Buhari's make or break strategy against Boko Haram

After 100 days in office, Boko Haram remains a major challenge for Nigeria's new president.

On 5 September 2015, Muhammadu Buhari will mark the first 100 days of his presidency. As expectations are high, particularly regarding his strategy and actions against Boko Haram, these first 100 days are a useful indicator of what is to come.

As Michael Watkins puts it in the Harvard Business Review, ‘what new leaders do in their early days has a disproportionate impact on all that follows’.

While this is not his first time at Nigeria’s helm, this former major general faces far different challenges than during his first tenure as military head of state from 1983 to 1985.

Nigerians supposedly elected Buhari to reinstate the country’s honour or ‘manifest destiny’, which has suffered under steady state decay caused by spiralling corruption, a deteriorating economy and persistent insecurity from the Boko Haram crisis in the north of the country. The latter may have played a critical role in Buhari’s election. Thanks to the Islamist sect’s campaign of violence, which reached its peak last year accounting for more than 400 attacks and over 9 000 deaths, support for the previous administration dwindled rapidly.

For many Nigerians, the intensity of Boko Haram attacks demonstrated the inability of the previous administration under Goodluck Jonathan to deal with the crisis. The perceived ineptitude of his government was best illustrated when Boko Haram carried out the mass kidnapping of nearly 300 school girls at Chibok, Borno State, in April 2014, attracting global condemnation. The global social media campaign of #BringBackOurGirls, which mobilised some of the most powerful voices on earth, was perceived almost as an opposition group.

Boko Haram has intensified attacks in Nigeria in a bid to intimidate the new president
Tweet this

Boko Haram has continued to evolve both structurally and tactically. In March this year, it became the first group in sub-Saharan Africa to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State (IS), signalling a shift in authority from its notorious leader, Abubakar Shekau, to the supreme command of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of IS.

This strategic association is meant to enable Boko Haram, which now goes by a new name, the Islamic State Province in West Africa, to benefit from the expansive resources of IS, potentially guaranteeing its long-term sustainability. It’s a union that does not augur well for the fight against Boko Haram because, in theory, it means that defeating the group also requires dismantling the Islamic State. 

Since Buhari’s inauguration on 29 May, Boko Haram has intensified its attacks in Nigeria in a bid to intimidate the new president and force his hand. According to data compiled by the ISS on reported major terrorist incidents in Africa, Boko Haram has carried out more than 200 attacks as at 31 August, claiming over 5 000 lives in the four Lake Chad Basin countries – Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

Despite the expansion of the group’s attacks to the three other countries, Nigeria continues to be the principal target. Of the 200 attacks this year, 141 (70%) have occurred in Nigeria, which accounts for 4 233 deaths (85%) of total deaths recorded so far. The deadliest attack was in January when Boko Haram militants invaded Baga, a town in Borno State, where they massacred 2 000 people. Meanwhile, 31 attacks have been recorded in Cameroon with 296 deaths, 16 in Chad with 189 deaths, and 12 in Niger with 160 deaths.

A major shift in Boko Haram’s tactics in the past 100 days is the increased use of suicide attacks
Tweet this

From January to May, before Buhari took office, Boko Haram carried out 115 attacks in all the four countries – a monthly average of 23 attacks. Under Buhari, 86 attacks occurred in three months – a monthly average of 27 attacks. Approximately 3 466 deaths were recorded between January and May, averaging 693 deaths per month.

In Nigeria alone, 60 attacks accounting for 1 145 deaths have occurred under Buhari, reaching their peak in July, which accounted for 30 or about half of all attacks in Nigeria between June and August, with 647 or 57% of total Boko Haram-related deaths in the same period in Nigeria.

A major shift in Boko Haram’s tactics during the past 100 days is the increased use of suicide attacks, especially involving young teenage girls. Only 19 suicide attacks took place in the five months before Buhari took power, but at least 33 have occurred in the past three months, accounting for 55% of all attacks carried out during that period. Boko Haram has used suicide attacks not only to reach difficult targets but also to inflict mass casualties.

The new administration has rightly made the issue a top priority. Buhari has responded with military, diplomatic, social and economic measures. In a diplomatic offensive, the Boko Haram crisis featured prominently in the president’s first foreign state visits to Niger, Chad, United States, Cameroon, Benin and the G7, where he sought to consolidate support and harness resources to combat the Islamist sect.

To win heart and minds, the president has also made plans to attract pro-poor development initiatives in the north and diversify the Nigerian economy – to eliminate the reliance on the oil industry and put new focus on agriculture with a view to create youth employment. He is also promoting efforts to de-link Boko Haram and its activities from Islam, by claiming that the Islamist sect is a fraud and that neither the group nor its activities has anything to do with religion.

To streamline and sharpen the focus on the military, one of Buhari’s first policy decisions was to transfer the Joint Military Command headquarters from Abuja to Maiduguri so that it could be closer to the action. He has also appointed new military chiefs and commanders and ordered them to draw up plans for defeating Boko Haram within three months.

The decision may help generate increased momentum and resources necessary to eliminate Boko Haram. But it raises serious questions about the feasibility of – within just three months – destroying a six-year insurgency which has tentacles spread way beyond Nigeria and whose command structures may be found in Iraq and Syria.

A criminal justice response might help Buhari in his quest to ultimately defeat Boko Haram
Tweet this

Buhari’s strategic approach has been to isolate the group in the Sambisa forest and use neighbouring countries and the regional Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) to block escape routes and safe havens and ultimately obliterate Boko Haram. This is by no means as easy as it sounds.

Firstly, the size and terrain of the Sambisa forest is a huge challenge. Secondly, Buhari would need more than three months to rekindle the diminishing morale in the military, which was at its lowest right before he took office.

Add to this, the military’s inadequate and inappropriate arms cache and a lack of expertise in fighting in such a diverse and complex terrain against an adversary whose fighters live in caves and makeshift tunnels. Thirdly, Buhari’s plan does not depend entirely on what the Nigerian military can do, but also on the skills and commitment of the forces of neighbouring countries.

Fourthly, it is not clear if the approved 8 700 troops of the MNJTF is the right capacity given that previous discussions had considered between 7 500 and 10 500. The MNJTF is also designed as a traditional peacekeeping force, which, from experiences in Somalia and Mali, has not proven to be a successful counter-terrorism tool. Finally, although Buhari has pledged US$100 million, long-term funding for the MNJTF remains a vexing issue, causing several deployment delays.

Despite these challenges, there is every reason for Buhari to celebrate his 100 days at the helm of Aso Rock. The military has rescued the majority of the women and girls that Amnesty International estimated had been kidnapped or abducted by Boko Haram. Additional towns and villages have been retaken, including the recent liberation of Gamboru Ngala, a strategic town bordering Cameroon.

This is good news, but these recent successes create a false impression that Boko Haram has been incapacitated and is on the verge of defeat. In the past, when Boko Haram appeared frail and defeated, it has always bounced back reenergised and more deadly. Buhari should avoid the same mistakes of the previous administration that issued numerous timelines to defeat Boko Haram but never met any of them. Such unfulfilled promises cost the previous administration dearly.

The litmus test for Buhari’s administration remains the liberation of the 219 Chibok schoolgirls believed to be in Boko Haram’s captivity. In this regard, the president however, seems to be implementing the same strategy as his predecessor, relying heavily on the military.

A new approach, which focuses on a criminal justice response, implementing the 2011 Terrorism Prevention Act and establishing special courts or tribunals mandated to investigate and prosecute acts of terror, might help Buhari in his quest to ultimately defeat Boko Haram.

Martin Ewi, Senior Researcher, Transnational Threats and International Crime division, ISS Pretoria

Related content