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Nigeria: Comeback of the jihadists

Cristina Krippahl
November 28, 2018

Nigeria's President Buhari staked his political career on defeating Boko Haram. A pre-election resurgence in attacks by jihadists has Nigeria worried. DW looks at what is behind this development.

A child stands in front of ruins at the site of a terrorist attack (picture alliance/AP/Ola)
Image: picture-alliance/AP/Jossy Ola

There are reports of at least 17 attempts to overrun army bases since July. Most of them took place in the northeast state of Borno, the epicenter of the nine-year conflict. An attack last weekend on a base in Metele village, near the border with Niger, killed around 100 soldiers. The government concealed the true toll for days, only admitting to the high number of dead after protests by soldiers.

Nigerian analyst Kabiru Adamu says there are several reasons for the increase of attacks by Islamist terrorists. A major one is the underfunding of the Chad-based Multinational Joint Task Force against Boko Haram (MNJTF), made up of Cameroon, Chad, Benin, Niger and Nigeria. "Nigeria has been bankrolling the operations of the Multinational Joint Task Force with minimal support from international partners," the analyst told DW. This summer, Chad and Niger pulled out troops they had stationed in Nigeria, allowing the terrorists to "carry out their attacks and then withdraw to their strongholds in the Chad Basin area" – according to Adamu.

Neighbors disunited

Ryan Cummings, a director of the South Africa-based political risk management consultancy Signal Risk, agrees. The lack of funding is compounded by a lack of political will, he says. "The cooperation between what we call the Lake Chad Basin countries has always been complicated because relations between these countries have never been good." In addition to territorial disputes and diplomatic tensions, "neither country wanted the army of another country operating within its border," Cummings told DW.

A soldier behind sand bags on a road in Nigeria
The pact between neighboring countries to fight Boko Haram is frayingImage: Getty Images/AFP

MNJTF members like Chad and Cameroon "have their own security challenges," says analyst Adamu. With resources scarce, they will naturally give priority to their own violent domestic crises. Adamu points out that the MNJTF is not supported by foreign countries to the extent the G5 Sahel Joint Force and the Sahel Alliance member states (Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad) and Libya are. These countries are seen by the West as crucial in the fight against illegal immigration from Africa.

Jihadists coming together

"At this moment, there isn't the cooperation which is required to address an insurgency which is no longer a Nigerian insurgency but a regional insurgency," says Ryan Cummings, who is also a founding member of the Nigeria Security Network, a group of journalists and academics tracking Boko Haram. Recent attacks in Nigeria, mostly against military facilities, have been carried out mainly by the so-called Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), a splinter group of Boko Haram. "This is a group which is aligned to the Islamic State," Cummings stresses.

Since ISWAP operates in several other countries, it will not be enough to defeat it in Nigeria to eliminate the threat. Cummings also sees another problem. "When we look at West Africa at the moment, we see a kind of extension of the al Qaeda footprint and even the Islamic State footprint. The latter is expanding outside its traditional strongholds in northern Mali, "into countries such as Burkina Faso and Mauritania," the analyst says. "There is a potential of greater linkages between these groups," he warns. 

Prospect of more violence to come

A map showing the location of Islamist militias in Africa (DW)
Analysts see a danger of increased cooperation between Islamist militias in Africa

Another big worry, Cumming says, is the prospect of a rerun of 2014. "Recent attacks are specifically targeting military installations. The core strategy of these attacks seems to be to raid these installations for their weaponry and their equipment." The same strategy was deployed in 2014 shortly before general elections in 2015. The raided arms and equipment allowed the terrorists to launch "quite a significant offensive in northeastern Nigeria," the analyst says. A repeat could have a negative impact on upcoming elections, the mainstay of the democracy which the insurgents are trying to destroy.

Cummings dismisses out of hand rumors that the resurgence of attacks is financed by the political opposition in order to damage President Muhammadu Buhari's prospects for reelection on February 16. That is also the opinion of Kabiru Adamu who believes Buhari is doing enough damage to himself through his failure to keep his promise to vanquish the jihadists. Inevitably, the opposition will take political advantage of the situation.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari (Reuters Nigeria)
President Buhari has 'failed to win the hearts of the people,' analysts sayImage: Reuters/Nigeria Presidency Handout

Buhari's failures

"It is a mistake to allow the military to run the counter terrorism strategy alone. Civil security agencies have not been playing any role," Adamu says. For instance, there are communities without policemen, where only the military, known for its heavy-handedness, and repeatedly accused of violence against civilians, look after security. 

The problem is compounded by a demoralized army. "They are killing us every day. A soldier will be at the war front – no helmet, no flak jacket, not enough ammunition. We are fighting to defend our country and the generals are cheating us," a soldier who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation told DW. "Of course, the big elephant in the room is corruption," says Kabiru Adamu. It has resulted in soldiers having to do without ammunition and equipment, and the cancellation of the deployment of troops to locations where the army is urgently needed.

More than 27,000 people have been killed since 2009 and some 1.8 million are still homeless.