How Boko Haram Has Regained the Initiative and What Nigeria Should Do to Stop It

Allen Feature

For years, Nigeria’s political leaders claimed victory against the insurgent group Boko Haram. The most recent to do so was Nigerian Information Minister Lai Mohammed, who in October reiterated the government’s longstanding stance that Boko Haram was “technically defeated.” To a certain extent, Mohammed has a point. It’s true that Boko Haram has been battered and factionalized. The group controls less territory and has claimed far fewer lives than it did in 2014 and 2015, when it was declared the world’s deadliest terrorist group.

However, these claims of victory are premature. Attacks and casualties have recently risen. Insurgents have caused 750 security force casualties in 2019, close to double that of any prior year. Despite what senior leaders say, many officials appear to be finally waking up to the fact that the threat posed by Boko Haram is real and persistent. At a meeting of state governors, security chiefs, traditional rulers, academics, and community leaders, the consensus was that defeating the group will take longer than anticipated. Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai, Nigeria’s army chief of staff, recently admitted that “Boko Haram and the likes cannot be defeated by kinetic military warfare alone.”



Nigerian authorities have won various battles against Boko Haram — but they have not won the peace. As a result, the insurgency continues. What’s more, the government’s constant declarations of victory against Boko Haram show they’re not interested in translating military success into an enduring political settlement. There are no quick fixes. Institutional reforms that will likely take decades are needed to improve popular legitimacy and adopt an approach to managing the insurgency that is led by locals and civilians as much as security forces. The insurgency’s gains in 2019 and the growing realization within Nigerian political circles that the war will not be over any time soon provide a window of opportunity for authorities to recalibrate popular expectations and undertake needed reforms.

Boko Haram’s Rise and Fall

Boko Haram was founded in the early 2000s by the late Mohammed Yusuf. Like Islamist groups that have formed throughout Nigeria’s history, such as the Yan Tatsine, Boko Haram was committed to creating an anti-Western state, using violence if necessary. Nevertheless, throughout Yusuf’s tenure as a leader, Boko Haram sought to achieve its aims largely through peaceful means. From 2002 to 2009, the group supported Ali Modu Sheriff’s bid for governor and was incorporated into his government when he won. A disciple of Yusuf’s, in fact, served as the Borno State governor’s commissioner of religious affairs.

Boko Haram’s approach changed in July 2009. In a police crack-down, hundreds of members of the group were killed, including Yusuf himself, who was taken from his father-in-law’s home and shot by police forces, who released a video of the moments surrounding his execution. Its more moderate ranks decimated, the group reconstituted itself between 2009 and 2011 under the more radical leadership of Abubakar Shekau, and began to wage an insurgent campaign against the state.

Between 2011 and 2015, the scale and scope of the insurgency dramatically increased. After reportedly receiving training and advice from jihadist groups including Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Al-Shabaab, it undertook a steady string of assassination campaigns, suicide bombings, and massed attacks against both citizens and security forces. In 2014, it garnered international attention by kidnapping some 276 girls in Chibok, Borno State, many of whom still have yet to be released. When the Islamic State established a statelet in Iraq and Syria, Boko Haram declared its allegiance and followed suit. It began to mount operations in neighboring Cameroon, Chad, and Niger, and claimed a territory the size of Belgium. Between 2014 and 2015, more than 20,000 people were killed as a result of the Boko Haram insurgency, making it one of Africa’s deadliest (See Figure 1: Incidents and Casualties from the Boko Haram Insurgency, 2011–2019).

Then Boko Haram overreached. The shift from guerrilla warfare to more open territorial control over regions of four countries triggered a conventional military response from Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, and Niger. The group’s brutal treatment of civilians, including fellow Muslims, helped turn much of the local population against it, facilitating the creation of civilian militia groups that cooperated with the state against the militants. Under pressure from military and militia forces, Boko Haram lost nearly all of its territory during a span of five months in 2015. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari stated what has become a standard Nigerian government talking point, declaring the group “technically defeated” because it could no longer mount conventional attacks against security forces or population centers.

Figure 1: Incidents and Casualties from the Boko Haram Insurgency, 2011–2019

Source: Generated by the author using data from Council on Foreign Relations Nigeria Security Tracker / Armed Conflict Event and Location Dataset (ACLED).

A Shift in Strategy

For the most part, Boko Haram has remained out of the headlines ever since. Between 2016 and 2018, around 2,000 people per year were killed as a result of the conflict, a fifth of the total of 2015. Where before the group had conducted attacks across much of northeastern Nigeria, now its operations are more centered squared around Lake Chad (see Figure 2: Boko Haram Attack Locations 2015–2018).

Figure 2: Boko Haram Attack Locations, 2015–2018

Source: Figure reprinted with permission from the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

Boko Haram has now split into two main factions. One faction remains aligned with Shekau and appears to be centered in the Sambisa forest that begins near Maiduguri, Borno State’s regional capitol, and extends into Cameroon. The other, often referred to as the Islamic State West Africa Province, was until recently commanded by Mohammed Yusuf’s son Abu Musab al-Barnawi and officially sanctioned by the Islamic State. It reportedly commands up to 5,000 fighters, three times that of Shekau’s faction, and its operations are centered farther north, around Lake Chad (See Figure 2).

The main cause of the split lies in a dispute over how the insurgent group should treat civilians. Shekau’s tactics and methods were deemed too brutal even for the Islamic State. Instead of the massacres, suicide bombings, and kidnappings, Islamic State West Africa Province has focused on attacking state security forces and civilians who collaborate with them. In the areas it controls, it provides dispute resolution services, micro-loans to local youth and farmers, Islamic education and health care, and public services that are better than what much of the civilian population received under previous state governments. While ruthless, it’s actually capable of providing public goods.

The evidence suggests that Boko Haram has recently focused more of its attacks on state targets. In 2014 and 2015, three quarters of Boko Haram attacks targeted civilians, according to data from the Nigeria Security Tracker (See Figure 3: Boko Haram’s Targets, 2011–2019). Since 2016, Boko Haram attacks have targeted civilians less than two thirds of the time and in 2019, the number of clashes with the state and civilian attacks have been roughly even. Among those attacks explicitly credited to the al-Barnawi faction, a majority — 61 percent — have involved clashes with the state.

Figure 3: Boko Haram’s Targets, 2011–2019

Source: Generated by the author using data from Council on Foreign Relations Nigeria Security Tracker / ACLED.

A Quiet Resurgence

To what extent is this shift in strategy paying dividends? Judging by the topline casualty numbers, Boko Haram is not yet the threat it used to be, but things are trending in the wrong direction. Despite claims to the contrary, Boko Haram was never defeated, and in fact appears to be on the rise once again. Boko Haram’s resilience, in particular the effectiveness of its attacks against security forces, has taken a toll on morale and rattled the Nigerian government.

The Boko Haram insurgency’s most violent years occurred in 2014 and 2015. But not for security forces. In 2018, Boko Haram killed 459 members of Nigeria’s state security forces, exceeding its previous total of 450 in 2014. Through November 2019, it caused more than 750 state casualties, threatening to nearly double the total of any prior year (Figure 4: State Casualties in the Boko Haram Insurgency, 2011–2019). A closer examination of the numbers shows that the decline in violence can almost entirely be attributed to the shift in Boko Haram’s strategy, which has led to the deaths of fewer civilians and militants.

Figure 4: State Casualties in the Boko Haram Insurgency, 2011–2019

Source: Generated by the author using data from Council on Foreign Relations Nigeria Security Tracker / ACLED.

Over the past year, the insurgency has regained ground. After being pushed back into just three of Borno State’s twenty local government areas, it now occupies as many as eight, according to Ahmadu Jaha, a local legislator. To retake equipment and territory, Boko Haram attacked and overran military installations, including an attack in late 2018 that killed as many a hundred soldiers. In recent months, Boko Haram has expanded attacks against government forces to the Damboa triangle, a region to the immediate southwest of Maiduguri.

The Nigerian government’s response, by contrast, has been characteristically reactive and heavy-handed. Its smaller installations under threat, the military has retreated to better protected “super-camps” in order to reduce casualties. In doing so, the army has effectively ceded control of vast swathes of rural areas to insurgents. It is also attempting to tighten discipline by court-martialing 130 soldiers accused of cowardice and indiscipline, nearly all of whom are from junior ranks. This may discourage some soldiers from desertion, but is not likely to improve morale or fighting capacity — not when the inability to fight is often due to a basic lack of equipment, regular salaries, or simply being outgunned by insurgent forces.

Some recent measures, such as the expulsions of major humanitarian groups and the implementation of systemic identity checks, appear intended to starve out insurgents by making life unbearable in areas they control. These tactics have run into fierce resistance from Nigeria’s legal system and civil society. Under pressure from human rights advocates, the Nigerian government recently reinstated the banned humanitarian groups and a court has ordered the suspension of identity checks.

Local officials are taking matters into their own hands. Babagana Zulum, the newly elected governor of Borno State, is planning to enlist up to 10,000 hunters to go on the offensive against Boko Haram, combined with “enhancing access to education, job opportunities and providing other means of livelihoods through social protection initiatives.” This sounds promising, but it is difficult to envision how the hunters, many of whom are being recruited outside of Nigeria’s northeast, will find success against a well-equipped, battle-hardened enemy against which the military has struggled. A similar effort that was almost undertaken five years ago was dismissed by government officials as a “suicide mission.”

The Way Forward

Defeating Boko Haram will require a fundamental shift in how the Nigerian government has handled the insurgency. To date, policymakers in Abuja have relied on a combination of neglect, ruthlessness, and over-confidence, downplaying the scale of the problem and relying on military force to substitute for a broader political strategy. A growing acceptance within Nigeria’s armed forces and governing institutions that the insurgency is once again a rising threat provides an opportunity for policymakers to change course.

First, policymakers should cease making claims of victory, technical or otherwise. Victory against insurgencies is as much about managing popular expectations as it is about success on the battlefield. Claiming that Boko Haram has been, or eminently will be, defeated, makes it easy for the group to undermine the narrative with every attack. Instead, authorities should be realistic. According to one of the definitive studies on the subject, “lasting insurgency endings are not shaped by military action, but by social, economic and political change.” Particularly around Lake Chad, Boko Haram remains deeply politically and economically integrated into the communities that it controls. It is unlikely to be dislodged any time soon.

Second, civil society and state governments need more authority and support to manage the conflict. Both international actors and Nigerians seem to look primarily to the central government to address the crisis. Yet the Federal government currently has neither the interest, knowledge, nor capability to address the insurgency on its own. It has been at its most effective when it has worked closely with local actors, through initiatives such as the Civilian Joint Task Force, a constellation of militias and community defense groups that have cooperated with the security forces to locate, fight, and evict Boko Haram from areas that it controls. More resources — and decision-making authority — need to go to local governors, traditional leaders, women and civil society in regions most affected by the conflict. Devolving power to state and local authorities may ultimately require constitutional reform.

Third, the central government should adopt a more coordinated, whole of government approach to confronting Boko Haram. The Nigerian central government has become far too reliant on the military to manage a conflict it is not capable of winning by itself. Civilian efforts, though at times impactful, are poorly resourced, fragmented across a number of agencies, ministries, and commissions, and often undercut by military activities. The office of the president and parliament needs to step in and provide more strategic oversight, with more civilians at the table, perhaps by consolidating existing efforts into a revamped Presidential Commission on the Northeast Initiative (PCNI).

All of this will take time. Above all, policymakers need to accept that defeating Boko Haram is a long-term challenge. Efforts by security forces to drive insurgents out and “stabilize” the areas they once controlled should be conducted in conjunction with the reforms laid out above, not prioritized over them. Only through a more just, inclusive political and social order in northeastern Nigeria can militancy there be defeated for good. Authorities cannot afford to wait.



Nathaniel Allen is Assistant Professor of Security Studies at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. The views in this article represent the author and not the U.S. government.

Image: Voice of America Afrique