by Peter Dörrie (originally published in German).
Boko Haram is back on the scene: in a series of attacks on 22 and 23 June 2015, the Islamist rebel group attacked several villages in north eastern Nigeria. Assailants and a female suicide bomber killed 40 people in Debiro Hawul, Debiro Bi and Gjuba. The girl who killed herself and 10 other people in Gjuba in a suicide explosion was only 12 years old.
The war against Boko Haram is far from over. And it will probably drag on indefinitely, if the opponents of the Islamists do not change their strategy.
At least 25,000 people have died in the violence between Boko Haram and Nigerian security forces since the outbreak of conflict in 2009. One million fled as refugees. After years of political and military failure by the Nigerian government, the rebels were able to bring large parts of the north eastern state of Borno under their control by the end of 2014 – an area the size of Belgium.
In early 2015, the dynamics changed with a major offensive by the Nigerian military. Greatly increased military spending led to better weapons and better training. After the extremists attacked targets in neighbouring Cameroon and Niger, these countries joined the Chadian government in the conflict. The Nigerian military recaptured several towns and freed hundreds of hostages from the hands of Boko Haram. It seemed that Nigeria might be able to hope for a speedy end to the conflict. Perhaps the final victory against Boko Haram was only a question of weapons, money and time.
However, the current counter-offensive has destroyed these hopes. Boko Haram is indeed weaker, but obviously not yet ready to give up the fight. John Campbell, a Council on Foreign Relations analyst, labelled the claims of territorial gains by Nigerian and Chadian military as exaggerated. Most population centres are indeed again under the control of the government, but Boko Haram retains a strong influence in rural areas.
While military from Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon boast of high rebel losses, there is no confirmation of these claims – independent observers have no access to the conflict area. Demonstrably, Boko Haram has shown that they are still capable of carrying out coordinated military operations. Dozens of rebel fighters were involved in attacks in Nigeria and Niger in recent weeks.
The Islamists are placing less and less importance on territorial control. Instead, the group concentrates on raids and suicide bombings, attack modes against which military superiority has only a limited ability to influence. A suicide bombing in the Chadian capital N’Djamena on June 15, 2015 killed 27 people and wounded 101. In Maiduguri, the capital of Borno, dozens died in similar attacks.
Meanwhile, Boko Haram has joined forces with the terrorist organization “Islamic State” (IS) and is inspired by their “publicity” and “military strategy”. Instead of lying on a deathbed, Boko Haram appears to be rather skilfully adapting to the new situation. Unfortunately, so far neither Nigeria nor any of the other participating governments has responded to this development. The parties continue to rely solely on a military solution. This is unfortunate. If there is one thing that military planners could learn from the war in Afghanistan and the advent of IS, then it is that a purely military approach to counterinsurgency almost inevitably fails. In addition Nigeria and the other States involved do not have the financial staying power to sustain the current military effort. Especially if the world market price for oil remains low in the long term.
The military is currently hardly able to find support from the civilian population in the fight against Boko Haram. According to a recent report by Amnesty International, 8,000 people have been killed, starved, suffocated or died under torture while in the custody of the Nigerian military in recent years. Boko Haram is even more brutal, but for civilians the current situation is like a choice between the plague and cholera.
From a military point of view, the lack of coordination between the participating armies is also having a devastating effect. The Chadian President Idriss Déby stated not so long ago before the press that there was “zero” communication between Chadian and Nigerian troops in the war zone, although the Chadian army operates and launches airstrikes in Nigerian border area.
For Tarila Marclint Ebiede, an analyst at the Centre for Research on Peace and Development at the University of Leuven, the military efforts against Boko Haram are pointless unless the political and social causes of the conflict are addressed. “Peacebuilding in the context of murderous conflicts is complex and riddled with dilemmas,” he writes in an article for World Policy.
Ebiede proposes a programme of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of Boko Haram’s fighters. Such a programme would naturally need to take the extreme violence, religious indoctrination and individual guilt of fighters into consideration. But these challenges have been overcome already partially, for example, when dealing with the genocide in Rwanda. Military pressure on Boko Haram would of course remain an important part of such a strategy. But it would be a means to an end rather than the end itself.
- The Nigerian President and former General Muhammadu Buhari, newly sworn in on 29 May 2015, dismissed the entire leadership of the Nigerian army and the national security adviser, Colonel Sambo Dasuk on Monday 13 July 2015. Both the Chief of Staff of the Army and the commanders of the army, air force and navy must leave their posts. This was confirmed by Buhari’s spokesman in the capital Abuja. The successor will be presented within the next few days and the cooperation with the armies of Chad and Niger will be improved (Adam Nossiter, “Nigeria Military Leaders, Faulted in Fighting Militants, Are Fired“, The New York Times, 13.07.2015).
- Washington wants to help Nigeria’s new president battle one of Africa’s deadliest terrorist groups, but don’t expect a fleet of surveillance drones to be part of the mix. The plans for more US security assistance likely will be unveiled today, Monday July 20, when Buhari visits Washington for talks with President Barack Obama, administration officials said last Thursday. Buhari’s decision to purge the chief of every branch of the armed services and name a well-respected national security advisor just days before he flies to the United States will help his case for more military aid, as some of the military leaders were singled out in the Amnesty report, said J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Washington-based think tank, the Atlantic Council. Apart from more military training and equipment for Nigeria, the Obama administration also has decided to deploy two Cessna surveillance aircraft in the next few months to Niger in order to bolster intelligence gathering for a new regional force being set up to battle the Boko Haram extremists. (Dan de Luca and Siubhan O’Grady, “U.S. to Boost Military Aid to Nigeria for Boko Haram Fight“, Foreign Policy, 16.07.2015).
- Harriet Moore, “OSINT Summary: Operational intensification underlines persistent Boko Haram threat in northeast Nigeria“, IHS Jane’s Terrorism & Insurgency Monitor, 07.07.2015.