Early December 2017, the Governor of Borno State announced a new strategy in the fight against Boko Haram. Reuters reported, “Displaced people will be housed in fortified garrison towns, ringed by farms, with the rest of the countryside effectively left to fend for itself.” Governor Shettima argued that “There’s beauty in numbers, there’s security in numbers,” explaining the government’s objective “is to congregate all the people in five major urban settlements and provide them with means of livelihood, education, health care and of course security.” According to Governor Shettima, this is not a short-term security ‘patch,’ but is “a long term solution, certainly.”
This news was striking for two reasons. The announcement came nearly two years after President Buhari declared that Boko Haram was “technically defeated” and is a striking contrast to the military’s pronouncements of victory (including a statement by army spokesman Sanni Usman in June 2016 that “we have come to the point that we can beat our chest and decisively say we have dealt with Boko Haram”). Secondly, the plan bears a striking resemblance to the ‘Strategic Hamlet’ program in the Vietnam War - an initiative that failed both to protect civilians and to advance strategic objectives.
In the Strategic Hamlet Program, proposed by Sir Robert Thompson, of the British Advisory Mission and supported by the United States, was initiated in the spring of 1962. Under the program, strategic hamlets were villages developed designated by the government to separate communities from the Vietcong. Within each hamlet, the government provided amenities, public services, and even provided residents “with weapons and military training” for self defense “to encourage the peasants to move in.”
The proposed program in Borno State too, envisions a role for the government in providing housing and services to the residents of these fortress towns. However, the government’s ability to produce such an infrastructure is undermined by the persistent low-levels of service provision in the state, generally, and its mismanagement of the humanitarian crisis thus far.
Strategic Hamlets Now
Even with international support, the Strategic Hamlet Program failed to provide adequate security or cultivate trust of the civilian populations within the program’s purview. Furthermore, corruption hampered the implementation of the program, as the compensation intended for those who relocated often found its way into the pockets of officials.
The same characteristics that sunk the Strategic Hamlet Program, however, seem likely to undermine the plan proposed by Governor Shettima. In addition to the logistical burden that relocating and providing housing for the 4 million residents of Borno State in the five fortress towns, the Nigerian government has continuously struggled to secure urban areas and IDP camps, which are frequently targeted by suicide bombers.
The Nigerian humanitarian aid effort has also been marred by corruption. A spokesman for the Nigerian Senate investigation into corruption reported that between the beginning of the Buhari administration and the fall of 2017, more than $33 million in funding meant to go to IDPs was “misappropriated, or unaccounted for, or misused from different segments of the Nigerian government.” The head of the President’s Initiative on the Northeast (PINE), Babachir Lawal, was involved in a kickback scheme, in which he transferred more than $2 million from the relief effort into his personal accounts.
Given the Nigerian government’s inability to secure the urban areas and IDP camps it is responsible for, plus its history of corrupt and ineffective provision of aid. The lack of goodwill between the Nigerian government and the civilian population in the North East is a result of the persistent mischaracterization of the state in the fight against Boko Haram. In addition to the incredible logistical lift that providing housing and services for millions of displaced would entail, this plan seems like a gross and dangerous misstep in the fight against Boko Haram.