Buhari Against Boko Haram: What He Brings to the Fight


Since February, the counter-Boko Haram fight has gained momentum, a function of the imperative imposed by a need to improve security prior to Nigeria’s elections, as well as increased regional cooperation with neighboring Chad, Niger, and Cameroon, and an influx of South African mercenaries. Yet, up until weeks before his loss to the newly inaugurated president Muhammadu Buhari, Goodluck Jonathan’s approach to Boko Haram was a microcosm of the ineffectiveness that plagued much of his administration. Buhari’s inauguration now raises the question of whether he can contain the spread of terrorism from northeastern Nigeria more successfully than his predecessor.

In spite of recent momentum, several factors are working against the new president — namely the damaged credibility of the Nigerian military, in which General (ret.) Buhari served for over two decades, including as a military ruler between 1984 and 1985. Formerly a major contributor to United Nations and regional peacekeeping missions, Nigeria eventually withdrew the majority of its forces from Mali and Darfur due to its difficulty managing the expansion of Boko Haram. Its reputation as a regional security provider bruised, Nigeria now has half as many peacekeepers in UN missions as it did in 2008. Morale is low, with some of the military’s rank and file asserting they have not received the training and equipment necessary to be effective in military operations in the northeast. Some soldiers have been fired for cowardice, while others have been sentenced to death for refusing to engage Boko Haram in combat. There have also been allegations of security sector corruption, which has eroded the military’s ability to fight Boko Haram.

Yet, many factors are in Buhari’s favor. Almost a victim of an alleged Boko Haram assassination attempt in Kaduna in July 2014, the president recognizes that the “outgoing government’s lack of determination was an accidental enabler of the group,” and that the Nigerian military was “not sufficiently supported or equipped to push north.” Moreover, as a northerner born in present day Katsina state (click here for a political map of Nigeria) and as a former military governor in the northeast, he may be better equipped to address the poor governance and inequality driving the conflict. Given his role in the 1983 campaign to evict Chadian forces from disputed islands in Lake Chad, Buhari’s identity is also tied to Nigeria’s territorial integrity, and to the military’s role in what has become a multinational campaign. He has stated that it is a “disgrace” that neighboring Cameroon and Chad are “fighting the insurgency more than Nigeria,” and that “Nigeria should be able to secure its territorial integrity.”

Although he retired from the military three decades ago, Buhari may be keen to have greater oversight of the security sector, and unlike his predecessor, will have an understanding of the support that his service chiefs are likely to request. With a reputation as an anti-corruption crusader during his military rule, one can expect Buhari to seek greater transparency and accountability in the security sector budget, and to ensure that funds allocated for countering Boko Haram are spent effectively. As the new commander-in-chief, Buhari could also reverse flagging morale within the military, as it attempts to evolve into a force that is trained and equipped to fight an asymmetric threat. Concurrently, Buhari has articulated that poverty and ignorance are drivers of Boko Haram recruitment, which implies an understanding of the constraints of a military-focused approach to insecurity in the northeast.

Buhari’s inauguration will usher in a new national security team, allowing for a reset in a very tense security relationship with the United States. This tension was best exemplified by comments made by Nigeria’s envoy to Washington last fall, blasting the United States for refusing to sell the country lethal equipment to fight Boko Haram and asserting that allegations of human rights violations could not be substantiated by facts. For several years, U.S. assistance to the Nigerian military has been constrained as a result of the Leahy laws, which prohibit providing assistance to security forces that have committed gross human rights abuses. If he were to sanction investigations of human rights abuses perpetrated by the security forces and hold these forces accountable, Buhari could contribute to the erosion of a culture of impunity for such abuses — thus completing his evolution from dictator to democrat. An improved bilateral security relationship would facilitate counterterrorism cooperation in the Lake Chad region, which the United States supports through the Global Security Contingency Fund, and allow Nigeria to capitalize on the pilot of the Security Governance Initiative announced last summer.

Both regionally and domestically, Nigeria’s incoming president could be a welcome change — not only against Boko Haram, but also as someone who could restore Nigeria to its role as a regional security provider. Buhari’s success in these arenas will be contingent on his ability to address the training and equipment gaps exposed by counter-Boko Haram military operations, adopt a more population-centric counterterrorism approach, build upon regional coordination, and reduce corruption in the security sector.


Lesley Anne Warner is an Africa political-military analyst and a doctoral candidate in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. She blogs at Lesley on Africa, and you can follow her on Twitter.


Photo credit: Chatham House