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Armed Conflict

Nigeria turns the tide against Boko Haram

Less than two weeks before Nigerians vote, the military says it has captured at least 40 towns previously occupied by Boko Haram Islamists. The sudden victories are a sharp contrast to the defeats of the past six years.

Bama town located 60 kilometers (40 miles) from Maiduguri -birthplace of Boko Haram - became the latest territory to be retaken by Nigerian government forces, according to a military spokesman. The battle for Bama began last week and only this week did the town finally fall.

Until the beginning of this year Nigerian security forces seemed helpless as Boko Haram gunmen went on a rampage, bombing and burning down entire villages not to mention the infamous abduction of more than 200 Chibok school girls in April 2014.

By the beginning of this year, Boko Haram had seized territory the size of Belgium in a bid to establish an Islamic caliphate. Nearly 13,000 people have died while 1.5 million others have been displaced since Boko Haram picked up arms in 2009.

The Chadian factor

It all changed early February 2015 when Nigeria's Electoral Commission said it was postponing the February 14 election for six weeks to allow the military time to reclaim and secure territories they had lost to Boko Haram.

A counter-insurgency operation by Chadian, Cameroonian and Nigerien forces backed by the African Union bolstered the fight against Boko Haram. Chadian troops, who have earned a reputation as one of Africa's best in terms of counter-insurgency, have helped Nigeria's military in capturing several key towns including Baga.

A burnt house in Baga, northeastern Nigeria

Baga town on the border with Chad was completely razed by Boko Haram

Boko Haram insurgents captured the town on January 3 after overrunning a base belonging to the Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTSF). Nigerien and Chadian troops who were part of the task force had pulled out prior to the attack.

Rights group Amnesty International reported over 2,000 people lost their lives in one of the deadliest attacks by Boko Haram, the Nigerian military however contradicted the number saying not more than 150 were killed.

Mercenaries on the ground?

When news of the death of Leon Lotz, a South African mercenary, emerged in northeastern Nigeria, residents and military experts began questioning the role of private security contractors in the fight against Boko Haram.

Lotz, 59, was a former Koevoet officer. The Koevoet was a South African special forces unit tasked with clamping down on Namibia's liberation movement, the South West African People's Organization (SWAPO). "These people used to be white employees of the former South African Defense Force," Phillip de Wet, Associate Editor at the Mail & Guardian, a South African daily, told DW in an interview.

According to de Wet, during the late 80s and early 90s, South Africa experienced a surge of people who had received high level military training in counter-insurgency under the apartheid regime. "South African specialists were often engaged in training, de-mining operations, they would also be deeply involved in strategic planning and command, think of them as business consultants of warfare," de Wet said.

A map of Nigeria showing the northeastern states of Yobe, Borno and Adamawa.

Nigeria's military is aiming to secure the states of Yobe, Borno and Adamawa before elections

Some unconfirmed reports suggest there could be as many as 100 private security contractors from South Africa currently in Nigeria. Mercenaries from Georgia and Ukraine are also reportedly on the ground. The Nigerian government on Tuesday (17.03.2015) denied any knowledge of mercenaries on its soil, saying it had only hired consultants from South Africa, Russia and South Korea.

New military equipment

Many analysts say the Nigerian forces were poorly equipped and lacked necessary skills to take on Boko Haram. The Nigerian military is a conventional army while Boko Haram mostly employs guerilla warfare tactics. The loss of territory to Boko Haram and lack of morale from government troops had eroded any confidence from Nigerians that the military was serious in tackling the insurgency.

In September 2014, President Goodluck Jonathan got approval from the Senate to secure a $1 billion (940 million euros) external loan. The money which did not come easily due to political bickering in Abuja, was for the procurement of military hardware to stop an insurgency that was quickly getting out of control and spilling into neighboring countries.

DW correspondent Ben Shemang says Nigeria's military now has sophisticated fighter helicopters, fighter jets and equipments for intelligence gathering and surveillance. "The army seems to have discovered new zeal, new equipment, making this a new fight."

Borno state governor Kashim Shetima told Nigerians it was time to stop criticizing the armed forces and encourage them instead. "Our military plus their counterparts from Niger, Chad and Cameroon have recorded tremendous success," Shetima said. "We cannot but commend them for the gallantry they have displayed in recovering some of the lost territory."

The victories by the Nigerian army and its allies might be interpreted as a boon for incumbent President Jonathan in the upcoming March 28 election. Jonathan is facing a rejuvenated opposition led by former military leader Muhammadu Buhari.

However observers say the fact that Nigerians are applauding their armed forces does not mean they are applauding the commander in chief.

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