Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari is calling for civilian “foot soldiers” in the fight against Boko Haram, appealing to traditional hierarchies and centuries-old methods to weed out Islamist plotters.
Eyes and ears on the ground were vital, he said, as concern mounts over suicide and bomb attacks in the northeast, particularly in mosques.
“The ward head, the village head and the local police knew every new entrant into the community,” Buhari said late last month.
“They kept tabs on them and detected traits of criminality before evil-doers got the chance to act against (the) common interest. We must go back to those rudimentary acts of local policing…
“In this new phase of war, all of us are generals, all of us are foot soldiers, and all of us are intelligence officers.”
Buhari has ordered his military commanders to end the violence by the end of the year, after at least 17,000 deaths and more than 2.5 million made homeless in six years of conflict.
Human intelligence is crucial to any counter-insurgency. But claims of military abuses against civilians in Nigeria, have eroded co-operation and trust.
Boko Haram has also regularly attacked civilian militia assisting the military.
So Buhari now must rebuild confidence by restoring the public’s faith in the armed forces to protect them.
In Kano, an alliance of locals, traditional chiefs and security agencies has shown co-operation can work, despite sporadic attacks since an almost daily round of bombings and shootings in 2012, said security analyst Abdullahi Bawa Wase.
“Several Boko Haram plots against Kano were uncovered, hundreds of insurgents including high-profile figures were arrested or neutralised through this simple but effective strategy of involving every member of the community in maintaining security,” he told AFP.
High-profile targets included the head of the Boko Haram offshoot Ansaru, Abubakar Adam Kambar, killed in a military raid on his hideout in March 2012.
The following September, Boko Haram spokesman Abu Qaqa was shot dead on the outskirts of the city.
Like many ancient cities in northern Nigeria, Kano maintains a strong traditional royal institution led by an emir, who tops a hierarchical administrative structure involving chiefs at ward, village and district levels.
The emir’s function is largely ceremonial but he still wields enormous influence on people in temporal and spiritual matters. Last year, he called for people to take up arms against the militants.
With the current emir and his predecessor having spoken out against Boko Haram, Kano residents feel duty-bound to pass on information about suspicious activity.
“Most of the successes we have recorded against Boko Haram in Kano were through tip-offs from residents and the local authorities, who report suspicious new characters in the community,” said one security source in Kano.
“Appropriate security measures” are taken once there are strong grounds to suspect an individual of belonging to the group, the source added.
Nigeria security analyst Jacob Zenn said Kano had shown community patrols and information networks could work but there had been mixed results elsewhere.
“There are some reports of stopping insurgents but other reports of Civilian JTF (joint task force) abusing suspects, which is exactly what the ‘civilian’ community patrols were intended not to do,” he said.
Yan St-Pierre, from the Modern Security Consulting Group, said localised intelligence was “very effective if not impeded and… a fantastic way to counter the mobility and stealth of terrorist organisations”.
In Kano, one community leader said “deep-seated pride” in the city as a centre of commerce and Islamic scholarship binds the population.
“Boko Haram threatens both,” he said.
“Boko Haram militants are generally seen as outsiders from the northeast sneaking into Kano to destroy it, as they did Maiduguri, which makes the people take it upon themselves to provide information on them.”
For St-Pierre, the key is following-up on tips.
“If authorities are not willing to act on the provided intelligence, and there have been some cases in Nigeria, then the best information in the world will be of little use,” he added.
Zenn suggested Buhari could build on the military’s recent focus on cutting Boko Haram supply lines using community patrols.
“In this way the civilians do not have to directly inform on Boko Haram members, who could even be their own family members, which they may avoid doing for fear of retaliation, but instead can focus on starving Boko Haram of the weapons and food it needs to support fighters,” he added.