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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 33 New Delhi August 6, 2016

Looking Beyond Conventional Military Victory: Nigeria’s War Against Boko Haram

Wednesday 10 August 2016

by Sanjal Shastri

In December 2015, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari mentioned that the Boko Haram’s ability to launch ‘conventional attacks’ has been reduced significantly. Nearly a year after promising to defeat the Boko Haram, what success has Buhari achieved? Despite Nigeria’s significant conventional military victories, the Boko Haram still poses a significant security threat. Why is a conventional military victory not enough to guarantee peace and stability? Why is an internationally coordinated effort important to ensure long lasting peace? These are the questions this commentary would address. It would shed light on how the Boko Haram has transformed in the over past one year. It would also reassess the nature of the threat that the Boko Haram poses.

President Buhari has repeatedly stressed on the conventional military success that the Nigerian Army has achieved against Boko Haram. Looking the progress that has been made, Buhari has achieved considerable success. The Boko Haram has been driven away from large areas in Northern Nigeria, where a year ago they were able to roam freely. Today they have been confined to a small piece of territory along the border with Chad. Over the past year the Nigerian Army has successfully ensured the release of several hostages who were captured by Boko Haram. After nearly a year in office, Buhari has ensured that the ability of Boko Haram of capture and hold on to territory has been significantly reduced.

A conventional military victory over the Boko Haram is not enough to ensure peace in Northern Nigeria. 2016 has seen several attacks, suicide bombings and kidnappings for which the Boko Haram has claimed responsibility. As recently as on May 25, 2016, they have carried out attacks on five separate communities in the Borno Province. Curtailing the Boko Haram’s ability to fight conventionally will not have any impact on the group’s ability to launch suicide bombings, carry out kidnappings and launch ambushes.

The Boko Haram’s history shows that even when they had control over large sections of the Borno State, the threat they posed came from kidnappings, suicide bombings and ambushes. The group made international headlines when they kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls in Chibok. The unconventional threats posed by them were always far greater than the conventional military threat that they posed. Therefore, when Buhari talks about defeating the Boko Haram, real success would come when its ability to carry out suicide bombings and kidnappings are diminished.

The Boko Haram has transformed over the past one year. They have been driven into the Sambisa Forest, from where they are able to plan kidnappings and suicide bombings. Operating along the international border with Chad, Cameroon and Niger the Boko Haram has tapped into cross-border smuggling that provides with the finances to sustain their movement. Looting and kidnappings are also important sources of income for the Boko Haram today. From being a radical insurgent group, demanding a separate state, they are turning into an organised group of bandits, taking part in cross-border smuggling. Along with this, there has been a change in the profile of fighters the group is attracting. While previously attracting radicalised individuals, today the Boko Haram attracts fighters who are more driven by the economic perks of the cross-border trade.

Boko Haram’s transformation calls for a reassessment of the strategy to tackle them. A conventional military victory will not cut off their income from the cross-border trade. It will also not prevent their ability to carry out suicide bombings and kidnappings. Since the Boko Haram is receiving more fighters motivated by economic benefits, de-radicalisation will not be effective in dissuading people from joining them. The answer lies in improving economic opportunities and providing employment. The current military campaign will not do much to hamper the group’s recruitment drive. As the economic benefits of being members of the Boko Haram is greater than the other economic opportunities available, one will not be able to prevent people from joining them.

The Boko Haram over the past few years has been able to expand its operations to countries bordering Nigeria including Chad, Niger and Cameroon. In the beginning their operational base was limited to Nigeria. By spreading its tentacles to neighboring counties, defeating the Boko Haram calls for a internationally coordinated effort. The Abuja Summit saw the leaders of Chad, Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon meet to help coordinate their responses. The international borders between the four countries have several gaps, which make it easy for a group like Boko Haram to operate freely between countries. Nigeria’s military success might not be of any use unless similar coordinated efforts are also carried out in Chad, Cameroon and Niger.

May 29, 2016 marked the first anniversary of Buhari’s government. Defeating the Boko Haram was his key election promise. From the conventional military sense he has achieved remarkable success in this period. The Boko Haram has been driven out of large parts of Borno State where a year ago they were operating freely. The nature of the threat the Boko Haram has posed means that a conventional military will do little to bring peace. Boko Haram’s threat lies in its ability to launch suicide bombings, carry out kidnappings and ambushes. A conventional military victory will not prevent them from carrying out such attacks. The string of suicide bombings since the beginning of 2016 is evidence of this fact. The Boko Haram has transformed from a Jihadist group fighting for a separate state to a group of organised criminals responsible for kidnappings and tapping into the cross-border trade. This has also meant that the profile of members joining the Boko Haram has also changed. Tackling this transformed, yet dangerous, Boko Haram will mean moving beyond the conventional military victory. Along with the group’s transformation, their operational base has expanded to Chad, Niger and Cameroon. Defeating the Boko Haram therefore, will require a coordinated effort from the various countries impacted by the insurgency.

The last one year has witnessed significant military gains, but it is time now to reassess the goals of the operation. Eliminating the Boko Haram’s ability to launch suicide bombings and kidnappings will mean dealing with the economic and developmental challenges that are attracting people to join them. While the work done so far is commendable, there is still a long way to go.

The author is a researcher at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. He can be reached on sshastri93[at]gmail.com