Reports of Boko Haram’s defeat have been greatly exaggerated. In December 2015, in the days leading up to Christmas, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari declared that the insurgency was “technically defeated.” Nearly a year later, Lieutenant General Tukur Burtai told journalists in the Borno State capital of Maiduguri that, “it is very clear that the terrorists have been defeated; there are no doubts about it.” He assured his audience that the government was now focusing on “mop up operations aimed at ensuring that we clear the rest of them.” Such announcements aside, however, the fight against Boko Haram remains a formidable challenge that will likely extend into 2017 and beyond. As the rainy season has drawn to a close and movement throughout the country’s northeast has become easier, a spate of attacks in urban centers and against the communities surrounding Maiduguri demonstrate the insurgency’s resilience.

This is not to suggest that the endeavors of the Nigerian military, police, and vigilante groups have been entirely ineffective. The country has successfully dislodged Boko Haram from much of the territory that it controlled in 2014 when it pledged its allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS) and declared itself a caliphate. Still, the insurgency’s adaptability in the face of military offensives should not be underestimated. Although Nigeria’s political and military elite publicly maintain that the group’s defeat is imminent, they are nonetheless planning continued operations against the insurgency’s strongholds and have expressed serious interest in purchasing sophisticated military equipment. To put an end to the crisis, Nigeria should reassess its approach to fighting Boko Haram, focusing on the non-kinetic aspects of the insurgency and drawing from analysis of the group’s fluid tactics.


The rise of Boko Haram is undoubtedly the biggest crisis that Nigeria has faced since its civil war in the late 1960s. Although the group began as a largely non-violent dissident Salafist sect in Maiduguri at the turn of the millennium, it has since become one of the most lethal terrorist groups in the world. The death toll from Boko Haram and the military operations against the insurgency totals more than 50,000 people, and more than 2.5 million have been displaced by the violence.

The death toll from Boko Haram and the military operations against the insurgency totals more than 50,000 people.

Thanks to the collapse of farming and trade resulting from the mass displacement and persistent insecurity, a humanitarian crisis of the highest order has erupted in the Lake Chad Basin. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimated in September that more than six million people in the region are facing food insecurity; in late-November, the United Nations reported that more than 75,000 children in the northeast are at risk of dying from starvation in the coming months if they are not given food assistance and humanitarian support. The UN recently requested $1 billion to respond to the humanitarian crisis in Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa states, although at present, the funds are still lacking.

The government’s statements about the impending end of the insurgency are more than just rhetoric—they reflect policies being made at the sub-national level. In mid-October, the governor of Borno State, Kashim Shettima, announced that he would close all of camps for internally displaced people in his state by May 2017. But with an estimated one in ten such refugees still living in a formal camp and a number of Borno State’s Local Government Areas (similar to counties in the United States) still subject to Boko Haram’s attacks, this timeline is unreasonable.

The fact that millions are still unable to return to their communities highlights an uncomfortable truth about the campaign against Boko Haram: Although Nigerian forces have been able to clear territory once held by the insurgents, holding said territory remains elusive.   

A soldier walks past a checkpoint in Bama, Borno State, Nigeria, August 2016.
A soldier walks past a checkpoint in Bama, Borno State, Nigeria, August 2016.
Afolabi Sotunde / REUTERS

Part of the reason that the military and police have failed on this front is inadequate training and equipment for the troops, which itself is due to corruption and mismanagement. Soldiers have complained that the insurgents are better equipped than they are. The Nigerian military even relies on vigilante groups in the northeast to supplement its aerial intelligence and to fight alongside its soldiers against Boko Haram.

Then there is the issue of the military’s expanding mandate. Because of the persistent insecurity in the region, the Nigerian military is incorporated into the country’s humanitarian operations. It has helped to distribute assistance outside of Maiduguri’s borders and often serves as protection for aid caravans. These responsibilities place an additional burden on an already-strained force. In addition to raising ethical issues about the neutrality of aid, this policy has also left internally displaced people vulnerable to sexual assault by soldiers.


Another challenge to defeating Boko Haram is Abuja’s misinterpretation of changes in the insurgency’s operations. At present, military success is being measured by the ability to dislodge Boko Haram’s control over (largely) rural territory; this assumes that the insurgency’s increasing reliance on asymmetrical tactics and urban bombings is a sign of weakness. But this metric ignores that Boko Haram engaged in precisely such hit-and-run style attacks during its rise as an urbanized insurgency from 2009 until a state of emergency was declared in Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe States in May 2013.

Then, too, the group’s adaptability was underestimated. As Nigeria’s police and military units entered urban centers in these three states, pushing Boko Haram out to the rural areas, the State of Emergency was considered effective. It was only after being pushed out of the cities, however, that Boko Haram began attempting to hold territory, ushering in the most brutal and lethal period in the militant group’s history as it overran entire towns. The Nigerian government had earlier assumed that the death of Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf (along with an estimated 700 other members of the group) in 2009 would be sufficient to end the insurgency. Instead, it reemerged under a new leader, Abubaker Shekau as an even more violent campaign.

The government’s inability to effectively gauge progress against Boko Haram not only compromises the Nigerian military’s tactical choices, it also influences budgetary decisions for the worse. There has been a lot of debate in policy circles about the United States’ planned sale of 12 A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft to Nigeria. The sale is estimated to total $500 million, or half of the country’s 2016 defense budget. Those who oppose the sale cite not only the high price of these weapons, but also question their utility in the fight against Boko Haram. Matthew Page, a former U.S. intelligence official, notes that the aircraft’s “unique capabilities might have been handy two years ago, when Boko Haram controlled large parts of three northeastern states” but that now “Boko Haram fighters no longer operate en masse and many have taken refuge in remote communities in the Mandara Mountains or on the islands of Lake Chad. Even the Sambisa Forest—the group’s traditional stronghold—is not well suited to aerial bombardment.” Although the sale may still go through, important questions have been raised about the depth of understanding of the insurgency’s adaptive tactics.

The fight against Boko Haram is unlikely to draw to a close in the near future, despite high-level proclamations to the contrary. Boko Haram has repeatedly demonstrated remarkable resilience in the face of increased military pressure. Defeating it will mean addressing the resource constraints (exacerbated by corruption) of the Nigerian security sector, narrowing its mandate, and filling the training gaps that hamper its effort against the militant group.

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  • HILARY MATFESS is a Research Associate at the Institute for Defense Analyses and a member of the Nigeria Social Violence Research Project at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
  • More By Hilary Matfess