Why President Buhari’s biggest challenge is yet to come

Signs are emerging that Boko Haram has been dealt a crippling blow, but Nigeria’s new government has yet to deal with the group’s changing tactics, and the millions internally displaced.

By: /
October 15, 2015
Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari waves to people after prayers at the Abuja praying ground on the first day of the Muslim holiday of Eid-al-Fitr, marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan in Abuja, Nigeria's capital, July 17, 2015. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

The Boko Haram that Nigeria’s President Mohammadu Buhari inherited when he took office in May was markedly different from the one that kicked off the year, five months earlier. In those early days of the year the group made a brutal statement, by overrunning a well-armed military base manned by Nigerian troops, on the banks of the Lake Chad, on the north-eastern fringes of Nigeria.

Emboldened by its successes in Nigeria, Boko Haram took the fight into neighbouring Chad and Niger. As fears heightened that the violence would make it impossible for Nigeria’s general elections to hold, the electoral Commission announced a postponement by six weeks, citing pressure from the military.

What followed was an unprecedented offensive against the terrorists, leading many to wonder why it had taken that long for the government to make the move. A combination of mercenaries from South Africa (armed with weapons from the old Soviet Union) and military support from Cameroonian, Chad and Nigerien forces, helped the Nigerians turn the tide against Boko Haram. Boko Haram did not feature to any significant degree in the voting that took place at the end of March and in early April.

In his inauguration speech Mr. Buhari reiterated his campaign pledge to defeat Boko Haram. It had been a key plank of his party’s messaging, and arguably the factor that contributed the most to his election. Mr. Buhari’s strategy so far has focused on building a regional anti-terrorism coalition. In June he approved the release of $21 million in take-off funding for a regional military force (comprising troops from Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Benin) commissioned by the African Union in January. The Force is expected to be deployed anytime from now, and will have a mandate to occupy the border regions where Boko Haram is now concentrating its onslaught. Mr. Buhari also took the widely expected move of replacing all the military chiefs and the National Security Adviser in August, and handing them a three-month deadline to “bring a desired end to these insurgencies.”

Signs have been emerging, in recent months, that Boko Haram has been dealt a crippling blow. First was the reopening, in July, of the airport in Maiduguri, Borno State, to commercial flights. Then, in September, army engineers began the reconstruction of the bridge linking Gamboru-Ngala community in Nigeria with Cameroon. Schools, closed since 2013, are starting to reopen.

The fight against Boko Haram has been helped by the fact that its unrelenting brutality – the abduction of more than 200 school-girls in April 2014 drew condemnation even from Al-Qaeda – has since robbed it of the communal sympathies that sustained it in its earliest years. Ideally this disillusion should be unqualifiedly good news for the military. But it is itself also struggling to deal with strident allegations of human rights abuses. As recently as June, Amnesty International released a report accusing the military of a “culture of impunity” and calling for senior officers (who are named in the report) to be “investigated in relation to war crimes and possible crimes against humanity.” President Buhari has acknowledged the allegations, and promised to investigate.

The biggest obstacle to the success of the November deadline is the fact that in recent months the battle against Boko Haram has gradually shifted from the open military confrontation that marked 2013 and 2014, back to its asymmetric beginnings. While it may have lost its capacity to intimidate the Nigerian military, Boko Haram has not lost any of its ability to pull off audacious isolated terrorist acts, using suicide bombers – many of whom happen to be pre-teen girls. On October 2 a string of coordinated bomb attacks hit Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, after a 15-month lull, killing 20 persons and injuring 21. (According to a count by the Council for Foreign Relations, more than a thousand persons have died in attacks by Boko Haram since President Buhari took over).

In this stealth war the only thing that can make a difference is the quality of the Nigerian government’s intelligence-gathering operation. Conventional military strategy might rout the terrorists from their forest and mountain hideouts, but will do little to stop bombs going off in markets and bus parks. A reorganisation of Nigeria’s intelligence infrastructure may also be due. On the sidelines of the 2014 Dakar Security Forum, Mohamed Kashkoush, a retired Egyptian army General with experience in counter-terrorism operations told me, "Good information makes you act in advance, not react. If you don't have good information you have nothing."

The other big challenge is the humanitarian one; dealing with the more than two million persons displaced by the crisis. The fact that most of these people are embedded in communities, and not in refugee camps, helps mask the scale of the problem. Nigerians are simultaneously fleeing into camps in Cameroon – on account of ongoing Boko Haram activity in the country’s fringes, along the border with Cameroon, as well as the Lake Chad which separates it from Chad – as well as being repatriated back home by Cameroonian authorities. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has spoken of a “fluid military situation” in the border regions. The repatriations are coming amid fears that the refugee camps are being infiltrated by terrorists. It is not a misplaced sentiment — since July, Cameroon has witnessed a series of suicide bomb attacks in the region adjoining Boko Haram’s Nigerian heartland. (Across the border, one of the camps for repatriated persons was hit by a bomb blast in September; seven persons were reported killed and 20 injured).

The post-conflict rehabilitation and reconstruction effort will need to involve extensive levels of collaboration between civil society, philanthropic organisations, governments and local communities. The success of the proposed – but as yet vaguely defined – ‘Marshall Plan’ for the devastated region will to a large extent depend on the cabinet that Mr. Buhari eventually assembles: Ministers of Education and Health and Works to focus on rebuilding the schools and hospitals and transport infrastructure; and a Minister of Finance to prioritise government funding for job creation and poverty alleviation initiatives – at a time when fallen oil prices have left a huge hole in the national budget. 

Also in the series

Founded more than 10 years ago, Boko Haram, the extremist group in northern Nigeria, jolted into global consciousness with the abduction of nearly 300 girls in April, 2014


My Nigeria, paying the wages of appeasement

The challenge Boko Haram poses to Nigeria is “neither unique, nor unpredicted,” as Wole Soyinka writes. But, it needs to be better understood. 


Boko Haram, Nigeria, Africa — where’s the news coverage?

Media attention can inspire policy change and promote a greater understanding of an issue. On Boko Haram, we have a long way to go. 


Boko Haram’s Evolution: How it got this far, and how to stop it

Addressing bad governance, corruption and under-development is more crucial than military counter-measures.


Coming face-to-face with a child soldier

Boko Haram’s ranks are estimated to be 40 percent children. Let’s face those facts now, to better prepare soldiers that might meet them in the field.


Using technology to expose Boko Haram's atrocities

Satellite images and video have become critical for human rights researchers and may help bring perpetrators of war crimes to justice