For nearly three years the Nigerian government has stuck to its claim that it has ‘technically defeated’ Boko Haram. Recently though, the terror group demonstrated its renewed audacity with strikes at hard (military) targets.
The government’s response was to reorganise its key military leadership in the troubled north-east of the country – a strategy that appears largely cosmetic. The game changer is more likely to come from dealing with several blind spots in the military’s approach to Boko Haram.
Altering military commanders each time there’s a problem has been tried before, with little impact on the counter-terrorism effort. Over the last two years, leadership has changed on four occasions.
This time the most significant reshuffle was of the Theatre Commander overseeing the campaign against Boko Haram. The new head of Operation Lafiya Dole, Major General Abba Dikko, replaced Major General Rogers Nicholas who occupied the position for less than a year.
Beyond leadership, three top concerns undermine the army’s current position. First, the military must investigate why a number of its bases have suffered attacks in close succession. Second, the use of intelligence must be deepened to include closer collaboration with local community actors who are familiar with the terrain in which Boko Haram operates. Third, the grievances of soldiers must be addressed to improve morale.
With regard to attacks, on 13 July Boko Haram insurgents ambushed a military convoy in Borno state, Nigeria. Then on 19 July soldiers were attacked as they escorted traders close to Nigeria’s border with Cameroon. And on 21 July troops again fell victim to insurgents. Over a six-week period, four military bases were attacked, one of which was staffed by over 700 soldiers.
In addition to military targets, Boko Haram has launched deadly assaults on civilians. The extremist group’s offensives have been relatively sophisticated – probably executed by the faction of Boko Haram led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi who has a penchant for targeting the military. Nigeria’s army needs to investigate whether these attacks are the result of weak security at its bases, or because of Boko Haram’s growing strength and tactical advantage.
The new military commander faces longstanding challenges when it comes to intelligence. While the rights of ordinary citizens must be safeguarded, the problem posed by Boko Haram’s spies within communities should be recognised. More than ever, this issue merits attention in light of recent revelations by apprehended members of Boko Haram.
Some of these individuals infiltrate townships under the guise of various professions, like taxi drivers. Countering this is not easy, as the challenge of dealing with al-Shabaab and its ‘Mata Hari’ spy network involving sex workers in Kenya showed.
A closer working relationship is needed between the military and civilian groups who can provide critical information about Boko Haram’s tactics. The Nigerian army realised this back in 2013 when it started working with the Civilian Joint Task Force, a network of vigilante groups supporting the security forces against Boko Haram. More of such alliances are needed, with a wider range of local actors, including Islamic clerics.
The army has made some progress in regard to the recovery of territory from Boko Haram. However, much more is needed to thwart the group. To consolidate military gains, grievances among troops on the ground must be attended to.
Part of the solution lies in dialogue to understand concerns of those on the battlefront. For instance, some units lament the delays in getting weapons and supplies when their detachments are under attack. Regrettably, these have been met with warnings by the authorities against soldiers accused of abandoning their posts when faced with insurgents.
Threatening battle-worn troops is counter-productive and echoes past mistakes. At the height of the Boko Haram insurgency in mid-2014, troops staged a mutiny and fired at the vehicle of an army major general. In August this year, soldiers protested at the Maiduguri airport in Borno state. The latest demonstration was over unjust redeployment and overextended periods of battle on the frontlines.
The boldness of Boko Haram to strike military targets will gain traction as the group discerns cracks in the Nigerian army’s approach. With the emergence of a Boko Haram faction that targets the military, creative solutions will be needed that go beyond replacing army commanders. The extremist group is less concerned about who leads the Nigerian army’s efforts than about exploiting the army’s vulnerabilities.
As long as they persist, Boko Haram will exploit weaknesses in the military’s situation. With a recognition that shifting leaders won’t address the problems, and more attention to intelligence and troop morale, the army will suffer fewer setbacks. Until then, declaring that Boko Haram has been ‘technically’ defeated is not justifiable.
Akinola Olojo, Senior Researcher, Transnational Threats and International Crime, ISS Pretoria
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