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Opinion

Opinion: Is Boko Haram really on its way out?

Nigeria's army has announced the liberation of hundreds of women from the clutches of the Boko Haram terror group. Thomas Mösch says the group could be on its way out, if not exclusively for military reasons.

It might be hard to believe after six years of largely unsuccessful maneuvers on the part of the Nigerian armed forces, but one of the most blood-thirsty terrorist organizations in the world appears to be on the brink of military defeat. Boko Haram is said to be engaged in rear guard battles with the armies of Nigeria and neighboring Chad, Cameroon and Niger.

But reports of a Nigerian military victory should be viewed with some skepticism. All too often they have claimed victories over Boko Haram or announced the imminent release of hostages only to have these claims proved baseless later on.

So we will have to wait and see what information emerges in the coming days. Only then will we know for sure whether so many women and girls have really been freed; whether they had genuinely been kidnapped; whether any of the missing school girls from Chibok are among them; or, whether they are actually the wives and children of the terrorists themselves. It is also remains to be seen whether the Nigerian security forces can secure long-term control over the allegedly liberated areas.

Home-grown terrorism

The events of the past weeks confirm suspicions that Boko Haram is largely a local phenomenon powered by political interests. Two developments can explain the success of the terrorists in the past years:

Firstly, for years both the Nigerian army - including its leadership - and politicians in Abuja have failed to respond to the gravity of the dangers and killings in the impoverished northeast of their country. The billions that should have been plowed into the military were channeled elsewhere – at the expense of ordinary soldiers and hundreds of thousands of citizens who lost their lives, their health, or their homes.

Only when the political and military elite realized their failure to tackle Boko Haram might threaten their reelection, and as a result, their access to the country's riches, did they take action.

But that recognition came very late in the day. The election was postponed while the armies of the affected countries pushed the terrorists so far back that they couldn't even do much to disrupt the elections in their own regions. But the intervention came too late, and the electorate voted for the opposition.

Does Buhari's victory spell the end for Boko Haram?

DW's Thomas Mosch

DW's Thomas Mösch

Secondly, the other development of note, is the sudden helplessness of the terrorist organization that until very recently, was widely feared. This suggests that resources, such as those that paid for its state-of-the-art equipment, are running out. Boko Haram would have needed more for that than it could possibly scratch together from raiding banks in areas it took under its control and the ransoms paid for hostages.

To date, there is no evidence of notable financial contributions from international networks, which suggests that Boko Haram's support must largely come from inside the country. Nigeria's elite has a history of exploiting and arming militant groups to push through their own interests, be they in the Niger Delta or elsewhere, such as the northern regions.

There is also a connection between the rise of Boko Haram as a terrorist group that has unsettled the entire nation, and Goodluck Jonathan's 2010 assumption of office. Shortly after the death of his predecessor, Muslim president Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, parts of the northern Nigeria elite threatened to render the country ungovernable if Jonathan and his People's Democratic Party (PDP) were to run in the 2011 elections.

Looking ahead

And it's not as if the nation's political strategists have previously shied away from doing whatever necessary to secure their own interests. Now Jonathan has been voted out and Boko Haram has become little more than a whisper. Is that a coincidence?

Thus far, there is no indication that the president-elect, Muhammadu Buhari, is in cahoots with Boko Haram's funders. In fact, he has always distanced himself from the corrupt power brokers in the north, but they must now be hoping for greater influence under a Muslim president than they had under his predecessor.

Whether Buhari will actually have the power to shut down or expose the networks behind the country's terrorists, is doubtful. The best case scenario would see them withdraw their support for the terrorists, leaving Boko Haram to become nothing more than small groups of marauding robbers, much like those that populate other parts of Nigeria. If even that.

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