Nigeria: Battered Boko Haram Survives

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December 16, 2016: The military believes the years of Boko Haram violence in the Borno State are largely over, with the last organized Boko Haram groups hiding out in the Sambisa forest or seeking to set up smaller operations else where in Nigeria or neighboring countries. In the last week the army seized what is believed to be the last Boko Haram base in the Sambisa. In doing that the soldiers rescued over 600 people (mostly children) being held by Boko Haram. Some civilians are still held by Boko Haram and some, especially children, are persuaded, or deceived, into being suicide bombers.

A major factor in the successful clearing effort in the Sambisa has been a revitalized air force which now has 16 operational ground attack jets (the two seat Alpha jet armed for ground attack) and about twenty armed helicopters (most of them Russian Mi-35s). In addition the Americans have been providing regular UAV surveillance missions flown from Niger. This aspect of the Boko Haram defeat is often missed in the media but the average soldier, policeman or civilian volunteer on the ground sees improved (from virtually non-existent a few years ago) air support as crucial.

Yet the military is still at a disadvantage in the Sambisa because since 2015 a lot of key Boko Haram personnel have been hiding out in Sambisa forest and getting to know it well. This is a large (60,000 square kilometers), hilly, sparsely populated area that straddles the borders of Borno, Yobe and Adamwa states, The forest has long been a hideout outlaws of all sorts. Boko Haram used it as a base area for training camps and a safe place for the wives and children of Boko Haram men. One problem with living in the Sambisa is that there is not a lot of food or any of the other supplies (fuel, batteries, ammunition) Boko Haram needs to survive. Since mid-2016 the army has been encountering a growing number of emaciated Boko Haram men who deserted mainly to find food. The Sambisa is basically surrounded and the remaining Boko Haram groups in there cannot easily get out to raid nearby towns and villages for supplies. The Boko Haram still in the Sambisa are skilled survivors who got that way by learning to avoid army patrols and aerial reconnaissance. Large groups cannot get in and out of the Sambisa but small raiding parties (seeking loot or to carry out a suicide bombing) can do so.

Perhaps a greater danger to Boko Haram outside the Sambisa is the growing number of pro-government militias in the northeast. Officially called the Civilian JTF (Joint Task Force or CJTF), these volunteers receive little material support from the government at first but by the end of 2013 the army had begun to use the volunteers to replace troops at checkpoints. This was so successful that the army tolerated the CJTF men obtaining firearms and by the end of 2014 some CJTF groups were launching attacks on Boko Haram, and usually winning (because they knew the area and people better and often were able to launch a surprise attack at night). CJTF men obtained weapons via the black market or captured from Boko Haram. It was not illegal for CJTF members to have firearms, but legal firearms are expensive and have to be registered. Rural people tend to ignore the rules and frequently use crude locally made one shot weapons for hunting or home defense. The army doesn’t care how the CJTF got weapons or that they have them. In some cases soldiers will unofficially help the CJTF get firearms, often from stuff captured from Boko Haram. This is sometimes done in defiance of their officers, who tend to regard such weapons as their own personal loot and will often take these weapons and sell them on the black market. While most civilians fear the army, they have more trust in and respect for the CJTF, who are usually local men they know. Boko Haram has far fewer admirers in the northeast as even Islamic conservatives up there see Boko Haram as heretical extremists who attack mosques and often kill worshippers. This is considered extremely offensive to most Moslems. The CJTF living on the fringes of the Sambisa are now the most dangerous armed civilians Boko Haram has to deal with because CJTF men run more patrols in these fringe areas and the army responds quickly when these CJTF men call in a contact.

There is a lot less to loot near the fringes of the Sambisa and rural Borno in general. Many refugees fled to the state capital, Maiduguri, which was largely free of Boko Haram activity after 2015. What economic activity that remained in Borno became concentrated in Maiduguri but that leaves several million people outside the city hungry and unemployed.

An example of how this works can be seen some 70 kilometers southeast of Maiduguri, on the Cameroon border. Here Bama, the second largest city in Borno, lies in ruins. Over 80 percent of its structures have been destroyed or burned out. Nearly all the original population (270,000) has fled since Boko Haram first seized it in September 2014. During seven months of Boko Haram occupation the economy of Bama was ruined. Bama changed several hands times as the army kept trying to take it and keep Boko Haram out. That was finally accomplished in early 2016 and all the fighting literally destroyed the city. Bama, once a regional trade center, has yet to revive and that is one reason why the Borno economy has not yet recovered.

Since 2009 nearly three million people (90 percent of them Nigerian) were driven from their homes by Boko Haram and at least a third of those are still living, and often starving, in government run refugee camps or areas where there is no food because of the Boko Haram or bandit risk to road traffic. Most of those displaced fled before 2015. Six years of Boko Haram violence depopulated over 30,000 square kilometers in northern Borno State. The depopulation led to the collapse of the local economy. Foreign aid organizations are reporting growing chaos in the depopulated area, where many of the refugees are trying to return and rebuild their lives. That chaos is because of a lot more outlaws up there. Most are not Boko Haram but the security forces don’t find that out until a gun battle is over. What makes this worse is that the Nigerian security forces still tend to shoot first and investigate later, if at all. For this reason people prefer to live away from the main roads, where bandits and Islamic terrorists will lie in wait for aid convoys or anyone worth robbing. Troops driving by will shoot at anything that might be an ambush. In most of the depopulated areas aid groups demand armed escorts for aid convoys. But the more troops to assign to convoy escort the less are available for going after and eliminating the remaining Boko Haram and the growing number of bandits. Meanwhile over 100,000 refugees in Borno are in danger of starving to death. In 2016 the several thousand deaths from disease and malnutrition were far more common than the 300 or so caused by Boko Haram attacks. Since 2009 Boko Haram has killed over 10,000 civilians by direct action (raids, executions, used as suicide bombers or human shields) but that number might be exceeded by the economic aftereffects among the refugees and those still living in economically devastated areas of Borno.

Boko Haram losses have been so great that for the last few months most of the captured or dead (and identifiable) Boko Haram men have been foreigners, mostly from adjacent nations. Many of these foreigners that joined Boko Haram fled to Nigeria because other nations have been more inhospitable for Islamic terrorists than Nigeria. Outside of the Moslem majority north Boko Haram has been much less successful. Given the murderous Boko Haram attitude towards non-Moslems (especially Christians, who comprise about half the population) it is not surprising that in the Christian majority south (where the Moslem minority is much more likely to report Boko Haram presence) Islamic terrorists

The Real Threat

The economy, not Boko Haram, is what most Nigerians are concerned about right now. The continued violence in the Niger River Delta reduced oil production which, in addition to record low oil prices triggered a nationwide economic recession earlier in 2016. The government is desperately trying to avoid recession related unemployment and inflation that could trigger widespread unrest. To this end the government arranged billions of dollars in loans from foreign sources (mainly the World Bank, China and Japan) to spur economic activity. This will only succeed if the government can control the corruption (that usually cripples such investment efforts) and actually generate an increase in oil revenue. The federal government normally gets 70 percent of its budget from oil income. Oil is normally responsible for 40 percent of all economic activity in Nigeria and 90 percent of foreign exchange (to pay for imports). But now the government has less oil money available and is trying to replace that by going after and halting the massive corruption that had diverted so much oil income in the past. Some progress has been made there and the government also managed to reduce government spending seen as non-essential.

Security outside of the northeast has become a priority. This was especially true in the oil region (the Niger River Delta). The security forces have managed to suppress the growing piracy activity off the coast and along the numerous delta waterways. There are over a dozen major violent groups, most of them based on one (of many) clans of the Ijaw tribe (which predominates in the oil producing areas.) These “rebels” engage in many criminal activities (stealing oil from pipeline being the most lucrative one), and attack oil facilities. These gangs have been suppressed, for the moment, to enable production to recover. It is now about 1.8 million barrels per day (BPD) after falling to a low of 1.4 million BPD earlier in the year. Without all this violence it would be over 2.2 million BPD and the government says that level must be reached in 2017 if the economy is to recover. This makes it clear to all Nigerians what the key ingredients in the recession cure consist of. The new reform minded politicians (like the president who took office a year ago) are making some long delayed changes. For example, since independence in the 1960s many African countries supported everything but agriculture in the belief that industrialization was the key to economic success. This ignored the lessons of history that showed agriculture was the basis for economic success. That message has finally been received in Nigeria and the government is at least promising to make it easier for farmers to prosper and do what successful farmers always do (make further economic growth possible).

December 11, 2016: In the northeast (Borno State) a Boko Haram suicide bomb attack in a Maiduguri market, killed one person and wounding 17. There were two bombers, reported to be young girls (under 10 years old). Boko Haram sometimes uses kids this young to wear bomb vests that can be detonated remotely. These bombers often do not know they are wearing explosives.

December 10, 2016: In the northeast (Borno State) a Boko Haram ambush on a road outside Maiduguri backfired when the roadside bomb did little damage and troops with the convoy (transporting senior government officials) promptly returned fire and called for reinforcements. The Boko Haram men seen fled but were pursued and in the next 24 hours or so at least 30 of them were killed, many by airstrikes.

December 9, 2016: In the northeast (Adamawa state) a Boko Haram suicide bomb attack in a Madagali market left 30 dead. The bombers appear to have been one or more teenage girls. Madagali is a market town near the Sambisa forest. In 2014 and 2015 it was the scene or several battles between Boko Haram and the army.

November 29, 2016: In Libya the government head of intelligence pointed out that most of the dead ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) men in identified recently came from Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan and Nigeria (in that order) and most surviving ISIL men seem to be trying to return home.

November 23, 2016: In the northeast (Borno State) two soldiers died and four were wounded when their vehicle hit a mine while rushing to reinforce CJTF men defending a rural village from Boko Haram raiders. The attack was partially successful as the raiders got away with some food and other goods before reinforcement eventually did arrive.

November 22, 2016: The government began distributing a poster containing the photos and names of the 55 most wanted Boko Haram men. The poster provided details on what made these guys notorious but in some parts of the northeast a lot of people (usually potential victims) already know these fellows all-too-well.

November 21, 2016: In the northeast (Borno State), just across the border in Chad several boatloads of Boko Haram attacked a military base on a small island in Lake Chad. Six Cameroon soldiers (with the Mixed Multinational Force) were killed. Further south, in northern Cameroon there were several unsuccessful Boko Haram attacks, using suicide bombers trying to reach checkpoints. So far about 1,500 people have died from Boko Haram violence in Cameroon. Most of the dead were Boko Haram men or Nigerian refugees from Boko Haram violence.

November 18, 2016: In the northeast (Borno State) during the last few days there have been at least seven Boko Haram suicide bomb attacks on road checkpoints, especially those manned by CJTF armed civilians. There have been about a dozen casualties and most of the attackers (often poorly trained teenaged boys and girls) were stopped (by gunfire or fear) before they could reach the checkpoint. After this spate of attacks Boko Haram appears to have reverted to staying off the roads as they sought to get suicide bombers into towns, cities and large refugee camps.

 


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