Boko Haram, Nigeria’s jihadist group, is gaining strength
An old-fashioned counter-insurgency strategy is failing.
A wild-eyed Nigerian soldier looks into the camera: “We don’t have adequate weapons,” he says. “We can’t just be wasting our lives.” Nigerian opposition activists, who have circulated the video widely, say it shows soldiers fleeing an offensive by Boko Haram, the bloodthirsty jihadists terrorising north-eastern Nigeria, in December. Army officials say the footage is from 2014, the nadir of their fight against the militants. Few believe the official line.
Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria’s president, came to power in 2015 promising to defeat Boko Haram. His inauguration was followed by military success. Insurgents were expelled from towns they had captured and forced into the bush. But this was followed by three years of stalemate that is now beginning to look like defeat.
Unable to gain full control of the often impassable forests and swamps that shelter the jihadists, Nigeria’s generals took a leaf from the counter-insurgency manual America used during the Vietnam war, when it fortified “strategic hamlets” to separate farmers from guerrillas. Nigeria’s version was to gather people into “garrison towns” surrounded by earthen ditches and guarded by the army.
Meanwhile Boko Haram and its offshoots were left to gather strength. Last year they attacked army bases and garrison towns. In December they seized Baga, a town by Lake Chad, including a military base. The jihadists were only dislodged from it two weeks later. In January the jihadists twice raided Rann, near the Cameroonian border, killing at least 60 civilians. Many soldiers abandoned their posts. The un says 60,000 people have fled their homes in the past three months.
Shoddy equipment has left garrisons in small towns vulnerable to attack. After Boko Haram killed at least 44 soldiers in the town of Metele, survivors produced a video decrying the state of the Soviet-era tanks they had been given to defend the base. The rustiness of Nigeria’s army is not for lack of money.
The former president, Goodluck Jonathan, allocated billions of dollars for buying weapons. But much of that money was stolen. Sambo Dasuki, Mr Jonathan’s national security adviser, has been charged with fraud and is accused of diverting $2.1bn from an arms fund. He denies it. Prosecutors allege that much of the money was used to buy votes for Mr Jonathan and the then-ruling People’s Democratic Party ahead of the election in 2015.
Under Mr Buhari the government has again showered cash upon the armed forces, some from unusual sources. In December 2017, for instance, the government took $1bn from Nigeria’s excess oil account, a rainy-day fund, to pay for war. But it has provided little oversight of how the money is spent and many suspect that the theft has continued.
The army’s ineptitude has coincided with the rise of Islamic State West Africa Province (iswap), a faction of Boko Haram aligned with Islamic State. It is said to have been behind most of the recent raids. iswap has focused on military targets and proved adept at picking out vulnerable ones to attack. Alex Thurston of Miami University says the raids help it build momentum, as it often steals supplies and weapons from the bases it attacks.
The army’s setbacks in the north-east are hurting Mr Buhari’s campaign to win another presidential term in elections on February 16th. Although his repeated claims that Boko Haram has been defeated have always rung hollow, many voters will now see them as evidence that their president is worryingly out of touch.
*Courtesy of The Economist, February 14, 2019.