When Muhammadu Buhari — a former general and, for a year-and-a-half in the early 1980s, the military ruler of Nigeria — was sworn in as Nigeria’s president on 29 May 2015, he promised to “stamp out” Boko Haram within twelve months.
Security analysts note that despite some progress, he has failed to do so. Critics of Buhari say that while Boko Haram has been pushed back and has lost large swaths of territory it used to control, Buhari’s heavy-handed approach to unrest or dissent of any kind in Nigeria has created more problems.
NAIJ reports that earlier this month, at a summit in Abuja which included representatives from Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger. France, the United States, Britain, and the EU, Buhari admitted that the pledge he made a year ago was more difficult to fulfill than he had thought.
Most of the progress in the fight against Boko Haram was the result of the intervention of Nigeria’s neighbors – especially Chad and Niger – whose armies and air forces have proved much more effective and competent in the campaign against Boko Haram. In January 2015 these neighbors of Nigeria gave the then-president Goodluck Jonathan an ultimatum: Boko Haram was spreading its terrorism to neighboring countries, and these neighbors were going to pursue the Islamist militants into Nigeria with or without the approval of the Nigerian government. Faced with a tough election campaign against Buhari – an election he would lose – Jonathan agreed for the armies of Nigeria’s neighbors to fight Boko haram on Nigerian soil, and Boko Haram has been in retreat ever since.
The United States and Britain have each sent about 300 troops to Nigeria and the neighboring countries in a training and advisory capacity, but at the summit, Buhari said that to defeat Boko Haram, an expanded international effort was required.
“I believe Buhari is acknowledging … that it is not easy for the military to just go out there and eliminate Boko Haram,” Martin Ewi of the Institute for Security Studies told al-Jazeera. “The rural areas have always been neglected when it comes to security and that has always been the problem – the ungoverned places.”
Since Buhari has taken office, the Nigerian army have evicted Boko Haram from territory which was under the Islamists’ control, and the number and frequency of terrorist attacks has fallen significantly.
Analysts note, though, that the 276 Chibok schoolgirl hostages abducted in 2014 have not yet been rescued, and that faced by more determined military pressure, Boko Haram is resorting to wider use of suicide bombings, carried out by women and children, and increased attrition, including more hostage-taking.
The 2015 Global Terrorism Index, a survey by the New York-based Institute for Economics and Peace, Boko Haram remains the most deadly terrorist group in the world.
Security analysts note that Boko Haram, once a local hardline Islamist movement, is transforming into a regional jihadist threat. The continuing humanitarian crisis in the Lake Chad basin allow Boko Haram’s Islamist message to resonate – ad the experts say that Buhari should adopt a more constructive approach, beyond crude military suppression tactics, to fighting the Islamist insurgency.
In a statement linked to the Abuja summit, the UN Security Council called on regional states to pursue “a comprehensive strategy to address the governance, security, development, socio-economic and humanitarian dimensions of the crisis.”
The Brussels-based International Crisis Group said Boko Haram was “seemingly on a back foot, but it is unlikely to be eliminated in a decisive battle.” Regional powers should “move beyond military cooperation and design a more holistic local and regional response.”
The ICG said that Nigeria and its allies should more effectively exploit information gathered from captured fighters, abductees, defectors, and civilians in newly recaptured areas.
Nnamdi Obasi, the ICG’s senior analyst for Nigeria, warned that Buhari’s tough approach was having a negative knock-on effect in other Nigerian trouble spots. He pointed to the south-east, where Igbo secessionist groups are demanding the restoration of the republic of Biafra. Igbo separatists declared their independence from Nigeria in the early 1970 and the creation of an Igbo-majority Biafra, but the Nigerian military crushed the Igbo, killing about 1.5 million civilians.
The IGC’s Obasi notes that Nigeria’s Middle Belt has seen increasing levels of violence between local communities, while the 2009 peace deal that ended the insurgency in the oil-rich Niger Delta is coming apart. Emerging militant groups in Nigeria include the Niger Delta Avengers and the Egbesu Mightier Fraternity.
Peaceful demonstrations had been met with harsh punitive measures and arbitrary arrests.
“Both groups have sent the government their lists of demands, mostly for local control of oil revenues, threatening even more crippling attacks if they are ignored. The government’s response – deploying more military assets and threatening an unmitigated crackdown – portends an escalation of the violence,” Obasi said.