The Nigerian government has declared victory over the Boko Haram insurgency. The capture at the end of December of Camp Zero in Sambisa Forest, the last stronghold of the jihadists, seemed to herald the formal beginning of the post-insurgency phase in northeastern Nigeria.
The negotiated return last month of 82 of the kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls (an estimated 113 are still in captivity) has been presented as further evidence that the back of the seven-year-old insurgency has been broken.
The government and its development partners are already starting post-war reconstruction in the three most affected states of Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa. Humanitarian conditions remain dire, but houses and schools are being rebuilt, seedlings distributed, and empowerment training schemes launched.
Amid all this optimism, it is important to acknowledge lingering causes for concern.
While Camp Zero has been dismantled, the reality is that Boko Haram is an adaptable foe. It is reportedly both forming new enclaves in the Lake Chad Basin and melting back into civilian communities.
The rumours are of profitable business partnerships being formed – especially in the fish and cattle trade. Some fishermen, for example, are supplying their catch to Boko Haram middlemen who sell on their behalf.
And Boko Haram’s network is far deeper than commonly realised. The State Security Service is regularly turning up insurgents across northern Nigeria, and in one case as far away as the western state of Ekiti.
Boko Haram is known for its attacks on civilians and suicide bombings. So far in May there have been 12 suicide bombings (by nine women, three men) – a tempo that suggests the insurgency is far from over.
But since the movement split into two factions led by Abubaker Shekau and Abu Musab al-Barnawi back in August, there has been a change of tactics. Al-Barnawi’s group had criticised Shekau for attacking soft civilian targets, tactics that won Boko Haram few voluntary recruits. Al-Barnawi’s group is much more explicitly targeting the military.
Since November, 11 military installations have been attacked, with 40 soldiers killed. In April alone, 20 soldiers died in raids on four army posts. The weaponry they have captured, and the motorbikes instead of vehicles they favour, means they are mobile and well-armed.
Al-Barnawi’s faction still loots villages for food, fuel, and medical supplies, even if it does appear to be deliberately avoiding killing civilians – as long as they don’t resist.
The government’s inability to completely block the sources of financing for the insurgents continues to pose a challenge. Boko Haram still has money to wage its war, typically raised through kidnapping, extortion, armed robbery, cattle rustling, and taxes/levies on businesses.
The strained relationship between the vigilante Civilian Joint Task Force and the military is also affecting the government’s prosecution of the conflict. Since the arrest in February of the founder of the CJTF, Bah Lawan, over his alleged links to Boko Haram, some vigilante leaders are refusing to cooperate with the army.
The CJTF, one of the most effective weapons the military has against Boko Haram, has also been reportedly weakened by factionalism and indiscipline. Regular complaints of irregular pay from the Borno State government and the lack of health insurance and even fuel for their vehicles is affecting morale.
Power of the word
Boko Haram’s ideology, that Westernisation is evil, still has resonance. Rural northeastern Nigeria is highly conservative. While the insurgency’s violence is not approved of, its broad worldview has power and can still attract sympathy.
One 45-year-old woman who was held hostage in Sambisa, and served as a teacher in the camp, was honest enough to tell me she now regretted leaving Boko Haram.
Alleged corruption and sexual exploitation by security forces and aid workers also plays into the militants’ messaging. There is a powerful narrative that girls and women in IDP camps are either being sexually abused or forced into sex-for-food arrangements. Reports of the flagrant use of alcohol and drugs by the army and the CJTF also do not sit well with traditional cultural norms.
The government has a disarmament and reintegration plan dubbed Operation Safe Corridor. More than 4,500 former combatants have surrendered, but the framework for the strategy remains opaque, and it contains real risks.
There are fears that some so-called “deradicalised” Boko Haram are not repentant at all. There are questions over their screening, certification, and whether communities are ready for their return and reintegration.
Some ex-combatants have been deeply indoctrinated. As one man told me: “You cannot believe in one part of the Koran and not in the other part of the Koran, [which includes] killing”.
Then there are the detainees accused of being Boko Haram – those who have suffered abuse at the hands of the security forces and have likely been radicalised as a result of that experience but are then released.
Hope that the freeing of the Chibok schoolgirls could be a step towards possible negotiations was dealt a blow by Shuaibu Moni, one of the (at least) five Boko Haram commanders swapped for the released school girls.
In a video released barely a week after he gained his freedom, he was threatening to bomb Abuja and denying there could be any dialogue with the government. “Only war is between us!” he declared.
While we must give kudos to the military and the Nigerian government for improving security in the northeast, it is safe to say the conflict is far from over.
There is still some way to go.
The government must immediately prioritise a hearts-and-minds approach. The focus of the war now should be on combatting the ideology of Boko Haram; there should be an emphasis on healing trauma in a society scarred by the violence.
And while the path of dialogue is a difficult journey, the idea of peace through negotiation must not be jettisoned.