On Jan. 25 the Nigerian armed group Boko Haram launched a major offensive on Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, and two other towns. The attack, which left more than 200 combatants dead, was repulsed by the Nigerian military, but it shook the security of the government and people of Borno.
“This is the most serious attack yet,” Kashim Shettima, the governor of Borno, told reporters. “We faced a really existential threat.”
The attack on Maiduguri, the second since December 2013, underscores the grave challenge that Boko Haram poses to Nigeria and the country’s weak and slow response to this threat. The Nigerian government needs to review its faltering counterstrategy and strengthen the political, military and diplomatic elements crucial to reversing this dangerous tide.
The latest offensive is part of Boko Haram’s ongoing efforts to establish a caliphate in Nigeria and possibly beyond. The insurgents seized the town of Monguno and its large army barracks, the second military base captured this month, forcing 1,400 soldiers to seek cover in the bush.
The battle lines are unsteady, but Boko Haram now controls an estimated area of 30,000 square kilometers, including nearly half of Borno and parts of neighboring Adamawa and Yobe states. It is making frequent incursions into Cameroon and has threatened to expand attacks in Chad and Niger.
Boko Haram’s gains have cost Nigeria severely. Since 2010, the group’s attacks have caused more than 13,000 deaths, 60 percent of them in the last year. After its abduction of almost 300 Chibok schoolgirls last April, Boko Haram has kidnapped hundreds more, forcing the men and boys to join its ranks and selling or sharing the girls and women as “wives” or sex slaves. The violence has displaced more than 1 million people, driving at least 170,000 into Niger, Chad and Cameroon. It is aggravating food shortages across the region: Three million people will be unable to meet their basic food needs by July 2015, according to USAID’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network.
The conflict is overshadowing national elections scheduled for Feb. 14 and 28. Widely viewed as inept at managing the insurgency, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and his ruling People’s Democratic Party have seen their support dwindle in the north and elsewhere across Nigeria. The opposition All Progressives Congress boasts a strong presence in the northeast. But the inability to hold elections in many high-risk areas of the region and large-scale displacements could cost the All Progressives Congress the election, provoking further disputes in an already tense and closely contested vote. The trading of blame for Boko Haram’s growth and atrocities on the campaign trail has polarized the country more deeply than at any other time since the civil war of from 1967 to 1970. In this highly fractured environment, the risk of postelection violence looms larger than at any other time since Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999.
Three reasons explain Nigeria’s failure to contain Boko Haram.
First, weak political leadership. Jonathan’s advisers claim he has long been restrained in fighting Boko Haram because he considers it a domestic crisis, needing subtle management. In reality, however, the president was often poorly informed, never grasped the gravity of the threat and failed to provide consistent and coherent policy guidance to drive an effective counterinsurgency.
Second, weak security institutions. Authorities maintain that the military is handicapped on several fronts. It is not trained to fight an insurgency, is stretched thin by deployments in 32 of the country’s 36 states and a counterinsurgency theater that spans 150,000 square kilometers and lacks vehicles and helicopters to operate in the rugged terrain along the Nigeria-Cameroon border. All these are true, but the affliction runs deeper.
Corruption in procurement and administration, poor maintenance of acquired assets, human rights violations that alienate local support, low morale among troops demoralized by inadequate support and heavy casualties and sabotage by Boko Haram sympathizers have all undercut the military’s ability. Internal discontents have spiraled into mutinies. Sixty-six soldiers have been sentenced to death for mutiny and refusing orders to fight since September 2014. The desertion rate is high.
“Unfortunately, we have a lot of cowards … people who use every excuse in this world not to fight,” Nigeria’s national security adviser, Sambo Dasuki, said at a briefing in Chatham House in London on Jan. 23. His statement and admissions of other weaknesses in the army are an indictment of the government, which refuses to enact necessary security reforms, leaving a once formidable army a flawed fighting force.
Finally, Nigeria’s counterinsurgency strategy has been hobbled by regional mistrust and frequent disagreements. A multinational force agreed upon by Nigeria and its neighbors in July exists only on paper. Nigeria continues to insist on a force “under the auspices of the Lake Chad Basin Commission,” while neighboring countries prefer a force authorized by the United Nations or African Union. These disconnects need to be resolved immediately.
Reversing Boko Haram’s gains requires bold and decisive political, military and diplomatic actions, particularly by Nigeria but also by international partners. Politically, nothing can be expected right away, as Jonathan is currently preoccupied with a close election. Free and fair elections, producing credible outcomes, will be crucial in gaining support — both local and international — to counter the insurgency.
Military operations need to be strengthened, with more troops, better equipment and supplies as well as superior leadership. Tactics must shift from the current largely defensive posture to tougher operations to free communities and citizens held captive by the insurgents. The army must conduct more-discriminating operations with greater concern for protecting civilians, whose cooperation it greatly needs.
Ultimately, to prevent Boko Haram from becoming a regional threat, Nigeria must build trust and confidence with its neighbors. Besides, given local sensitivities about Western influence in this largely Muslim region, an international force is not an option. This does not mean the world should not help, but securing international assistance for any regional force requires that Nigeria and its neighbors act in concert.