Nigeria: Survival Of the Usual


February 2, 2022: In 2021 the Islamic terrorists continued to fade while tribal violence was responsible for more casualties than Islamic terrorists, whose main activity now is staying alive as bandits. Back in 2004, Islamic terrorist violence in the northeast appeared and created some lasting problems. There are still millions of refugees plus substantial economic damage in the northeast (Borno State), where it all began. There seems to be no end in sight because of the local corruption, but more competent leadership in the security forces reduced the violence. All this was caused by a local group of Taliban wannabes calling themselves Boko Haram. Their activity in the capital of Borno State grew for a decade until in 2014 it seemed unstoppable. It took over a year for the government to finally muster sufficient military strength to cripple but not destroy Boko Haram. This did not get much media attention outside Africa, even though in 2014 Boko Haram killed more people than ISIL did in Syria and Iraq. The main reason for Boko Haram gains in 2014 and 2015 was corruption in the army, which severely crippled effective counterterror efforts. By itself Boko Haram was too small to have much impact on a national scale but the inability to deal with this problem put a spotlight on the corruption that has hobbled all progress in Nigeria for decades. A new president (Muhammadu Buhari. a former general who is Moslem) was elected in early 2015 and made progress in changing the corrupt army culture but that is still a work in progress even though he was reelected in early 2019. Two terms as president are the limit and Buhari is old and in declining health. It is unclear who might prevail in the 2023 elections.

While Islamic terrorism continues to fade as a source of mayhem, there are too many bandits and tribal feuds, not enough oil money and too much corruption creating growing unrest throughout the country. This is especially bad down south in the oil producing region (the Niger River Delta). Violence against oil facilities continues. Worse, local politicians and business leaders had taken over the oil theft business. Northern Moslems want more control over the federal government and the oil money. In northern and central Nigeria, you have increasing violence as nomadic Moslem herders move south and clash with largely Christian farmers over land use and water supplies. For the last few years these tribal feuds have killed more people than Boko Haram and that trend continues. The situation is still capable of sliding into regional civil wars over money and political power. Corruption and ethnic/tribal/religious rivalries threaten to trigger, at worse, another civil war and, at least, more street violence and public anger.

Survival Of the Prudent

In the northeast (Borno State) some Islamic terrorist gunmen have been attacking civilians while avoiding the army for over a year. There are several locations that have been hotspots of activity up there and one of them is the town of Chibok and the nearby Sambisa Forest. This is where Boko Haram raided a girl’s boarding school in 2014 and kidnapped 276 students. Eight years later 110 of the victims are still unaccounted for. Kidnapping for ransom, wives or slave labor continues. Extortion by Boko Haram and especially ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province) has become more organized and constant. Islamic terrorists come and go as they please while the security forces only show up when they have an opportunity to attack an Islamic terrorist base or large concentration of gunmen.

These attacks make spectacular headlines, but are rare. In these operations troops kill, wound or capture hundreds of the Islamic terrorists while also capturing weapons and camps as well as freeing civilians being held for ransom. These tactics have not destroyed Boko Haram and ISWAP, but it has eliminated commanders who did not pay sufficient attention to security and concealment. Sambisa remains a popular hideout for ISWAP groups. The military uses air reconnaissance and regular multi-day ground operations to act on air recon discoveries and tips from locals. That still works, but not against the veteran Boko Haram commanders who know how to avoid ending up on an army target map.

ISWAP is trying to gain sufficient control of population and territory to establish a physical manifestation of their caliphate. That is what the “West Africa Province” in ISWAP implies. This was a reality in the Middle East and Nigeria in 2014 but faded after a few years because the provinces could not survive against the military might of established nations and the unpopularity of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) rule with most Moslems. Boko Haram has been absorbed into ISWAP but not before learning this when they tried to establish Islamic terror operations elsewhere in the Moslem north. Outside of northern Borno State no one wanted anything to do with Islamic radicalism. The secular gangsters and tribal militias would, at best, allow a live-and-let-live policy towards Islamic radicals and would fight back if Islamic terrorists from northern Borno sought to move in. That rarely happened because the local gangsters were able to recruit a lot of the Islamic terrorists from Borno because business was better when you didn’t add the complication of religious fanaticism.

Islamic terrorism survives in Borno State because that is where it began, in response to the violent government response the initial, non-violent, Boko Haram generated. Boko Haram was always about reducing corruption and improving the economy in Borno. For governments and gangsters, it’s all about profits and power. ISWAP has evolved into a profitable criminal enterprise with a fading veneer of religious fanaticism.

January 24, 2022: In the northeast (Borno State) ISWAP declared Gudumbali, a town 125 kilometers north of Maiduguri, the state capital. Maiduguri was the birthplace of Boko Haram two decades ago. Gudumbali normally has a population of about 10,000 and is the capital of the local Guzamala district, which covers 2,500 square kilometers. That’s about 3.5 percent of Borno State. Guzamala contains an even smaller fraction of the state population. Guzamala lies astride a paved road and is a local market town. It has been occupied by Boko Haram before but after 2017 the Islamic terrorists could not hold it for any length 0f time. The army would roll down the highway and chase Boko Haram out, doing a little more damage to the town with each visit. Gudumbali is in a region where ISWAP extortion and control of markets and road traffic, where bribes, or “taxes” must be paid to get past an ISWAP checkpoint. ISWAP will even issue “tax receipts”.

The Gudumbali announcement was not a complete surprise, and seen as part of a plan by ISWAP leadership to complete its defeat and absorption of Boko Haram in 2021. By the end of 2021 it appeared that Boko Haram was gone and ISWAP was hustling to retain as many Boko Haram members as possible. Over the last few years Boko Haram and ISWAP turned much of northern Borno into an economic wasteland, full of local self-defense groups, anti-terrorist vigilantes and a much more effective military. The Islamic terrorists experienced heavy personnel losses because of a lack of new recruits while suffering higher losses from sickness and desertion. A combination of hunger, fewer places to loot and more danger from the security forces or armed civilians Boko Haram and its more radical spinoff ISWAP a less attractive career option for the many young Moslem men who are poor, unemployed, and angry. The state government had also noted that in January ISWAP was establishing a long-term presence in some villages and towns.

A major source of disappointment with Islamic terrorism was the civil war within Boko Haram, which escalated in 2021 to the point where there were major Boko Haram and ISWAP losses from desertion, particularly those true believers who had family members with them, surrendering to the army. This was encouraged by an army process for housing and sustaining surrendered Islamic terrorists until they could move on. This encouraged more Islamic terrorists to officially surrender rather than just walk away, which many still do. By the end of 2021 about 20,000 Boko Haram and ISWAP men, including family members living with them in remote camps, had turned themselves in. This is remarkable because the total was only 8,000 in August. The rapid increase in surrenders overwhelmed the system and exhausted the resources available. Some of the former Islamic terrorists went back to the group they deserted and were accepted. This led to rumors that the massive increase in surrenders was largely a ploy by those clever Islamic terrorist fellows to let the army provide paid vacations for themselves and their families. That was a myth, with an element of reality. Most of those surrendering, especially the women and children, were starving and many were ill. The family members wanted nothing to do with returning to life in the forest. The adult men were a different matter and ISWAP leaders increased the number of raids and attacks. The only Islamic terrorists still active were the most fanatic and experienced ones. Most of these attacks were successful because the government were reporting the defeat of Islamic terrorism in Borno. Boko Haram was gone and replaced by a smaller but more determined and experienced ISWAP.

One area where ISWAP excels is in exploiting the mass media and the recent offensive was organized to gain maximum positive media coverage. It’s a big gamble for ISWAP but that’s one feature of ISIL operations; taking big risks and going down fighting it the gamble is lost. The current plan is apparently designed to minimize those losses. Several recent encounters between ISWAP raiders and local militias have led to ISWAP retreating when it was apparent that the locals were steadfast and that army reinforcements were on the way. The tribal militias and army are now more adaptable and have more resources in the form of better air support (surveillance and airstrikes) and more flexibility in modifying tactics.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close