Some 8,000 Nigerian troops are engaged in the largest military operation since the 1967–70 civil war, seeking to defeat an Islamist insurgency by the Boko Haram militant group. President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in the northeastern states of Yobe, Borno and Adamawa in May 2013 after the government lost control of large parts of the region. An additional 3,000 troops were deployed to join a 5,000-strong Joint Task Force (JTF) which was already engaged in the operation.

Some 8,000 Nigerian troops are engaged in the largest military operation since the 1967–70 civil war, seeking to defeat an Islamist insurgency by the Boko Haram militant group. President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in the northeastern states of Yobe, Borno and Adamawa in May 2013 after the government lost control of large parts of the region. An additional 3,000 troops were deployed to join a 5,000-strong Joint Task Force (JTF) which was already engaged in the operation.

Loss of control

The year leading up to Jonathan’s declaration had seen attacks across northern and central Nigeria against targets including the police, the military, government officials, banks, schools, mobile-phone masts and markets. Boko Haram’s preferred tactics included the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), as well as suicide attacks and shootings.

Established as an isolated community based on Salafist principles in Yobe state in 2002, Boko Haram’s first years were characterised by low levels of activity. Skirmishes with security forces and the destruction of its base forced the group underground until 2009, when 800 members, including the group’s leader, Mohammed Yusuf, were killed during a four-day battle. When Boko Haram, now led by Abubakar Shekau, re-emerged a year later its identity had changed and it embarked on the insurgency campaign for which it is now known.

While remaining an inward-looking movement determined to spread sharia law across Nigeria, Boko Haram strengthened its links with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, from which it received weapons, funding and training (it may also have links to al-Shabaab in Somalia). This was reflected in the heightened sophistication of Boko Haram’s tactics: it quickly moved from using machetes to small arms, IEDs, RPGs, truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns, as well as carrying out drive-by shootings and Nigeria’s first-ever suicide attacks.

As part of official efforts to counter Boko Haram’s insurgency in northern and central Nigeria, the country’s security forces are engaged in a joint operation, codenamed Restore Order. It is led by the army and comprises elements of the armed forces, security services, military intelligence, police, customs and immigration. But the security forces have a poor track record – including allegations of extrajudicial killings, summary executions and torture – which likely serves as a further source of inspiration for Boko Haram’s attacks.

Wake-up call

A first state of emergency was put in place in the first half of 2012 as security deteriorated in 15 areas of Borno, Yobe, Niger and Plateau states. Progress was made: by early 2013, the number of attacks had decreased and there was no indication that Boko Haram controlled any territory – although daily life was still severely disrupted, with schools, hospitals and markets in parts of Yobe and Borno shut down for up to eight months.

However, a presidential visit in March to Maiduguri, capital of Borno and the heartland of the insurgency, was a wake-up call for the government: security forces foiled a plan to shoot down Jonathan’s plane using anti-aircraft guns. This was followed by a sequence of events that showed the group’s continuing strength. In April, a large cache of weapons was recovered in Lagos, the commercial capital, and was linked to a plan to attack the city’s airport – 15 Boko Haram suspects were arrested in June. That same month, the town of Baga, in Borno state, was the site of a fierce exchange lasting several hours between Boko Haram and military forces, causing at least 187 deaths, dozens of injuries and the destruction of over 2,000 houses. On 7 May, Boko Haram attacked government buildings, a police station and military barracks in Bama, Borno, near the border with Cameroon. The raid, in which 55 people were killed, saw 105 people escape from custody. A week later, a second state of emergency was declared.

Besides escalating its attacks, Boko Haram began to engage in kidnappings. First came the abduction of a French family in Cameroon in February. Five people were taken to Borno and later released following the alleged payment of a $3 million ransom. The case surprised security officials because Boko Haram had previously refrained from attacks in Cameroon, even though it used areas across the border to hide in and recruit fighters, and it marked the first time it had targeted foreigners. Ansaru, a Boko Haram splinter group, may have helped with the operation.

Boko Haram also targeted prominent people for ransom, notably Shettima Ali Monguno, former petroleum minister and former head of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, who was kidnapped in a ploy to extort money from the Borno state administration. Boko Haram also abducted women and girls to work in its camps. Some abductions resulted in forced marriages to fighters, for which the girls’ families received small payments.

Politics and strategy

The declaration of an emergency was criticised by opposition parties and even by members of Jonathan’s own Peoples Democratic Party in Adamawa. During a state of emergency, the security forces are given special powers to detain suspects, take possession of property, enter and search buildings, compensate affected civilians and impose curfews. State governments are in effect suspended, with the federal government taking control of their funds. However, in the 2013 emergency state governors were allowed to retain their powers. Partly as a result, local leaders in Borno and Yobe, who are members of the opposition All Nigeria Peoples Party and normally hostile to the president, expressed support for the emergency.

A more academic question surrounding the campaign against Boko Haram is whether Nigerian forces are involved in counter-insurgency (COIN) or counter-terrorism (CT). Nigerian military officials are calling it a COIN campaign and this definition appears to guide their efforts. However, the president has made reference to ‘terrorists’ in his speeches, and in June 2013 proscribed Boko Haram and Ansaru under the Terrorism Prevention Act. Moreover, the government is due shortly to publish its first national counter-terrorism strategy, which has been prompted by Boko Haram violence and influenced by the experience of other countries, including the United Kingdom and the United States.

In practice, the two approaches may not be very much at odds. Boko Haram’s activities can be characterised as an insurgency campaign involving terrorist attacks, such as those in 2011 on the police headquarters and the United Nations building in Abuja, the capital. Terrorist tactics are used to raise the group’s standing and to further its ultimate goal of imposing sharia law on the country. Nigeria views the campaign against Boko Haram, whose activities include insurgent, terrorist and criminal elements, as requiring a full-spectrum COIN approach that includes components of CT and regular law enforcement. The army’s Counter-Terrorist and Counter-Insurgency Centre, situated at the Armed Forces Command and Staff College in Jaji, Kaduna state, has begun training an additional 3,000 CT and COIN specialists on subjects ranging from urban patrol to unarmed combat and humanitarian law.

Unclear results

By July 2013, two months into the offensive, results appeared mixed, though precise information was lacking. Even by the end of May the presidency and military headquarters were describing it as a success and hinted that the emergency could be lifted. Several fighters had been arrested and an undisclosed number killed. Within two weeks the JTF had dismantled Boko Haram camps in the Sambisa game reserve in northern Borno state and invited foreign journalists to visit the area.

However, there remained uncertainty about losses among the security forces, as well as about the number of civilian casualties. Moreover, the military was struggling to engage with the local population and to reduce public support for the insurgency. Local media were unreliable, and foreign media reporting was limited: journalists allowed to travel with the JTF were prevented from speaking to local people. Mobile-phone networks had been shut down since the beginning of the operation.

Sources who wished not to be identified indicated to the IISS that many of the fighters in Borno and Yobe states had fled into neighbouring countries before the JTF offensive began. This suggested that many of the hundreds of men taken into custody could simply have been local residents. Citizens in Borno fear the JTF and harassment is common in an environment where almost every man is treated as a potential Boko Haram member. As a result, young men in Borno and Yobe, tired of being routinely and wrongly targeted by the security forces, have set up vigilante groups, calling themselves ‘Civilian JTF’. Their goal is to identify Islamists and point them out to the military. As a result, Boko Haram has declared war on the youth in both states, and some teenagers have been killed. Government forces are monitoring and supporting the vigilantes, but not all local people are comfortable with untrained youths roaming the streets and conducting stop-and-search operations. Thirty people were killed in Maiduguri in June to avenge the arrest of Boko Haram members by vigilantes.

Many local people have been affected by the conflict. The United Nations Refugee Agency said that by mid-June over 3,000 Nigerians had fled across the border into Cameroon. Later it emerged that up to 20,000 were believed to have escaped into Cameroon to avoid being targeted by the security forces. Meanwhile, at least 6,000 were seeking refuge in Niger, and a smaller number in Chad.

Amnesty International warned that the emergency powers would be used by the JTF as a cover for human-rights abuses. The April fighting in Baga is under scrutiny following allegations of excessive use of force by the military. In June, Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission issued an interim report citing credible evidence that the security forces had killed, tortured, illegally detained and raped civilians in the northeast. The commission is expected to finalise its report once investigators are able to travel to the area. In May, US Secretary of State John Kerry appealed to the Nigerian government to safeguard human rights.

Premature optimism

Some commercial activities have resumed following the military offensive, but life in the affected areas remains hard. Food prices have nearly tripled because people have had to abandon their farms for fear of being attacked. Similarly, many markets have been shut completely or open only for few days a week. Food shortages and a public-health emergency seem likely.

Attacks by Boko Haram have greatly diminished but have not stopped. Among the deadliest, 30 people died, many burnt alive, when a boarding school in Mamudo, Yobe, was set on fire on 6 July, prompting the closure of all secondary schools across the state. Two weeks earlier, another secondary school and a checkpoint were targeted in the capital of Yobe, Damaturu.

These attacks fuelled criticism of the state of emergency as ineffective. Many people, including Yobe governor Ibrahim Gaidam, have questioned the decision to block mobile-phone communications. Though this has disrupted communications among Boko Haram members, it has also made it impossible for citizens to raise the alarm in case of emergency, as well as to report suspicious activities and cooperate with security forces.

The optimism that characterised the early weeks of the offensive may have been premature. Much more needed to be done to remove Boko Haram fighters, eradicate Islamist ideology and bring life back to normal. Even if those goals could be achieved, there would still be a need for a comprehensive plan to tackle unemployment, education and health issues – factors that have so far held back the north’s development.

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