Nigeria’s Troubling Counterinsurgency Strategy Against Boko Haram

How the Military and Militias Are Fueling Insecurity

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

The kidnapping of 110 schoolgirls from Dapchi last month is the latest event to cast doubt on the Nigerian government’s claims that Boko Haram has been technically defeated. Unfortunately, the attack should have come as no surprise. Since 2015, the jihadist group has lost significant territorial control and no longer holds major cities. But as I saw during my fieldwork in Nigeria in January, the jihadist threat is far from gone, and counterinsurgency policies continue to be troubled and troubling.

Since 2009, Boko Haram has waged a brutal insurgency in northeastern Nigeria and neighboring countries. Both its violent jihad and the Nigerian government’s and militias’ counterinsurgency and counterterrorism efforts have led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people, the prolonged detention and disappearance of tens of thousands more, and the displacement of over two million. There has also been massive economic devastation in an already exceedingly poor and underdeveloped region. Even in comparison with other Islamist jihadist groups, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan or al Shabab in Somalia, Boko Haram stands out in its predatory behavior and failure to deliver the most rudimentary public services to the communities it controls.

Boko Haram caused 3,329 deaths in 2017, far fewer than the more than 11,500 attributed to the group during the peak of its activities in 2015, but only slightly less than the 3,484 deaths connected to the group in 2016. Moreover, the number of “violent incidents” instigated by the group in 2017 rose to 500 from 417 in 2016. Although Boko Haram no longer appears able to mass militants and dislodge entire battalions of the Nigerian military, the latter has been struggling to establish effective control in the cleared areas, some of which the group has overrun anew. The insurgency remains highly active in the Bama and Gwoza local government areas, where some 80 percent of former residents remain in internally displaced person (IDP) camps. In major cities and towns, including Maiduguri, there is widespread belief that Boko Haram informants are everywhere. This belief is exacerbated by previous incidents of

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