Is Nigeria winning the war against Boko Haram?
Among the emerging threats to contemporary international security is the onslaught of militant Islam. This threat has manifested in varying dimensions, depending on the strategy of its initiators. In certain cases, the threat has taken advantage of state fragility. In other instances, the threat has arisen as a deliberate challenge to perceived western cultural imperialism. Perhaps, to counter this perceived encroachment, the Al Qaeda and currently ISIS have plunged the Middle East region into turmoil, with occasional forays into Europe and America. In West Africa, the Nigerian Government has been engaged in an intractable battle to defeat Boko Haram terrorism since 2010. Scores of high profile targets in the Federal Capital Territory Abuja, Adamawa, Borno, Yobe and Kaduna States, have been attacked. Presidency sources estimate that the seven-year Boko Haram insurgency has claimed about 20,000 lives, displaced about 2.4 million persons and destroyed property worth billions of Naira.
The inability of the Nigerian government to quickly resolve this problem initially may in part be connected to the dominance of two schools of thought in the effort to diagnose the problem in its early stages. The first school comprising Northeast political establishment, intelligentsia and some analysts believed that Boko Haram was a reaction to political and socio-economic distortions in Nigeria. This group held that there was widespread poverty, corruption and inequality in the polity; therefore Boko Haram is a natural outcome of these conditions. This opinion was not peculiar to the mentioned groups alone. In a 2011 article titled ‘To Battle Nigeria’s Boko Haram, Put Down Your Guns: How To Undermine the Growing Islamist Threat’, John Campbell; US former Ambassador to Nigeria, also argued that Boko Haram is simply a Nigerian problem. The second school comprising a few commentators, the intelligence community and security agencies, posited that Boko Haram terrorism could be part of a wider plot of global Salafist Jihad waged by transnational Islamic – terror networks. Later developments like the pledge of allegiance (bayat) first to Al Qaeda in the Maghreb and later to ISIS, change of name to ISIS West Africa Province and arrest of several foreign fighters on Nigerian soil, among other indicators, showed that though Boko Haram terrorism and insurgency benefitted maximally from governance and institutional failures of several years prior, a foreign sponsored radical Islamic Ideology was its raison d’etre.
Boko Haram Campaign Of Terror
Apart from being religious fundamentalists, Boko Haram is also a terrorist social movement. Like all social movements, it represents groups that are on the margins of society and state. Outside the boundaries of institutional power, Boko Haram seeks to change the system in fundamental ways, through a mix of unbridled criminality and terror. Analysts believe that the initial stalemate in diagnosing the problem emboldened the terrorist group, resulting in its quickly moving to implement its agenda through dissemination of its poisoned ideology and denunciation of traditional institutions and rulers. Other steps were elimination of dissenting Islamic scholars and massive use of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), light infantry weapons, machine and anti-aircraft guns to promote violence and spread fear. It would be recalled that as at 2011/12, Boko Haram operated freely in the North East, North Central geopolitical zones and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. To bring clearly into focus the operational latitude that Boko Haram enjoyed, it is relevant to recall a few of the atrocities caused by the terrorist group.
The United Nations office in Abuja came under Boko Haram attack on 27 August 2011. This attack was significant for Boko Haram in two ways; firstly, it raised its profile as an international terrorists group. Secondly, it marked the beginning of its movement on the trajectory to acquiring a major terror franchise in West Africa.
Two months earlier, Nigeria Police Headquarters suffered a similar fate. These were closely followed by repeated attacks in Nyanya and Suleja. In Kaduna, two strategic military institutions; The Armed Forces Command and Staff College, Jaji and Headquarters 1 Division, Kawo were also attacked. Boko Haram also sort to provoke sectarian violence and inter – religious conflict by killing dissenting imams, attacking several mosques, as well as churches during Jumat prayers and church services. To demonstrate its elaborate design and resolve to completely destroy the nation, the terror group turned its attention on Nigeria’s future. It attacked scores of schools across the North East, killing both teachers and students. The mass abduction of female students in a school in Chibok in 2014 attracts media headlines across the world till date.
The import of Boko Haram focus on security agencies should not be lost. The objective of attacking military and paramilitary installations at that point in the terror campaign was to send a clear message and warning to the civil populace who expected that the military would defend them. By 2014, Boko Haram was in control of sizeable portions of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe States. It launched a media wing, which constantly assaulted public psyche with images of executions and other exploits. At the sub – regional level, Boko Haram also controlled large portions of territory in the Republics of Cameroon, Chad and Niger, prompting a flurry of diplomatic activities across Africa and Europe.
Without doubt, 2011 – 2014 was Boko Haram’s most active and successful years. During this period, there is no doubt that the public lost confidence in the ability of the military to defend Nigeria’s territorial integrity. Media editorials and commentaries in both traditional and new media clearly indicated flow of public opinion. At a point, the 3 North Eastern states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe were placed under a state of emergency. Some commentators even called for the removal of Service Chiefs. However, this order of events was not entirely strange. Extant literature on the life cycle of terrorist organizations suggests that terrorist groups are most violent at the initial stages of their campaign.
In this regard, Peter Phillips argues that “at the centre of the life cycle sits the grassroots support for the terrorist organisation. Competition for grassroots support shapes the timing and intensity of the terrorists’ competition with the government. The grassroots support that is captured during the early stages of conflict will eventually shape the life cycle of the terrorist organization”. However, the extent to which Boko Haram succeeded in this regard is debatable.
Counter – Terrorism And Counter – Insurgency
In dealing with terrorism and insurgency, several lines of operations are usually open to governments. These lines of operations include; kinetic, diplomatic, political, Information and economic among others. To determine if Nigeria is winning the war against Boko Haram, it is imperative to do so within the parameters of these lines of operation.
National defence decision making process is stratified into grand – strategic, strategic, operational and tactical levels. As suggested earlier, misdiagnosis of a problem at a higher echelon can lead to some degree of inertia at the lower echelons. Although the Nigerian military recognizes the external ramifications of the Boko Haram terrorism, the conceptualization of the threat is that Boko Haram is an insurgency. Therefore, the Concept of Operations has been based on Nigerian Army’s Counter-Insurgency Operations Doctrine. The threat definition has also taken into account the internal manifestations of Boko Haram. This has in turn informed the level of force applied. For instance, the Rules of Engagement (ROE) issued by the Defence Headquarters has emphasized the need for troops to distinguish between civilians and terrorists and ensure the continued protection of civilian population, in order not to derail the overall objective of ‘winning hearts and minds’. It is to the credit of this awareness that youths nicknamed ‘civilian JTF’ work with the military to track down known terrorists in the Borno neighborhoods.
Similarly, classical counter – insurgency strategy broadly prescribes principles such as minimum necessary force, political awareness by troops and popular support as some of the measures for dealing with threats to national security like those posed by Boko Haram. Consequently, the restructuring of the campaign plan directed by the Chief of Army Staff, Lt Gen Tukur Buratai has resulted in the creation of the Theatre Command and 8 Task Force Division as well as logistics and forward operation bases that are cognizant of their huge responsibilities to the society. Despite obstacles by Amnesty International, these efforts have given traction to full spectrum logistics supported kinetic operations across the North East Theatre. The Theatre Commander, Maj Gen
Lucky Irabor outlines the outcomes of these efforts as follows:
Routing of Boko Haram in Sambisa forest and capture of Camp Zairo.
Realignment of forces.
Enhancement of logistics and supply of same to troops in the front.
Restoration of the confidence and fighting efficiency of troops.
Reclamation of all areas hitherto occupied by terrorist across Adamawa, Bornu and Yobe States.
Opening of major roads linking state capitals of Maiduguri, Damaturu and Yola to the hinterland.
Phenomenal reduction in the number of Internally Displaced Persons.
Commencement of stabilization programmes by United Nations agencies and other Non-Governmental Organizations.
Restoration of government presence in all areas previously ungovernable.
In contrast, Boko Haram has lost all strategic grounds it once held from Adamawa to Borno and Yobe States. Tactically, they are currently at wits end, as the terrorist group is helmed – in in the recesses of the Lake Chad area.
Colonel Antigha is of the Nigeria Army’s public relations department.
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