Is Nigeria’s Boko Haram insurgency over?

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Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari announced in December that Boko Haram’s last remaining stronghold had been captured by the military (Image source: Chatham House)

In the final days of 2016, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari announced that the army had captured Boko Haram’s last stronghold in the remote Sambisa forest in the northeast of the country. President Buhari said the successful operation marked the ‘‘final crushing’’ of Boko Haram, bringing an end to the brutal seven-year insurgency which has killed 15,000 people and displaced more than two million.

The apparent defeat of Boko Haram follows a year in which the group appeared to be in turmoil after a dispute between two of its dominant figures. In August, long-time militant leader Abukakar Shekau claimed to still be in command, despite an earlier statement by IS – to whom Boko Haram pledged allegiance in 2014 – that he had been replaced as leader by Abu Musab al-Barnawi. The dispute was the strongest indication yet of a more widespread split within the terrorist organization, which had already been significantly weakened by a Nigerian military offensive over the past 18 months.

For some time, the long-running Islamist insurgency – which began in 2009 – has looked to be in a state of gradual decline: militants have been forced to retreat into their rural heartlands after being pushed back from the urban areas they once controlled by a regional coalition of troops from Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

However, the group have seemingly been on the cusp of defeat on several occasions in the past, yet each time have fought back – proving themselves to be more resilient than expected. This article looks back at the key developments and crucial moments over the last seven years of the insurgency, before asking how Boko Haram was able to emerge to control large swathes of Nigeria in the first place, and how it can be prevented from doing so again.

Since its emergence as a military force in 2009, Boko Haram has forged a reputation as a particularly brutal terrorist group, pressing its objectives through a wave of killings, bombings, and abductions across Nigeria. It gained widespread international media coverage in April 2014, after the kidnapping of more than 200 girls from their boarding school in the town of Chibok. This thrust the situation into the global spotlight, prompting widespread outrage and strong condemnation from Western governments. Since pledging allegiance to IS later the same year, the Boko Haram conflict has often been simplified and presented within the overall narrative of global Islamic terrorism; however in reality, the background to the militancy is complex, with many factors being responsible for the rise of Boko Haram and its sustained campaign against the Nigerian state.

Boko Haram was formed in 2002 by Muslim Cleric Mohammed Yusuf. Yusuf set up a religious complex consisting of a mosque and Islamic school with the aim of opposing Western-style education. The group set up its headquarters in the north-eastern city of Maiduguri, and became known by the local population as Boko Haram – which loosely translates from the local Hausa language as ‘Western education is forbidden’.

Based on its radical interpretation of Islam, Boko Haram’s aims quickly moved beyond just education and morphed into a wider, longer-term political objective: to overthrow the Nigerian government and establish an Islamic Caliphate.

In July 2009, Boko Haram shifted its focus to full-scale militant insurgency, launching a campaign of violence in Borno state, killing hundreds of people in attacks on marketplaces, police stations and government buildings. The response from the Nigerian military was immediate: security forces launched a sustained assault, seizing the group’s headquarters and killing its leader along with many of its fighters. At this point, Boko Haram appeared to be decimated; yet its fighters were soon able to re-group under a new leader, Abubakar Shekau.

Under the leadership of Shekau, recruitment soared and Boko Haram gained a reputation for committing acts of horrific brutality, launching a campaign of high-profile attacks throughout Nigeria. In August 2011, Boko Haram extended its reach to the capital, killing 23 people in a suicide bombing at the UN headquarters in Abuja. In January 2012, more than 100 civilians were killed in a single day of co-ordinated bombings and shootings in the town of Kano.

As the violence escalated, the government struggled to maintain control, leading former president Goodluck Jonathan to declare a state of emergency in May 2013, in the three northern provinces of Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa. Troops were deployed to the region to combat the growing militant threat, leading to Boko Haram fighters being pushed out of their urban base Maiduguri, retreating to the dense Sambisa forest and the Mandara Mountains close to the border with Cameroon.

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A coalition of West African states have undertaken a sustained military offensive against Boko Haram since January 2015 (Image Source:VOA)

However, the insurgency proved difficult to put-down, and attacks by Boko Haram continued. Militants once again emerged from their rural hideouts to launch attacks on towns and villages – looting property, carrying out mass killings, abducting women and girls, and conscripting men and boys into their army. In April 2014, the group launched its most notorious attack, kidnapping more than 200 girls from a boarding school in Chibok. Some of the girls have recently been released, but the whereabouts of many others remains unknown.

By the end of 2014 the group had pledged its allegiance to IS, and rebranded itself as IS’ West Africa Province. Despite this development, the Nigerian military continued to push back the jihadists. In recent years, many Boko Haram fighters have been killed and large quantities of weapons have been seized, leaving the group seemingly on the edge of extinction once more. Yet given its past resilience, Boko Haram’s demise is far from certain; and to avoid it rising up once again, a key question must be answered: how was Boko Haram able to emerge as a group powerful and resourceful enough to wage a sustained seven-year insurgency, which wrought havoc across large swathes of territory and threatened the Nigerian state?

A large part of the answer lies in its ideological pull to those who may be sympathetic to its core values: an extreme form of Islam based on Sharia Law, the desired creation of a caliphate, vehement opposition to the West, and the concept of waging war against the Nigerian state.

However, an often-overlooked, but ever-present set of underlying, inter-related factors was vital in driving recruitment and sustaining Boko Haram in the area of northern Nigeria in which it first sprung-up: poverty, underdevelopment and economic marginalization.

This same set of conditions has been a common feature in the emergence of many other groups which have fought against the State throughout recent history. This story is particularly relevant to many other countries in Africa – particularly those with vast natural resources such as oil and minerals – where economic growth has gone hand-in-hand with growing inequality. In this sense, Nigeria can be understood to be suffering from the ‘resource curse’ – a situation in which oil wealth encourages corrupt governance, resulting in vast inequalities between regions and social groups, leading to an increased risk of poverty-induced conflict. Nigeria is now Africa’s largest economy, yet it is also one of the continent’s most unequal societies: in the north, 72% of the population live in poverty, compared to just 27% in the south.

Some may contend that a combination of poverty, unemployment and hopelessness have created a strong sense of resentment amongst the northeast’s generation of disenchanted young men, making the area fertile ground for jihadist groups such as Boko Haram. This wide pool of potential recruits, along with the manipulation of religion by Boko Haram as a vehicle for mobilization, is a key reason as to why the insurgency was able to be sustained for so long.

At present, however, the group finally looks on the verge of defeat – with no major strongholds left and splits in its leadership, Boko Haram appears to no-longer have an effective command structure. Its remaining fighters are likely to splinter into smaller factions, with little capacity to operate beyond remote areas or pose a large-scale threat as they once did. However, despite successes in driving back the militants, the authorities should be wary: if the underlying conditions remain unchanged, the militancy is likely to lie dormant beneath the surface, only to re-emerge once more. A military strategy alone therefore cannot remove the threat entirely. To ensure peace prevails in the coming years, a long-term strategy is needed: one which also addresses the economic and social conditions which have sustained seven-years of insurgency.

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