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Making sense of Boko Haram’s comeback in Nigeria

The insurgency in northeastern Nigeria has again emerged out of billowing clouds over the past two months, continuing to cause more bloodshed just a month before the presidential elections. 

In November 2017, Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), a Boko Haram faction, killed at least 100 Nigerian soldiers in an attack on Metele village in northeastern Borno State, the epicentre of Boko Haram violence since 2009.

The attack marked one of the highest death tolls since President Muhammadu Buhari — who has repeatedly claimed victory over the insurgency — came to power in 2015 — and one of the highest number of soldiers killed in a single attack by Boko Haram.

In late December of last year ISWAP showed their strength again during a brief takeover of Baga town: in just a few hours, militants routed around 500 soldiers from the Multinational Joint Taskforce (MNJTF) base comprising of soldiers from Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon.

Hundreds of people fled Baga for Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state as the group’s raid brought back memories of the deadliest massacre perpetrated by Boko Haram in Baga that was once home to 300,000 Nigerians. 

The reemergence of the insurgency and the change in the form of its violence can only be understood through new developments within both the group and the Nigerian state. 

Segmentation of Boko Haram

In August 2016, Daesh leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi terminated the nearly seven-year-long leadership of Abubakar Shekau, who pledged allegiance to Daesh’s proclaimed caliphate in 2015. 

Baghdadi then appointed Abu Musab al Barnawi as the new legitimate leader of Boko Haram. Barnawi is the son of Muhammed Yusuf who founded Boko Haram when the group was just a radical sect relegated to far-flung rural areas.

Hence, two different factions, the Shekau-lead Boko Haram and Baghdadi-approved ISWAP led by Barnawi were born out of the division. 

However, the split in Boko Haram did not only come about through Baghdadi’s decision but also bred by the ideological differences between Shekau and Barnawi. 

ISWAP disagrees with Shekau’s indiscriminate use of violence against civilians and it is opposed to carrying out suicide attacks and kidnapping children. 

Instead, the Barnawi-led group focuses on military bases and state institutions which they consider as symbols of oppression and government repression.  

A member of the Nigerian air force places the shoes of comrades killed in a helicopter crash in Nigeria's Borno State over their coffins during their funeral at Abuja military cemetery on January 8, 2019.
A member of the Nigerian air force places the shoes of comrades killed in a helicopter crash in Nigeria’s Borno State over their coffins during their funeral at Abuja military cemetery on January 8, 2019.

Changing strategies

The ideological fissure between the two means that the ISWAP altered its military strategy. Instead of occupying a place and claiming it as a part of the proclaimed caliphate, as Boko Haram has done, ISWAP embraces hit-and-runs, a guerilla tactic, only against the Nigerian military and state.

The militants, through guerrilla warfare on military bases, capture heavy weapons, ammunition and vehicles, which increases their capacity to fight Nigerian troops. It is exactly why the militants managed to capture the MNTJF base in a few hours. 

What is the Nigerian army doing?

In contrast to the militants’ growing influence in northeastern Nigeria, Nigeria’s army forces have failed to launch counterattacks at army bases. 

The Nigerian military has also failed to take advantage of the factionalisation of the group. The split is serious and deadly, with the two rival factions fighting each other since 2016, Obi Anyadike, an Open Society Fellow told TRT World.

“The military has forgotten how to be mobile and relentless — instead it tends to wait for an attack rather than tracking and pursuing the enemy.” 

A prominent Nigerian journalist, Ahmad Salkida, who was once wanted by the Nigerian state for his reporting on Boko Haram, and was forced into exile, thinks that the Nigerian army faces a serious onslaught of ISWAP and Shekau-led Boko Haram. 

Salkida told TRT World that out of 20 military bases in Northern Nigeria, ISWAP has either overrun or forced the military to shut down a total of 14 bases in 2018 alone.

Members of the Nigerian air force prepare to burry the coffins of five of their comrades in Nigeria's Borno State, during their funeral at Abuja military cemetery on January 8, 2019.
Members of the Nigerian air force prepare to burry the coffins of five of their comrades in Nigeria’s Borno State, during their funeral at Abuja military cemetery on January 8, 2019.

Yan St- Pierre, a Berlin-based counterterrorism advisor of MOSECON also believes that Nigeria’s counterterrorism efforts have had very limited effects on the insurgency.

St-Pierre told TRT World, “The key problems that have plagued those efforts have not changed; namely poor strategic adaptability, terrible troop morale and inadequate equipment.”

Agreeing with St-Pierre, security expert Chidi Nwaonu, from Peccavi Consulting, claims that the Nigerian army does not have a comprehensive plan to combat ISWAP. 

Nwaonu told TRT World, “Army leadership has curiously changed key commanders over three times in less than a year, a situation which prevents any operational plans from being developed or carried out to fruition.”

The widespread corruption in the distribution of the soldiers’ salaries and the purchase of equipment have hampered the fight against the terror groups. 

Obi and Nwaonu say there is rising discontent among Nigerian soldiers who have been on operations for up to 3-5 years without a break. Due to poor strategic decisions and a lack of equipment, the soldiers are tired, demoralised and feel abandoned, they say. 

The discontent among soldiers became apparent last August when hundreds of soldiers invaded the runway of Maiduguri airport in the northeast Borno state, firing their weapons in the air to express their exhaustion after four years on the frontline without seeing their families.

However, what is alarming for Nigeria is that the insurgency in the northeast is not the only security problem that the Nigerian military faces. The army is currently involved in the herders-farmers conflict in central Nigeria and battling separatist movements and militias in the southeast.

Although, the political leadership insists that Boko Haram factions are “technically defeated,” the insurgency continues to shake Africa’s most populous country, just a month before its presidential election. 


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