To crush Boko Haram insurgents, Nigeria’s Defence Headquarters last week declared it would employ the “Sri Lankan method.”
It’s hard to imagine a worse idea.
Boko Haram’s brutal campaign in northern Nigeria demands urgent action to protect the civilian population. The militant Islamist group’s atrocities have killed thousands and forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes, sparking a humanitarian crisis in Nigeria’s northeast and across national borders. Boko Haram’s April kidnapping of nearly 300 schoolgirls has dramatically increased international attention on the problem and pressure on the government to resolve it.
But, before opting for “the Sri-Lankan method” to deal with an insurgency, Nigeria would do well to examine what that actually means.
Sri Lanka's war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), particularly in its final stages in 2009, caused tremendous and unnecessary human suffering. As the noose tightened around the insurgents – who were, like Boko Haram, responsible for numerous horrific abuses – nearly 300,000 civilians held as human shields by the LTTE became increasingly squeezed into a tiny area with little food or medicine. The military repeatedly and indiscriminately shelled the area, including a government-declared "no-fire zone" and hospitals trying to care for the sick and wounded.
In the last months of the conflict, as many as 40,000 civilians died, according to the United Nations Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts report. And since the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009, serious abuses against ethnic Tamils by the military, including systematic rape of suspected LTTE supporters, have continued to the present.
Those responsible for the numerous wartime abuses on both sides have yet to be investigated, let alone brought to justice. For years, Sri Lanka tried to block an international inquiry into alleged war crimes, but in March 2014 the UN Human Rights Council endorsed an investigation into Sri Lanka’s wartime atrocities.
Is this really the model Nigeria wants to follow?
Nigeria’s security forces have already committed many serious abuses in their fight against Boko Haram including offenses that might constitute crimes against humanity. The security forces’ heavy-handed approach has included burning homes, physical abuse, indiscriminate mass arrests, detentions without trial and extrajudicial killings of thousands of men and boys from the northeast.
Replicating Sri Lanka’s lawless approach to counterinsurgency would further endanger a civilian population already brutalized both by Boko Haram and the military. Nigeria’s government needs to work with the population at risk and not treat them – as Sri Lanka’s government did – as the enemy.