Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria

Implications for national security and restorative justice

Mr Aduku A. Akubo, is a lecturer in the Department of Political Science, Kogi State University, Anyigba, Nigeria, and Hon. Benjamin Ikani Okolo is a Member of the House Committee on Integration and Cooperation in Africa, Federal House of Representatives, National Assembly, Abuja, Nigeria.


This study attempts to draw attention to the Boko Haram insurgency and its implications for national security in Nigeria. Using a historical method of research and content analysis, it adopts a descriptive and exploratory approach. It shows how the Boko Haram insurgency has resulted in a dire humanitarian situation evident from the human casualties, human rights abuses, population displacement and refugee debacle, livelihood crisis, and public insecurity – which portend negatively for the maintenance of national security in Nigeria. The study discusses how the counter-terrorism in northeast Nigeria appears to have caused more harm than good and how the terrorist conflict is far from reaching a stalemate ripe for resolution. It is recommended that the Nigerian government should refocus its efforts on a people-centric, community-based and intelligence-driven, whole-of-government approach to better police its borders, improve the capacity of the security forces, enhance interagency cooperation and improve cooperation in the sub-region. The Government should empower the local communities to reach out to the perpetrators of the insurgency with a message of peace and reconciliation. A shift to a restorative and community justice approach may be a pointer to a lasting solution.


Nigeria is confronted with daunting challenges to its political stability occasioned by insurgence and terrorism1 (Obafemi and Galadima 2013a:xv). Over the past decades, different forms of domestic and international terrorism have been witnessed around the world (Egbue, Nwankwo and Alichie 2015:14). Nigeria too, is caught in the frenzy of terrorism to a degree and intensity never experienced before. Terrorism is posing a great threat, not just to life, property, human rights, dignity and democratic values, but to the very fabric and existence of Nigeria (Obafemi and Galadima 2013a:xv; Mbombo 2015:84). Whether internationalised or localised, it is mostly politically motivated, but it may also show auxiliary motives of a religious, economic or social kind (Chukwurah, Eme and Ogbeje 2015:371).

The Boko Haram sect started with sporadic attacks on security formations. With time, they graduated to offensives on Christian churches, Mosques, schools and other public places. The use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and suicide bombing has since added to the ever degenerating complexion of insurgency. According to the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Foundation, the group has carried out 1 639 violent attacks with 14 436 fatalities, 6 051 injured victims, and 2 063 hostages across the northeast region of Nigeria (Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Foundation 2018). So far, no lasting remedy is in sight as the faceless leadership of the sect has remained rather intransigent and malignant (Okoli and Iortyer 2014:44).

Their modus operandi is very amorphous and their tactical focus evidently unpredictable (Achodo 2019:4).

If the strategic objective of the government is to militarily degrade and defeat this group, both in the short and the long term, that will require a distinctive set of rules of engagement. Conversely, if the strategic objective of the government is to politically negotiate cessation of violence and resolution to the crisis, then a different military concept of operations and rules of engagement would be required both in the short and long term (Achodo 2019:3). The current military operations offer no credible indications of purpose and objective other than to defeat the insurgency. This poses a huge dilemma for the army, as the war is mostly internal and executed by local national actors within the region and with varied external support (Achodo 2019:3).

Before the violent conflict finally becomes history, the need to build a bridge between potential terrorists and survivors that would preclude future atrocities should be recognised, and first moves should be undertaken – just as building a literal bridge begins with the construction of solid bases on the riverbanks (Mbombo 2015:85). The Boko Haram sect and the community of survivors in northeast Nigeria should be regarded as primary stakeholders and partners in a joint problem-solving process. In fighting domestic terrorism, the bleeding party is not the government, but the local community. Deradicalisation in this regard must come from the victims rather than the government as party to the conflict. What matters most if future occurrences of violence are to be avoided, is not the rebuilding of damaged infrastructure (as schools, housing and bridges), but the reconciliation between victims and perpetrators (Mbombo 2015:86). The need for restorative and community justice cannot be overlooked.

Background information

Terrorism is not a new phenomenon in world history. It has existed in every age, and important terrorist groups as the following may serve as prominent examples: the Baader Mainhof gang of West Germany, the Japanese Red Army, the Italian Red Brigade, the Palestinian al-Fatah, the Israeli Haganah, the Lebanese Hezbollah, Osama Ibn Laden’s Al-Qaeda, the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia, the Viet Cong in Vietnam, the Somalian al-Shabaab, Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) (Livingstone, Bruce and Wanek 1978:3; Ngare 2012, cited in Okoli and Iortyer 2014:42) and the Islamic State group (IS) in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and elsewhere (for instance, Chad, Cameroon and Nigeria). The Nigerian Boko Haram has recently (2013) been listed by the United States among the league of the world’s terrorist groups (Okoli and Iortyer 2014:42).

Terrorism, arguably, is one of the most serious threats to global peace and stability in contemporary times. Since the dawn of this millennium, the incidence of terrorism has been on a steady rise worldwide. Hitherto, however, terrorism was more or less a national or regional affair (Okoli and Iortyer 2014:39). Some years ago, terrorism still seemed to be restricted to a few isolated places, such as Northern Ireland, the Basque Country in northern Spain, and some areas of the Middle East. Now – especially since 11 September 2001, with the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York – it has mushroomed into a worldwide phenomenon (June 2006:4).

Okoli and Iortyer (2014:42) point out that since Nigeria broke from the shackles of British colonial rule in 1960, she has increasingly found it difficult to surmount her basic security challenges. Security and stability appear to have been the major challenges in the nation’s chequered political history. Okoli and Iortyer (2014, citing Fwatshak and Ayuba 2007:255–272) further argue that since independence, not a single decade has passed without at least one major cataclysmic crisis in Nigeria. Nigeria experienced the Western region political crises in the 1960s, incessant military coups, and a fratricidal civil war between 1967 and 1970. The last three to four decades also witnessed some of the worst civil and sectarian crises. Cases in point include the Maitatsine riots, starting in Kano and spreading to most parts of northern Nigeria in the 1980s, the ethno-religious crises in Kafanchan and Zango Kataf in Southern Kaduna in 1987 and 1992, the intractable ethno-religious crisis in Jos since early 2000 to date, and the 1993, 2007 and 2011 post-election crises that spread across the country, most especially the northern parts of Nigeria.

Durotoye (2000) asserts that the Nigerian state is being challenged from ‘above’ and ‘below’ by ethnic, religious and regional groups, and by the state elite itself. He listed youth militancy, religious uprising, labour unrest, ethnic jingoism, and political antagonism as some of the catalysts of assaults on the state. The most recent of them all is the Boko Haram terrorism, which, through ransom kidnapping, politically motivated killings, armed robbery, and other acts of criminality, generated widespread anxiety in the country (Okoli and Iortyer 2014:43). Okpoya, Ugwu and Eme (2012, cited in Durotoye 2015:1251) classified four major manifestations of insecurity in Nigeria as ethno-religious conflict, politically-based violence, economic-based violence and organised violent groups. These forms of violence have variously created humanitarian problems and have threatened Nigeria’s desire towards achieving sustainable political and economic development.


Insurgencies are not new in the history of states (Fafowora 2013:1). Around the globe, insurgency has sadly become one of the defining features of our society today (Ngige, Badekale and HammanJoda 2016:58). They go back to times of antiquity, as far back as the old civilizations of the Greek city states and the Roman Empire when the rulers of these ancient civilisations often had to face the challenge of insurgencies, insurrections and revolts. In modern history, examples of insurgencies and terrorism go back to at least four centuries, spanning many continents and states. These include the French revolution of 1789 that replaced the Bourbon monarchy by a new French Republic, and the 1776 American war of independence from British colonial rule. The 19th century was an even more unstable and turbulent era during which German unification was brought about by force under Chancellor Bismarck. The unification of Italy was also achieved by force under the leadership of Garibaldi. In the Balkans, the old Habsburg Empire was overthrown by a series of insurgencies including the murder at Sarajevo of Archduke Francis Ferdinand by a Serb nationalist (Fafowora 2013:2). This incident led to World War 1 and the breakup of the Habsburg Empire and Monarchy. The Ottoman Empire that had for centuries held sway in central Europe and the Balkans also fell after World War I, and was replaced by modern Turkey. In Russia, the Romanov Empire was brought down in the 1917 revolution against Imperial Russia. This bloody conflict, in which the entire family of the Tsar was wiped out, gave rise to the new Communist Empire of the Soviet Union. More recently, internal dissent and grievances led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and its replacement by several separate republics, once part of the Soviet Union. Ethnic war and cleansing in Yugoslavia led to its collapse and the rise of several successor states in its place. Other governments and states, in central Europe and the Balkans, also faced a lot of security challenges and violence as many of the central European states fought for the independence of their countries against foreign domination (Fafowora 2013:2).

Contemporary examples include the Tiananmen revolt in China, brutally put down by the Chinese government, and the continuing sectarian conflict in Afghanistan between the insurgents, the Taliban (an extremist Islamic sect) and the Afghan government (Fafowora 2013:2). This conflict is being fought by the Afghan government with the military support of the US-led allied forces in Afghanistan. In Pakistan and India, terrorist groups, mainly extremist Islamic sects have continued to pose serious security problems. In the Middle East, the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians remains unresolved, with bands of insurgents and terrorists moving freely from one country to the other. Nigeria has now joined the ranks of states affected by terrorism. In fact, the virtual dismemberment of Mali by Islamic warriors which have seized the northern part of the country constitutes a warning that insurgencies are spreading rapidly in the Savannah region of West Africa and the Sahel. Nigeria is just one of the possible targets of terrorism in West Africa. This has a potential to extend beyond Nigeria (Fafowora 2013:2).

It is important, however, to take into account that all of these insurgencies indisputably had their reasons or perceived reasons. Nwala (2013:33) provides us with a list of typical conditions that create insurgency:

  • Injustice, such as inequity, persecution, discrimination, marginalisation and denial of rights
  • Illegitimacy of the regime, as when it comes to power through seizure of power, electoral fraud, tyranny or corruption
  • Longing for freedom and self-determination
  • Poverty, especially when the regime is deemed to be weak and incompetent and incapable to protect the poor masses in the midst of plenty
  • Weakness of government
  • Ideological influences
  • Militarisation of the society due to a long reign of the military
  • Lack of employment opportunities for the ever teeming school leavers
  • Increasing circulation of small arms and light weapons (SALWs).

The Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria and government responses

The current insurgency in Nigeria is driven by two economic forces – one local, the other external. On the domestic front the economy has over the years sustained a large pool of marginalised citizens who benefit little from the natural resources of the country. A series of social and political issues have intermingled with an initial economic condition to ensure that this segment of society remains at the fringes of the economic system (Kwanashie 2013:146). The activities of the Boko Haram sect have created an atmosphere of siege and desolation in most parts of northern Nigeria (UK Home Office 2016:11). While poverty and economic marginalisation do not automatically result in insurgency, evidence from history suggests that the existence of this marginalised sector provides ample manpower for insurgency (Kwanashie 2013:146).

One striking factor in today’s insurgencies throughout Africa is the growth in the number of them based on a fundamentalist ideology. The ruthless attacks, audacity, sophistication and dexterity with which they operate have taken security operatives in Africa by surprise. People are killed, maimed, kidnapped, displaced and facilities wrecked. The implication of this is that it has exacerbated poverty, brought massive human suffering, and destroyed property. The society has lost confidence in the system (Eze 2014). Insurgent groups in Nigeria have emerged at different points in the country’s political history and assumed different forms. Some of the insurgent groups are: the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) and the Movement for Sunna Lidda’awa Wal Jihad, which means ‘Brethren of Sunni United in the Pursuit of Holy War’, and is popularly referred to as Boko Haram, meaning ‘Western education is forbidden’.

In the early stage of the Boko Haram insurgence, the Nigerian government treated it lightly, almost as a minor uprising that would disappear in no time. The police force was deployed. But the further turn of events necessitated the deployment of combatant soldiers as if it was a full-scale war (Olaide 2013 quoted in Aduloju, Opanike and Adenipekun 2014:104). According to Fawole (2013), government response to the Boko Haram menace has not been coordinated and focused; in fact, it has moved between the use of extreme force, appeasement, amnesty, and negotiation. The activities of the sect, especially since 2009, have constituted a major security threat to the nation and made northern Nigeria, particularly the northeast, the most dangerous region of the country in which to live. The militant incidents of the sect have mainly targeted the government and her institutions and officials, churches, motor parks and sometimes mosques; and countless numbers of innocent Nigerians have borne the brunt of the Boko Haram acts of devastation. Due to the incessant bombings of churches in the north, particularly in the most affected states of Bornu, Yobe and Adamawa (Abuja, Jos, Kaduna and Kano not left out), the insurgency has pitched Christians and Muslims against each other. The violent activities of the sect have also assumed an international dimension with the kidnappings and brutal killings of some Europeans (Akinbi 2015:33).

Only with the concluded 2015 elections did the government become an enthusiastic opponent of Boko Haram, cooperating with Cameroon, Chad, and Niger to form a multinational force backed by the African Union, the European Union, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States (Smith 2015). An integrated military approach, comprising Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, Chad and recently Benin, is mounting counter-attacks (Yakohene 2015:52). The Government’s attempt to grant amnesty to Boko Haram members was rejected by its current leader, Abubakar Shekau, and attempts to negotiate in a non-violent manner also backfired. The establishment of a special Joint Task Force codenamed ‘Operation Restore Order’ (JTF ORO) to eliminate the threat posed by Boko Haram recorded somewhat modest successes (Yakohene 2015:54). The conflict suppression measures applied by the Nigerian Government through military JTF, has been minimally effective and far from enthroning peaceful coexistence in the areas. Killing Boko Haram terrorists through JTF attacks has been used as major counter-terrorism strategy with obvious side effects. Such side effects include counter-attacks by the group upon unsuspecting villages. More worrisome is the fact that the membership of the Boko Haram group appears to be on the rise despite the attacks (Egbue, Nwankwo and Alichie 2015:24).

On 13 August 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari announced that he was setting a three-month deadline to defeat Boko Haram (Agence France-Presse 2015). President Buhari embarked on a closer and more defined relationship with his neighbours and brought Benin into the fold by meeting its leaders. He released money to the Nigerian Army to be better prepared and also directed the relocation of the military command and control centre from the capital Abuja to Maiduguri – the main city at the heart of the insurgency, until the conflict is resolved (Yakohene 2015:55). For more than a decade, Nigeria has not been able to militarily defeat the Boko Haram insurgency even with the logistical support coming from the neighbouring countries (Mbombo 2015:74). Between 2015 and 2017, the effectiveness of the military campaign improved and the Nigerian Government managed to retake territories from Boko Haram, pushing the group to more marginal areas. Yet the Nigerian Military has struggled to effectively hold retaken territories. Lower scale Boko Haram attacks persist and steadily expose the questionable claims of the government that Boko Haram has been technically defeated (Felbab-Brown 2018:73). Defeating a home-grown insurgency group has historically proven to be difficult. And experience in many countries, such as Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Peru, Colombia, Spain, Afghanistan, Iraq and Israel, show that an army has never defeated a guerrilla insurgency (Achodo 2019:4).

The threat to national security

The Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria poses major security threats to the lives and property of the citizens, consequently affecting the socio-economic development of the nation. It is often argued that the causes of the Boko Haram grievances cannot easily be identified. Some argued that Boko Haram is a set of disgruntled charlatans who do not really have a clear-cut aim with regard to their actions and inactions (Omomia 2015:63). Boko Haram’s insurgency is fuelled by Nigeria’s history, geopolitical structure, ethno-religious composition and socio-economic disparities (Udounwa 2013). The insurgency of Boko Haram, which started as a weak, disorganised, loosely coordinated and inchoate movement, mutated to pose serious threats to national security. It developed a capability for strategic power projection, strategic intelligence, and the building of wide-ranging linkages to subvert the state. Boko Haram’s proficiency in explosives and operational tempo as well as its tactical sophistication and aggressiveness have become a source of concern to many observers (Obafemi and Galadima 2013a:xvi). The group has also become more vicious and daring in methods, scale of attacks, geographical reach and selection of targets. Government offices, places of worship, media establishments, security forces buildings, private companies, and national and international institutions have been targeted by the group. In August 2011 they even launched a devastating attack on the United Nations Headquarters building in Abuja.

Globally, the issues of security, peace and development are at the centre stage of local, national and international discourse (Wosu and Agwanwo 2014:11). National security has been construed in different ways, each of which emphasises vital factors underlying the idea (Brown 1982:21; cf. Held and McGrew 1998:226). National security is an important concern in the life of a person, group or nation (Ujomu 2001:248). The concept of national security cuts across many disciplines covering military protection, surveillance, protection of national values and human rights (Ogbonnaya and Ehigiamusoe 2013:1). A broad understanding can therefore include security against disease, hunger, deprivation, violent crime, political assassinations, kidnapping, ethno-religious conflicts, civil war, terrorism, and environmental degradation. the Emancipation of the Ogoni People (from the South–South of Nigeria), the Odua People’s Congress (from the South West), the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB, from the South East), and now the Jama’atul ahlul.2

According to Adesoji (2011), the Boko Haram insurgency has security implications not only within Nigeria, but also in neighbouring countries and in the regional and even the international environment. The resultant public security volatility in the region has been an impediment to trade and investment, peaceful co-existence and stability, as well as sustainable livelihood and development (Okoli and Iortyer 2014:47). Moreover, the reach and operational capabilities of the group is still growing, and it is connecting with like-minded terrorist groups within the region and in the Sahel. This increasing transnational dimension provides an avenue for it to improve its capacity for more deadly attacks on a large scale that could pose a serious threat to security and stability in the wider African continent. At the same time, such external terrorist groups are spreading their activities and influence. There is a southward movement of terrorists, especially members of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), through the Sahel towards Mali, Mauritania, and Niger and, more importantly, Nigeria, and this will have severe implications on national security and stability in West Africa (Olaide 2013 quoted in Aduloju, Opanike and Adenipekun 2014:105). Indeed, there are indications that AQIM has operational bases in some West African countries and has forged tactical alliances with terrorist groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), and Ansar Eddine in Mali and Niger (Olaide 2013 quoted in Aduloju, Opanike and Adenipekun 2014:105). Because of these alliances, AQIM now provides training and logistical support to Boko Haram in Nigeria and other terrorist groups in the West African region and these groups now lend a helping hand to one another in attacks against their governments. In fact, there are indications that Boko Haram now has links with the Al-Shabaab terrorist group in Somalia and has intervened repeatedly in inter-religious conflicts in Mali on the side of the local Muslim populations against non-Fulani Christians (Olaide 2013 quoted in Aduloju, Opanike and Adenipekun 2014:105).

The chain of collaboration among the different terrorist groups within the central and West Africa sub-region has severe implications for security and stability in the West Africa sub-regions. Advantageous to the terrorist organisations is the strategic base of Boko Haram and its effect on the sub-regional power, i.e. Nigeria. Their aim is to destabilise the provider of stability in the sub-region so as to reduce the overall response to terrorism in the sub-region (Aduloju, Opanike and Adenipekun 2014:106). As Nigeria and other members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are working towards peace and stability through integration in the sub-region, the terrorist organisations, especially Boko Haram, are busy coordinating pockets of crisis in Nigeria and other parts of West Africa in a bid to create a coordinated jihadist movement across West Africa. The sophistication of the attacks of these groups has raised concerns about their capacity to attack non-Nigerian targets in Nigeria and throughout Africa (Aduloju, Opanike and Adenipekun 2014:106). The problem is even more potent since the Boko Haram group was reported by the Former president Good Luck Jonathan to have infiltrated the wider security force, but was not specific on the security arm, making efforts at its eradication more difficult.

Some of the efforts have met with a degree of success. Most of Boko Haram’s territory has indeed been recaptured through successful counter-attacks by the Nigerian Army and troops from Cameroon, Niger and Chad.

Nevertheless, sporadic attacks on communities and the Nigerian Army by Boko Haram have continued, and have become more life-threatening since the advent of suicide bombing.

It should be emphasised, however, that the persistent threat is not only against security, but also against development. The violent activities of Boko Haram have brought a serious paralysis to business, the banking sector, markets, tourism, the transport system, hospitality, internal and external investment, companies and other economic activities. According to Okereocha (2012), due to attacks on banks, markets, parks and government departments in northern Nigeria, human capital and investors have collapsed and people have migrated to other parts of the country. Economic backwardness, poverty, unemployment, insecurity and failure in sustainable human development have increased, not only in the northern part, but in the entire country as well as neighbouring countries like Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Benin (Shehu 2015:46).

The need to adopt a restorative and community justice approach

The future security of Nigeria and the sub-region lies in consensual, well-coordinated, well-structured and well-resourced interventions by national and regional forces. But more than that, the overall success in resolving the Boko Haram threat calls for sustained measures aimed at intricately addressing the social, economic and political issues that galvanised terrorist radicalisation and gave Boko Haram a foothold in Nigeria. These would help reduce the level of poverty, income inequality and mistrust of the Government. It would bring in more and better public services and ultimately break the hold of Boko Haram over northern Nigeria (Yakohene 2015:55). The socio-economic interventions (through development of infrastructure, job creation and poverty alleviation) by the government, as well as improved governance and a genuine fight against corruption would be very useful in addressing the Boko Haram crisis, particularly towards providing the largely impoverished youth with a disincentive against being recruited into the sect (Nwankpa 2014:73).

The war on terror could be more than just the prevention of terrorist operations. It can be comprehensive in nature, attacking the premise of terrorism itself, addressing the root causes, the enablers, and the operations. Combating terrorism is as much about promoting cooperation as it is about countering extra-legal violent actions of terrorist groups or insurgents. The strategy has an obligation to provide not just security, but hope and progress without apprehensions of injustice and discrimination on the part of the parties in conflict. This is why the sole adoption of a ‘might is right’ strategy rarely achieves meaningful results (Egbue, Nwankwo and Alichie 2015:26). As one observes the upsurge of Boko Haram terrorism and its cataclysmic effects in northern Nigeria, it is evident that the hard power approach to counter terrorism will not yield the desired results. Government security agents are more concerned with arresting, detaining, imprisoning, and killing terrorists and pay little attention to curbing the diffusion of radical ideas among the youth (Abah 2017). The more they conceive of the enemy as faceless criminals, the more likely it is that young individuals so deprived of legitimate identity will choose the high price of suicide bombing as entry point to heaven (Mbombo 2015:84). The government needs to invest more in open comprehensive discussion with society about rehabilitation, re-integration, leniency and victims’ rights, both for Boko Haram associates and for community victims. This should include socio-economic reconstruction and psycho-social therapy (Felbab-Brown 2018:74).

A viable alternative consists of rebuilding relationships between the victims and offenders with the help of their base communities. Sustainable peace requires that atrocities are acknowledged by those who have committed them; victims are empowered to reconcile with their offenders; and constructive steps are taken to ensure that further atrocities are prevented (Mbombo 2015:74). Understanding motivations for grievances and addressing them is the wise thing to do. Such motivations that are applicable to the Niger Delta and Boko Haram insurgencies include ‘perceptions of social exclusion, real or perceived discrimination, frustrated expectations, and government repression (that) may push individuals into collective violence’ (Aldrich 2012:48 in Nwankpa 2014:73).

The soft approaches to counter-terrorism are fast gaining ground, as hard power approaches such as the use of drones and airstrikes have come under intense criticism. These create collateral damage, and fail to overcome terrorism. There is a growing consensus that they even escalate the violence and strengthen rather than weaken the resolves of terrorist groups (Nwankpa 2014:72). The practice of restorative justice offers a viable alternative to winning the war against the Boko Haram insurgency (Mbombo 2015:74). Restorative justice often serves as a catalyst to re-evaluate, resurrect, legitimate, and adapt older, customary approaches (Zehr 2002:43). To do so, however, such approaches will need to radically change counter insurgency practices, bringing them in line with human rights best practices. The need here is to improve and expand leniency measures, and effectively rehabilitate and reintegrate individuals formerly associated with Boko Haram. Nigeria has a chance to become an example of a disarmament, deradicalisation, rehabilitation and reintegration process even before the conflict has fully ended (Felbab-Brown 2018:75).

Restorative justice is a noble concept that was first introduced in the criminal justice literature in the 1970s, but its roots reach as far back as the ancient Greek and Roman civilisations. In the current environment, it is refreshing to conceive of justice as a means to repair the harm done to people and their relationships instead of just punishing the offenders at the end of a court case (Mbombo 2015:78). Restorative Justice seeks to reframe the way we conventionally think about wrongdoing and justice: away from our preoccupation with lawbreaking, guilt and punishment, toward a focus on harms, needs and obligations. It brings a new paradigm into the field of criminal justice (Chankova et al. 2016:18). It recognises that crime has its origins in social conditions and relationships in the community. While criminal justice deals mercilessly with offenders, but sidelines victims and their loved ones, restorative justice reduces crime by rebuilding relationships. As we move beyond retributive justice, reconciliation stands out as a long-term strategy of conflict transformation anchored on three pillars, namely: truth, justice and mercy (Mbombo 2015:79). Criminal justice is incapable of assuring peace in social life (Chankova et al. 2016:18), but restorative justice is a value-based model. Key values are reintegration and inclusion. Other restorative justice values are mutual respect, acknowledgment, openness, empowerment, connectedness, tolerance, integrity, encouragement, sharing ideas, importance of feelings, needs and rights. Basic skills needed in restorative meetings are: remaining impartial and non-judgmental; practising active, empathic listening; observing body-language; respecting the perspectives of all involved; empowering participants; and showing compassion, patience, sensitivity, and warmth (Chankova et al. 2016:18).

This has been recognised in South Africa, where proponents of restorative justice seek to go beyond punishment to address the root causes of crime and help to restore social relations gone askew. Bishop Desmond Tutuʼs Truth and Reconciliation Commission explicitly drew upon restorative justice principles when it linked issues of healing with restorative truth, reconciliation and amnesty (Takagi and Shank 2004:148 cited in Alli and Akubo 2017:18). The Commission insisted on the acknowledgment and affirmation that a person’s pain is real and worthy of attention, and is central to the restoration of the dignity of victims. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up in post-apartheid South Africa is an excellent example of restorative justice applied to massive institutionalised racism (Takagi and Shank 2004:148 cited in Alli and Akubo 2017:18).

The Rwanda genocide that took place in three months in 1994 claimed the lives of approximately 800 000 people – a significant proportion of the total population in this small Central African country. The genocide that shocked the world and left the country so deeply traumatised has been described as unique because it was not just Hutu killing Tutsi, but husbands killing their wives, uncles killing their nephews, and mothers killing their children (Kubai n.d.:54). Since the end of 1994, the new Rwandan government has made the promotion of national reconciliation central to its political program. This vast enterprise has included both judicial responses and non-judicial strategies. With the help of the international community, three judicial responses were implemented: the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha, national-level domestic genocide trials, and local-level gacaca courts (Richters, Dekker and De Jonge 2005:203). In gacaca meetings, the members of a community assemble to discuss the events of the 1994 genocide and to prosecute those who committed crimes during that period (Molenaar 2005:2). Gacaca represents a model of restorative justice because it focuses on the healing of victims and perpetrators, confessions, plea-bargains, and reintegration. It offers a pragmatic and community-based solution (Tiemessen 2004:59). Reconciliation in the aftermath of the history of violent conflict in Rwanda is approached as part of a set of deeply interrelated issues, such as individual and social suffering, justice, remembering and forgetting, truth-telling, accountability, forgiveness, trauma therapy, socio-therapy, human rights, and development (Richters, Dekker and De Jonge 2005:203 quoted in Alli and Akubo 2017:19).

There has been an international trend in recent years toward a role for truth commissions in reparation policies: truth-seeking bodies in South Africa, Haiti, Guatemala, Sierra Leone, Peru, and, more recently, Liberia, all made recommendations on reparations, with varying effects. Other states have created dedicated institutions for reparations (Morocco, Brazil, and Malawi), and still others have depended on a patchwork of legislation and institutions (African Union Panel of the Wise 2013:23). Nigeria can join the promoters of the Restorative and Community Justice approach in seeking a lasting solution to the Boko Haram insurgency. The fire-fighter approach deals with the symptom (violence) while wasting the resources that are enough to tackle the root cause of terrorist conflict – which in many cases boils down to the dissatisfaction of human needs. Confronting a well-known enemy with a restorative approach might cause the aggrieved party to choose the path of dialogue and reconciliation.

This begs the fundamental question as to how ready-to-die terrorists can be integrated into their respective communities and be accepted back by their family members without being stigmatised for life. What may be said, however, is that legitimation gives back to faceless peoples the humanity they lost, and prepares them to embrace dialogue and reconciliation. At the heart of restorative justice is reconciliation (Mbombo 2015:85). Further, Felbab-Brown (2018:79) poignantly revealed:

In interviews with the author, community members identified a fairly consistent vision of how people associated with Boko Haram could be brought back to their communities. First, they argue people who were displaced must return and see their lives, houses, and livelihood rebuilt. Then, social workers and psychologists should be sent to communities to heal trauma. Following this, traditional leaders and religious ones, such as Bulamas, and Imams (where they are predominantly Christians Pastors, Reverends and Bishops), should be engaged to prepare the community(ies) for the arrival of those formerly associated with Boko Haram. Only later in the process should former Boko Haram members and those who lived under the group’s rule be brought back.

Forgiving and being reconciled are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the pain, the degradation, the truth. Forgiveness does not mean condoning what has been done. It means taking what has happened seriously without minimising it, and drawing out the sting in the memory that threatens to poison our entire existence. It involves trying to understand perpetrators and so have empathy, to try to stand in their shoes, and to appreciate the sort of pressures and influences that might have brought them to do what they did (Tutu in Batley, n.d.:32 quoted in Alli and Akubo 2017:9).

The Key components of restorative justice include: Reconciliation, Restitution, Reintegration and Restoration. Jantzi (2001:3, citing Tutu 1999 and Lapsley 1999) declares:

We contend that there is another kind of justice, restorative justice, which has characteristics of traditional African jurisprudence. Here the central concern is not retribution or punishment but, in the spirit of ubuntu, the healing of breaches, the redressing of imbalances, the restoration of broken relationships. This kind of justice seeks to rehabilitate both victim and the perpetrator, who should be given the opportunity to be reintegrated into the community he or she has injured by his or her offence.

This is a far more personal approach, which sees the offence as something that has happened to people and whose consequence is a rupture in relationships. Thus we would claim that justice, restorative justice, is being served when efforts are being made to work for healing, for forgiveness and for reconciliation.

Reinsertion and reintegration remain the most significant challenges. Little dialogue has taken place with communities about how to define justice and forgiveness, or who should be granted leniency. Neither has there been much dialogue with local communities about how a defectors’ programme is constructed and how a reintegration phase should be designed – such as whether to include apologies and truth telling. Nigerian and international support partners agree that involving traditional community elders and leaders, such as Bulamas, Nawans, Ajas, Amirs, as well as local Imams and Christians is crucial for persuading communities to accept back defectors and those who lived under Boko Haram rule (Felbab-Brown 2018:91).


Insurgency is hardly a new phenomenon in Nigeria, its impacts have been wide-ranging and far-reaching. In the early stage of the Boko Haram insurgence, the government treated it with kid gloves, almost as a minor uprising that would disappear in no time. Government response to the Boko Haram threat has been uncoordinated and bereft of focus; indeed, it has fluctuated between the use of extreme force, appeasement, amnesty and negotiation. Obviously, for close to a decade, government has not been able to militarily defeat the Boko Haram insurgency even with the logistical support coming from the neighbouring countries and a joint multinational task force. A shift towards Restorative and Community Justice Approach as part of counter-terrorism strategy may be cardinal towards a lasting solution. Central to restorative justice is reconciliation.

Recommendations for government and community leaders

While not jettisoning the defensive role of government, strong defensive measures cannot be done away with, even as more lenient restorative strategies are recommended to be introduced in ensuring a nuanced approach to end the stalemate. Hence, the following recommendations are made both for government and community leaders:

  • The justice system should be reformed to include a Restorative and Community Justice component.
  • The government should refocus its efforts on a people-centric, community-based and intelligence-driven, whole-of-government approach to better police its borders, enhance interagency cooperation and improve the capacity of the security forces.
  • The government should also aim to advance socio-economic development like job creation and leverage international assistance to end the insurgency.
  • The government should investigate the internal and external sponsors of Boko Haram and block the financial flow internally and externally so that government can have some control over the insurgency. The Central Bank of Nigeria and the local banks have a huge responsibility in this regard to closely monitor cash flow.
  • Community leaders and communities should consider the rebuilding of victim-offender relationships as a viable alternative to breaking the Boko Haram stalemate.
  • The government security personnel, both the military and the police, should be equipped with up-to-date, sophisticated equipment.
  • The Nigerian and other West African governments should join forces and share intelligence in the fight against terrorism, Nigeria alone cannot fight this threat and curtail its spread within and outside her borders.

After all, sustainable peace requires that atrocities be accepted by those who committed them, the offenders, and that victims be emboldened to reconcile with their offenders and that constructive steps be taken to ensure that further atrocities are prevented. Achodo (2019:9), lending credence to this counsel, maintains that retooling strategic responses to resolving the insurgency and restoring peace and security as preconditions for development remains a strategic option the federal government should pursue. This would require the rigour and vigour of dedicated staff of multi-disciplinary teams, a dedicated capacity for political dialogue, and a comprehensive socio-economic development programme – all anchored by demonstrated political will. This may constitute a comprehensive and concerted strategic approach towards resolving the insurgency in the northeast.


  1. If non-combatant civilians are deliberately threatened or targeted as part of an indirect challenge to convey the perpetrators’ message, then it is considered terrorism but if military and security personnel are the only targets of political violence, then it can be considered as an insurgency (Ünal 2016:9).
  2. Many developing countries like Nigeria have large and growing populations of poor and unemployed citizens, many of whom have few choices other than economic activities that endanger the environment, thereby threatening the nation’s national security (Akwara 2013:7).


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