In the northeast (Borno State) near Lake Chad the army launched a major operation in mid-May to find and eliminate Boko Haram forces near Lake Chad, an area where the Islamic terrorists are still very active. In the first few days of this operation, several Boko Haram bases were found and fifteen Islamic terrorists were killed. Boko Haram prefers to flee these search operations, even if it means abandoning equipment and stocks of ammo and other supplies. There are believed to be about a thousand armed Boko Haram in the area being swept and the objective is to find and seize as much of these stockpiles as possible and keep Boko Haram forces on the run. These means that many of the Islamic terrorists will go hungry and will have to operate like bandits, stealing what they can to survive. This makes locals more willing to provide information to the troops and so it goes. This sweep operation will continue into June and probably into September. So far Boko Haram men who have been captured or surrendered indicate that these sweeps are a major problem for the Islamic terrorists. The problem is that Boko Haram is still there after several major operations to destroy them. Boko Haram has been much reduced but they survive, in part because the destruction of the economy in much of Borno (a decade of Islamic terrorist violence does that) and created a lot more unemployed young men who are willing to join an Islamic terror group that has some resources and enables members to “do something.” Many of these new recruits soon grow disillusioned and surrender or desert. This the army knows from interrogations of captured Boko Haram men and exploiting that weakness has become a key part of the counter-terrorism strategy.
Boko Haram persists in the northeast in part because one of the two rival factions has adopted more effective tactics. The Barnawi faction is recognized by ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and follows the current ISIL doctrine of concentrating attacks on security forces and government officials (preferably the corrupt ones). That makes it easier to extort (raise taxes) cash and other goods from the local population. The Barnawi faction has about 3,000 active gunmen and operates mainly in the far north of Borno state near Lake Chad. The smaller Shekau faction has about half as many armed men and operates further south near the Borno State capital of Maiduguri and the Sambisa Forest.
Money matters and one reason the Barnawi faction has been more successful is their emphasis on raising cash, especially via large ransoms for hostages, especially foreign hostages. There was never a specific demand made in public but the government paid for high value captives, like the May 2017 agreement that got 82 of the Chibok captives (from 2014) released in exchange for the freedom of eight Boko Haram leaders being held and awaiting prosecution for mass murder, terrorism and so on. Many Nigerians believed these men should have at least stood trial before being traded for hostages. As expected some of the freed Boko Haram leaders promptly went back to Islamic terrorism. At the same time, Boko Haram had very visibly divided into factions. Back in March 2017, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau released a video to boast that he was still alive and operating in the northeast. At that point, security forces had claimed Shekau was dead at least five times since 2011 but so far had always been wrong. In late 2016 there was hope that a recent split in Boko Haram might lead to Shekau getting killed by other Islamic terrorists but that hasn’t happened either and the two main factions appear to have achieved some kind of truce with each other and continue to operate.
The Boko Haram split began in August 2016 when ISIL announced that it was replacing Shekau, who was accused of mismanagement, with Abu Musab al Barnawi. ISIL believed Shekau devoted too much effort to killing fellow Moslems (especially civilians) rather than the real enemies of ISIL (local security forces and non-Moslems in general). ISIL leadership was also unhappy with the Boko Haram use of children and women as suicide bombers. That has become an issue in Nigeria because the use of children as suicide bombers has tripled during 2017. While the new Boko Haram leader has concentrated attacks on the security forces and non-Moslems he has also used children, especially females, as suicide bombers. Barnawi is a son of Mohammed Yusuf, one of the ISIL founders. Barnawi was appointed the main Boko Haram spokesman in January 2015. Although Barnawi has developed a following in Boko Haram Shekau refused to accept the ISIL decision.
The national government has been carrying on unofficial talks with the Barnawi faction of Boko Haram. This faction is also known as ISWA (the Islamic State of West Africa province) and has access to resources Islamic terror groups use to get large ransoms for hostages, especially foreign hostages. These hostage negotiations apparently evolved into discussions about a peace deal.
The three northeastern states where most of the mayhem occurs have a population of 13 million (Borno; 5.5, Yobe; 3.1 and Adamawa; 4.3). That’s about seven percent of the national population. There is some Boko Haram activity in other northern areas making Boko Haram a problem for about 14 million Nigerians. There are nearly as many people in neighboring countries who are still terrorized (although to a lesser extent) by Boko Haram. The security forces in these neighboring countries have proved more effective at dealing with Boko Haram, which remains mainly a Nigerian organization.
In May the government released data on the damage nine years of Boko Haram violence had done to the educational system in the northeast (Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states). Borno was the hardest hit but all these states suffered from attacks on schools and teachers. More than 2,300 teachers staffing some 3,000 schools in the area were killed and nearly 20,000 teachers fled their schools and often left the northeast. Over 1,500 schools were destroyed and over a thousand students were kidnapped. Over half the school-age children in the area still, have no access to education. There is little indication that schools will be repaired or rebuilt very quickly either. There are still over two million people living in refugee camps and the conditions there are getting worse. There are a growing number of angry demonstrations by these refugees. At the same time, over five million people who returned (or never left) to Borno are going hungry and starvation deaths are an increasing possibility. There is already more disease, especially in the refugee camps where some are suffering from an outbreak of cholera. The worst part of all this is that many farmers in the devastated area are facing the prospect of a fifth year without crops because the seed and other supplies are still not available.
Trenches Are Trending
One of the simple techniques developed to diminish Boko Haram activity was to dig trenches. Cameroon, faced with constant raids by Boko Haram groups who spend most of their time just across the border in Nigeria, experimented with a border trench. In late 2016 a 20 kilometer long trench was dug along a portion of the border frequently used by Boko Haram raiders. The trench, dug using mechanical excavators, is four meters (13 feet wide) and three meters (9.5 feet) deep. The purpose of the trench is to slow down Boko Haram as well as persuade them to use another route. The trench is regularly patrolled by troops and aircraft (including UAVs). The trench seemed to work as intended and by late 2017 it was 120 kilometers long. Work is underway to expand the trench to over 200 kilometers.
Cameroon is not the only one who found a trench useful. During 2017 the University of Maiduguri in the capital of Borno state spent about $150,000 to build a 27 kilometers long trench on the east side of the campus to make it more difficult for Boko Haram to enter the campus from that direction. The trench stops a vehicle and slows down anyone sneaking in on foot. The trench worked and is now maintained for as long as the Boko Haram threat remains.
The economy continues to improve with GDP growth accelerating, inflation declining, foreign currency reserves doubling and more progress on recovering some of the billions looted by politicians over the decades. More of the economic growth is coming from agriculture and manufacturing, two long neglected sectors of the economy. But the economy is still crippled by massive corruption.
One of the major obstacles to reducing corruption is the fact many of the courts are corrupt and that enables corruption cases to be dropped without justification or delayed for years, often more than a decade. There are, overall, fewer problems when going after looted cash deposited in Western banks. The thieves can hire local lawyers to try and protect their loot but the Western courts are relatively uncorrupt compared to those in Nigeria.
May 30, 2018: In the southeast (Enugu and Anambra states) Igbo separatists carried out a “stay-at-home” protest to commemorate “Biafra Day” and the 1967 war for Igbo independence. This was all about reminding the Nigerian government that the Igbo were still a force to be reckoned with. Biafra Day featured many roads, normally crammed with traffic, suddenly empty. This was particularly impressive in urban areas and major cities in the region (like Port Harcourt). IPOB (Indigenous People of Biafra) was the main organizer of the “stay-at-home” action.
The Biafra (Igbo) separatist rebellion in the south is back and is resisting suppression. During 2017 there were several hundred arrests related to the Biafra demonstrations and other pro-independence activity. That simply made Igbos angrier. For 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 Hausa Fulani groups after a much smaller number of Moslems were killed. The subsequent Biafra rebellion did not end until 1970 and it 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 since 1970 and are now a key part of the northern economy and, as Christians, a favorite target of Boko Haram.
Partly in response to the Boko Haram violence, the Igbo separatist movement was revived in 2015 and at first, the government ordered police to crack down. By 2016 nearly 200 Igbo had been killed by police attacks on demonstrators and anyone suspected of separatist activity. The violent response was obviously making it worse and by 2018 a gentler approach is being sought.
The pro-Biafra separatists have been around and increasingly active since the 1990s. Back in the 1960s, the Igbo (or Ibo) people of southeastern Nigeria considered establishing a separate Igbo state (Biafra). A brutal war followed before the separatist movement was crushed and the Igbo were warned not to try it again. Separatist attitudes were silenced but not extinguished. 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 insists 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. One of the first things president Buhari addressed when he returned from sick leave in mid-August was the Igbo separatist threat and the hostility that has triggered in the north.
May 27, 2018: In the northeast (Borno State) a Boko Haram suicide bomber killed four people and wounded seven during an attack on a village 25 kilometers southeast of Maiduguri, the state capital. This attack was unusual because the bomber was an elderly man. The army and police intelligence are trying to discover if this was a single event or part of an effort to use elderly men as suicide bombers because that has rarely happened before and such men have an easier time getting past security.
May 22, 2018: In central Nigeria (Benue State) armed Fulani herders ambushed and killed three people returning home from a mass funeral for 19 Christians recently killed by Fulani gunmen. Violence caused by Fulani herders attacking farmers in northern and central Nigeria has left nearly 500 dead so far this year. The government is under growing pressure from the Christian half of the population to be more forceful in dealing with Fulani violence. To further complicate matters the current president (Muhammadu Buhari) is a Moslem, a retired general and a Fulani who cracked down hard on Boko Haram and corruption but has been more reluctant to take on the Fulani. That is changing, if only because Buhari is running for a second term and won’t make it without support from Christian voters. The voting will take place in February 2019. As expected some northern politicians warn against the use of the army to curb Fulani violence as that is widely accepted, in the north, as another example of “Christian persecution.” The army has to move in, at least to seize the many illegal weapons (many of them assault rifles) the Fulani have obtained since the 1990s and now use frequently during their attacks on Christians. Given the election hysteria, much is being made about the seeming inability of the security forces to stop the violence or even catch up with the Fulani gunmen. There are growing calls for Christians to form armed militias and defend themselves. There has always been some of that but there are simply too many potential targets in central Nigeria and the Fulani raiders are careful about where they attack. If there is an armed militia, the Fulani will move on to a more vulnerable target.
May 17, 2018: In the northeast (Borno State) a joint force of Nigerian and Cameroonian troops raided a village near the Cameroon border that was being used as a base by Boko Haram. Two Boko Haram died and 11 were captured after a gun battle. Vehicles, weapons, ammo and a generator were captured along with propaganda material. This raid was part of a larger operation to clear Boko Haram from the border and in doing that several roadside bombs were found and disabled.
May 15, 2018: In the northeast (Borno State) a Boko Haram suicide bomber killed five CJTF (Civilian Joint Task Force) militiamen at a checkpoint outside the state capital Maiduguri.
May 12, 2018: The United States has donated two Cessna Caravan 208B to neighboring Cameroon for use in the fight against Boko Haram. The two aircraft are equipped for aerial reconnaissance and have high-resolution digital cameras that can use its zoom capability to spot ground activity ten kilometers away. The U.S. also paid to have the Cameroonian pilots and maintainers trained. The U.S. will also pay for technical support and any spare parts needed for the next two years. The 208B comes with a track record of effectiveness in situations like this. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. successfully adapted civilian aircraft like the 208B reconnaissance or armed with laser guided missiles, for air support. This arrangement was cheap and easy to use, which suited allies like the Afghans and Arabs (not just the Iraqis). Now African nations are being offered these aircraft. The 208B is a large, single engine, aircraft that is mainly used to carry up to 14 passengers or 1.3 tons of cargo. The four ton 208B has a cruising speed of 317 kilometers an hour and can stay in the air for about six hours per sortie. The 208 has been in service since the mid-1980s and over 2,000 have been built. New ones cost about $2 million each but there are lots of much cheaper used 208Bs out there. It was found that equipping 208Bs with laser targeting equipment and two Hellfires was very effective at providing ground support.
May 7, 2018: In the northeast, the army said it had recently rescued a thousand civilians, most of them women and children, held captive by Boko Haram in four rural villages. There were later reports that some of the rescued women were raped by soldiers.
May 1, 2018: In the northeast (Adamawa State) two suicide bombers attacked a mosque leaving over 50 dead and many more wounded.