By: Maikano Shehu
The Boko Haram insurgency began an armed rebellion against the government of Nigeria in 2009. The conflict takes place within the context of long-standing issues of religious violence and the insurgents’ claim to establish an Islamic state in the region.
Boko Haram’s initial uprising failed, and its leader Mohammed Yusuf was killed by the Nigerian government while in detention with the police. The group consequently fractured into autonomous groups and started an insurgency, though the leader of the terrorist group Abubakar Shekau managed to achieve a kind of primacy among the insurgents.
Though challenged by internal rivals, such as Abu Usmatul al-Ansari’s Salafist conservative faction and the Ansaru faction, Shekau became the insurgency’s de facto leader and mostly kept the different Boko Haram factions from fighting each other, instead focusing on destabilizing Nigeria.
Supported by other terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabaab, Shekau’s tactics were marked by extreme brutality and explicit targeting of civilians.
After years of fighting, the insurgents became increasingly aggressive, and started to seize large areas in northeastern Nigeria. The violence escalated dramatically in 2014, with 10,849 deaths, while Boko Haram drastically expanded its territories. At the same time, the insurgency spread to neighboring Cameroon, Chad, and Niger, thus becoming a major regional conflict.
Meanwhile, Shekau attempted to improve his international standing among Jihadists by tacitly aligning with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in March 2015, with Boko Haram becoming the “Islamic State’s West Africa Province” (ISWAP).
The insurgents were driven back during the 2015 West African offensive by Nigeria-led coalition of African and Western states, forcing the Islamists to retreat into Sambisa Forest and based at Lake Chad. Discontent about various issues consequently grew among Boko Haram. Dissidents among the movement allied themselves with ISIL’s central command and challenged Shekau’s leadership, resulting in a violent split of the insurgents. Since then, Shekau and his loyalist group are generally referred to as “Boko Haram”, whereas the dissidents continued to operate as ISWAP under Abu Musab al-Barnawi.
The two factions consequently fought against each other while waging insurgencies against the local governments. After a period of reversals, Boko Haram and ISWAP launched new offensives in 2018 and 2019, again growing in strength.
Boko Haram has been called the world’s deadliest terrorist group, in terms of the number of people it has killed.
But Nigeria has scored important successes against Boko Haram.
The military campaign that President Muhammadu Buhari launched after his election in year 2015 is stronger and better coordinated. The insurgency is now less of a military threat, since the start of the conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people, uprooted millions, damaged local economies and cross-border trade, and spread to the Lake Chad basin states of Cameroon, Chad and Niger.
The jihadist group has in recent months carried out some attacks, has chosen softer targets like remote villages and higher way (Damaturu/Maidugri road). This is a dramatic tactic from the Boko Haram because Nigerian Military will not fold its arm and allow this people to takeover this very important road.
Additionally, Nigerian Army is doing its best to tackle the insurgency in the north-east more expecially the current Theatre Commander, Maj Gen GO Adeniyi, Former GOC 7th Division, Maj Gen AB Biu and the current General Commanding Officer of the 7th Division of the Nigerian Army, Brig Gen AK Ibrahim, and other field commanders are doing their best and used to take their arms and experience to enter the Sambisa Forest to fight the Boko Haram.
They have initiated the military/civilian cooperation as a way of restoring calm while at the same time flushing out the insurgents. Under this initiative, the army has constructed bridges, repaired roads and supplied water to communities worse heat by the insurgency. There are school where the army had provide 20,000 text and exercise books for pupils as soldiers also join to teach pupils in some of the schools.
But aid, both humanitarian and developmental, is needed, with priority on establishing local security to allow a lasting return of IDPs and refugees to rebuild local economies. The rehabilitation of populations that lived under Boko Haram, willingly or not, should also be thought through.
Nigeria and its neighbours should consider building on recent initiatives to reintegrate into the mainstream ex-Boko Haram combatants who are not ideologically violent extremists or war criminals; improve the rule of law; and end controversial and counter-productive state counter-insurgency tactics. The same goes for the use of regional vigilante groups, which could exacerbate local, communal violence. The Nigerian government should accelerate the expansion of crucial basic services like education and health to the marginalised peripheries of the country.
All this may all help reduce the appeal of Boko Haram to individuals. But the Lake Chad states should not too quickly proclaim “mission accomplished”. Boko Haram is losing ground, resources and fighters, but defeating the group and preventing the spread of its terrorist attacks to new areas needs more than military success.