Over the last few months, there has been a rise in attacks by the Boko Haram terrorist group in the North East. More worrying is that in some cases, these attacks have been successful, with Boko Haram overwhelming security forces and taking captives in the process. Many of these attacks are suicide attacks targeted at Maiduguri with the University of Maiduguri coming under a serious and concerted threat perhaps for the first time. This has led the authorities to dig a two metre trench around the school. This has led to a lot of talk about a resurgence of Boko Haram.
The narrative which holds that there is a resurgence of Boko Haram attacks bears scrutiny. To describe the terror group’s recent attacks as a “resurgence” risks misrepresenting the nature of both the conflict and an enemy that has proven considerably resilient. In the course of 2015, the Nigerian military recorded important successes in dislodging the insurgents from areas where they had previously seized control. In response, Boko Haram made a tactical shift that saw it switch emphasis from fighting to capture territory to guerrilla-style hit and run attacks and increased its campaign of suicide bombings against soft targets. That, was the period of resurgence. Now, the group is not re-surging so much as it is adapting itself to its own strengths and weaknesses as well as those of its enemy. Its new strategic focus is on disruption rather than territorial control. One notable detail: the group uses females (mostly young girls) for suicide bombings while using its males for direct ambushes and assaults.
It is a dangerous position for the government to base critical decision making on a wrong frame and propaganda value of actions and information. It is even more dangerous when these decisions have a direct bearing on the lives or death of Nigerians. The army’s Chief of Staff has reacted with a now familiar pronouncement – giving an ultimatum to the forces on ground to capture Shekau, while the Acting President directed the military leadership to relocate to Maiduguri, an order which must be borne in mind, was given to the military top brass in 2015 upon the assumption of office by the current administration. It is important to review the timeline of events that have led up to this resurgence. It is also important to look at Nigeria’s recent history to determine when the Nigerian army has been most successful against Boko Haram and what lessons we can learn and replicate in order to turn the tide against the terrorists.
The most successful period in the fight against Boko Haram began in February 2015 and continued into October 2016. When we consider that the first half of this period of success was under a Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) government, and the second under the current All Progressives Congress (APC) administration, this indicates that the party occupying Aso Rock is not necessarily the most important factor. What is common to both periods was a determination, for various reasons, by the occupants of Aso Rock, to beat the terrorists within a clear window of opportunity. Such a determination drove a focused approach which delivered results, changed facts on the ground and bolstered a narrative that the insurgents were not invincible but beatable.
This begs the question, what did the government do in this period, and how can it replicate now? Crucially, it also raises another question, why did those victories not deliver the final death blow to the insurgency. Answering this final question will provide a guide for policy makers to ensure that any errors that led to the terrorists’ current resurgence are not repeated.
So what were the factors that aligned to cause the temporary march to victory? We only need to look back to the period preceding the victories to answer this. Morale amongst the troops was low. Welfare and provisions at the frontlines were abysmal. Troops complained of the insurgents possessing superior firepower and many deserted as a result rather than fight the insurgents. The infamous episode where Nigerian troops were said to have ”manoeuvred tactically” into Cameroon should be recalled.
There was very little cooperation between Nigeria and its neighbours in the fight against Boko Haram, with each country surrounding the Lake Chad region either prosecuting the fight on their own or choosing to turn a blind eye to Boko Haram forward bases in their territory in return for Boko Haram refraining from attacks in their territory.
Cooperation between the Nigerian Army and the residents of the areas under threat was also negative, with regular reports of human rights abuses on the part of the military. This essentially hampered the ability of the security forces to leverage the local knowledge bank available to gather intelligence and provide early warning on insurgent movements. Many residents reported multiple situations where despite reports of insurgent activity, the military response was anything but urgent and effective, the Chibok Girls kidnap frequently mentioned as a prime example. This distrust was mutual, as the security agents accused some of the residents of providing support and intelligence on troop movements to the terrorists, pointing to instances of well targeted ambush operations by Boko Haram. Multiple announcements by the military of “Killing Shekau” did not help in building trust as well.
The politicisation of the insurgency by the then opposition APC, and the siege mentality it created in the then ruling PDP, contributed to bad decision making on the part of the sitting government, which translated to the poor performance of troops in the anti-insurgency operations in the North East. The direct measures taken in the build up to the 2015 elections addressed these issues and more.
First, there was a clear mandate, backed by political will and focus to deliver victory to ensure that elections were conducted peacefully in the affected parts of the country; and after the APC government took over, to ensure that the campaign promises of the new government were delivered. Troop morale was boosted with payments made on time, and improvement in logistics and equipment made available in the frontlines including improved air support.
Second, following President Buhari’s shuttle diplomacy around the Lake Chad region, there was improved cooperation and coordination amongst the countries in region comprising Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad Republic to jointly fight the Boko Haram insurgents, including a strategic hot pursuit agreement. This greatly reduced the availability of places the insurgents could retreat to, as well as their general mobility in the region.
Third, the Nigerian Army went on the offensive, as opposed to the previous approach of reacting and attempting to mount a defence when the insurgents attacked. This saw the insurgents driven out of towns and villages they had previously taken and even saw a push into their Sambisa Forest strongholds. Constantly keeping the enemy on the back foot in this manner was crucial in not only winning back territory but in securing them to the point where residents began to return home.
Fourth, in this period, a closer working relationship was forged between the military and the Civilian JTF comprising of indigenes whose local knowledge proved to be a invaluable intelligence base and a solid bridge of trust began to appear between residents and the military. The improvement and focus on the welfare of the IDPs in this period also provided another trust building avenue between both the civilian and military efforts to counter Boko Haram.
Unfortunately, many of these measures have been all but abandoned in the last few months. This combined with other developments, have allowed the insurgents regroup, retool and renew their attacks. Crucially, the initial coordination in effort between the four Lake Chad countries has deteriorated, allowing Boko Haram to exploit the cracks within the differing operational strategies being mounted against it. There has also been increasing friction between the Civilian JTF and the military on the one hand, and the military and international aid agencies on the other, eroding both the intelligence and avenues of building trust on the ground available for engaging with the insurgents. Political scandals such as the one concerning the IDP Welfare Funds embezzlement for which the Secretary to the Federal Government was accused and suspended, have not done much to help matters in this regards. In places that the military has won back, the government has failed to adequately step in with an effective presence and efficient governance, leaving room for gaps which the insurgents have proved more than willing to exploit.
Finally, as supply lines have been stretched out, the military has appeared to cool off on its aggressive offensive and returned to a more defensive minded approach. This is reminiscent of the earlier approach which yielded little in results and allowed the insurgents to come within hitting distance of the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, the largest population centre in the country’s North-East.
The Boko Haram conflict has caused about 2.1 million people to flee their homes, with about 1.9 million currently displaced and 200,000 of these spread over Cameroon, Chad and Niger Republic. This has created a humanitarian disaster with these internally displaced persons in need of medical and food; last year, UNICEF warned that as many as 50,000 children were facing death from starvation. This humanitarian crisis is far from abetting and the recent rise in attacks by Boko Haram has only served to exacerbate the situation. At this point, over 80% of Borno State is considered high risk or very high risk for international humanitarian organisations. This constrains access to desperately vulnerable communities in need of aid. The recent increase in attacks worsen the security situation and further prevent aid organisations and donors from venturing outside areas that are relatively safe, such as Maiduguri and Biu.
On May 10, the Nigerian Army announced a major shake-up which resulted in the redeployment of many of its most senior officers, including the Theatre Commander of Operation Lafiya Dole, Major-General Leo Irabor who was appointed the Field Commander of the Multi-National Joint Task Force. In his place, Major-General Ibrahim Attahiru was appointed to lead the war against the terrorists.
The official reason given for these redeployments was to re-strategise the operations of the military. The redeployment of General Irabor came as a surprise to many close observers of the Boko Haram conflict, as he is highly regarded and credited with many of the successes of the army in pushing back the terrorists. There is some speculation that the rise in attacks could be attributed to the redeployment, but we do not agree, given that General Irabor is still very much involved in the war by being the Field Commander of the MNJTF.
It is however important to note that the redeployment of Gen Irabor to the MNJTF at a time when Operation Lafiya Dole appeared to have gotten the measure of the insurgents may have impacted the counter-insurgency campaign. Here we are conscious of not conflating correlation with causation. Yet, Gen. Irabor’s redeployment appears to have coincided with renewed resolve on the part of the insurgents to escalate their terror campaign. In addition, the MNJTF remains bedevilled by problems of cooperation by the member countries, problems that have prevented it from effectively confronting the insurgents around the Lake Chad Area, and in volatile border communities with an abundance of ungoverned spaces. All of these reversals in strategy and errors have not gone unnoticed by the insurgents and they have gotten increasingly bolder in recent months. After morphing into a strictly suicide bombing mode when they were on the back foot, the insurgents began to capitalise on the intelligence and operational lapses to ambush troops, which led to the death of gallant officers including the much praised Lt. Colonel Ali. Recently, the insurgents have again begun to overrun military escorts, taking hostages on two such occasions, the first, a group of policewomen, and more recently, a group of lecturers and researchers from the University of Maiduguri as well as Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation staff on an oil exploration mission in parts of Borno.
The fundamental problem is the distinct shortage of manpower to effectively police the vast expanse of Borno State – the state with the second-largest landmass which borders three countries. The military which is now deployed in 32 states across the federation is over-stretched. In one sense, the military has accomplished what is militarily possible within this multi-faceted conflict.
The missing link in the construction of a sustainable security architecture for the region is intelligence-gathering, surveillance, community security and policing – all of which are outside of the traditional remit of the military. There is a need for other agencies such as the NSCDC, SSS, and the police to be more involved in the process of reclaiming the North East and have their operational capacities rapidly scaled up for the demands that will be placed upon them. The result of this gap in the security chain is that even areas that have been liberated by the military are left fallow and ungoverned and risk falling back under insurgent control or serving as hideouts from where they can launch more hit and run attacks. In short, there are still far too many places where Boko Haram can hide in plain sight.
The military is being strained by the burden of having to carry out policing in addition to its orthodox combat role. Certainly issues of the insurgent group’s funding and recruitment (whether coerced or not) are well within the sphere of intelligence-gathering and policing. If other agencies pick up the slack and liberate the military to focus purely on combat, it could turn the tide decisively in the counter-insurgency campaign.
It is important that the government refrain from repeating the mistakes of the recent past by allowing an unhealthy suspicion of criticism, and a near concerted effort at spewing propaganda to guide its reaction to this situation. It is also imperative to study our recent successes if Nigeria is to begin to turn the tide again. What is at stake is the lives of millions of Nigerians and we must commit never to return to a period when Boko Haram occupied Nigerian soil again.