Lieutenant general Tukur Buratai, the Chief of Army Staff, is being criticized for describing failures in the fight against Boko Haram as stemming from a lack of commitment among the troops. That’s not actually what Buratai said but the media promptly interpreted that as Buratai accusing his own troops of all sorts of bad things. Buratai objected to that interpretation and pointed out that the comment was made to a group of officers at a training course. Army officers are undergoing additional training to improve their leadership skills and discourage the current pervasive culture of corruption and disregard for the well-being of the troops. President Buhari admitted earlier in 2019 that the troops fighting Boko Haram were suffering from poor morale. This is the result of stress from the continued threat of Islamic terrorist attacks as well as the increasing number of effective Boko Haram attacks that feature surprise and larger numbers of heavily armed attackers. When these attacks are launched on towns the troops will often flee along with the civilians. President Buhari has not replaced the most senior leaders of the military, but these senior generals presided over the replacement of five commanders of operations in the northeast over the last two years.
The turnover in commanders is largely because the Boko Haram ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) faction known as ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province) has stuck with its strategy of concentrating on the security forces and doing so by assembling a large enough number of gunmen to ensure, most of the time, a quick victory. The dramatic impact of these new tactics could be seen in 2018 when the frequency of attacks on troops went from one a month to one, or more, a week or even a day. There are now regular ISWAP attacks on military bases and in the last year, these have led to several thousand troops killed, wounded, missing or deserting. Morale got a lot worse. The army didn’t help by trying to play down the combat losses because the families of the missing soldiers were not quiet, nor were the civilians who fled the region after these attack. Army efforts to hide the truth only made the impact on morale worse. The ISWAP attacks continued into 2019, fueled by a reputation for success and large quantities of captured weapons, vehicles, equipment and supplies. This provided the air force with more targets to bomb but those air strikes did not halt the growth of ISWAP.
Buhari and his army chief Buratai know that the real problem can be summed up by that ancient bit of military wisdom; “there are no bad troops, only bad officers.” Nigeria has long had a lot more bad officers than good ones. For once some of the good officers are in charge, Buhari as president and Buratai as commander of the army. But between these two and the troops actually fighting Boko Haram, there are a lot of bad officers. Identifying and removing them is the easy part, providing more competent and reliable replacements quickly is impossible. Getting rid of the worst officers while trying to retrain many existing officers and changing the way new officers are selected and educated is the current plan and this has not yet given the 20,000 or so troops in the northeast much relief from the incompetence and corruption they have long experienced under their officers.
The continued prevalence of corruption and incompetent officers in the army has contributed to continued chaos and lawlessness in northern Borno State, where most of the population was displaced by Boko Haram violence in 2014-15 and when Boko Haram control was broken by 2017. After that government programs to revive the economy and restore law and order collapsed from the usual corruption and incompetence of local officials and security forces. It is now worse because the ISWAP is a growing threat to civilians. That makes the security forces more of a danger to civilians. Army and police commanders tend to be brutal with civilians when there is even the slightest suspicion that civilians are collaborating with the enemy.
Even a reform minded Moslem president who was a former general was unable to push military reforms far enough and fast enough. Boko Haram is not winning but the government is failing to finish off a defeated Boko Haram and take advantage of an opportunity to regain the trust and loyalty of the local population. ISIL took advantage of similar conditions to quickly overrun more than a third of Iraq in 2014. Many Nigerian leaders are well aware of how that worked but the corruption is so entrenched and widespread that reform moves slowly and that left the army and government officials vulnerable to a well-organized Boko Haram comeback.
Some army commanders in Borno State try to blame foreign NGOs who provide a steady flow of reports, documented with pictures and video, of army misbehavior and mistreatment of civilians. This evidence is seen as a problem by the military, who are accusing some of the foreigners of spying for Boko Haram and deliberately spreading false reports of army misbehavior to hurt the morale of troops and loyalty of local civilians. These accusations tend to be quickly withdrawn when senior officers back in the national capital hear of it. The generals in the high command know the NGO reports are true because these reports are often quietly double-checked by high command investigators. Such retractions are just another reminder of the problems the military faces, and are unable to fix, in the northeast.
Good Guys Breaking Bad
The unpopularity of the army in the northeast has now spread to the Civilian JTF (Joint Task Force or CJTF). The strength of CJTF peaked at about 30,000 volunteers in 2017 and with the decline in Boko Haram activity in early 2018 about a third of the force has been disbanded (or at least no longer recognized and supported by the military). CJTF still helps with security around towns, cities and refugee camps in Borno State. That led to recent demonstrations, by over a thousand civilians, accusing the CJTF of brutality. In this case, a local rickshaw (bicycle type taxi) operator was shot dead by CJTF outside the state capital Maiduguri when the man refused to halt at a CFTF checkpoint. The rickshaw was out during curfew and was subject to arrest. The CJTF was thinking possible Boko Haram suicide bomber.
The fear of a suicide bomber at a checkpoint was a real threat. There has always been some danger to being a defense volunteer. About two percent of those who joined CJTF have been killed and many more have been wounded or injured while on duty. In effect, about ten percent of the CJTF men have been injured. But the soldiers respect them, the local civilians depend on and generally support them while Boko Haram has come to fear them. The more senior army commanders do not support the CJTF because these civilians often confront misbehaving soldiers and embarrass the army by exposing bad behavior. Buhari agreed that the CJTF were part of the solution, not another problem. But now civilians are accusing some CJTF detachments of being just as corrupt and violent as the army.
As early as 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. A major factor in this was that in the more remote areas, like near the Sambisa Forest, the CJTF groups contained a lot of local hunters. These men are professional hunters who thrive in rural areas where there is a lot more game than people. CJTF first demonstrated to the army the skills of local hunters who tracked game for a living. The army noted that the success of CJTF attack units was largely because of local hunters. Soon the army began to hire some of the hunters who were exceptional trackers as well as offering bounties if they could track down certain Boko Haram men or groups. At first, Boko Haram fought back and attacked trackers or their families. That backfired because the CJTF have better information about their home areas which made it difficult for Boko Haram to make revenge attacks. The attacks were made anyway and failed so often that most Boko Haram were advised by their leaders to stay away from CJTF, especially those groups with professional hunters. There were still parts of the Sambisa Forest were Boko Haram could establish bases and avoid the CJTF but these were areas where there was less game and less of everything. That meant fewer Islamic terrorists and their captives could survive there and had to leave their sanctuaries more frequently to raid villages for supplies. That’s when the Boko Haram were most vulnerable and many of their losses were to desertion (because of hunger and frustration) rather than combat casualties. The CJTF groups with a lot of hunters have remained useful for the army but only because there is no alternative when you have to track the enemy on the ground. The military never has enough helicopters or UAVs to provide overhead views and that is less useful in forest areas where trackers on the ground are still the best solution.
In early 2019 the Borno governor presided over the induction of 500 hunters into the CJTF. Many are veterans of CJTF but all are willing to work full time for a while to reduce Boko Haram violence. In addition to $28 a month pay (double that for leaders of hunter teams), there is some free food for hunter’s families. The monthly pay is OK for war-torn areas of Borno but also recognizes that the hunters can still hunt and don’t have to abandon their usual work. In many rural parts of Borno, the police and army can use someone who will regularly report what they see or still agree to look out for specific things.
The Enemy Plan
ISIL is seeking to establish an “emirate” of ISIL controlled territory in northeast Nigeria. This effort is being carried out by ISWAP, the Boko Haram ISIL faction, which is one of two factions Boko Haram has split into. ISWAP is twice the size of the smaller, more traditional Boko Haram faction that largely operates in central Borno State while ISWAP dominates the north, including some territory in neighboring Chad, Niger and Cameroon. The main thing stopping the plan from working is a coalition of foreign troops.
The 8,700 man MNJTF (Multi-National Joint Task Force)
has taken the lead in defeating ISWAP efforts to again control territory
in the region. Of all the threats they face what scares the Boko Haram and ISIL most is the MNJTF. Formed in early 2015 the MNJTF consists of troops from Niger, Chad, Cameroon, Benin and Nigeria. At first, the MNJTF was used mainly inside Nigeria but by early 2017 MNJTF was spending most of its time clearing Boko Haram out of border areas. Each member country assigns some of their best troops to the MNJTF and the Boko Haram have suffered heavy losses trying to fight MNJTF forces.
is not present in much of Borno State and there are already some areas where ISWAP collects ”taxes” and maintains order. This is actually an extortion scheme but it is how Islamic terrorists or ambitious bandits began establishing control over the territory.
Currently has two ISIL “provinces” in Africa. The largest one is ISWAP in Nigeria. This group is
also known as the Barnawi (or “Albarnawi”) faction of Boko Haram. ISWAP has apparently received a lot of useful technical and tactical advice from ISIL veterans of fighting in Iraq, Syria and Libya. Boko Haram persists in the northeast in large part because of its willingness to experiment, innovate and take advice from foreign ISIL veterans. The Barnawi faction 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 over 3,000 active gunmen and operates mainly in the far north of Borno state near Lake Chad and the borders of Niger and 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. Both factions rely on the fact that the years of Boko Haram violence in Borno State (where Boko Haram originated in 2004) has increased the poverty and corruption the Islamic terrorist organization was founded to eliminate. While many potential recruits are discouraged by stricter standards and more fanatic approach of ISIL (compared to the original Boko Haram) faction the most hardcore Islamic radicals are drawn to the more extreme groups and that way Boko Haram persists.
Then there is the ISGS (Islamic State in Greater Sahara) that is currently active in Mali and Niger. ISGS and ISWAP do not appear to work together except when it comes to Internet media activities, where ISWAP will mention ISGS accomplishments. ISIL does not have effective central authority at the moment with the senior leadership still dispersed and on the run from recent defeats in eastern Syria and western Iraq. It is often difficult, at first, to determine which faction of Boko Haram made an attack. Ultimately one of the factions will take credit. ISWAP is usually quicker to do so and has a much more efficient media operation than the smaller traditional Boko Haram faction. ISWAP media operations are so good that they have been able to plant fake news (usually of non-existent or exaggerated victories) that are picked up, for a while, by mainstream media before being debunked. One recent example was ISWAP media stories about how the ISIL affiliate was occupying more and more territory near Lake Chad. That became a mass media story until it was pointed out that ISWAP does raid some large towns in the north but the army and air force always respond and ISWAP know that and tends to carry out raids for supplies and then quickly depart before army or air force retaliation shows up. One long term effect of these raids is that more people are moving back to refugee camps. Over the last two years, the government has been trying to persuade refugees to return home. That has happened, but all it takes is one ISWAP raid to empty a recently repopulated town.
ISWAP is also finding that there is a downside to using ISIL techniques. More Western nations are willing to help Nigeria or at least coordinate existing counter-terrorism in the region (from Somalia to Mali and the Atlantic coast). Foreign help does not help with corruption and incompetence that is still tolerated by many in the armed forces. President Buhari is a former general and is paying more attention to these problems than previous presidents but that is not having an immediate impact.
Despite the ISIL affiliation, the ISWAP faction of Boko Haram is still true to the basic goals of Boko Haram. That is best described by noting that “Boko Haram:” literally translates to “Western education is forbidden.” This is a common goal for Islamic terror groups but has been a core goal of Boko Haram. That and killing or driving all Christians out of the Moslem majority north and eventually all of Nigeria. So far their efforts have wrecked the local economy in most of Borno state as well as driving most Christians out of the northeast.
The ten years of Boko Haram violence also wrecked the educational system in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states. Borno was the hardest hit but all these states suffered from attacks on schools and teachers. More than 2,400 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 2,000 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 to (or never left) 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 sixth year without crops because the seed and other supplies are still not available. Another essential item not available for farmers is the protection from Boko Haram raids. The Islamic terrorists live off such looting operations.
Boko Haram violence did not earn it much popular support during the first major outbreak of violence (2011-16). At that point Boko Haram had taken a beating and rather than fade away it evolved into the ISIL faction and a more traditional (to what Boko Haram originally was, a Taliban clone) version. The ISIL faction attracted more recruits and financial support and by the end of 2018 was twice the size (nearly 4,000 armed men) of the al Qaeda faction. The goal for 2019 appears to be the creation of ISWAP controlled territory in northeastern Nigeria. ISWAP has already created areas in the northern half of Borno state that are not safe for government forces unless operating in large numbers with air cover. The security forces are still crippled by inefficient, and often corrupt, officers. Government officials, either state or national, are often not much better. At the moment ISWAP appears virtuous and efficient by comparison. That is something of an illusion. Honesty and discipline are often achieved by Islamic terror groups but once they are no longer threatened by hostile forces the corruption quickly returns. There is plenty of evidence of how this works, collected in the last three decades of fighting Islamic terrorists and capturing lots of documents and interrogating lots of prisoners.
Bad Guys Breaking Badder
In the northwest, the root cause of the growing violence was never religion but herders and farmers fighting over land (for grazing or crops) and water (for cattle or crops). Both herders and farmers carry out revenge attacks but the Fulani are generally the aggressors. Zamfara state is experiencing the same sort of tribal violence as central Nigeria except in Zamfara nearly everyone involved is Moslem. This generally involves fighting between Fulani herders and Hausa farmers. To make matters worse the area is notorious for groups of bandits that steal cattle as well as raid farming villages just for the money. The bandits are mainly Fulani but a growing number of Hausa are joining in.
The security forces are supposed to seize illegal arms, especially the cheap AK-47s that became common back in the 1990s. The reality is that only the farmers are hurt by this because local defense militias must either bribe local police to keep their AK-47s or be at constant risk of having them seized. Herders are more mobile and better at hiding their weapons. Villagers are demanding that the government allow defense groups to have firearms. Even without that, the Fulani violence has caused over 4,000 deaths in the last three years. Most of the attacks are raids for the purpose of looting and leaving the area. The Fulani raiders often run into Hausa self-defense militias and the resulting battles leave many on both sides dead or wounded. The Fulani raids are usually after cattle and other loot. Moslem leaders want attention paid to the growing tribal feuds between Moslem tribes, especially the battles between Fulani and Hausa in Zamfara. In response, the federal government has ordered the national police to send in additional paramilitary personnel to deal (or try to deal) with that situation. The police have not had much impact and usually, leave after conducting some operations that are avoided by the local bandits. Soldiers are now being sent in as well but the violence continues to spread.
June 28, 2019: In the northeast (Borno state), an airstrike near the Bakassi refugee camp (outside the state capital) killed as many as a dozen Boko Haram raiders.
June 27, 2019: In the northeast (Yobe State), soldiers repulsed a Boko Haram gunmen attack on their Goniri base and killed over twenty of the attackers.
June 26, 2019: In the northeast (Yobe State), soldiers clashed with Boko Haram gunmen and killed ten of the Islamic terrorists. ISWAP also claims to have captured a Nigerian naval base detachment stationed on one of the islands in Lake Chad.
June 24, 2019: In the northeast (Borno state), Boko Haram killed twenty farmers in the far north near the Niger border. Elsewhere in Borno (120 kilometers north of the state capital) Boko Haram raiders killed nine civilians. Further east in Borno (near the Cameroon border) soldiers clashed with Boko Haram raiders in the town of Mafa. This clash three Islamic terrorists, three civilians and a soldier dead. Boko Haram has been raiding in this are frequently this year.
June 23, 2019: In the northeast (Borno state), soldiers clashed with Boko Haram gunmen near the Dikwa refugee camp (90 kilometers from the state capital Maiduguri) and killed three Islamic terrorists. Dikwa is home for 14,000 displaced (by Boko Haram violence) people and Boko Haram often seeks to intimidate camp residents into cooperating with the Islamic terrorists.
June 22, 2019: In the northeast (Borno State, 135 kilometers southeast of the state capital), soldiers clashed with Boko Haram forces outside Gwoza, a town near the Cameroon border that the army has repeatedly chased Boko Haram out of since 2014. This clash left two Islamic terrorists dead.
June 21, 2019: In the northeast (Borno state), MNJTF troops killed 21 ISWAP
men on Doron Island in Lake Chad. One Chad soldier was also killed and 12 task force men were wounded. ISWAP is the local ISIL branch and is active in this area.
June 17, 2019: In the northeast (Borno state), an army unit clashed with Boko Haram north of the state capital (Nganzai) and lost 25 soldiers.
Further north in Borno (Monguno, 135 kilometers northeast of the state capital Maiduguri), the army lost five soldiers during a clash with Boko Haram near Lake Chad.
June 16, 2019: In the northeast (Borno state), three Boko Haram (non-ISIL) suicide bombers attacked a crowd watching a football (soccer) game near Konduga (35 kilometers from the state capital Maiduguri) and killed 30 civilians. Two of the suicide bombers were women. Boko Haram has raided or attacked this town repeatedly for years. Elsewhere in Borno the air force found and bombed another Boko Haram base in the Sambisa forest.
June 12, 2019: In the northeast (Borno state), Boko Haram attacked an army base and killed 21 soldiers in the far north near the Niger border. They then looted the base and fled.
June 11, 2019: In the northeast (Borno state), on a Cameroonian island (Darak) in Lake Chad, Cameroonian troops fought Boko Haram in a battle that left 64 Islamic terrorists, 21 soldiers and sixteen civilians dead. Boko Haram often uses islands in the Nigerian and Cameroonian portions of Lake Chad as bases.
June 10, 2019: In the northeast (Borno state), soldiers clashed with Boko Haram at Kukawa, near Lake Chad and killed one of the Islamic terrorists. Further south (135 kilometers southeast of the state capital) an airstrike killed about ten Boko Haram raiders outside Gwoza, a town near the Cameroon border.
June 9, 2019: In the northeast (Borno state), soldiers clashed with the army killed nine Boko Haram men belonging to the Boko Haram media group.