Buhari under fire: why Nigeria is struggling to defeat Boko Haram

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Neil Munshi in Maiduguri yesterday

Muna Custom House camp lies on the edge of Maiduguri, near one of many trenches surrounding the northern Nigerian city dug to help keep Boko Haram at bay. It is often the first port of call for internally displaced people fleeing from the largely lawless hinterlands that surround the city at the centre of one of the world’s deadliest jihadi insurgencies.

Zarah Umar arrived in Borno’s state capital in mid-November, joining a wave that has more than doubled Maiduguri’s population to over 2m in recent years. She left her village near the Cameroonian border when the military took back control of it from Boko Haram the previous month after an occupation of several years by the Islamists.

Many of Ms Umar’s neighbours were killed, tortured or died of starvation, she says. The jihadis imprisoned her for five months after she tried to escape. They took her two-year old son. She hasn’t seen him since. “The only thing I can say about Boko Haram is that one day god will give them justice for the things they did to us,” says the 25-year-old. “But they still control the territory around my village to this day.”

It has been nearly a decade since a relatively peaceful Maiduguri-based Islamic sect transformed into one of the world’s most brutal transnational terror groups. It has been three years since President Muhammadu Buhari said they were “technically defeated” after campaigning in 2015 on a promise to destroy the group.

Yet, despite multiple declarations of victory by the state, Boko Haram, while significantly degraded, continues to slaughter soldiers and citizens across northeastern Nigeria and in neighbouring Niger, Chad and Cameroon, where its fighters often hide out and civilians often flee. The crisis has left 27,000 people dead and roughly 2m displaced.

It has also cost Africa’s largest economy, and its biggest crude oil producer , as much as $9bn according to the army’s top commander, Lieutenant General Tukur Yusuf Buratai.

The jihadi group, which has split into two factions, appears to be escalating its attacks and building its arsenal. The security situation in north-east Nigeria is deteriorating, sparking criticism of the military’s strategy, complaints from under-equipped troops despite billions in defence spending and pressure on Mr Buhari, a retired general, as he seeks re-election in February.

Last month, a raid on a military base in Metele near the border with Niger and Chad left around 100 soldiers dead and more than 150 missing, according to the Reuters news agency, though the army insists the death toll was 23.

In a statement last week, the army said that in recent months, it “noticed daring moves by the terrorists, increased use of drones against our defensive positions and infusion of foreign fighters in their ranks. These potent threats require us to continually review our operations.”

Eze Onyekpere, lead director at the Abuja-based Centre for Social Justice, says the attack on the Metele base and others raises a host of questions about the military’s strategy.

“It appears to be a lack of co-ordination — someone will attack a military compound and for two or three hours the battle is raging and no one coming to support them,” he says. “Where is the air force? How is it that Boko Haram can travel tens of kilometres and sneak up on a military base?”

He suggests that it is time for “a change of manpower at the top” of the armed forces, in a country that was under military rule for most of the 40 years after gaining independence in1960, and where two of its four leaders since the return of civilian rule were former generals.

Borno state, once a series of remote, pastoral villages dotted with larger centres, is now a matrix of garrison towns spread across a territory the size of Ireland. As Boko Haram has rendered many villages uninhabitable, the military has corralled civilians into towns like Gwoza, near the Cameroon border, where the population has grown sixfold to more than 60,000 in the past few years.

The influx of people, who have lost the ability to farm, trade or do business, has stretched the international aid groups that have essentially replaced meagre government services and created a malnutrition crisis.

“We used to farm — beans, maize, even rice — and keep livestock. But if you go a little way out of town you get killed, so that activity has all stopped,” says Lawal Hamman, a traditional community leader in Gwoza.

Viewed from the UN helicopters that are the only way NGOs can travel to garrison towns outside the relatively secure Maiduguri, the scale of the problem becomes clear. Wide trenches surround towns and in between lie vacant or destroyed villages and the faint outlines of abandoned farmland, plots either overgrown or fallow in peak harvest season. Across this landscape, dozens of fires burn — the army scorching long grasses and trees in which Boko Haram might hide, according to an aid worker.

Nearly 1m people live beyond the garrison towns, in the ungoverned hinterlands of Borno, completely beyond the reach of state or humanitarian aid. “There are a million people out there and we don’t know anything about them or what their needs are,” says one aid worker in Maiduguri.

The isolation has clearly made Boko Haram desperate, too, analysts say, with increased raids on villagers’ food stores and harvests. But it has not affected the militants’ strategy of targeting military installations, which they sack for equipment, likely in preparation for a major offensive before February’s elections, says Chidi Nwaonu, of London-based Peccavi Consulting, a security group that focuses on Africa.

The military, which has about 200,000 soldiers, faces security crises across Nigeria, from banditry in the north-west to brutal farmer-herder clashes in the middle belt to militants in the oil-rich southern Delta region, he says. It is deployed in at least 30 of 36 states, “and the elections bring another element of instability”.

“The general context of everything is that Nigeria — it’s a horrible thing to say — is more or less a failed state,” says Mr Nwaonu. “The government has basically lost control of most of the country.” He adds that in the north-east, “the enemy has the initiative. They’re dictating what is happening . . . The Nigerian armed forces don’t have an overarching strategy and haven’t been able to impose their will on the battle.”

The army’s Facebook page in recent days has been filled with posts touting successes in the fighting, accompanied by graphic images of dead militants. In a speech to military leaders and the president in Maiduguri last Wednesday, Lt Gen Buratai addressed the criticism.

“It is my belief that the [army] must start to plan and strategise on how to end the operations in the north-east,” he said. “I have directed for a change from a wholly defensive posture to one where we defend in numbers and conduct offensive operations in smaller packets but simultaneously in different fronts.”

The AFP news agency has reported at least 19 attempts by Boko Haram to overrun army bases since July. But the escalation goes beyond military targets. In November, the army said it had arrested a young female suicide bomber planning to attack Maiduguri. Two months ago, extremists killed two Nigerian Red Cross workers. Militants have also attacked villages and camps around the state capital in recent months.

In a rare acknowledgment of the challenges facing Nigerian soldiers , Mr Buhari said last week that he was working to ensure troops were fully equipped and better paid, and recognised the need to restore morale.

But Mr Nwaonu says rank-and-file soldiers are underpaid, underfed, under-equipped and overstretched.

“Soldiers ask us for food, mattresses, they ask us to build watchtowers for them,” says one senior humanitarian official. “Morale is really low — in some places they refuse to leave their barracks” during an attack. In August, dozens of special forces troops threatened to shoot superiors and refused to board a plane at Maiduguri airport that would further extend their lengthy tours.

The army has said it takes human rights seriously, but it and the 26,000-member strong Civilian Joint Task Force that assists it have been accused of torture, extrajudicial killings and rape which they have downplayed or denied — leading some analysts to fear that they risk losing local support.

Mohammed, a member of a civilian militia, patrols villages near Maiduguri. “You see what’s happening out there and I don’t know what use the military is,” he says. “There’s no willingness to engage Boko Haram, and if nothing changes I don’t think they can win.”

A video allegedly filmed by a soldier after a recent attack on troops was shared on social media last week. “Imagine, they are killing us every day,” an unidentified man says in the video, as he surveys the charred hulks of tanks and trucks. “We are fighting to defend our country — the generals are cheating us.”

Last week, the House of Representatives announced an investigation into $1bn Mr Buhari requested to fight Boko Haram, from an oil revenues account intended for states, which has not yet reached the army.Nigeria spent $1.62bn on the military last year, according to the World Bank, down from $2.42bn in 2013, at the height of the crisis and before a recession sparked by the oil price crash.

The US recently announced a $329m order for 12 helicopters for the Nigerian Air Force. The deal’s delivery date of 2024 was ridiculed on social media, given the pressing needs of the military for more rudimentary equipment like night vision goggles, helmets and radios.

Matthew Page, associate fellow at the London-based think-tank Chatham House, says the failure to defeat Boko Haram is “a result of not just failed strategy but an unreformed security sector that has an interest — a pecuniary and political interest — in keeping this low-level insurgency going”.

Satomi Ahmed, former head of Borno’s State Emergency Management Agency, says the security situation has vastly improved since 2014, when Boko Haram controlled territory the size of Belgium, bombed the capital Abuja and terrorised Nigeria’s vast north.

“To a certain extent, Nigeria is winning the war,” says Mr Ahmed, a member of the president’s party who is expected to be elected to the House in February. But the government must go further, he says. “Peace building, dialogue . . . We have to look at the crisis beyond the war.”

Zannah Mustapha, who helped negotiate the release of more than 100 of the 276 Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014, agrees. “The war has been won but we didn’t win the peace,” he says. “We don’t have [a] platform or implementation plan where there could be a peace-building process. Instead, it’s a sort of fire service approach.”

He says the government only comes to the table when Boko Haram makes a high-profile kidnapping such as the abductions of the Chibok girls.

“Security of the population, access to humanitarian aid, access to livelihood — that has to be part of the conversation” with Boko Haram, he says. “It’s much easier for them to find hostages here and there — but then you get stuck in this endless cycle and that is where we are now.”
Lake Chad basin Divided group is part of a regional insurgency

In 2016, Boko Haram split into two factions, one loyal to leader Abubakar Shekau, who had succeeded the late founder Mohammed Yusuf, and the other to Yusuf’s son, Abu Musab al-Barnawi. The Shekau faction, generally referred to as Boko Haram, is viewed as more brutal — killing civilians and soldiers indiscriminately and making heavy use of suicide bombers, particularly young women.

Mr Barnawi’s Islamic State West Africa Province (Iswap) faction is backed by Isis and has focused on winning over Muslim civilians while targeting the military. The recent killing of a top Iswap leader by his own commanders has led to some speculation of a rapprochement.

Virtually all US defence assistance in Nigeria is focused on the Lake Chad basin, where multiple terror groups operate, according to a western diplomat. “With vast ungoverned spaces spanning four countries [including Cameroon, Chad and Niger], the insurgency has more than ample room in which to retreat, hibernate and regroup,” Nigerian research group SBM Intelligence said in a recent note.

Arms looted in the 2011 fall of Libya’s former leader Muammer Gaddafi reportedly made their way to Boko Haram fighters. Although most analysts do not see any meaningful alliance between global jihadi groups, digital support from Isis may be growing. According to the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, since August Iswap attacks have been promoted on Isis messaging outlets 23 times — compared with just four times in the first seven months of the year.

Omar Mahmood, a senior researcher at ISS, says that with the rise in attacks and change in leadership, the situation could be reaching a “tipping point between the relative containment of a regional menace like [Iswap], and a new wave of terror in what has already been a lengthy war in the Lake Chad region”.

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