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Change of strategy needed to defeat Boko Haram

Idris Uwaisu AFP, Reuters
December 19, 2018

The resurgence of attacks by Boko Haram in parts of northeastern Nigeria has raised concerns that the jihadist group is far from being vanquished. Security experts are now urging a change in counter-insurgency measures.

Cartoon - Buhari fighting Boko Haram
Image: DW

At the start of this week, one Nigerian soldier was killed and another one injured following an attack by Boko Haram jihadists at a military base in Borno State, northeastern Nigeria. According to a source who did not wish to be identified, the heavily armed insurgents briefly took control of Mairari village, located 10 kilometers (six miles) from Monguno town, where Nigeria's military has a garrison. The village was recaptured after Nigerian forces deployed reinforcements.

The attack on Mairari coincided with the release of pictures of another attack on a village near Maiduguri, capital of Borno state. This one was carried out by a Boko Haram faction loyal to Abubakar Shekau according to SITE intelligence which monitors the activities of armed jihadists. The images showed villagers fleeing into the city after their village was razed to the ground.

The Nigerian military later released a statement saying they had repelled the militants but not after losing one of their own and killing four insurgents.

Read more: Nigeria sees pre-election resurgence of jihadist attacks

President Buhari's miscalculation

Recently, Boko Haram has stepped up attacks in northeastern Nigeria despite claims by the Nigerian government that they had decimated the Islamist terrorist group. Professor Haruna Dantaro Dlakwa, Director at the Center for Peace Diplomacy and Development Studies in Maiduguri, told DW that President Muhammadu Buhari had been too quick to declare victory over Boko Haram.

"There is over-optimism on the side of the government and they believe that the situation is under control," Dlakwa said. On the ground, the practical experiences of the people paint a completely different picture. "Certainly, use of force alone can't work; the government has to change its strategy."

Displaced people stare at the aftermath of a Boko Haram attack in Nigeria
Boko Haram did not spare this camp for the internally displaced in MaiduguriImage: picture-alliance/AP/Jossy Ola

Several security analysts monitoring Nigeria have urged the government to engage Boko Haram in peace talks in a bid to end the nearly decade-old insurgency. "The only problem is whether the insurgents will cooperate in negotiations," Dlakwa said. He believes the government has no option but to maintain the offensive against Boko Haram while pursuing the possibility of negotiating a settlement.

This week, Nigeria's military called for the banning of human rights group Amnesty International. The army accused Amnesty of using its operations to demoralize the soldiers fighting Boko Haram. The call for the expulsion of Amnesty was in response to a report by Amnesty that more than 3,000 people had been killed in communal violence in Nigeria.

Read more: Nigerians divided as military calls for ban on Amnesty International

Price of politicizing the insurgency

As the Nigerian government continues to search for a lasting solution to the Boko Haram insurgency, retired Brigadier General Saleh Bala, head of the White Ink consultancy in Abuja, warned that playing politics with the Boko Haram insurgency would create a festering wound that could consume all facets of Nigeria's resources.

"This is what is happening now," the retired army officer told DW. "I strongly believe that we should have a national counter-insurgency strategy hinged on economic development, and the military strategy can pick up from there."

For Bala, the center of gravity of the Boko Haram insurgency is around the Lake Chad region. "Boko Haram came up as a local socio-economic group which uses religion as a platform."

The army made headlines after it suspended UNICEF's operations in Nigeria accusing it of 'training spies' for Boko Haram. It later rescinded its decision following an outcry from rights activists.

Read more: Nigerian army lifts ban of UNICEF after spy accusations

Time for a reality check

Nigeria is facing one of its worst security challenges since independence in 1960. President Muhammadu Buhari's pledge to defeat Boko Haram and bring security has now become a heated campaign issue as the 76-year-old bids for a second term in next year's February 16, elections. Under Buhari, the army did manage to regain control of territory once occupied by Boko Haram. However, the group changed tactics and started using young girls as suicide bombers and ambushing soldiers.

Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari
President Muhammadu Buhari's security record is on the line in the February 16, 2019 electionImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Marte

So how can Nigeria break the stalemate in the fight against the Boko Haram insurgency? Jonathan Maiangwa, a researcher on counter insurgency at the University of Maiduguri, told DW, Nigeria must face reality.

"Nigeria needs to be very sincere to tell itself the truth, this strategy of pin down defense is not working anywhere in counter-terrorism, it is an old idea," Maiangwa said. "I think the military need to be innovative, they need to be very creative to see how they can counter the insurgency.''

Since the start of the Boko Haram insurgency in 2009, more than 27,000 people, mostly in the remote northeast, have been killed. Nearly 2 million others have been displaced.