

Nigeria’s government has a history of tackling major, institutional problems with small, ad hoc solutions instead of holistic policy reform that can cause system-wide change. The same could apply to how the government has responded to Boko Haram. Inquiry and conciliation mechanisms would have helped in the initial phase of Boko Haram’s activities, heading off the major violent insurgency that we experience now. The government does need to use force to respond to the violent threat of Boko Haram, but other means of resolving conflicts such as conciliation, negotiation, restorative justice could also be used.

The reasons for violent extremism are unique to every country and there’s a limit to the comparisons that can be made. However, there are common grounds – poor governance, lack of rule of law, and inefficient dispute resolution — which are identifiable and must be addressed to de-escalate deep-rooted problems.

The Taliban’s recent achievements may inspire more violent extremism across the globe particularly in Nigeria. The Taliban and Boko Haram share a similar goal to establish an Islamic state. In fact, Boko Haram has also shown that it will take inspiration from abroad, and in one of its early actions actually flew the flag of the Afghanistan Taliban.

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The genuine belief that a group could pull off a violent uprising without consequences in another country can motivate groups with resources to attempt it in their own country.

Finally, while governments such as Nigeria should seek to end conflicts peacefully through dispute resolution, good governance and the rule of law, there must also be accountability for people responsible for the violence. At the moment, Nigeria’s government is giving amnesty to former Boko Haram fighters who agree to renounce violence. While re-integrating fighters into society is good, removing consequences for participating in violent acts will create a lack of accountability and could encourage future violent insurgencies. Fighters for Boko Haram or the Taliban and others who participate in violent extremism should be reintegrated into their societies. Still, there should also be punishment for those who committed human rights abuses.

Until we fix governance, the rule of law and inefficient dispute resolution, democracies will never quell violent extremism and may even collapse in the face of violence as it has in Afghanistan. Leaders in Nigeria, the rest of Africa and around the world must learn to prevent violent extremism by supporting democratic principles and actively working to end the world’s injustice because there can never be peace without justice.

Nelson Olanipekun
Nelson Olanipekun is a human rights lawyer and the founder of Citizens Gavel, a leading human rights organization in Nigeria. He is a 2021 Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow.
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