Boko Haram’s Evolution: How it got this far, and how to stop it

Addressing bad governance, corruption and under-development is more crucial than military counter-measures.

By: /
October 21, 2015
A soldier from Niger escorts U.S. soldiers back to their base following an anti-Boko Haram summit in Diffa city, Niger September 3, 2015. Picture taken September 3, 2015. REUTERS/Warren Strobel

Boko Haram is evolving under the pressure of combined military operations by the Lake Chad Basin states, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria. It has suffered significant conventional military defeats and lost most of the territory it loosely controlled in late 2014, but, despite this, it is not a spent force and continues to exact an unacceptable humanitarian toll. 

The group has reverted to earlier terror tactics and significantly expanded its operations in states neighboring northeastern Nigeria (where it was founded and originally based). To defeat the group, the Boko Haram-affected states will need to do more than increase and improve their military efforts, but also implement more comprehensive programs to address drivers of radicalism, particularly bad governance and official corruption, as well as provide better services and development assistance to huge swaths of impoverished communities. The United Nations, African Union and international partners can help, but ultimately it is up to the countries themselves to generate the political will for these necessary reforms.

Despite military setbacks, the toll of the Boko Haram insurgency continues to rise.

Despite military setbacks, the toll of the Boko Haram insurgency continues to rise. According to a local investigation, more than 800 people were killed in attacks in Nigeria in the last several months, with many more casualties in Chad, Cameroon and Niger. The number of refugees and internally displaced continue to swell; it is estimated more than two million Nigerians were forced to flee and have not been able to return home. The problem is expanding. This summer, Cameroon experienced the greatest increase in incidents followed closely by Niger and Chad. The enlargement and intensification of attacks indicate the sect seeks to expand its operations throughout the Lake Chad Basin.

After being ejected from many of its fixed bases in north-eastern Nigeria by Chadian and Nigerian military forces (apparently aided by South Africa mercenaries), Boko Haram is reverting to guerilla tactics and urban suicide bombings. Apart from strongholds in the rugged and forested mountains straddling Nigeria and Cameroon, the group now shows little interest in holding territory even if there are no military forces or imminent reinforcement to counter them. 

Boko Haram bands raid unprotected villages mostly to obtain supplies, but also carry out horrific massacres. It appears that specific villages and ethnic communities are deliberately targeted. These depressingly familiar terror tactics send a powerful, if reprehensible, signal to the population that the military cannot protect them and that cooperation with security forces will incur an unacceptable price. Without local support, locating and defeating Boko Haram forces becomes much more difficult. Cities also are not spared. In June, Boko Haram conducted several suicide bomb attacks in the Chadian capital, N’djamena, and in July and August in Fotokol, Maroua and Kerawa in northern Cameroon. It also frequently ambushes trucks, particularly on the Douala-N’djamena road that supplies most of Chad and northern Cameroon. These attacks suggest the movement intends to destabilize the entire sub-region and sap the political will of local leaders to sustain their campaign against them.

The group is increasingly targeting and using children. Although kidnapping of children started earlier, Boko Haram gained global attention last year when it abducted 276 girls from a school in Chibok—so far few have been rescued. A growing number of fighters and particularly suicide bombers are minors. Over the course of 2015, numerous girls, some as young as 10, have carried out suicide bomb attacks. On August 25, a 14-year-old girl killed six people and wounded dozens outside a bus station in Damatura, Nigeria.

Tactically, Boko Haram increasingly resembles the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), an elusive group that has been extremely hard to pin down and has wreaked havoc in northern Uganda, western Central Africa Republic and South Sudan for decades. The LRA has long abducted boys and girls as soldiers and sex slaves. It uses terror to enforce discipline and deter local communities from assisting security forces. This presents challenges that most militaries have very little experience or capacity to deal with.

Regional security forces are struggling to adapt to Boko Haram’s asymmetric tactics. Lacking numbers and logistical capacity (as well as adequate roads and other transportation infrastructure), they are unable to protect far-flung settlements in remote and sparsely populated areas. Regional coordination appears to have improved with the establishment of a Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF), headquartered in N’Djamena, Chad, but that is not nearly enough to secure the entire Lake Chad basin or eliminate Boko Haram’s dispersed groups.

Unfortunately, the other responses from governments to the expansion and intensification in Boko Haram’s activities have been feeble and in some cases risked stoking social tension. The Cameroonian government has reportedly reacted to the urban bombings in Maroua by closing mosques and Islamic centers. In Chad, there is concern about a draconian anti-terrorism law and disproportionate crackdowns on the Kanuri ethnic group from which Boko Haram has recruited heavily. Repression only serves to strengthen the appeal of Boko Haram amongst alienated communities.

More broadly, regional states have done almost nothing to address “push-factors” — bad governance, endemic corruption and under-development — that have created fertile ground for Boko Haram recruitment (although recently elected Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has taken a strong public stance on corruption). Leaders must recognize that unless these issues are addressed vigorously and transparently, all other measures will be nothing but stop-gaps. They must also free up the necessary national resources to address sustained economic hardship, rising inequality and social frustration by expanding and strengthening anti-corruption agencies, and ensure they work effectively at state and local levels, free of political manipulation.

Development cannot occur overnight, but most radical groups do not prey on poverty but rather a loss of hope. They would have much less support were the government to implement the necessary reforms and programs to give people confidence in a better future. This, more than giving more resources for military counter-measures, is what can help bring the region back from the precipice.

EJ Hogendoorn is Deputy Director of the Africa Program at International Crisis Group.

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