How Nigeria’s Buhari Is Turning the Tide Against Boko Haram

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari meets with Chibok schoolgirls freed from Boko Haram. Abuja, Nigeria, October 19, 2016. (next24online/NurPhoto/Associated Press)

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has faced an imposing array of security, political, economic, and crime-related challenges since his historic election win in March 2015, with the country officially entering into recession in August this year. However, one notable positive development has been a revamped counterinsurgency campaign against Boko Haram extremists in northeastern Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin area stretching into Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. Attacks by the group are forecast to claim about 3,500 lives in 2016, a third the number of fatalities in 2015 and the conflict’s lowest total since 2012. Buhari’s transformation of the military response to Boko Haram provides some useful counterinsurgency lessons to other conflict areas with respect to regional cooperation, security sector reforms, and enlisting the support and assistance of local vigilante groups.

First, following years of failed attempts at regional operation planning and intelligence sharing, Buhari has worked far more effectively with his Chadian, Nigerien, and Cameroonian neighbors. The regional Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) framework has allowed joint operations between these countries, while Chadian and Nigerien troops have been permitted to intervene on Nigerian territory in the Lake Chad area. This resulted in the gradual recapture of nearly all of Boko Haram-controlled territory, which, at its peak in late 2014, covered an area the size of Belgium.

While independently corroborated information is scarce in the northeast, with official military statements being the main source of information, the tide is undoubtedly turning under Buhari’s direction. Much remains to be done on the regional front, but since the beginning of 2016 plausible reports have emerged of joint Cameroonian-Nigerian operations in Borno state, Chadian troops coming to the aid of Nigerien neighbors in the Lake Chad Basin, as well as direct cooperation between the counterinsurgency forces of Niger and Nigeria.

Second, Buhari has replaced the upper echelon of the military hierarchy, moved its anti-Boko Haram command headquarters from the capital Abuja to Maiduguri in Borno, and investigated more than 300 companies and officers for corruption in the security budget, even detaining some individuals. Buhari’s reformist agenda has also prompted the United States to expand its military aid, which was restricted due to human rights concerns under Buhari’s predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan. Military aid from the US, France, the United Kingdom, and other allies has also taken the form of training, equipment and intelligence sharing for Niger, Chad, and Cameroon, including US surveillance drones operating out of northern Cameroon. This has boosted morale and improved the capabilities of Nigerian and regional MNJTF troops.

Last, but certainly not least, more effective cooperation with local vigilante groups known as the Civilian Joint Task Forces (CJTF) has increased the army’s intelligence gathering capabilities, operational reach, and overall momentum. Under Jonathan’s presidency, the army was accused of indiscriminate crackdowns, arrests, and extrajudicial killings of perceived Boko Haram sympathizers across the northeast, turning away many potential counterinsurgency allies. A northern Muslim himself, Buhari’s improved collaboration with locals in Boko Haram’s operational theater has also been assisted by a backlash against the brutality of attacks on Muslim civilians in mosques and marketplaces carried out by erstwhile Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau, who considered anyone who did not subscribe to his ruthless insurgency to be a legitimate target.

This cooperation with local fighters has also been employed by Cameroon, where a network of vigilantes are sharing intelligence and tracking suspected suicide bombers with state-provided motorbikes and bicycles in the porous border area between its Far North Region and neighboring Borno. There are inherent risks in empowering local vigilantes in terms of accountability, possible infiltration by Boko Haram supporters, and upsetting local power dynamics. Cameroon has also been accused of arbitrarily arresting and dismissing perceived Boko Haram collaborators from the vigilante camp, which could lead to increased distrust and backlash from locals. However, the reality is that conventional soldiers lack the local knowledge and ability to effectively patrol vast expanses of rugged terrain, as witnessed in the Congo’s dismal efforts to neutralize armed groups in their eastern Kivu provinces. Vigilante groups thus remain a useful and at times underutilized resource in counterinsurgency campaigns.

Looking ahead, the numerous Boko Haram factions do not appear to have the unity, capacity, or interest at this time to regain control over large swaths of territory as a kind of Nigerian caliphate, with their activities too vulnerable to the robust counterinsurgency campaign. Moreover, the Islamic State-backed faction loyal to Abu Musab al-Barnawi—known as Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP)—with its stronghold in the Lake Chad region, appears more intent on highly publicized ambushes of military targets rather than Shekau’s trademark indiscriminate suicide bombings at marketplaces and mosques, which lost favor with ISIS. This was evidenced by ISWAP’s claim of having killed 40 MNJTF troops in Malam Fatori on September 21 and at least 20 more in Ghashgar on October 16. While internal divides have weakened Boko Haram, its numerous factions remain a potent, albeit diminished, security threat. There are no signs of negotiations to end the insurgency on the horizon, which is unsurprising given the common goal across the militant factions to overthrow the Nigerian government.

Turning the tide definitively on Boko Haram will require a more permanent state security presence in recently liberated areas, with the cooperation of local leaders, broader economic recovery programs, humanitarian assistance spearheaded by the international community, and increased involvement of moderate northern Muslim leaders in countering violent extremism in their midst. The task will not be easy, with 20% of Nigerian Muslims holding a favorable view of ISIS, and Buhari having to direct his attention and political capital to a host of other threats. Nevertheless, the Nigerian president has proven a number of critics wrong in putting Boko Haram firmly on the back foot, with a critical opportunity for Western donors to build on the momentum in providing military, humanitarian, and economic assistance to the long-neglected northeast.

Alex Fielding is an Intelligence Manager in the Africa Division of Max Security Solutions. @alexpfielding.