Boko Haram militants in Nigeria’s north-east have been forced onto the defensive, says the country’s military, adding that the Islamist group is “in disarray” and retreating in large numbers as a result of the current offensive.
The insurgents “pose a very serious threat to national unity and territorial integrity”, President Goodluck Jonathan said in a televised address last week, declaring a state of emergency in the three northeastern states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa.
Extra troops were deployed with a mandate to take “all necessary action” to counter a four-year insurgency that has left more 3,000 dead.
“There’s no sovereign country and president worth his salt that will allow the kind of anarchy in the northeast region without acting,” said Abubakar Kari, a political sociology lecturer at the University of Abuja. “People have said that the president does not understand the situation, that he is clueless. He wants to show Nigerians and the international community that he is not.”
A statement by the armed forces said that “special operations which preceded troops’ movement has resulted in the destruction of much of the insurgents’ weapons and logistics such as vehicles, containers, fuel dumps and power generators,” adding that “the casualties inflicted on the insurgents in the cause of the assault will be verified during mop-up.”
But some observers questioned whether the operation would seriously undermine Boko Haram’s insurgency.
“We may win the battle, but we may not win the war,” said Kole Shettima, the chairman of the Abuja-based Center for Democracy and Development.* The military “may succeed in disbanding some of the camps, but eventually, the insurgents being essentially mobile and nomadic in their activities, they will resurface,” he said. “They may even attempt to attack us in different parts of the country.”
Nigeria’s government has “failed to bring those responsible for sectarian violence to justice, prevent and contain acts of such violence, or prevent reprisal attacks,” said a recent report from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
“As a result since 1999, more than 14,000 Nigerians have been killed in sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians,” said the report. “Boko Haram, a militant group that espouses an extreme and violent interpretation of Islam, benefits from this culture of impunity and lawlessness.”
The president’s speech, and its promise of a stepped-up military response, prompted the government’s critics and allies to caution “against further large-scale civilian killings by the army and the police, a pattern that has persisted since the start of the military’s campaign against the Islamist insurgency nearly four years ago,” The New York Times’ Adam Nossiter reports:
The United States gave some $3 million in law enforcement assistance to Nigeria last year, meets regularly with Nigerian officers on counterterrorism issues, and considers Nigeria a significant ally in the fight against Islamist extremism. But reports of civilian massacres by the military have made some officials in Washington uneasy.
On Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States was “deeply concerned about the fighting in northeastern Nigeria following President Jonathan’s declaration of a state of emergency,” and that “we are also deeply concerned by credible allegations that Nigerian security forces are committing gross human rights violations, which, in turn, only escalate the violence and fuel extremism.”
“Striking Boko Haram camps may hurt the insurgency in the short run. But few analysts believe that it is a lasting solution,” notes Abuja-based analyst Xan Rice:
One of Boko Haram’s greatest strengths is its ability to melt into the local population. The militants also slip easily across the nearby borders of Chad, Niger and Cameroon. The blunt approach of Nigeria’s security forces, not known for their human rights record, has helped Boko Haram win new recruits…. Another drawback of the military strategy is that it does not tackle the causes of the insurgency. Boko Haram, or “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad”, as it is known to its members, emerged in Borno state, one of the poorest parts of Nigeria, thanks in large part to appalling governance.
“For people in the northeast, the great fear right now is being caught in the crossfire,” says CDD chairman Shettima. “They are not saying the army should not come, but they want to know ‘what will happen to us?’.”
“For all its mindless violence, Boko Haram has legitimate grievances,” writes the FT’s Rice:
It has long demanded the release of its members’ relatives who are being held by police, including women and children, and other non-combatants. This could be the first step to a ceasefire, or an amnesty programme, as was set up in the Niger Delta a few years ago……It was hoped the government might offer such a carrot in March, when Mr Jonathan for the first time visited Maiduguri, the Borno state capital, considered Boko Haram’s home base. Ahead of the visit, the Sultan of Sokoto, the top Muslim leader in Nigeria, called for an amnesty deal for the militants, as did other northern officials. Instead, Mr Jonathan declared in Maiduguri that there could be no “amnesty for ghosts”.