The kidnapping of 110 schoolgirls from Dapchi last month is the latest event to cast doubt on the Nigerian government’s claims that Boko Haram has been technically defeated. Unfortunately, the attack should have come as no surprise. Since 2015, the jihadist group has lost significant territorial control and no longer holds major cities. But as I saw during my fieldwork in Nigeria in January, the jihadist threat is far from gone, and counterinsurgency policies continue to be troubled and troubling.
Since 2009, Boko Haram has waged a brutal insurgency in northeastern Nigeria and neighbouring countries. Both its violent jihad and the Nigerian government’s and militias’ counterinsurgency and counterterrorism efforts have led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people, the prolonged detention and disappearance of tens of thousands more, and the displacement of over two million. There has also been massive economic devastation in an already exceedingly poor and underdeveloped region. Even in comparison with other Islamist jihadist groups, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan or al Shabab in Somalia, Boko Haram stands out in its predatory behaviour and failure to deliver the most rudimentary public services to the communities it controls.
Boko Haram caused 3,329 deaths in 2017, far fewer than the more than 11,500 attributed to the group during the peak of its activities in 2015, but only slightly less than the 3,484 deaths connected to the group in 2016. Moreover, the number of “violent incidents” instigated by the group in 2017 rose to 500 from 417 in 2016. Although Boko Haram no longer appears able to mass militants and dislodge entire battalions of the Nigerian military, the latter has been struggling to establish effective control in the cleared areas, some of which the group has overrun anew. The insurgency remains highly active in the Bama and Gwoza local government areas, where some 80 per cent of former residents remain in internally displaced person (IDP) camps. In major cities and towns, including Maiduguri, there is a widespread belief that Boko Haram informants are everywhere. This belief is exacerbated by previous incidents of Boko Haram donning police or military uniforms and then killing those who volunteered information on the group. Travel among cities and towns, even on major roads, is possible mostly only under escort by the Nigerian military, both because Boko Haram ambushes have continued and because the Nigerian military does not often permit independent movement.
Most of the displaced have been afraid to return to their destroyed villages. The overstretched Nigerian military lacks the effective capacity to hold them, and police units are largely absent. Earlier in northern Adamawa State, Nigerian authorities, including the National Emergency Management Agency, persuaded some IDPs to return to their villages. But they provided no protection. The following day, Boko Haram killed the returnees.
Another complicating factor in the struggle against Boko Haram is that the Nigerian military and police have themselves been sources of insecurity, dislocation, widespread human rights abuses, and radicalisation. Much of the counterinsurgency strategy before 2015 involved communal punishment of entire villages suspected of harbouring Boko Haram militants or having fallen under Boko Haram rule. In such so-called clearing operations, villagers who did not manage to flee to the bush were randomly killed on suspicion of being Boko Haram members, while others, including women and children, were dragged off to detention en masse. Even those who were not detained in the clearing operation were often forcibly evicted by the military, without prior notice or an opportunity to take their belongings. The burning of houses, shops, cars, and other private property in villages and towns by the military was also commonplace before 2015.
The result has been the wiping out of entire communities. According to Amnesty International, between 2009 and 2015, Nigerian military forces arbitrarily arrested at least 20,000, including children as young as nine. Cases of extrajudicial killings and torture by Nigerian military and police forces are also widespread, with more than 1,000 taking place from 2013 to 2014, sometimes hundreds a day. On March 14, 2014, in retaliation for a Boko Haram attack on the Giwa barracks in Maiduguri (one of the largest detention centers holding members of the group), the Nigerian military slaughtered some 640 boys and men, most of them recaptured detainees.
Since 2015, the brutality of the Nigerian military seems to have lessened for several reasons. One is the exposure of the violations by international human rights groups and local civil society non-governmental organisations. Another is that under the new leadership of President Muhammadu Buhari, clearing operations have decreased, thus providing fewer opportunities to commit violations. Yet, the Nigerian forces still engage in mass detentions in new areas they liberate, albeit less visibly since they clear increasingly more distant rural spaces.
The state response to Boko Haram remains flawed in other key ways. Consider its approach to intelligence. The Nigerian military and police have been partnering local militias, such as the Civilian Joint Task Force, and relying on them and paid informants to find out who is a Boko Haram member. The CJTF claims are often the dominant, if not sole, basis for raids and arrests, yet such intelligence is often completely unreliable, unverified, and random, motivated merely by desire for further financial payments or as a means of revenge for previous perceived grievances against local rivals.
Apart from their disastrous humanitarian consequences, Nigeria’s policies to “starve the enemy” allow local military units to integrate themselves and dominate local economic markets and activities. The military now prohibits growing tall crops (among which Boko Haram could hide) and controls fishing activities, travel on certain roads, and access to the markets, often collecting illegal tolls and rents. It demands that merchants buy fish only from fishermen and traders it certifies, justifying such control of access to the economy by the need to deprive Boko Haram of resources. Although cattle rustling is mostly attributed to Boko Haram, there is a widespread belief in communities such as Maiduguri that both the Nigerian military and the CJTF have become increasingly involved in that racket as well, with stolen cattle finding their way into Maiduguri’s market.