How Nigeria Turned a Corner Against Boko Haram

7 years, 10 months ago - May 22, 2015
Burnt-out classrooms in Chibok, from where Boko Haram fighters seized 276 teenagers in April 2014.

Burnt-out classrooms in Chibok, from where Boko Haram fighters seized 276 teenagers in April 2014.

The Nigerian army has recaptured all of the major towns occupied by Boko Haram in recent months, and rescued nearly 1,000 kidnapped women and children. It claims to have destroyed several of the militants’ camps, pursued the group into the Sambisa forest and arrested those suspected of supplying them with food and fuel.

Isolated attacks have continued, but after more than five years of torment, the insurgents seem to have been transformed from the hunters to the hunted. It is now Boko Haram fighters who are fleeing, with the army in pursuit. Recently released footage shows militants running away in disarray from aerial bombardments by the Nigerian air force.

Only five months ago Boko Haram was wreaking havoc in the north east, seemingly able to launch attacks at will after having captured an area about the same size as Belgium.

A failure to stop militants played a part in the political downfall of Goodluck Jonathan, the first Nigerian president to lose an election, amid promises by his challenger Muhammadu Buhari to “crush” the insurgency.

Yet even before Buhari’s inauguration, the military seems to have turned a corner in its fight against Boko Haram.

The recent rescue of hundreds of women and children was a watershed. Although hostages have escaped from Boko Haram captivity before, they did so of their own volition. This was the first time that the army had rescued hostages in significant numbers. Some of the women claimed that their former captors had complained of battle fatigue and of being under-equipped – complaints formerly heard from soldiers.

Also it seems Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau has been uncharacteristically quiet of late – not having released any of his customary propaganda videos since March.

After failing for so long, how has the army managed this turnaround? Although many factors played a part, perhaps the most obvious has been a ruthless crackdown on dissent within the military itself.

After being stung by reports that some soldiers had refused to fight Boko Haram or had “tactically retreated” from battle, chief of army staff Lt-General Kenneth Minimah ordered that deserters be court-martialled. More than 60 were sentenced to death. He rejected complaints about being poorly equipped, arguing that “It is the soldier that fights, not the equipment”.

His tough tactics appear to have worked. Soldiers now say they would rather fight Boko Haram, that confront “that mad man [Minimah]”.

A change of command also helped. Since taking charge of the division in charge of combatting Boko Haram less than five months ago, Major-General Lamidi Adeosun has provided charismatic leadership and is respected by his men – unlike his predecessors.

Relations between the former commander and his men were so poor that enraged troops opened fire on him last May, blaming him for a botched night-time operation that led to several of their colleagues being killed.

In contrast, Adeosun personally led his men into battle in a recent operation. The new commander has quietly got on with the job with little fanfare, implementing more aggressive tactics to take the fight to the enemy.

But the army’s gains on the battlefield have inadvertently exposed the magnitude of the task still ahead. The fact that the military rescued nearly 1,000 women and children and yet not one of the nearly 300 kidnapped Chibok teenagers was among them demonstrates just how many people are being held.

An intermediary who entered Boko Haram’s camp last year to negotiate the Chibok girls’ release was shocked to find their presence dwarfed by other captives. The teenagers may represent less than 10% of the total number of hostages held by the militants, amid estimates that more than 3,000 other teenagers have been kidnapped.

Boko Haram kidnaps, rapes, and impregnates female abductees not just to sow terror but also to replenish its ranks. More than 200 of the women recently rescued are pregnant, and several of the rescued children were born and raised in Boko Haram’s stronghold in the Sambisa forest.

It is clear that the Islamic militants will not just disappear, no matter how successful the army is militarily. There is no magic bullet that will end the insurgency and nothing short of a comprehensive armistice deal will neutralise its ability to give the army a bloody nose from time to time.

Military force is the means, but not the end. All it can do is buy enough breathing room for the government to devise comprehensive solutions. For that, eyes will turn to Buhari’s new government taking office on 29 May.

The last time the army inflicted heavy losses on Boko Haram, in 2009, the government relaxed and thought the conflict was over. The militants laid low, re-armed, regrouped, and returned more deadly than before. The government must learn from this missed opportunity.

The conflict is entering a phase where it needs to be fought not just with bombs and guns, but also by addressing the consequences of the insurgency. Those raped or rendered refugees or orphans by Boko Haram need rehabilitation and support. The rescued hostages, including children fathered by insurgents, may not be accepted back in their communities. The group’s indoctrination was so effective that some of the women captives opened fire on the soldiers who came to free them. Some who escaped captivity in the past were sent away by their families in order to escape stigmatisation.

Also, even if Boko Haram agrees to lay down its weapons, the level of hostility towards the group means that security forces may have to protect former insurgents from score-settling attacks by their victims.

Nigeria may win the war, but could find that winning the peace will require different tactics.

Text by Guardian

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