A regional military coalition has pushed Boko Haram out of many of its territories, but understanding the group's appeal and agenda is key to defeating it, argues Ryan Cummings.
The rapidity with which Boko Haram has been dislodged from its strongholds in Northeast Nigeria is reminiscent of the manner in which these areas had fallen under the group's control. After the capture of its first major town, Damboa in July 2014, it took Boko Haram five months to occupy an area in Northeast Nigeria that some claimed to be as large as Belgium. Since the launch of a renewed counter-insurgency campaign in January 2015, it has taken government-aligned forces roughly the same amount of time to reclaim nearly all insurgent-held territory.
There are hypotheses for the rapid reversal of Boko Haram's momentum. Some claim Nigeria's recent general elections incentivised the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan to act with a decisiveness lacking in much of its previous counter-insurgency response. Others, that it was the procurement of improved military equipment and weaponry that allowed the Nigerian military literally to outgun the group's forces. There have even been claims that Nigeria's employment of foreign mercenaries was the determining factor for its recent successes against the Islamist extremist group.
However, one dynamic which everyone agrees has drastically altered the course of the insurgency, is the intervention of Nigeria's neighbours in the conflict. In early February, the Chadian army entered Nigeria for the first time since the 1980s when its forces had been driven from the region amid a fierce territorial dispute between Nigeria and Chad. Their deployment led to the rapid liberation of several Boko Haram-controlled towns and villages straddling Northeast Nigeria's borders with Cameroon and Niger. For its part, the governments of Cameroon and Niger also pledged their support anti-Boko Haram initiatives. In addition to securing their shared border with Nigeria, the Cameroonian and Nigerien armies also actively engaged insurgent forces who had encroached on their respective territories, purportedly seeking refuge from intensifying counter-insurgency operations across the Nigerian border.
Boko Haram's rhetoric reflected its widening ambition.
Conversely, however, increased regional cooperation may have also been an admission by neighbouring countries that the Boko Haram threat was one of regional proportions. While it is believed the group has long had an operational presence in the wider Lake Chad region, much of its initial activities outside of Nigeria's borders appeared congruent with a domestic agenda — the creation of an Islamist state in Northeast Nigeria. But an uptick in attacks outside of Nigeria may have been an indication that Boko Haram was assuming a more transnationalist agenda.
The group's widening ambition was also reflected in its rhetoric. As noted by Nigerian researcher, Atta Barkindo, Boko Haram was increasingly manipulating the memory and historical narrative of the Kanem-Borno Empire — an Islamic kingdom which incorporated parts of modern-day Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger. Barkindo argues that the group was using the idea of resurrecting the empire, which remains the apex of Muslim dominance in the West Africa, as a mechanism to recruit and export its insurgency outside of Nigeria's borders. Concerns that Boko Haram's ambition had become regional were only strengthened by speculation that the group had forged linkages with the transnationalist Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) — ties which were formalised when Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau swore an oath of allegiance to ISIS on 7 March 2015.
Despite its successes, regional intervention in the Boko Haram conflict attracted more criticism than plaudits for the outgoing government of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan. The then-opposition leader, president-elect, Muhammadu Buhari, labelled it a "disgrace" that Nigeria was relying on its neighbours to fight Boko Haram. Both international and local media were equally unforgiving. Narratives around successes of regional militaries framed these accomplishments as being indicitive of the ineptitude and lack of political will in Nigeria to address an ostensibly Nigerian problem. Some reportage even accused Nigeria of resisting cooperation with its neighbours, even as counterterrorism initiatives were reaching their zenith. But are such criticisms fair?
Boko Haram recruited in Cameroonian mosques.
Although corruption, maladministration, and malfeasance by the Nigerian government allowed the Boko Haram insurgency to fester, a failure to acknowledge and address the group's regional contagion, and the receptive environment Boko Haram's ideology would find in some areas of the region around Lake Chad, allowed the problem to grow. In Cameroon, for example, evidence that Boko Haram was active within the country's borders can be traced as far back as 2011. Recruiters for Boko Haram would preach in Cameroonian mosques and radicalise the youth. More recently the group has used economic incentives to attract unemployed youth to join.
In neighbouring Niger, the first reports of a Boko Haram presence in the country were made in 2011 when a group of suspected members was arrested by Nigerien security forces. Further Boko Haram-related arrests were also made in Diffa in February 2012 and, most recently, in February 2014. Although evidence of Boko Haram's links to Chad are less overt, there has long been speculation that the Islamist group had been infiltrating the country's Kanuri community — the ethnic group of which it is primarily composed — as noted by the arrest of a number of Chadian Boko Haram fighters.
Regional governments must acknowledge they are part of the problem and part of the solution.
Given evidence of Boko Haram's operational presence in neighbouring countries, the relative success of the regional intervention in the conflict becomes more apparent. By conducting counter-insurgency operations in conjunction with the Nigerian government, neighbouring armies starved Boko Haram of safe havens to evade such initiatives. Logistical supply lines and operational platforms, which the group was believed to have established in the wider Lake Chad Basin region, were also being contested and disrupted.
Motivations and timing aside, it is apparent that regional cooperation, or the lack thereof, has played a major role in the development of Boko Haram. If further inroads against the group are to be made, the continuation of multilateral collaboration will be needed. But the efficacy of such initiatives may well depend on the willingness of Nigeria and her neighbours to acknowledge that they have been as much a part of the problem as they are of the solution. Whether any of those countries are ready to accept such culpability, however, is unclear.