Nigeria’s military leaders signaled that the country may soon pursue counterinsurgency methods similar to those enacted by the government of Sri Lanka in its devastating 26-year-long conflict with ethnic Tamil rebels. Emulating controversial anti-terrorism methods could further alienate large portions of Nigeria’s population in the northeast and prove counterproductive in the West African nation’s fight to curb ongoing violence that has claimed the lives of thousands since Boko Haram began attacks five years ago.
Nigerian officials suggested the shift in strategy after meeting with a delegation of high-ranking Sri Lankan military leaders, including Chief of Defence Staff General Jagath Jayasuriya, on Thursday. Jayasuriya oversaw the end of Sri Lanka’s decades-long conflict between the ethnic majority Sinhalese population and the minority Tamils, which led to over 70,000 deaths and countless human rights violations on both sides. Since the government forces ended the war with the government crushing the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) — more commonly known as the Tamil Tigers — in 2009, human rights groups have accused the Sri Lankan military of responding to the Tigers’ attacks by committing forced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings of civilians. The United Nations, which launched an investigation into possible Sri Lankan war crimes in May, claims the military may have killed as many as 40,000 civilians in the war’s final months.
Nigeria’s armed forces have already lost the trust of large portions of the Nigerian population in the northeastern state of Borno where Boko Haram is strongest through committing indiscriminate arrests and extrajudicial killing of civilians suspected of supporting the group. This approach has likely cost the Nigerian military access valuable intelligence that could lead to the rescue of over 200 girls kidnapped in April. Still, Sri Lanka’s military officials advised their Nigerian counterparts to pursue “total security,” or “the translation of all the nation’s assets into military power to counter the scourge of terrorism.”
Nigeria has so far stumbled in its fight to counter Boko Haram, frequently changing strategy and making contradictory statements. Government reports have been consistently confusing, with simultaneous pledges to grant terrorists amnesty and declarations of “total war” against Boko Haram, as well as convicting of several top generals for collaborating with the terrorist group. After Nigerians’ frustration over the government’s inaction reached a boiling point, President Goodluck Jonathan even briefly banned protests last Monday. Shenu Sani, a human rights activists and former mediator between Boko Haram and the government, attributes Nigeria’s stalled progress in countering the terrorists to its lack of consistency, suggesting consistent efforts to negotiate are needed to bring an end to the violence.
Recently, several Tamil asylum seekers have made the news in their efforts to resist being deported to Sri Lanka, where regardless of their innocence, they still often face persecution. Nearlytwo weeks ago, a Tamil man living in Australia set himself on fire rather than continue living in fear of being forced to return to his home country, where he suffered imprisonment and torture during the last years of the civil war. “If I am deported for a second time, I won’t go; I’d rather die here,” stated a Tamil refugee living in Britain who is currently facing deportation for the second time in two years and was tortured by police last time he returned to the country. The experiences of Tamil’s facing deportation goes to show how “total war” models of counterinsurgency inflict lasting trauma on innocent civilians.