To better enrich the blog, content sourced from thinkers, analysts, politicians and geopolitical watchers with an interest in Nigeria and the greater West Africa/Historic Sudan region will appear often on the blog. We will be kicking this new phase of with this piece written by George Alexander, a diplomat serving in the embassy of a Western country in Nigeria. George has been in Nigeria for quite a while and has a great interest in the Boko Haram Insurgency, and is regarded by those who know him as an authority on the Nigerian media’s coverage over the past six years of this war in the Lake Chad Region.
Though this is his first piece to appear on the blog, we look forward to seeing more of his material featured here.
The use of female suicide bombers in the Lake Chad region has now been shown to be a long-term tactic for Boko Haram and we can expect it to increase in the coming months; they provide a cheap alternative to the use of experienced combatants. Female suicide bombers often cause more civilian casualties than their male counterparts as they have easier access to soft targets and serve as a strong incentive for other fighters to become martyrs. They provide high media coverage and visibility, thus increasing fear amongst both the civilian population and the military. Involving young girls as both the victims and vanguards of terror puts even more pressure on the central government. Boko Haram has abducted at least 500 women and girls since 2009 and are now capitalising on the anxiety over the Chibok school girls. Security forces must be increasingly careful when dealing with female civilians as mishandling could have severe consequences on addressing the root causes of the insurgency in the region.
Situation: increase in the number of female suicide bombers in the Lake Chad Basin region
There has been a drastic increase in the number of suicide bombers over the past few months. Suicide bombers offer a low cost, low technology, low risk and low training solution for striking fear into the general population. The use of female suicide bombers often reflects a lack of manpower. In July, five male bombers dressed as women, wearing a Burqa or a Niqab. Women are not used because of the lack of soldiers, but because they present important strategic benefits. Security services (the army, police force and vigilante groups) are now suspicious of veiled women. Muslim women are not to be touched by men and there have been documented cases of mistreatment in stop and search arrests. In turn, this creates more alienation of the Muslim community against Nigerian security services and provides another argument for Boko Haram sympathisers against the State.
Strategies behind the use of female suicide bombers
Women are usually recruited as a last resort, but not in the case of the Boko Haram insurgents. There are many advantages to recruiting women:
- Tactical advantage: stealthier attack, element of surprise, hesitancy to search women, female stereotype (e.g., nonviolent).
- 2. Increased number of combatants, unlimited reserve of suicide bombers without having to lose experienced fighters.
- 3. Greater publicity, leading to a greater number of recruits.
- 4. Improved recruitment, women help mobilize men to join terrorist organizations. Women have been actively recruiting for Boko Haram (e.g. Hafsat Bako). The reaction of various governments against the wearing of the full veil has created an incentive for civilians to join terrorist groups.
- Capitalisation on the anxiety about the Chibok schoolgirls.
In Nigeria, the banning of the veil was ruled as unconstitutional. Nigeria’s prominent Muslim group, Jama’atu Nasril Islam unequivocally expressed its disapproval of the ban. No action was taken by the government.
The government of Cameroon banned the veil in the Far North of the country. The Islamic community in Yaoundé approved the ban. Approximately 20% of the population is Muslim with most living in the Far North region.
Chad’s measures on the Burqa and Niqab were somewhat more draconian. Prime Minister Deubet, ordered security forces to: ‘go into the markets and seize all burqas on sale and burn them’. At the same time he also warned of arrest and trial for anyone caught wearing a Burqa. In Chad, 5 to 10% of Muslims are believed to be following Salafi teachings and the full-face veil is encouraged within the community. These measures have been very badly perceived by observant Muslims.
Gabon – bordering Cameroon to the south – also announced it was banning the wearing of full-face veils in public and places of work. The mainly Christian country said it was prompted to do so because of the attacks in Cameroon. It has also been banned in Brazzaville, Congo despite no cases of suicide attacks.
An ensuing alienation of the population
The effect of Boko Haram’s provocation strategy is a growing distance between the Muslim population and the State. In the North of Cameroon and in Chad, wearing a full veil is banned. Despite being generally appreciated, in the respective capitals, it has had an alienating effect on local populations in the affected areas. The secularity of Cameroon is clearly expressed in its constitution and even if the Muslim community in Yaoundé accepted and understood the banning of the Burqa, Muslims in the extreme north of the country do not appreciate these measures. Islam forbids a man to frisk a woman. Most security or control posts in the North-East are manned by males. This creates more hatred for the security forces representing the state and alienates local Muslim minorities even more; all of which can create more appreciation for Boko Haram’s cause.
What the Nigerian government should do:
- Promote gender-sensitive recruitment and training amongst the security agencies
- Support initiatives of UN Women West and Central Africa projects
- Remind the importance of respecting human rights issues when dealing with civilians.
George Alexander is a diplomat serving at the embassy of a Western country in Abuja, Nigeria.