Analysis: Boko Haram insurgency far from over, despite Nigerian claims
December 27, 2016 3 Comments
On Saturday, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari made a statement announcing that the country’s military had delivered a “final crushing” on Boko Haram’s “last enclave” deep in the Sambisa Forest. He then congratulated the Nigerian troops for “finally entering [the forest] and crushing the remnants of the Boko Haram insurgents”. This is not the first time that a Nigerian head of state announces the “final crushing” of the Boko Haram insurgency. Even though Boko Haram has suffered significant territorial losses since 2014, the armed conflict that has destabilized the entire Lake Chad region for nearly a decade is far from over, and Boko Haram may even bounce back, just as it has done in the past.
Boko Haram emerged as a public-pressure group in predominantly Muslim northeastern Nigeria in 2003, stating multiple grievances against the corruption and nepotism of Nigeria’s ruling elite. In 2009, the group launched an armed insurgency against the government, with the stated aim of establishing an Islamic state ruled by sharia (Quranic law) in Nigeria’s northeast. In 2015, Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, pledged the group’s allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and announced the establishment of “Islamic State West Africa Province”. Since then, the group has continued to fight the Nigerian military in a seven-year war that has killed more than 15,000 people and displaced two million more. The United Nations estimates that at least 14 million people in the Lake Chad region have been affected by the war and in immediate need of significant humanitarian assistance.
By early 2014, Boko Haram had managed to drive out all Nigerian government presence from the country’s northeastern Borno state and control an area of approximately 12,000 sq. mi. At that time, however, the Nigerian military, in association with Chadian and Nigerien forces, launched Operation LAFIYA DOLE, with the aim of recapturing Boko Haram’s territory. The operation involves thousands of Nigerian, Chadian and Nigerien ground forces, as well as airplanes and even construction crews, who built dirt roads leading deep into the Sambisa Forest in search of Boko Haram’s camps. As government forces have been advancing on all sides, Boko Haram fighters have retreated deeper into the 500-sq. mi. forest. On Saturday, the Nigerian president announced that government troops sacked Boko Haram’s “Camp Zero” and that the insurgents were desperately fleeing into the surrounding areas. There was no word about the fate of Shekau, the group’s leader.
The Nigerian government has not allowed foreign journalists to cover this latest phase of Operation LAFIYA DOLE, so Western reporters have not been able to independently verify the president’s claims. But even if they are accurate, they do not signify the end of the seven-year conflict. Nigerian authorities have proclaimed the destruction of Boko Haram several times in the past, most notably in 2009, shortly after the group took up arms against the state. Each time the claims have been proven wrong, as Boko Haram has re-emerged stronger than before. Moreover, in recent years the group has been able to cross repeatedly into the neighboring countries of Chad and Niger, and may do so again, thus shifting the front of the insurgency away from Nigeria’s borders. On Monday, authorities in Chad said communities in the north of the country, which border’s Nigeria’s Borno State, reported “a string of attacks” by alleged Boko Haram militias. At least four were documented in just a few hours. In one of them, a local vigilante group managed to stop a man on a bicycle who was heading into a nearby village church during a Sunday service, strapped with explosives. As soon as he was stopped, he detonated the bomb outside the church, killing himself and three other people.
It is very early to state with any level of confidence if Boko Haram is still intact. Faced with territorial loss, the group may have chosen to revert to an underground organization, which means that its members will have hidden their weaponry and blended into the civilian population. Or it may have chosen to cross the border into Niger and Chad, thus spreading regional instability further east, into central Africa. The war in the Lake Chad region is far from over.
► Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 December 2016 | Permalink