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Rule of Law and ‘Africanization’ of Terrorism

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The changing tide in the fight against bandits in Nigeria

By

Uchenna Ekwo

As recent security challenges demonstrate, fragile states and conflict-regions of the world are increasingly becoming safe havens for terrorists and transnational organized crimes. In Africa, terrorism is shrinking the continent’s investment space, and, in some cases, certain African countries are losing ground in their abilities to protect their citizens. In West Africa, Boko haram and its splinter group, the Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP), have devastated lives and communities in northern parts of Nigeria and the surrounding Lake Chad region. In East Africa, Al Shabab has made Somalia and Kenya havens for violence and unnecessary killings, and in Southern Africa, the Islamic State in Mozambique have left thousands dead and many displaced. The economic toll is also huge. Between 2007 and 2019, it is estimated that Nigeria lost about 142 billion U.S. dollars due to terrorist activities. To date, violent extremism has taken roots in many countries with different tested and untested preventive models.

Although there is no proven antidote to terrorism, it is heartwarming to learn of the recent shift in the Nigerian state’s counterterrorism approach within its justice system. In November 2021, Nigeria’s Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami successfully obtained a court order that designated the so-called bandit organizations in the West African country as terrorists. With this designation and declaration of bandits as terrorists through the courts, the Nigerian government has demonstrated a significant shift in the application of rule of law towards fighting terrorist activities in parts of the country. It’s a victory for the rule of law and respect for fundamental human rights- key principles of modern democracies. Indeed, for a country, often criticized for arbitrariness and extra judicial process, Nigeria’s renewed determination to flush out organized criminals through the justice system is salutary.

Nigeria’s Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN) pictured in New York, November 15, 2021, at a public lecture convened by Center for Media and Peace Initiatives

Equally commendable is the Nigerian government’s renewed interest in de-radicalization, disarmament, rehabilitation, and reintegration programs for former Boko Haram fighters. It signals a recognition that terrorism does not end with only a military approach. In fact, fighting fire with fire may produce more negative outcomes rather than long-term peaceful solutions. Therefore, efforts to rehabilitate and reintegrate former terrorist offenders and affiliated family members in and outside prison settings are needed for sustainable solutions. Yet, this renewed offensive against terrorism through the framework of the rule of law must facilitate productive exchanges of good practices between law enforcement officials, prosecutors, judges, and other stakeholders at national, state, and local levels for it to be effective.

…authorities to reinvigorate all energies towards investigating, prosecuting, and punishing terrorist crimes within a human rights framework.”

In view of Nigeria seriously embracing the rule of law in fighting terrorism, the country must nonetheless give primacy to the police and change the currently isolated and narrow-minded police culture where counterterrorism operations regarded as the responsibility of specialized units. The timely proscription of Nigeria Police Force’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) following public outcry against police brutality is an example of the stovepipe police culture that is inimical to the rule of law. Furthermore, the inhibition of cross-organizational communication within the police hierarchy remains antithetical to the application of the rule of law in fighting terrorism. Consequently, in combating terrorism it is important for the Nigerian government to enlist the support of all policing units to understand the responsibility of the police in collecting and analyzing information related to certain terrorists who often commit crimes, such as kidnapping or burglary, to obtain money and materials for future attacks. Moreover, effective basic law enforcement by local police can remove would-be terrorists from the streets for ordinary crimes before they commit more serious offenses.

Unfortunately, Nigerians, like most Africans are grossly under-policed. While the police station retains both its historic role as the symbol of government authority and its position as the basic law enforcement institution responsible for public order, law enforcement, and police services, many rural communities in Nigeria, for instance, do not have effective policing of rural dwellers. Police merely operate in urban centers and mostly protect the elite political class.

“The solution is to identify would-be terrorists before they commit acts of violence using information provided by citizens to the police.”

As such, as salutary as Nigerian government’s embrace of rule law as a tool for fighting terrorism is, the country’s Attorney-General should put the police at the forefront of counterterrorism efforts. Police are the public face of the government and not the military that previous administrations have used to fight terrorist activities in the past. Regrettably, police stations and personnel are ill prepared and poorly equipped to meet the challenges of the country’s complex, urbanized, and increasingly violent society. The Nigerian government should therefore help the police to build support for the government and communities they represent.

After all, acts committed by terrorists are crimes which are the responsibility of the police and the criminal justice system to deal with. The solution to the insecurity in Nigeria does not depend on killing or capturing bandits when they are engaged in terrorist acts. The solution rather, is to identify would-be terrorists before they commit acts of violence using information provided by citizens to the police. To make this approach work effectively, the police must realize the importance of working with citizens and not alienating citizens through predatory behavior that erodes the trust of ordinary citizens in the security institution. 

Police are the public face of the government and could prove useful in the fight against terrorist activities within the framework of the rule of law

Perhaps, this approach will blunt the reasons often cited by the west to portray Africa negatively in the eyes of the rest of the world. It is common knowledge that dictatorships, civil wars, endemic corruption, famine, Euro-Sino-American corporate predators, and the resurgence of tribal warfare have too often been the main characteristics of the narrative of modern Africa. Even when terrorism is a global phenomenon, the ‘Africanization’ of terrorism has taken hold in international discourse apparently because of the history of internecine and fratricidal wars that created a wrong perception of cannibalism and fragility in the continent. The embrace of the rule of law as an effective counterterrorism tool will correct the erroneous impression around the world about Africa’s fascination for arbitrariness and undemocratic practices in the modern age. With the application of the rule of law, the government dispenses justice to terrorists – the same justice the terrorists deny their victims.

Dr. Uchenna Ekwo is the President of the Center for Media and Peace Initiatives, New York. Follow him on Twitter @UcheEkwo

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