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In recent months, the Islamist insurgent group Boko Haram has seen an apparent reversal of fortune. Regional military forces, in an offensive begun in the weeks before Nigeria’s general elections in March, have retaken territory and displaced militants from their strongholds in the northeast. President Muhammadu Buhari has pledged to end the insurgency in the northern states and is widely regarded as capable of doing so, in view of his military background and his familiarity with the zone of conflict.
But the Buhari administration will face a resilient and formidable opponent. Indeed, Boko Haram’s tactical flexibility and its roots in northern Nigeria’s marginalized communities suggest a prolonged and many-layered struggle. Already, the extremist group has responded to battlefield setbacks by returning to bombings and hit-and-run guerrilla attacks, a familiar operational shift that could lead to a surge in casualties.
In many respects, countering such diffuse tactics will prove more difficult than pushing militants out of fixed positions in towns. And as the government reclaims ever more territory from the militants, dispersed security forces and civilian communities are also becoming vulnerable to attack. To maintain momentum in its push against Boko Haram, the Nigerian government will need to demobilize low- and mid-level militants through negotiation. It will also need to promote development in the country’s neglected north to make the militant cause less attractive. And it will need to temper expectations of a rapid and decisive victory.
At the height of its aggressive campaign of occupation, in late 2014 and early 2015, Boko Haram controlled about three percent of Nigerian territory, or some 12,000 square miles. The militant rampage through the northeast caused massive upheaval, displacing more than 1.5 million people and disrupting trade across the region. Insurgents had captured the towns of Bama and Gwoza and were setting their sights on Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria’s Borno State and home to over a million people. And the stability of the wider region seemed in danger: Boko Haram’s increasingly internationalized rhetoric, laced with threats against Chad, Cameroon, and Niger, signaled that its ambitions were not constrained by Nigeria’s borders.
Boko Haram has faced intense resistance from government forces before, and each time it has made effective tactical adjustments in response.
Since mid-February, when Nigeria’s presidential elections were postponed so that security forces could concentrate on counterinsurgency, the Nigerian army, along with Cameroonian, Chadian, and Nigerien troops (and a contingent of South African mercenaries), is reported to have killed hundreds of militants and pushed Boko Haram out of nearly all of its former territory. The March recapture of the strategic border town of Malam Fatori, meanwhile, has significantly reduced insurgents’ ability to initiate cross-border attacks into neighboring Niger. By early April, regional forces had declared the initial phase of the fighting over. “Boko Haram’s capacity to cause trouble has been reduced,” Brahim Seid Mahamat, a Chadian general, said at a news conference after the recapture of Malam Fatori. “I wouldn’t say to nothing, but it has been reduced as much as possible.”
Official claims of rapid victory, however, warrant some skepticism. Although Boko Haram is currently on the defensive, the first quarter of 2015 was nevertheless the most lethal period in the conflict’s five-year history. According to estimates generated by the Nigeria Social Violence Database, a Johns Hopkins University project tracing the evolution of the insurgency, Boko Haram was responsible for the deaths of some 3,015 people from January to March—almost twice as many as were killed during the last three months of 2014. Government security forces, including foreign coalition troops, killed 1,245 in the same period, most of them reported insurgents.
The entry of regional forces and the recent change in Nigerian leadership are likely to put the insurgency on its heels. President Buhari, a former general and military ruler from the predominantly Muslim north, has declared the defeat of the insurgency a priority of his administration, and vowed to reverse the corruption and mismanagement that impeded security efforts under his predecessor, President Goodluck Jonathan.
Indeed, data from recent months reveal that Boko Haram’s momentum is already waning. Although more than 1,300 deaths were associated with Boko Haram activity in February 2015, that toll fell to just over 500 the following month. Likewise, within the three-week period from January 18 to February 17, Nigerian and regional security forces were responsible for some 800 casualties, most of them apparently insurgents. And with the exception of militant attacks in Gombe and Borno States, Nigeria’s March 28 presidential election was largely peaceful—despite repeated threats of violence from insurgents.
Few close observers doubt that the events of recent months mark a significant setback for the militant group. In its pursuit of rapid territorial expansion, it became overextended, and badly underestimated the intensity of the regional response.
Unfortunately, the lull in violence that has prevailed since February probably signals a temporary strategic withdrawal rather than a permanent decline. Indeed, Boko Haram has faced intense resistance from government forces before, and each time it has made effective tactical adjustments in response. If a pragmatic retreat by Boko Haram makes sense under the present circumstances, it also accords with the group’s historical tendencies.
In 2009, for example, Boko Haram, then not yet actively militarized, spent a year regrouping following a government crackdown that killed its senior leadership and some 700 of its followers. It reemerged in mid-2010 as a terrorist organization under the leadership of Abubakar Shekau and, within months, was attacking government targets, assaulting churches and villages, and planting bombs in major urban areas.
A second strategic shift occurred in the wake of a 2013 government offensive to secure the northeastern states of Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe, where Boko Haram had by then consolidated a measure of territorial control. In its early months, the government offensive appeared to be effective, as casualties attributed to the militants dropped from over 900 in the third quarter of 2013 to around 300 the following quarter. But the lull in violence dissipated as Boko Haram began to alter its tactics. As the government concentrated its forces in towns and cities, the insurgents began launching attacks in remote areas, where the death toll grew exponentially. By the spring of 2014, casualties had skyrocketed: in April, May, and June of that year, Boko Haram was responsible for the deaths of around 2,000 people.
Such a strategic shift is once again underway. Faced with a concerted offensive, the insurgents have withdrawn to safer areas in the Sambisa Forest, from which they can regroup and resume hit-and-run style attacks. As government forces invest in securing and holding territory, the group is looking to stage attacks on dispersed garrisons and vulnerable civilian sites, dulling the military’s strategic edge. And the insurgents’ efforts to connect with regional and international jihadist networks, including al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the self-proclaimed Islamic State, raise the possibility that they will receive tactical advice and support from foreign organizations.
In their pursuit of rapid territorial expansion, the militants became overextended.
Recent attacks confirm the strategy. Since the beginning of March, the group has been active as far south as Gombe State and as far west as Bauchi State, both regions that have not previously seen heavy fighting. Attacks in Maiduguri at the end of May and rural Borno State in June have killed more than two hundred people. These moves belie the government’s claim that its troops have the insurgents bottled up in their last stronghold in the Sambisa Forest, as does other recent insurgent activity beyond Nigeria’s borders, in Cameroon, Chad, and Niger.
There are broader reasons for pessimism regarding the staying power of a decline in violence. Internal wars rarely end quickly or decisively. And even when hostilities dissipate, insurgencies foster legacies of violence, mistrust, and destruction that can eventually result in renewed conflict. Nigeria’s history is rich in recent examples. The Boko Haram insurgency itself has an antecedent in the Maitatsine religious upheavals of the 1980s, a tumultuous chapter in northern Nigerian history that claimed over 5,000 lives. Even if Boko Haram is contained, the violence may have aggravated tensions with dissident Islamist groups and marginalized northern communities that could provoke renewed conflict.
In other words, the insurgency is hardly defeated, and a conclusive end to the conflict is not assured. Keeping up the momentum against Boko Haram will require not only changes in Nigeria’s armed forces but an overall reconsideration of government strategy.
To begin, the Buhari government should temper popular expectations of a rapid and decisive victory. The Jonathan administration’s frequent and empty claims of success against Boko Haram reduced the state’s credibility and aggravated popular frustrations. Already, Buhari has demonstrated that he is aware of the risks of bluster, cautioning that the schoolgirls abducted from Chibok last year may be difficult to recover. In the future, it will be important for Nigerian leaders to make modest promises and to publically document actual gains against the militants.
Negotiations and amnesty efforts have the potential to demobilize a significant portion of Boko Haram militants. It may seem anathema to enter into dialogue with terrorists. But because regional forces seem to have the insurgents on their heels, the current situation may present an opportunity to offer low- and mid-level fighters incentives, including conditional amnesties and demobilization programs, to encourage them to defect, thereby freeing government forces to focus on containing the movement’s hard core.
A reduction in civilian casualties and government abuses will likewise be essential to an effective campaign against the insurgents. The Nigerian armed forces have frequently been brutal—extrajudicial killing and indiscriminate imprisonment are common. A concerted effort to prevent human rights abuses and investigate past violations will be a crucial step toward regaining the shattered trust of residents in the north.
Over the longer term, containing extremism in Nigeria will demand an unprecedented commitment by officials in Abuja to invest in the impoverished and unstable northeast. Even under the best circumstances, it will require years to rebuild the communities, towns, and lives that Boko Haram has torn asunder—just as it will require more than military success to regain the trust of citizens in Nigeria’s northeast and to secure a protracted peace.