Nigeria faces a critical crossroads as it wages war on the terrorist group Boko Haram. This April, the country’s citizens elected Muhammadu Buhari president, forwarding a broad mandate to overhaul the nation’s counterterrorism strategy. Since its inception in 2002, Boko Haram has been responsible for numerous kidnappings, suicide bombings, and armed attacks on popular landmarks. Buhari ran against the incumbent Goodluck Jonathan with the promise of a renewed and aggressive counterinsurgency against Boko Haram, but the effects of strategic shifts remain to be seen.
The Jonathan administration famously underestimated Boko Haram’s capabilities and influence for years, repeatedly emphasizing the organization’s weakness. In an interview with the HPR, Hilary Matfess of the Nigeria Social Violence Project at Johns Hopkins University noted that the “Jonathan administration thought that Boko Haram would be a passing fad,” merely an aspect of the nation’s history of academic religious critique. While Jonathan attempted to correct his early mistakes at the end of his term by devoting substantial resources to the fight against Boko Haram, Matfess emphasized that the administration lacked a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy. Although the organization’s attack intensity underwent ebbs and flows, Boko Haram’s recruitment remained stable, attributable to Nigeria’s shaky socioeconomic situation.
Commander in Chief
Known for his role in the 1983 military coup that placed him in charge of Nigeria until 1985, Buhari’s most recent platform was built on his reputation as an effective military strategist. Escalating terrorist violence during the run-up to the election bolstered opposition against the Jonathan administration. Buhari capitalized on the growing fear by pledging throughout the campaign and even in his inaugural address to make Boko Haram his administration’s priority.
In particular, Buhari promised an overhaul of Nigerian security forces. Even before selecting cabinet members, Buhari shifted the headquarters of the military forces from the capital city of Abuja to the northern city of Maiduguri, much closer to Boko Haram’s forces. The move had substantial symbolic value, demonstrating the credibility of Buhari’s claims, and enhanced the legitimacy of the fledgling administration. Furthermore, Buhari appointed new chiefs and commanders to the Joint Military Command and promised renewed momentum in the fight against Boko Haram. Matfess suggested that the “shift there [would] make them more able to respond to the microclimates in Boko Haram’s strategy,” and the “physical presence of the military headquarters…might provide confidence in the government that Northerners need to resist Boko Haram.” Shifting the military’s headquarters will undoubtedly provide a strategic boost to Nigeria’s counterterrorism operation. The forces are significantly closer to the Sambisa forest, suggested by many to house most of Boko Haram’s forces. Using the Nigerian military and the recently established Multinational Joint Task Force, a coalition of regional military forces, Buhari can cut off transit routes and prevent the forest from becoming a safe haven for the group.
In addition to counterterrorism strategy, Buhari promised an impressive array of policies in his inaugural address, pledging the reinvigoration of Nigerian federalism and the decentralization of law enforcement. Recognizing the role of the Nigerian government’s human rights abuses in Boko Haram’s recruitment strategies, Buhari also advocated reducing impunity for the military and the need for diplomacy.
Following the election of Buhari, the frequency of attacks by Boko Haram has decreased substantially, and the Nigerian military forces have won significant victories. Matfess still cautioned against maintaining excessively high expectations. “In the past,” she said, “Boko Haram has had a decline in its activities, and [we have] seen them strategically retrench and emerge even more lethal.” In 2009, for example, a Nigerian military offensive resulted in the death of Boko Haram’s leader. The group adapted to strategic changes by focusing on guerrilla tactics and a heightened frequency of suicide bombings, taking advantage of the vulnerability of dispersed Nigerian forces.
Boko Haram’s recent alignment with the Islamic State similarly suggests a strategic re-alignment to increase their pool of resources. Although Matfess found it unlikely that the Islamic State will funnel arms and personnel to Boko Haram, the Islamic State’s extensive propaganda machine will likely augment Boko Haram’s recruiting operations. Some interpret the turn to the Islamic State as a sign of weakness, though, representing Boko Haram’s grasping efforts to revitalize its infrastructure and resources.
Ambiguity in Abuja
What is clear, however, is that the move to Maiduguri by no means represents a panacea for Boko Haram’s violence. The unexplored terrain and sheer size of the Sambisa forest pose significant challenges to military forces, even with renewed momentum and resources. Declining morale and a lack of expertise among soldiers who have witnessed little visible progress over the last six years threaten to hamstring operations. Furthermore, the prolonged fight against Boko Haram has sapped the military’s resources without substantial sources of foreign military aid. The recent Leahy Law prohibits the United States from providing aid to forces accused of human rights abuses. Due to wide allegations of abuses by the Nigerian military, the United States can no longer offer resources for the anti-Boko Haram effort, undermining Buhari’s counterterrorism operation.
Buhari must also temper expectations among the public because confident rhetoric without demonstrated results would undermine the government’s credibility. To maintain his popular mandate, Buhari must institute military reforms to reduce civilian casualties and extrajudicial killings that enable Boko Haram’s recruitment tactics. Even beyond the implications of the Leahy Law, human rights violations by the Nigerian military support Boko Haram’s propaganda operation and produce widespread blowback against the government. Matfess emphasized that impunity for the military “certainly acts as fodder for these groups that are seeking to engender mistrust in the federal government.”
In addition to military challenges, Buhari faces political and economic hurdles for his anti-Boko Haram program. Rising youth unemployment facilitates Boko Haram’s recruitment operation, and widespread corruption throughout the Nigerian government undermines political stability. Buhari has already begun to reform the oil sector, cleaning house in the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. He has pledged an economic strategy of diversification in the North to stimulate the region’s recovery from the ongoing period of exceedingly low oil prices.
Despite promising rhetoric, the efficacy of Buhari’s domestic renovation remains in flux. Based on recent progress and shifts in military tactics, there is reason for cautious optimism. Eradicating Boko Haram soon seems unlikely, but Buhari’s military background and zeal for political overhaul is likely to pay dividends for Nigeria.
Image Credit: U.S. Army Africa/Wikimedia Commons