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Is Buhari winning the fight against Boko Haram?

Daniel Pelz
April 14, 2017

Three years after 276 schoolgirls were kidnapped in Nigeria, most have still not been found. We take a look at the progress President Buhari has made in the fight against terror in Nigeria.

Nigeria Symbolbild Muhammadu Buhari Anti-Korruptions-Offensive
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/C. Owen

Nobody expected Muhammadu Buhari's election victory two years ago. He was the first opposition candidate in Nigeria to prevail over an incumbent president, defeating Goodluck Jonathan with 54% of the vote.

Back then, public anger towards Jonathan was high. His government had appeared impotent as Islamist militant group Boko Haram established a "caliphate" in the north of the country, terrorizing the local population and forcing more than 2.6 million people to flee their homes.

So far, Buhari's government has had more success, with the Nigerian army reclaiming swathes of territory from Boko Haram. Major General Lucky Irabor is in charge of the operation against Boko Haram - which is entitled Lafiya Dole, or "peace by all means."

Symbolbild Nigeria Armee
The Nigerian Army claims to have reclaimed vast swathes of territory from Boko HaramImage: Getty Images/AFP/S. Heunis

"We have made quite significant progress in this war," Irabor told DW. "Boko Haram terrorists no longer have the capacity to wage their terror attacks. What you now find is that they are running from one remote location to the other, looking for safety."

According to Irabor, they have found this safety for the time being in the vast Sambisa forest in northest Nigeria. An operation to comb the forest is underway.

Boko Haram: weaker, but not defeated

Despite the progress made under Buhari, the extremists are far from defeated. "There are still attacks on an almost daily basis, and regular bombings," says Hildegard Behrendt-Kigozi, the head of the Nigerian office of Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

At the end of March, Boko Haram fighters abducted 22 women and girls in northeast Nigeria. This case is reminiscent of the kidnapping of 276 school girls from the village of Chibok exactly three years ago, which made headlines all over the world and sparked the online "#BringBackOurGirls" campaign. Around 200 of the Chibok girls are still in captivity.

Symbolbild Entführungen von Frauen und Mädchen in Nigeria
Protesters in Nairobi, Kenya supporting the #BringBackOurGirls campaignImage: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Kurokawa

"Of course, it is our desire that every single one of the girls will be rescued," Irabor said, adding that the army has managed to rescue 30,000 other hostages from Boko Haram. "While the search is on for the remaining Chibok girls, we also spread our tentacles to ensure that whoever is held in the Boko Haram confines is released. We believe that the Chibok girls will be found."

Recruiting child soldiers

Terror in Nigeria cannot be defeated with military force alone. "Boko Haram has religious origins, but it also has a lot to do with the economic and social circumstances that many young people find themselves in," says George Ehusani, a Nigerian priest who helps victims of Boko Haram through his organization Lux Terra Leadership.

If more young people could get work or go to school, Ehusani explains, they would not be "such easy targets" for recruitment by the extremists. It doesn't help that Nigeria's elite still fails to acknowledge the country's deep divide between rich and poor.

Many of the suicide bombers recruited by Boko Haram are children. Major General Irabor believes that the militants' reliance on this strategy is "indicative of their weakness."

"They go to those who are not suspicious, those who you could describe as children, who can easily give in to anything that they are told," he says. "Of course, they don't tell them that they are going to die. They only tell them that when go on such 'expeditions' that they will go to Heaven."

Operation against Boko Haram

Meanwhile, in southern Nigeria, another trouble spot is threatening to flare up. For years, rebels have been carrying out attacks in the Niger Delta, the heart of Nigeria's oil industry. Rebels accuse the oil companies of damaging the environment, and therefore the livelihoods of many Nigerians. The previous government had been paying rebels a monthly allowance to lay down their weapons, but with the continuation of these payments under Buhari still uncertain, tensions are likely to grow.

Taking on corruption

Buhari also has a mixed track record when it comes to the fight against Nigeria's rampant corruption. From 1983 to 1985, as the country's military ruler, Buhari made a name for himself as a committed opponent of corruption. After the 2015 election, he reasserted this stance - even appointing himself oil minister.

And yet the oil sector is still plagued by corruption. On Transparency International's 2016 "corruption index" Nigeria was in 136th place, out of 176 countries - exactly the same position it was at before Buhari took office.

Wahlkampf in Nigeria 2015
Buhari's supporters are frustrated at the slow pace of change in NigeriaImage: AFP/Getty Images/P. Utomi Ekpei

The slow pace of change is not just down to the president. In March, the senate blocked the appointment of a new anti-corruption authority chief. Observers saw this as a defeat for Buhari and suspect that many members of parliament fear that an effective authority could interfere in their own corrupt businesses activites.

The president might not even have the strength to see his political agenda through. In January he flew to London, apparently for "routine" medical tests. He did not return until the beginning of March. According to media reports, he was so weak afterwards that he could only work for a few hours a day.

However, Wolf Kinzel of the German Institute for International and Security affairs urges people put Buhari's progress into perspective. "It is completely unrealistic to expect a president to completely turn around a corrupt country in two years," he says, adding that the process is likely to take one or two generations.