The Lingering Threat of Boko Haram
“We will defeat Boko Haram by the end of this year”, claimed President Muhammadu Buhari following his election in March 2015. At the time it seemed an ambitious, yet not unattainable goal. Joint military efforts between West African states over the last year have seen Boko Haram pushed out of many of its strongholds in north-eastern Nigeria, with real gains made against them. This self-imposed deadline led Buhari to announce the group ‘technically defeated’ in December of last year, though in reality they are far from it. Moreover, the long-term effects of the insurgency on the region will inevitably leave it open to further destabilisation.
Flickr/ Jerome Starkey
Roughly translating to ‘Western education is forbidden’ in the Hausa language, Boko Haram was formed in the deprived capital of the north-eastern state of Borno, Maiduguri. Historic regional divides between the majority Christian, oil-rich south and the majority Muslim, agrarian north provided the ideal environment for such a radical group to form. The execution of its first leader, Mohammed Yusef, by Nigerian security forces in 2009, following attacks on government targets saw the more radical, hard-line Abubakar Shekau take power and initiate a more aggressive armed insurgency in the north-east of the country. The group operates through raids and bombings, almost always on population centres. The more crowded a village, town or city, the more appealing a target it becomes. The last few months have seen a raft of suicide bombings committed by children and women, who have been captured and coerced by the group.
The porous borders between Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger have allowed Boko Haram to hound rural populations of these countries with relative ease. Meanwhile, the sheer ineptitude of the Nigerian military, notorious for its corruption, poor morale and slow response has led to some vigilante militia groups forming, in order for citizens to protect themselves. Often confrontations between the military and Boko Haram have ended when the army fled, giving the insurgents increasingly high-tech weaponry. So often has this happened that the US has of last year refused to continue arming the Nigerian military, for fear of these weapons falling into the hands of radical fundamentalist groups throughout Africa. The group’s more or less free reign of the countryside has seen an exodus of civilians to cities, neighbouring countries and internal displacement camps.
The situation appeared to brighten last year when former President Goodluck Jonathan, in a last ditch attempt to galvanise support for his leadership prior to the General Election, launched a counteroffensive against the group. Joint military efforts with neighbouring countries have effectively routed Boko Haram from a number of towns in the region. Once controlling up to seventy percent of Borno state, the group now controls sporadic pockets of land in the mountains and in the Sambisa Forest. Knowing this, Nigerian officials have since attempted to paint the group as dead-and-buried in media interviews. However, attempts to save face on the part of the government have been consistently undermined by the lingering violence instigated by the group.
This year alone has seen the continuation and intensification of raids and bombings in the region. Whether a sign of desperation or of a new strategy altogether, the group also pledged allegiance to the so-called Islamic State, and there have been verified reports of their troops training together. Communication in the region is woolly and unreliable meaning that much of what occurs goes unreported. As proven by many Western militaries, a strong military is not always enough to defeat an insurgency. Given the tenuous track record of Western governments in defeating insurgencies – which are evasive and manoeuvrable by their very nature – serious doubts can be cast over the government’s claims of such a quick victory.
Even if Boko Haram were to be eradicated tomorrow, the long-term effects of insurgency would plague the region. Over seven years of violence people’s already fragile faith in the Nigerian government’s ability to protect them has been damaged. Vast numbers in internal displacement camps – 1.6 million Maiduguri alone – are scared to return home out of fear of retaliation. Alongside this, thousands of children have been denied their education, reinforcing the historic regional divides. The cruel irony is that Boko Haram grew out of the longstanding deprivation of northern Nigeria, yet their actions have exacerbated it such that the region may well be even more susceptible to the formation of other radical movements.
The future appears rocky for Boko Haram, yet far more so for the population of the north-east. Tenuous claims of victory from the government give little comfort to the millions who have seen family killed, homes destroyed and education denied for over half a decade.