Why Nigeria has not defeated Boko Haram

By Andrew Walker
Nigeria analyst

  • Published
Map showing reported civilian deaths in Boko Haram attacks in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states which have been under a state of emergency for a year and other parts of Nigeria from Sept 2010 till April 2014

Exactly a year after Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan declared a "state of emergency" in north-eastern Nigeria, it seems to have had little effect in curbing the Islamist insurgency.

Attacks by the Boko Haram group that provoked the move included an assault on a military barracks, detonating a bomb at a bus station in the northern city of Kano and the kidnap of a French family, including four children, which grabbed the world's attention.

The declaration would bring "extraordinary measures" to bear against the insurgents in order to "restore normalcy" to the region, the president said.

"The troops have orders to carry out all necessary actions within the ambit of their rules of engagement to put an end to the impunity of insurgents and terrorists," President Jonathan said.

Now, after 12 months of state of emergency powers being in force, in the past few weeks Boko Haram has attacked several military bases, bombed a busy bus terminal in the capital, Abuja - twice - and launched an audacious kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls from Chibok which has set the world on edge.

"When they declared it I thought it had to be tried," says Habeeb Pindiga, editor of Nigeria's Daily Trust newspaper, "but honestly it has not succeeded."

In the year leading up to the state of emergency in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe state, there were 741 civilian death reported, according to data collected by the University of Sussex in the UK.

In the 12 months since the figure of civilian causalities has more than tripled to 2,265.


Mr Pindiga says the military has not dealt with big problems it faces.

Because of the military's human rights record people do not trust them, plus they lack modern equipment, training and motivation.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Attacks in the three states have increased since the emergency rule was brought in last year
Image source, AP
Image caption,
Civilians do not trust the security forces deployed to the north-east

A UK military officer who has worked closely with the Nigerians says they are stuck in a Catch-22 situation.

"The trouble with the Nigerian government is that they want a big red button, which you can press and it will fix everything," says James Hall, a retired colonel and former UK military attache to Nigeria.

"I was asked by a senior commander if we could sell them the machine that can tell if a car driving down the road contains a terrorist," he added.

"I tried to tell them that such a machine doesn't exist, but then they just thought we were hiding it from them."

The UK is very wary in giving training assistance, and sales of better equipment are also problematic, he says.

Who are Boko Haram?

Image source, AFP
  • Founded in 2002
  • Initially focused on opposing Western education - Boko Haram means "Western education is forbidden" in the Hausa language
  • Launched military operations in 2009 to create Islamic state
  • Thousands killed, mostly in north-eastern Nigeria - also attacked police and UN headquarters in capital, Abuja
  • Some three million people affected
  • Declared terrorist group by US in 2013

"We have reduced dramatically the types of training and equipment we're willing to provide."

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both criticised the Nigerian military for their tactics.

Amnesty reported that some 600 people were killed by the military after an attack on Maiduguri's Giwa barracks in March.

The sale of lethal weapons to Nigeria is prohibited by UK law because of such concerns.

"Without the training, they won't be able to get the equipment, and we aren't giving them the training either," Mr Hall said.

Conflict leads to exodus

Although Nigeria's military has enjoyed a good reputation internationally because of its involvement in several peacekeeping missions in Africa, it has not quite escaped the legacy of its past.

"What they say about former military regimes is true," Mr Hall said.

"They cripple their militaries so that there can't be further coups."

The Nigerian military rejects such criticism.

Speaking to the press on 7 May in Abuja, Brigadier-General Olajide Laleye told journalists that the military were doing what they could to stop the insurgency.

"Prosecuting large-scale counter-insurgency operations as well as numerous other operations in aid of civil authority in virtually every state of the federation has put pressure on the personnel and resources of the army," he said.

In a bid to improve morale, he was announcing soldiers' salaries would be paid to their families after their death for longer than currently allowed.

Payments usually stop a regulation three months after a soldier is killed, it was reported.

But observers say that there are other factors at work beyond just military capacity.

"There's a lack of trust all across the board, politically," says Ledum Mitee, a former activist from the oil-rich southern Niger Delta.

'Playing politics'

He has followed closely the career of President Jonathan, who is also from the Niger Delta.

Media caption,

BBC News examines the challenges facing Nigeria's president, in 60 seconds

At the moment, the political leadership of the three states in the north-east are aligned with the opposition All Progressive's Congress ( APC).

"People around the president, his closest allies, all tell him this Boko Haram is manufactured by the northerners to play politics," Mr Mitee says.

"This leads him to distance himself from the whole affair."

Military commanders on the ground also have to play politics, he said.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Reports last year that Boko Haram's leader Abubakar Shekau had been killed were proved wrong when he appeared in videos
Image source, Nigerian government
Image caption,
It is not clear if President Goodluck Jonathan (L) is being given the full picture about the security situation
Image source, AFP
Image caption,
International teams have arrived to hunt for the schoolgirls but not to train the military in counter-terrorism

"If they give the impression it is a very bad situation, they risk being branded incompetent, so they give a less bad picture to their bosses."

Then when crisis erupts no-one is able to deal with it effectively because it is so confused, Mr Mitee said.

It is international pressure over the girls from Chibok that has forced the government to change.

It has allowed advisers from China, France, Israel the UK and the US to help its forces.

But their presence is likely to be limited to assisting the search for the kidnapped girls, and will not include a general role in improving the Nigerian military's capacity.

Even if they could, the job would be too big, Mr Hall thinks.

"It would take years of total engagement, training group after group to have any effect," he says.

"And no-one is really prepared to commit to that."

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