Besting Boko Haram


Will anything stop Boko Haram? As Western media became consumed with the wave of terrorism in Paris, the Nigerian terrorist group slaughtered hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people in the northeastern city of Baga. On the heels of this atrocity, Boko Haram’s deadliest yet, the group executed another ruthless attack: forcing little girls to detonate suicide vests in a crowded market.

First kidnapping girls, then using them as human bombs. There seems to be no end, and almost as disturbing, no effective response to Boko Haram’s path of destruction. Yet, with regional and Western help, there are many things that the Nigerian government can do. So why hasn’t Abuja been able to defeat Boko Haram?

Strategic Miscalculations and Capacity Shortfalls

It is important to begin by understanding both Boko Haram’s operational approach and Abuja’s early miscalculations about how to combat it. Boko Haram is committed to brutality, and it seems they cannot be deterred by more of the same. As has been widely reported, the Nigerian government’s initial efforts were aimed at quashing the rebellion through violence and fear. Rather than buckling, however, Boko Haram regrouped and redoubled their pitiless efforts to terrorize government forces and the local population. Civilians were caught in the middle of steadily escalating violence with no resolution in sight.

After the failure of its draconian security measures, Abuja has made no other serious effort to counter Boko Haram. Making matters worse, the Army lacks the tools needed to do the job. A few weeks ago, a man claiming to be a commanding officer with the Army’s 7th Division in Maiduguri wrote an open letter to Nigeria’s President Jonathan highlighting corruption among fellow officers and the “lack of weapons, ammunitions, [sic] and communications equipment.” If genuine, the letter is a disturbing confirmation of second-hand reports about an unequipped and demoralized force. Considering the Nigerian military was once the most capable in West Africa, and how comparatively large its defense budget is for the region, it seems national prioritization is to blame for the military’s performance in the northeast. Corruption is certainly a major impediment to getting resources out to the field, but it is hard to imagine that concerted political will could not have a far more pronounced impact on Boko Haram. As the letter-writer put it: “there is no sincerity in this operation.”

All Politics Is National

Indeed, the operational challenge alone does not explain the mismatch between this growing threat and the shrinking response. To understand the problem more deeply, look to old-fashioned power politics. Foremost in this election year is the tension between the north and the south over the presidency. For decades, Nigeria has kept civil war at bay with a tacit agreement that the majority Muslim north and largely Christian south will take equal turns in occupying presidential office. But many northerners believe that President Jonathan broke that deal. A southerner, Jonathan took over after the last northern presidency was interrupted by the then-president’s death. He then proceeded to run for, and win, the 2011 election to keep the job. Today, almost everything the federal government does is seen as related to Jonathan’s efforts to be re-elected next month, and some northern observers have argued that the government’s disinterest in combatting Boko Haram has a regionalist bias to it. Likely low voter turnout in the northeast due to the mass population displacement will only exacerbate these tensions.

The north’s contemporary struggle to share national power is not helped by its decreasing relevance to Nigeria’s economic growth over the past 20 years. The income and power gap is a divisive factor between the north and the south, but it also means that Boko Haram attacks in the north have not (yet) threatened the core of Nigeria’s prosperity. That fact allows the government to mount a response that is generally more symbolic than material, and at times, to simply ignore the problem. The government’s remarkably delayed public responses to both the Chibok kidnappings and the attack on Baga communicate the northeast’s low standing in Abuja’s estimation.

Finally, there is the complex legacy of military involvement in politics. Nigeria has a history of poor civil-military relations and coups, making empowering the military risky for any Nigerian politician. As if to remind voters of the historically unhealthy civil-military dynamic, Jonathan’s main opponent, Muhammadu Buhari is one of Nigeria’s former military rulers, a fact Jonathan has not failed to highlight. But the risk is not just symbolic. Improving the Army’s performance would also mean going after that institution’s corruption. Such efforts would run counter to Nigeria’s internal balance of interests and risk angering senior officers, a potentially powerful source of opposition.

A Way Ahead

The situation is not hopeless. For one, the Nigerian military is not the only party facing institutional challenges. In many respects, violence has become Boko Haram’s only purpose. Although they continue to claim a religious ideology, their actions speak a nihilistic, profit-seeking language. The group appears far more interested in destructive violence, justified with rhetoric about an “Islamic” government, than it does in actually administering territory. According to the Washington Post, a recent Boko Haram video included the declaration, “From now on, killing, slaughtering, destruction and bombings will be our religious duty anywhere we invade.” Although the media continues to report that Boko Haram “holds” thousands of square miles of northeastern Nigeria, the group’s tendency is to attack and retreat, or empty towns through murder and displacement. Unlike the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Boko Haram has demonstrated neither a desire nor an ability to impose order, much less govern. Although Boko Haram may aspire to wage religious war and topple the central government, the group expends most of its energy and resources targeting unarmed Muslim civilians in the northeast. All of this means that public loyalties are up for grabs if only the government could become a source of security.

As tactically effective as their ruthless offensives appear to be, it is not clear how capable Boko Haram would be if it faced a truly competent opponent. Cameroon’s recent engagements with Boko Haram, although mixed in their success, could also supply good information about Boko Haram’s weaknesses. Based on past engagements, we already know that the group’s foot soldiers are highly effective attackers, but that they aren’t good defenders. Moreover, Boko Haram attacks, although well organized and benefitting from stolen Nigerian military equipment, capitalize on surprise and defense vulnerabilities. A capable, prepared force, working with some solid intelligence about the group and its tactics might mount an effective defense and counter-offensive. Civilian protection needs to be a core line of effort, and the troops in the north need leadership and adequate equipment—all of which Abuja could provide.

The election is less than a month away, and will bring with it an opportunity for fresh approaches no matter which candidate is victorious. The key ingredient is the Nigerian government’s commitment to the operation, and to conducting it effectively. Abuja could turn the counter-Boko Haram mission around by cooperating with its neighbors, particularly the Cameroonians and the Chadians, on a regional effort to apply persistent pressure on the group. This would force Boko Haram to shift from offense to defense. To contribute meaningfully to a multinational campaign, the next president could personally oversee the transparent resourcing of the 7th Division. He could also accept help offered by partner governments, especially advising in counterinsurgency and civilian protection.

Outsiders shouldn’t underestimate how politically difficult such a shift in approach will be for Abuja. Nevertheless, Nigeria’s national leaders should not see Boko Haram as a problem too hard in a region too distant. Hopefully, President Jonathan’s visit to Maiduguri last week to meet with military personnel and some of the Baga victims was a laudable step toward exactly the engaged, population-centric approach the central government should take toward defeating Boko Haram.


Alice Hunt Friend is a Senior Affiliate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an Adjunct Senior Fellow with the Center for a New American Security, and a doctoral student at American University in Washington, DC. From 2012-2014 she was the Principal Director for African Affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The views presented here are her own.