Far from being defeated, Boko Haram still poses a major threat to security and stability in Nigeria and West Africa

Posted on May 25, 2016



© Diariocritico de Venezuela

 Last May – after a period of relative absence from the international media – the terrorist organisation and self-appointed ISIL franchise briefly stormed back to headlines when one of the 219 schoolgirls kidnapped more than two years ago in Nigeria was found. Despite this still being the only girl to be found by the Nigerian government, and the repeated claims that Boko Haram has been defeated, millions of people are still paying the consequences of this conflict in terms of violence, displacement, and famine. Often portrayed as a future African power, Nigeria has often struggled to support this claim with facts during this conflict, which has also seen its partnership with the US severely damaged because of human rights violations by its armed forces and their unreliability.


Foreign involvement

With Western eyes largely turned to the Middle East, the US, France, and Great Britain have taken some, if scant, measures to support the Nigerian Government in its fight against Boko Haram. In September 2015, the US government pledged US$ 40 million to countries affected by the terrorist organization, which would boost the total US aid to the region up to almost US$ 240 million.[iii]  While France and the United Kingdom have only been providing Nigeria with materials and military trainers, the Obama administration opted in in late 2015 to send 300 more US troops to the region, adding to the 90 that were already deployed there, to carry out intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance operations.[iv] It was also agreed that the US Army would train a new 750-strong Nigerian elite battalion.

400 men might make for a meagre contribution compared to the assets deployed by the US in Iraq and Syria, but they are proof that at least one Western power took Nigeria’s struggles and Boko Haram’s threat to the region’s stability seriously enough to put boots on the ground in order to deal with Boko Haram. Back in 2014, China too had agreed to support Nigeria by providing satellite imagery and possibly surveillance drones -perhaps unsurprisingly considering the country’s ever-growing interests in the African continent.[v]

Can Nigeria be trusted?

Relations between the United States and Nigeria, however, have been far from flawless. Widespread corruption, the targeting of civilians, and extensive human rights abuses by the Nigerian armed forces have made American officials wary to even share intelligence with their Nigerian counterparts, fearing infiltration by Boko Haram.  The extent of human rights violations by the military has been uncovered by an Amnesty International report from June 2015, which called for investigations over alleged war crimes committed by the Nigerian military and points directly at nine of its senior staff. The report exposes how “thousands of young men and boys have been arbitrarily arrested and deliberately killed or left to die in detention in the most horrific conditions.”[vi] These and other allegations have been taken seriously enough that in the summer of 2014 the United States decided to block the sale of US-made Cobra attack helicopters from Israel for fear that they might be used against Nigerian civilians.[vii]

Wronged by this decision, the Nigerian leadership decided to retaliate by cancelling a training programme provided by US Army officers to a newly-created Nigerian elite battalion; a move that was justified by Nigeria’s military spokesman as a “purely strategic action.”[viii] The training was only resumed in February this year and, arguably, two years too late.[ix] To be sure, whether American reluctance to fully cooperate with Nigeria is caused by mistrust or a lack of commitment, American law still prevents the US from legally supporting foreign militaries that are thought to have committed gross violations of human rights, and the Amnesty report can only mean that cooperation between the two governments can’t be expected to increase significantly.[x]

Given the apparent weakness of the Nigerian armed forces, these recent developments in the Nigeria-US partnership are good news for Boko Haram, which can count on a very weak Nigerian army. Former US ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell believes such weakness is due to a series of Nigerian administrations that – since the early 1990s – have undertaken to undermine the military in order to prevent coup attempts by the armed forces.[xi] Furthermore, a recent report by the International Crisis Group argues that the Nigerian armed forces are in desperate need of reform and are indeed extremely weak and ineffective, especially considering the relative size of the country’s economy. It is quite telling of the state of its armed forces that Nigeria has often had to rely on those of its much poorer neighbours in order to make meaningful advances in this war.[xii] Whether the weakness of the Nigerian military is by political design or caused by structural shortcomings, its abysmal displays on the field do not bode well for a complete defeat of Boko Haram in the short term, especially without significant foreign support.

A multi-national approach

Despite being consistently active in Nigeria’s neighbouring countries along Lake Chad’s shores, Nigeria was initially alone in bearing the brunt of the fighting and there was no official attempt to coordinate efforts among the countries affected by Boko Haram.[xiii]

However, after a series of embarrassing defeats suffered by the Nigerian military, Nigeria, Benin, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger agreed in March 2015 to form an 8,700-men multinational task-force (the MNJTF) with the sole aim of defeating Boko Haram. However, as of March 2016, funding for the mission was still US$450 million short of the envisaged budget.[xiv] Despite the financial obstacles, MNJTF commander Major General Lamidi Adeosun declared in the same month that the Task Force was finally “fully operational and functioning in its fight against the insurgency”. Indeed, the number of MNJTF troops was even boosted up to 10,000.[xv]

By this point, Boko Haram had lost all the towns it had taken during its initial advances and is now on the back foot – at least in military terms – having retreated to its original stronghold in the Sambisa forest.[xvi] The Islamist group might be with its back against the wall, but it still appears to enjoy a degree of freedom of movement across the region’s borders, highlighting the divisions that have hindered effective cooperation between Nigeria and its neighbours.[xvii][xviii] In fact, coordination is so poor that after forces from Chad and Niger cleared a number of towns in Nigerian territory, they withdrew three months later in order to avoid overextension and resentment by civilian who might perceive them as occupiers. Reportedly, Nigerian troops were planned to take up their place but had failed to arrive.[xix]

It is clear that the MNJTF, which was initially conceived to be a perfectly coordinated multi-national task force, never really materialized and each contributor’s contingent is instead based in its own territory following its own country’s agenda.[xx]

Humanitarian crisis

A year has passed since the then-newly elected Nigerian president Muhammdu Buhari had promised to his Beninese counterpart that Nigeria “[would] defeat Boko Haram by the end of [2015]”. Yet, despite the intervention of foreign countries and the increased degree of synergy between Nigeria and its neighbours, Boko Haram is still affecting millions of people in the region today. The terrorist group keeps carrying out attacks against civilians and military targets and has caused the forced displacement of almost 2 million people within north-eastern Nigeria; hundreds of thousands more have fled to neighbouring countries.[[xxi]]

Last May, the UN’s World Food Programme was preparing to assist 430,000 people in northern Nigeria, where the conflict has been slowly giving birth to a severe humanitarian crisis.[[xxii]] Today, food prices in Borno state are soaring and there are reports of people dying of starvation in the state’s IDP (Internally Displaced People) camps.[xxiii] The state seems unable to adequately respond to this brewing crisis. Unable to deny a crisis that is already attracting international media attention, Nigerian Army Major General Leo Irabor has stated that troops are doing what they can, but their priority in the region is to defeat Boko Haram and not to avert a humanitarian crisis in Borno’s IDP camps.

Boko Haram is still undefeated

The military operations now taking place in the region have been dubbed by politicians as the last push against Boko Haram, yet a definitive military defeat of Boko Haram is still elusive. Furthermore, were the organisation to be defeated on the field, it is plausible that they would still be able to carry on fighting through guerrilla and terrorist tactics. Indeed, with thousands of armed men still at its disposal and considerable amounts of money and weapons, Boko Haram is clearly yet to be defeated and the consequences of this conflict are set to directly affect and kill more and more people through violence, displacement, and famine.  Moreover, the instability and turmoil that a full-fledged humanitarian crisis could bring to the region could well play into Boko Haram’s hands in such a scenario and ensure more instability in the years to come.


[i] Institute for Economics & Peace, Global Terrorism Index 2015, http://economicsandpeace.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/2015-Global-Terrorism-Index-Report.pdf

[ii] Council on Foreign Relations, Nigeria Security Tracker, http://www.cfr.org/nigeria/nigeria-security-tracker/p29483 (accessed July 20, 2016)

[iii] Reuters, U.S. Pledges $40 million to countries affected by Boko Haram, 19 April 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-cameroon-power-idUSKCN0XG17R

[iv] The Guardian, Obama to deploy 300 US troops to Cameroon to fight Boko Haram, 14 October 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/14/obama-deployment-us-troops-cameroon-boko-haram

[v] China Insider, China pledges help to Nigeria’s hunt for Boko Haram militants, 8 May 2014, http://www.scmp.com/news/china-insider/article/1507498/china-pledges-help-nigerias-hunt-boko-haram-militants

[vi] Amnesty International, Nigeria: Senior members of military must be investigated for war crimes, 3 June 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/14/obama-deployment-us-troops-cameroon-boko-haram

[vii] The New York Times, Rifts between U.S. and Nigeria impeding fight against Boko Haram, 24 January 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/25/world/rifts-between-us-and-nigeria-impeding-fight-against-boko-haram.html?_r=0

[viii] Voice of America, Nigerian Military Training Cancellation Baffles US Experts, 3 December 2014, http://www.voanews.com/content/nigeiran-military-training-cancellation-baffles-us-experts/2544161.html

[ix] The Whistler, Boko Haram: US Army commences training of 750 Nigerian soldiers, 18 February 2016, https://thewhistler.ng/story/boko-haram-us-army-commences-training-of-750-nigerian-soldiers

[x] United States of America Department of State, Leahy Vetting: Law, Policy, Process, April 2013, http://www.humanrights.gov/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/leahy-vetting-law-policy-and-process.pdf

[xi] Voice of America, Nigerian Military Training Cancellation Baffles US Experts, 3 December 2014, http://www.voanews.com/content/nigeiran-military-training-cancellation-baffles-us-experts/2544161.html

[xii] International Crisis Group, Nigeria: The Challenge of Military Reform, June 2016, http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/africa/west-africa/nigeria/237-nigeria-the-challenge-of-military-reform.pdf

[xiii] BBC News, Nigeria’s Boko Haram attack Chad for first time, 13 February 2015, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-31453951

[xiv] Newsweek, Boko Haram: West African force still $450 million short of busget, 3 February 2016, http://europe.newsweek.com/boko-haram-west-african-force-still-450-million-short-budget-422463?rm=eu

[xv] International Policy Digest, Amanda Clarkson, Is the African Union capable of defeating Boko Haram?, 9 March 2016, http://intpolicydigest.org/2016/03/09/is-the-african-union-capable-of-defeating-boko-haram/

[xvi] BBC News, Who are Nigeria’s Boko Haram islamists?, 4  May 2015, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-13809501

[xvii] Reuters, Boko Haram militants kill seven police in attack in Niger: military, 17 June 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-nigeria-security-niger-idUSKCN0Z31UK

[xviii] Reuters, Boko Haram attack in southeastern Niger kills 32 soldiers, 4 June 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-nigeria-security-niger-idUSKCN0YQ0HO

[xix] Reuters, Regional armies struggle in last push against Boko Haram, 25 July 2016, http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-nigeria-security-niger-insight-idUKKCN1051QH

[xx] Ibid

[xxi] Reuters, Food aid to avert famine threat in Boko Haram hit northeast Nigeria: U.N., 24 May 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-nigeria-boko-haram-aid-idUSKCN0YF2UL

[xxii] World Food Programme, Government of Nigeria and WFP step up assistance to people bearing brunt of Boko Haram violence, 24 May 2016, http://www.wfp.org/news/news-release/government-nigeria-and-wfp-step-assistance-people-bearing-brunt-boko-haram-violenc

[xxiii] The Guardian, UN accused of failing as north-east Nigeria at risk of famine, 14 July 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/14/un-accused-of-failing-as-nigerian-food-crisis-threatens-hundreds-of-thousands