Boko Haram: The de­feat that never was

Lesotho Times - - Opinion -

“AND I as­sure you that we will de­feat Boko Haram by the end of this year.” This was the pledge made by Nige­rian Pres­i­dent Muham­mdu Buhari to his Beni­nese coun­ter­part, Boni Yayi, dur­ing a gala din­ner com­mem­o­rat­ing Benin’s in­de­pen­dence dur­ing the sum­mer of 2015.

It was a prom­ise that the Nige­rian head of state would also re­it­er­ate to fel­low Nige­ri­ans, who ea­gerly waited for him to make good on his prom­ise and act with the de­ci­sive­ness that Buhari had ac­cused his pre­de­ces­sor, Good­luck Jonathan, of lack­ing. Yet as 2015 drew to a close, the specter of Boko Haram loomed as large as ever over Africa’s most pop­u­lous state.

In­deed, less than 48 hours af­ter the Buhari regime an­nounced that it had ful­filled its vow of de­feat­ing the group, at least 50 peo­ple were killed in a wave of vi­o­lence in Nige­ria’s in­sur­gent-em­bat­tled Borno and Adamawa states. Those skep­ti­cal of Boko Haram’s de­feat were vin­di­cated, those re­sid­ing within the ter­ror­ists’ deadly reach con­tinue to live in fear.

Nige­ria’s in­for­ma­tion min­is­ter, how­ever, down­played the De­cem­ber 27 at­tacks and fur­ther reaf­firmed that Boko Haram was on the precipice of be­ing “wiped out.” Lai Mo­hammed claimed to lo­cal me­dia that all in­sur­gent-held ter­ri­tory had been re­claimed and that Boko Haram no longer pos­sessed the op­er­a­tional ca­pa­bil­i­ties to achieve its rai­son d’etre, the cre­ation of a “dawlah” -or Is­lamic-state -- in north-east­ern Nige­ria.

The prob­lem with Mo­hammed’s “im­pend­ing demise” nar­ra­tive is that it equated loss of ter­ri­tory with de­feat. Prior to Boko Haram’s cap­ture in July 2014 of Dam­boa, the first Nige­rian town to fall to the ex­trem­ist sect, its near decade-long in­sur­gency had been char­ac­ter­ized by tra­di­tional guerilla warfare. The group’s favoured modus operandi had been sui­cide bomb­ings and hi­tand-run raids, not the cap­ture and con­trol of ter­ri­tory.

The acts of vi­o­lence which the Nige­rian govern­ment has de­rided as in­dica­tive of Boko Haram’s weak­nesses are ac­tu­ally the very mech­a­nisms which have made it one of the -- if not the -- dead­li­est ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions in the world.

Apart from be­ing face-sav­ing ex­er­cises, ac­counts of Boko Haram’s im­mi­nent de­struc­tion may also be an at­tempt by the Buhari regime to mis­di­rect at­ten­tion from the myr­iad is­sues which have -- and con­tinue to -- ham­per its counter-in­sur­gency strat­egy.

The fore­most of th­ese is the fail­ure of Nige­ria and her Lake Chad neigh­bors to for­mu­late a re­gion­ally co­or­di­nated re­sponse to the in­sur­gency. Al­though it orig­i­nated as a grass­roots Nige­rian or­ga­ni­za­tion, Boko Haram’s am­bi­tions and op­er­a­tions have be­come transna­tional as it in­creas­ingly ex­ported its in­sur­gency across the bor­der to Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

While th­ese coun­tries agreed to form a joint anti-boko Haram task force in 2014, ru­mors of strained diplo­matic ten­sions, dis­agree­ments over the di­rec­tion of op­er­a­tions and a lack of fi­nanc­ing have all seen the unit miss sev­eral de­ploy­ment dead­lines.

De­spite an in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion in an­titer­ror­ism ini­tia­tives by the Nige­rian mil­i­tary, the fail­ure by neigh­bor­ing coun­tries to re­spond in kind has af­forded Boko Haram space in which to re­group, re­cruit and re-en­er­gize its armed up­ris­ing against the Nige­rian state.

Al­leged mal­ad­min­is­tra­tion within the Nige­rian mil­i­tary is an­other is­sue di­lut­ing the ef­fi­cacy of the coun­try’s counter-ter­ror­ism re­sponse. In June 2015, Amnesty In­ter­na­tional re­leased a damn­ing re­port de­tail­ing al­leged war crimes com­mit­ted by the Nige­rian mil­i­tary in its counter-in- oth­ers demon­strates Buhari’s com­mit­ment to fight­ing al­leged cor­rup­tion, its sys­temic pres­ence in Nige­ria sug­gests that pos­si­ble malfea­sance within the de­fense sec­tor is un­likely to be reme­died overnight. Trans­parency In­ter­na­tional, which mon­i­tors cor­rup­tion round the world, re­ported in 2014 that Nige­ria scored only 27 out of 100 on the cor­rup­tion per­cep­tion in­dex. Buhari has made fight­ing Nige­ria’s of­fi­cial cor­rup­tion a key part of his pres­i­dency since he came to power in 2015.

A fi­nal con­sid­er­a­tion is the im­pact that Boko Haram’s pledge of al­le­giance to Is­lamic State in March has had on the African group’s longevity. While the Nige­rian govern­ment de­nounced the oath of fi­delity as be­ing noth­ing more than su­per­fi­cial pro­pa­ganda, the fact is we know lit­tle about the ISIS model for ex­pan­sion -- and even less about Boko Haram’s in­ner-work­ings -- to know defini­tively the im­pli­ca­tions of the pledge.

What we do know is that Boko Haram has be­come the largest ISIS af­fil­i­ate any­where and has in­creased its ji­hadist cre­den­tials within an area of sub-sa­ha­ran Africa where the pre­vail­ing so­cial, political and eco­nomic cli­mate is seen as con­ducive to rad­i­cal­iza­tion.

The in­con­ve­nient truth is that Nige­ria has not de­feated Boko Haram but sim­ply re­versed the gains that the ter­ror group has scored against it. While ter­ri­tory has been re­cap­tured from rebel hands, in­no­cent lives have, and con­tinue, to be taken by it.

No vic­tory can be de­clared in this war un­til the day that the Nige­rian govern­ment can se­cure both land and hu­man life from Boko Haram’s deadly reach. De­spite claims to the con­trary, it is a day which will now have to be ush­ered in with the dawn of a new year.

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