Boko Haram appears to have ended its five year-long internal feud between the larger ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) faction and the smaller faction composed of originals who were more comfortable operating like al Qaeda or the Afghan Taliban. A recent battle in northeast Nigeria’s Sambisa forest ended with Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, badly wounded and soon dead from his wounds.
The initial split in Boko Haram began in 2015 as ISIL recruiters approached Boko Haram factions offering assistance and accepting those who wanted to pledge allegiance to ISIL. By 2016 the transformation of Boko Haram ISIL fans into ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province) had taken place and many Boko Haram members did not agree with this new development. Those Boko Haram traditionalists comprised nearly half the members and they joined together and announced Boko Haram still existed and condemned the more violent and media savvy tactics of ISIL, which had recently suffered major defeats back in the Middle East. But not in Nigeria. The larger faction continued to call itself ISWAP and the true successor to Boko Haram. The two factions feuded and occasionally clashed until 2018, when continuing military pressure from Nigeria and neighboring countries led to an unofficial truce and until early 2021 the two groups even carried out occasional joint attacks on the army. After one last joint operation in January 2021, the feud reignited, more violent than ever. This led to a second major clash in mid-May that left the Boko Haram leader dead, or at least badly wounded.
ISWAP has long been the cause of most of the violence near Lake Chad, the northern border of Nigeria and Borno state. Many of these new ISIL members had been with Boko Haram since 2004 and were disappointed at the failure of Boko Haram to take and hold territory, something the group had done briefly before a major military offensive by troops from Nigeria and neighboring nations defeated but did not destroy Boko Haram. ISWAP offered new, and seemingly more effective tactics that emphasized fewer attacks on civilians while concentrating on the security forces and local politicians. ISIL made better use of the mass media while establishing a worldwide communications network using the Internet and encrypted messaging apps to keep most messages secret. ISWAP personnel have operated mainly in northeastern Nigeria with smaller numbers in Chad, Niger and northern Cameroon. What remains of the original Boko Haram started out about half the size of ISWAP and steadily shrank until ISWAP had twice as many members. This diminished Boko Haram operated south of ISWAP territory
ISWAP was also known as the Barnawi (or “Albarnawi”) faction of Boko Haram that terrorized, but did not constantly attack, the local civilians as long as the Islamic terrorists could extort (raise taxes) cash and other goods from the local population. In return ISWAP would protect loyal villages from bandits and go after corrupt local officials or army units that had mistreated the villagers. Like Robin Hood but with a religious angle and a better publicist. The smaller Shekau faction of Boko Haram diehards operated further south near the Borno State capital of Maiduguri and the Sambisa Forest. It was in that forest where the two recent clashes took place. ISWAP had apparently been seeking the location of a forest camp that Shekau was using as a headquarters. It is believed ISWAP’s recent cooperation with Boko Haram was part of an effort to obtain details of Boko Haram presence in the forest and that intel effort was eventually noted and triggered the renewed fighting.
Sambisa Forest is a large (60,000 square kilometers), hilly, sparsely populated area where the borders of Borno, Yobe and Adamwa states meet. It has long been a hideout for Boko Haram and outlaws of all sorts. There is no cell phone service in most of the forest and only in a few villages on the edges of the Sambisa. Some Boko Haram bases in the forest have one or two satellite phones of captured army radios, which can at least provide some warning of an army attack if the troops are sloppy about how they use their radios.
Boko Haram is not yet dead. Many Nigerian Moslems see ISWAP as an unwelcome and dangerous foreign invader. ISIL is not only more violent than other Islamic terror groups, they also tend to limit their growth by fighting everyone, including other Islamic terror groups. ISIL considers itself the only authentic Islamic terror group and always turns on non-ISIL groups it encounters. No matter how terrifying you are, if you are at war with everyone you always end up a small faction of fanatics, hated by all Moslems, and non-Moslems.
While ISIL activities make for exciting news, there are less-spectacular problems in Nigeria that are doing more damage and lasting longer. In the southeast Igbo separatism continues to gain strength. In central and southern Nigeria, the fighting between aggressive and heavily armed Fulani herders against Moslem and non-Moslem farmers. This has been a growing problem since the 1990s and now there are serious proposals to enact laws prohibiting “open grazing” in any grasslands not explicitly allocated for that. The Fulani promise armed resistance to such a law, but that would be nothing new as the Fulani and farmer militias have been clashing more often. There are more farmers than herders and the Fulani reputation as warriors cannot overcome that, especially if the police and army are obliged to automatically enforce any law making “open grazing” a crime. Fulani call it a “shoot on sight” law but the Fulani have been doing that to farmers for generations and for the last seven years deaths from these grazing feuds have been higher than those caused by Islamic terrorist violence.
The south also contains the oil and natural gas wealth, most of it in the Niger River Delta. That is where criminal gangs continue tapping into oil pipelines to steal and refine oil in remote improvised refineries. This has become big business, with support from some local politicians. Navy and police crackdowns are often weakened by large bribes offered to navy and police commanders to avoid certain groups while concentrating on gangs that did not supply the bribe money or have the support of the right politician.
This organized crime culture also supports the growing piracy offshore, near Nigeria’s largest port. The pirates raid large cargo and tanker ships anchored offshore waiting their turn to load or unload cargo. The pirates carry off portable valuables and kidnap some of the ship's officers, who are often from countries that will tolerate a large ransom being paid.
May 23, 2021: In the north (Zamfara state) and southeast (Ebonyi state) police stations were attacked by gunmen, leaving four policemen and one attacker dead. These attacks are an increasingly common occurrence.
May 21, 2021: In the northeast (Borno state) the army detected and attacked a remote village near Lake Chad where several hundred Boko Haram gunmen were assembling for a surprise attack on Maiduguri, the state capital. The army received a tip from locals about the location and aerial reconnaissance confirmed it. A quickly organized ground and air attack surprised the Boko Haram force. After more than a day of fighting and pursuit the Islamic terrorists suffered over a hundred casualties, including about 40 dead. A lot of the assembled fighters were teenagers, recently convinced or coerced to join. These fighters can be deadly against civilians but not much use when attacked by troops and aircraft.
Local civilians with cellphones and a grudge against the Islamic terrorists has long been a growing trend. In the 21st century cell phone service became widely available in remote areas of Africa and Asia that never had affordable landline phone service for everyone. Cell Phones changed that and Islamic terrorists consider it a major problem, as well as an occasional asset because they use the cell phones as well. Attacks on cell phone towers and threats against cell phone providers has had a limited impact and makes the Islamic terrorists even more unpopular with the locals. In the last decade the Nigerian military, especially the 7th Division assigned to Borno, has improved its tactics, training and use of aerial surveillance to take advantage of the cell phone warnings from locals. In response Boko Haram has relied on more small attacks, using local Boko Haram groups that can quickly muster a dozen or more gunmen mounted on pickup trucks and motorcycles to carry out unexpected raids, mainly for looting. This is how many such Boko Haram groups obtain supplies and new vehicles. While the 7th Division troops only serve in Borno for a year or so, the division has created an institutional memory of what tactics and training work best. New officers and soldiers assigned to the 7th learn how it is done in Borno, if only because that improves their chances of surviving their time on the dreaded northern front.
Elsewhere in the northeast (Kaduna state) the commander of the army, COS (Chief of Staff) Ibrahim Attahiru died in a plane crash. He was travelling in an air force twin-propjet passenger aircraft along with nine other passengers and crew. Attahiru had been COS for only five months and had already made changes that put more pressure on Boko Haram and ISWAP. President Buhari had removed Attahiru from the COS job in 2017 but, as a former general himself, saw potential in Attahiru and persuaded him to serve in other senior commands. By 2020 Buhari saw a more experienced Attahiru as suitable for the COS job.
May 20, 2021: A national police warning was leaked to the press. The single page alert warned police commanders in the capital and elsewhere in central Nigeria that ISWAP was planning more attacks, like that one that hit the Boko Haram leaders in the Sambisa Forest recently, are planned for towns and cities in, including the capital Abuja, which is in central Nigeria. While the military has made progress in overcoming its history of corruption and incompetence
The 360,000 national police are in worse shape than the 310,000 military personnel. For over a year there have been nationwide protests against police corruption and misconduct. The immediate cause of this round of protests was the revelations about illegal, and often fatal for victims, SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad) behavior. The government promised to deal with this problem but many protesters are unconvinced. Police misbehavior has been around for decades and survived multiple efforts to reform it. The government has to come up with something new to calm things down, especially since many of the protests have also pushed for a reduction in corruption and an increase in government competence. These issues are what got Boko Haram going in the north. At first Boko Haram was non-violent, but that changed when the security forces began killing large numbers of Boko Haram leaders and members.
The senior leaders of the National Police now have a major problem on their hands. In many parts of the country where there is armed resistance from organized groups of locals, the police are demoralized and afraid to start a fight they would probably lose. The national police intelligence collection and analysis still works, but the police ability to muster enough capable police to deal with a major problem has diminished. Nigeria never had enough police to provide an acceptable level of public safety. The national police were seen as corrupt tools of corrupt politicians and gangsters.
In France, president Buhari and other African leaders facing increased Islamic terrorist violence, met in Paris. Buhari gave media interviews and pointed out that Boko Haram and ISIL have taken advantage of the covid19 pandemic, which has reduced counterterrorism efforts worldwide, to expand their operations. He thanked France for maintaining a major counterterrorism force in the region and remaining active during 2020. The African leaders were there to discuss foreign aid for African countries that suffered from the worldwide covid19 economic recession as well as the increased terrorist activity.
May 19, 2021: In the northeast (Borno state) an escalating feud between Boko Haram and ISWAP led to the second and larger battle between them. The fighting went on for several days as hundreds of ISWAP fighters attacked the Sambisa Forest base of Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau. The target was clearly Shekau and the attacker deliberately surrounded the camp, not just capturing it and tolerating the surviving defenders getting away. The battle went on for days and eventually Shekau was cornered and rather than surrender he detonated the explosive vest he was wearing. That did not kill him, but he was so badly wounded he soon died. Shekau had been active in Boko Haram from the beginning, in the 1990s, and has been leader since 2009. The army claimed to have killed Shekau several times and the “dead” Boko Haram leader soon put a video on the Internet mocking the military and saying they would never kill him. He was right.
May 14, 2021: In the northeast (Yobe state) increased Boko Haram raids on rural communities have caused over 40,000 civilians to flee their homes. The military and police presence in neighboring Borno state has forced Boko Haram to shift their operations to Yobe state. Boko Haram is largely a Borno organization and when they operate in Yobe they are seen as foreign invaders and eventually encounter more resistance and have to return to Borno or an adjacent country. Boko Haram is mobile while local police and military units are not.
May 11, 2021: In the northeast (Borno state) the national police in Maiduguri, the state capital, were alerted that about a small (under twenty) Boko Haram gunmen sneaked into a suburban area to attack local Moslems assembled for the after dark meal. During the month of Ramadan most Moslems do not eat or drink during daylight, only before dawn or after dark when the main meal of the day is consumed, often at large gatherings. The Boko Haram raiders planned to attack one of these gatherings but the police were alerted in time to send one of their rapid response teams, which arrived in a wheeled armored. Boko Haram was expecting this and fled but eight of them were killed and others wounded or captured. Boko Haram attempts these risky operations in order to terrorize the population and demoralize the security forces. These raids are carefully planned because just getting into the city means planning a route that avoids the many checkpoints. One risk planning cannot minimize is the random civilians with a cell phone who is often unseen by the raiders. A decade ago Boko Haram had a lot more popular support because the Islamic terrorists said they were fighting against corruption and bad government in general. Boko Haram soon came to be viewed as a cure that was worse than the disease.
April 28, 2021: In the southeast it was revealed that leaders of the separatist IPOB (Indigenous People of Biafra) group and a similar Ambazonia separatist organization across the border in Cameroon met and agreed to cooperate and support each other in their shared goals of more autonomy for Igbo in Nigeria and English-speaking people in Cameroon, where most people use French as a common national language.
The close links between Igbo separatists and nearby like-minded Anglophone (English speaking) Cameroonian separatists has grown over the last few years as both separatist movements grew in size despite efforts of local political and military forces to shut down these increasingly violent movements.
The Nigerian Igbo want a separate Igbo state of Biafra, while the Cameroonians want a separate state of Ambazonia, consisting of terrain in southwest Cameroon dominated by the English-speaking minority of largely Francophone (French speaking) Cameroon. Unlike Biafra, which has never existed legally, Ambazonia was separate from French speaking Cameroon as one of the two former German colonies that France and Britain administered from 1919 (the end of World War I) until 1961 when it was agreed by Britain, France and the UN that the two Cameroons could either merge as one Cameroon or the smaller (and less economically developed) Ambazonia could choose to join either Nigeria or Cameroon as one of the federal states each nation was using for their new governments. Most Ambazonia would have prepared to be an independent state. Ambazonia was considered too small (42,000 square kilometers), poor and sparsely populated (under a million people) for independence. French Cameroon offered more autonomy and economic assistance and that persuaded most to vote for joining Cameroon. The language difference was not believed to be a problem because the English speakers tend to treat the language as a tool, not something more. The Ambazonians soon discovered that adopting French language meant a more hostile attitude towards other languages, especially English. By 1972 the French speaking majority removed most of Ambazonia’s autonomy and were vigorously trying to get the Ambazonians to adopt French. That caused more resentment and by the 1980s the two million Ambazonians were getting more enthusiastic about regaining their autonomy, or even independence. Now there are nearly four million Ambazonians and they have a substantial separatist movement going.
The Igbo people in southern Niger had a different problem and wanted to solve it by doing what has long been forbidden, openly partitioning Nigeria. In southeast Nigeria Imo, Enugu and Anambra states are meant to be the core of the independent Igbo Biafra. Pro-Biafra groups began to appear again in the late 1990s, trying to revive the separatist movement. Since then, over a thousand separatists have been killed, and many more imprisoned, while the government continues to insist that Biafra is gone forever. But as details of the extent of government corruption during the last few decades came out, Biafra again seemed like something worth fighting for. Senior government officials, including president Buhari, are paying attention and seeking to work out a compromise with the Igbos. The Fulani are less amenable to any compromise, especially since the Fulani are Moslem and consider themselves defenders of Islam against non-believers like the Christian Igbo.
In response IPOB has formed an armed security component, the ESN (Eastern Security Network), to defend Igbos in Imo State from Fulani and government violence. The government has responded by sending a battalion of infantry to an area thought to be a base for ESN members. This was unpopular with the locals as Nigerian soldiers are notorious for their violent behavior. These troops had been ordered to behave but that proved difficult for them to do so in the face of Igbo contempt and hostility. The troops were withdrawn so the government could deal with growing violence in central and northeast Nigeria.
Since 2016 separatists have been organizing armed militias and threatening to expel Moslems recently arrived from the north, by force if necessary. This is another escalation in Igbo efforts to gain autonomy, if not a separate state. This movement has been around for over half a century and is commemorated every May 30th by a growing number of Igbos who have not forgotten the 1967 war for Igbo independence. This is all about reminding the Nigerian government that the Igbo are still a force to reckon with. Biafra Day is increasingly visible, especially in urban areas and major cities in the region like Port Harcourt. IPOB is the main organizer of public, and sometimes violent, demonstrations in support of Biafra.
The Biafra separatist rebellion in the south has not only returned but is resisting suppression. During 2017 there were thousands of arrests related to the Biafra demonstrations and other pro-independence activities. That simply made Igbos angrier. In 2018 police were ordered to deal with the protests and unrest carefully and avoid bloodshed. Someone in government apparently remembers that the original 1967 rebellion began because in 1966 over 40,000 Igbo in the north were murdered by Fulani groups after a much smaller number of Moslems were killed. The subsequent Biafra rebellion did not end until 1970 and left more than a million Igbo dead. Yet the Igbo remain a major force in Nigeria, comprising nearly a fifth of the population and dominating even more of the economy. This is particularly resented in the Moslem north, where the Igbo returned in greater numbers after 1970 and are now a key part of the northern economy and, as Christians, a favorite target of Boko Haram.
In the last five years hundreds of Igbo have been killed during police attacks on demonstrators and anyone suspected of separatist activity. That has backfired in a big way and now most of the local police are afraid to confront Igbo demonstrators with force. The police fear retaliation from armed Igbo groups.
The separatist violence next door in Cameroon has also escalated in the last five years, with over 30,000 English speaking Cameroonians fleeing to Nigeria and most are still there. The Cameroonian government wants Nigeria to send these refugees back and reopening the border crossing makes it easier for refugees to come and confirm that it is safe to return. Conditions in Anglophone areas of Cameroon deteriorated because of the increasing violence. In addition to over 30,000 refugees in Nigeria there are another 80,000 English speaking Cameroonians made homeless (at least temporarily) by the violence and are still in Cameroon. The Nigerian government owes Cameroon a lot because of Cameroonian aid in dealing with the Boko Haram crisis. Nigeria is willing to do whatever Cameroon wants to help deal with the separatist crisis. That includes expelling some Cameroonians who have fled to Nigeria. That did not happen and now both Nigeria and Cameroon see their separatist movements growing and threatening to evolve into a major crisis like the 1967 Biafra war.