With repeated announcements of Boko Haram's defeat, how necessary is the redeployment of Nigeria's military chiefs to combat the group?
Amid his continued governance of Nigeria, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo ordered the redeployment of the country’s military chiefs from the capital, Abuja, to the city of Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria’s insurgent-embattled Borno state. Osinbajo’s directive was the second of its kind to be issued by a Nigerian head of state in response to the ongoing Boko Haram insurgency. Following his inauguration in May 2015, one of the first actions of President Muhammadu Buhari was to order the relocation of the Nigerian Military Command from the Federal Capital Territory to the Borno state capital. After scoring significant military gains against Boko Haram, culminating with Buhari announcing the sect’s technical defeat at the end of 2016, the military command was moved back to Abuja as the Nigerian army prepared to deliver the coup de grace to the ISIS-affiliated movement.
Osinbajo’s recent directive, however, not only refutes suggestions of Boko Haram demise but may infer its resurgence.
Amid the military command’s return to Maiduguri, an estimated 90 attacks by Boko Haram militants were recorded in and around Maiduguri in a period of merely 120 days. Undoubtedly, the most notable of these was the late July ambush of a military-escorted oil exploration team near the Borno settlement of Magumeri; 70 people were killed and a further three kidnapped in the attack. In terms of deadliness, the massacre was nearly matched on 4 August when Boko Haram killed at least 31 local fishermen on the Lake Chad islets of Duguri and Dabar Wanzam. In the group’s most recent mass casualty attack, 27 people were killed and 83 others wounded on 15 August in multiple suicide bombings which targeted Maiduguri’s satellite town of Konduga. Alongside the uptick in the frequency and deadliness of Boko Haram violence has also been its geographic dispersion: it has increased its activity near the Borno state capital and has also recently re-emerged in the neighbouring state of Adamawa where there had been a six-month hiatus in Islamist extremist activity. Boko Haram is clearly still active and destructive.
The Country Reports on Terrorism released by the United States Department of State in July 2016 forecast Buhari’s premature declaration of victory and the concomitant revival of Boko Haram’s insurgency. Detailing the progression of terrorism and counter-terrorism initiatives globally, the US briefing provided a grim account of the trajectory of the Boko Haram insurgency and attempts by the Nigerian state to curtail it.
Acknowledging that the Nigerian government and its regional partners have made progress in fighting the sect – delineated by the government’s liberation of all insurgent-administered territory, its arrest of high-ranking militant commanders such as Khalid al-Barnawi, and the brokering of the safe release of a large number of the so called Chibok girls – several key deficits in Nigeria’s counterterrorism policy was noted. Most notably, the report detailed the lack of cooperation between Nigerian security agencies and its Lake Chad Basin counterparts in intelligence sharing and coordinating its counterterrorism strategies. The Buhari administration was also cited as being unable to secure areas which were liberated from the Islamist militants but yet proceeded to repopulate these communities without providing adequate protection. Despite having the capabilities to freeze and confiscate terrorist assets as required by the UN Security Council (UNSC) ISIS and al-Qaeda sanction regime, the US stated that Nigeria’s convoluted bureaucracy was also preventing it from curtailing Boko Haram’s financing[RB1] .
Boko Haram has also harnessed the climatic conditions to further its impact. In fact, the US report said Nigeria’s counter-terrorism approach was not adaptive enough to the transition between the dry and rainy season in the north east of the country which was a major influencer on Boko Haram’s operational capabilities. The rainy season was cited by Minister of Defence Mansur Ali as the primary reason for the uptick in insurgent attacks. Ali is somewhat validated in his claim given that Boko Haram violence has annually spiked over north eastern Nigeria’s rainy season, which extends from May to October, when insurgents have greater freedom of movement in rain-soaked areas which are otherwise rendered inaccessible to Nigeria’s mechanized infantry. However, as noted by the US Department of State findings, rainy weather is but one of various factors which is seemingly reversing any gains made by the Nigerian government against Boko Haram.
The redeployment of Nigeria’s military chiefs to Maiduguri is evidently both a proactive and necessary initiative by the caretaker Osinbajo administration. At this juncture, however, the move seems more aimed at damage limitation than signalling the death knell of a group who can currently be defined as being technically resurgent rather than technically defeated.