On 8 January, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari stated that he was hopeful that the remaining 195 Chibok schoolgirls will be rescued, as the country marked 1,000 days since the mass abduction by Boko Haram that drew global attention to the jihadist insurgency.
President Buhari stated that his government was committed to finding the rest of the more than 200 schoolgirls who were abducted almost three years ago from the northeastern town of Chibok. Since being seized in April 2014, only two dozen have been found or rescued, some of whom had babies in captivity.
Earlier this month, the Nigerian army reported that it had rescued another Chibok girls, Rakiya Abubkar, along with her six-month-old baby. Another two schoolgirls have been found in the past year by troops and in October, 21 Chibok girls were released by Boko Haram after negotiations with the Nigerian government brokered by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Swiss government. The release was hailed as a breakthrough that would lead to the recovery of the remaining girls in captivity. At the time, presidential spokesman Garba Shehu disclosed that the Nigerian government was hoping to secure the release of 83 other girls, however there has since been no update on those negotiations.
Timeline of Chibok Kidnapping
- April 2014 – Boko Haram militants kidnap 276 schoolgirls from Chibok in the northeastern Nigerian state of Borno, a region where the insurgency emerged several years ago.
- November 2014 – Extremists seize Chibok and the Nigerian army takes back the town.
- May 2015 – Newly elected President Muhammadu Buhari is sworn into office, pledging to tackle Boko Haram “head-on.”
- 13 April 2016 – Boko Haram video appears to depict some of the Chibok girls, with mothers recognizing their daughters.
- 18 May 2016 – A relative discloses that one of the Chibok girls is found, pregnant, in a forest. Pressure increases on the Nigerian government to rescue the remaining missing girls.
- 14 August 2016 – Boko Haram video states that some of the Chibok girls have been killed in airstrikes. The militant group demands the release of extremists in exchange for the other girls’ freedom.
- 13 October 2016 – Spokesman for Nigeria’s president confirms that 21 Chibok schoolgirls have ben freed as a result of government negotiations with Boko Haram
- 5 November 2016 – Nigerian military announces the first army rescue of a Chibok girl, during a raid on a forest hideout.
- 24 December 2016 – Nigeria’s president declares that Boko Haram has been crushed as the militant group is driven from its last forest hideout.
- 5 January 2017 – Nigeria’s army states that soldiers have found one of the schoolgirls wandering in the bush near the forest stronghold.
The commander in charge of ending Boko Haram’s seven-year insurgency in northeastern Nigeria announced at the end of August that the country’s army expects to seize the militant group’s last few strongholds in the northeastern region over the next few weeks.
According to Major General Lucky Irabor, commander of the operation, the militant group is now holed up in a few pockets of the Sambisa forest and two areas located near Lake Chad, adding that they would be flushed out “within weeks.” Sambisa forest is where more than 200 schoolgirls, who were kidnapped from the northeastern Nigerian town of Chibok in April 2014, are believed to be held. During an interview at his base in Maiduguri in Borno state, the birth place of the insurgency, Irabor disclosed that “almost all of the locations held by the Boko Haram terrorists have been reclaimed. We are talking only of a few villages and towns.” He further added that “there are joint operations. My commanders have an exchange with local commanders across the borders. Because of the collaborations we’ve had Boko Haram has been boxed in and in a few weeks you will hear good news.” He also disclosed that the militant group, who pledged loyalty to the so-called Islamic State (IS) group last year, were still in control of Abadan and Malafatori, two towns located near Lake Chad. The army is now planing a new push into the Sambisa forest after abandoning an attempt due to torrential rain.
The Nigerian army missed a December 2015 deadline that was set up by President Muhammadu Buhari to wipe out the militant group, which wants to set up an Islamic caliphate in the area around Lake Chad. The army has however retaken most of the group’s territory, which at one point was the size of Belgium, with much of the success being due to better military cooperation with Nigeria’s neighbours, particularly Chad, whose forces have ben attacking Boko Haram fighters fleeing across the border. Despite loosing territory, Boko Haram manages to stage regular suicide bombings in Nigeria and in neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger. Furthermore, since 2009, when the insurgency began, more than 15,000 people have been killed and a further 2.3 million have been displaced while the local economy has been decimated.
The move to retake the final areas of the northeastern region of the country comes after reports emerged that Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, may have been wounded or even killed in a recent air strike in the region. While there have been conflicting reports of Shekau’s status, Irabor has disclosed that the leader had recently been wounded, backing off an Air Force statement released earlier this month that suggested that he had been killed in an airstrike. Irabor disclosed, “Shekau was wounded. That’s what I can confirm, but as to whether he is dead that I cannot at the moment confirm.” Boko Haram, which normally communicates via video or audio clips posted o the Internet, has so far stated nothing since the 24 August Air Force statement about Shekau sustaining injuries in the airstrike.
On 14 May, regional and western powers gathered in Nigeria to attend talks on quelling the threat from Boko Haram.
Speaking to reporters shortly after meeting with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari in Abuja, French President Francois Hollande stated that “impressive” gains has been made against the Islamists by greater cooperation, warning however that “this terrorist group nevertheless remains a threat.” The Nigerian leader has invited leaders from Benin, Cameroon, Chad and Niger, whose troops will make up a new regional force against Boko Haram, which has been pushed to northeastern Nigeria’s borders around Lake Chad. The 8,500-member force, which has African Union (AU) backing and which is based in Chad’s capital, N’Djamena under a Nigerian general, was supposed to have deployed July 2015. Plugging gaps and improving coordination between the armies that are currently operating largely independently is seen as vital in the remote region where borders are known to be porous. Saturday’s summit, which comes two years after a first such high-level gathering in Paris, also comes as Nigeria’s military pushes deep into Boko Haram’s Sambisa Forest stronghold after recapturing swathes of territory. While President Buhari has vowed to defeat Boko Haram before the end of his first year in office later this month, and the army portraying the Islamists as being in disarray, there have been warnings against any premature declaration of victory. Deputy US Secretary of State Anthony Blinking disclosed in Washington, which is flying surveillance drones over northeastern Nigeria from a base in northern Cameroon, that he did not see Boko Haram as defeated. However he conceded that “they have been degraded,” adding that the US was “extremely vigilant” about the connections, amidst reports of Boko Haram rebels fighting in lawless Libya and the group’s ties to al-Qaeda affiliates in the wider Sahel region. Speaking to reporters on Friday, he disclosed that “this is against something we are looking at very, very carefully because we want to cut it off.” British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has also warned about Boko Haram’s ties to the so-called Islamic State (IS) group, stating that progress was being made against the group with help from London, Paris and Washington. He added in his statement that “…we must maintain the momentum to win the war, and build the right conditions for post-conflict stability in the region.” With Boko Haram now on the back foot, attention has increasingly started to turn towards the plight of those that have been displaced by the ongoing insurgency. Two million Nigerians have been internally displaced and are now living in host communities or camps. The government of Borno State, which has been the worst-hit by the violence, has stated that the displaced face a “food crisis” and US $5.9 billion was needed to rebuild shattered infrastructure. United States Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, who visited northeastern Nigeria and northern Cameroon last month, has indicated that 9.2 million people in the wider region were affected by the conflict.
The final communiqué disclosed that a “global approach” was required, comprising of hard and soft power in order to end the threat. Britain’s Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond characterized the fight against extremist ideology as “a generational struggle against an evil that will destroy us if we do not destroy it.” He further told the gathering that “we must sustain this fight until evil is defeated and good prevails,” and called for countries affected to win the “hears and minds of those terrorized by Boko Haram.” US Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken also disclosed that respect for human rights was essential, after repeated accusations of military abuses against civilians and Bok Haram suspects. He further warned that not addressing the drivers of extremism – poverty, deprivation, lack of opportunity and education, would create “Bok Haram 2.0” even if the group were defeated militarily.
US officials have disclosed that the United States administration is seeking to approve a sale of as many as twelve A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft to Nigeria to aid in its battle against Boko Haram, in a vote of confidence in President Muhammadu Buhari’s drive to reform the country’s corruption-tainted military.
According to the officials, Washington is also dedicating more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets to the campaign against the Islamist militants in the region and plans to provide additional training to Nigerian infantry forces. The possible sale, which the officials indicated was favoured within the US administration but which is still subject to review by Congress, effectively underscores the deepening US involvement in helping governments in northern and western Africa combat extremist groups. US Navy Vice Admiral Micahel Franken, a deputy commander of the Pentagon’s Africa Command, told a Washington forum last week that there are now 6,200 US troops, most of them Special Operations Forces, who are operating from 26 locations across the African continent.
The widening US military cooperation is apolitical victory for Nigerian President Buhari, who took office in May last year on a pledge to crack down on the rampant corruption that has undermined the armed forces in Africa’s most populous country. According to one US official, “the Buhari administration I think has really reenergized the bilateral relationship in a fundamental way.” The previous Nigerian government under former president Goodluck Jonathan had scorned the United States for blocking arms sales partly because of human rights concerns. It had also criticized Washington for failing to speed the sharing of intelligence. The souring relations hit a low at the end of 2014 when US military training of Nigerian forces was abruptly halted. This however is changing under Buhari’s administration, whose crackdown on corruption has led to a raft of charges against top national security officials in the previous government. Many of the funds alleged to have been misused and siphoned off by corrupt Nigerian officials under Jonathan’s government were earmarked for the fight against Boko Haram, which ahs killed thousands in northeastern Nigeria and neighboring countries over the last seven years and which pledged loyalty to the so-called Islamic State (IS) group last year. The accused officials include Nigeria’s former chief of defense staff, who last month pleaded not guilty to using money allocated for Nigeria’s air force to purchase a mansion and a commercial plot of land and to build a shopping centre. A second US official has disclosed that “Buhari made clear from the get-go that his number one priority was reforming the military to defeat Boko Haram…And he sees us as part of that solution.” However officials have noted that serious human rights abuses committed by security forces, which include police, increased in 2015, according go the US State Department’s annual human rights reports.
The US Congress has not yet been formally notified of the possible US approval of the sale of Embraer’s A29 Super Tucano turboprop aircraft to Nigeria. The Tucanos can be used for training, surveillance or attack and can be armed with two wing-mounted machine guns and can carry up to 1,550 kg (3,417 pounds) of weapons. One production line for the Super Tucano is located in Florida, where it is built with US firm Sierra Nevada Corp. According to one of the US officials, the aircraft that would be sold to Nigeria come with a “very basic armed configuration.” The sale of the aircraft could offer Nigeria a more maneuverable aircraft that can stay aloft for extended periods to target Boko Haram formations. While officials have not disclosed the cost of the planes to be sold to Nigeria, a contract for twenty similar aircraft, which was sold to Afghanistan, was valued at about US $428 million at the time that it was announced in 2013.
African armies routed Boko Haram from much of its self-proclaimed caliphate in northeastern Nigeria last year. However its fighters have since regrouped and have intensified their attacks in the Lake Chad Basin region, threatening regional security despite the creation of a 9,000-strong African multinational force to counter it. One US official has indicated that the US military expects to train a second Nigerian infantry battalion once the current group completes its training later this year. While US officials have not specified what type of additional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets would be provided to bolster the regional fight against Boko Haram, they have acknowledged that they have a tough task combating the group, which is sending women and children strapped with explosives to blow up civilian targets, such as bus stops and market places.
Nigeria’s security services have hailed the arrest of the leader of a Boko Haram splinter group Ansaru, Khalid al-Barnawi, stating that it will lead them to other senior Islamist commanders operating in the northern region of the country.
Barnawi, who has been designated a global terrorist by the United States since 2012, was detained on 1 April along with three others in Kogi state capital, Lokoja. During his arrest, he was found with four Thursday satellite phones, with a source indicating that the phones “provided several leads” to “high-profile Boko Haram and Ansaru elements” in the capital, Abuja, Lokoja and the central city of Jos. According to one security source, “the arrest of Barnawi is a huge success and will have a profound effect on counter-terrorism operations in Nigeria and beyond,” adding, “he is a known transnational terrorist and the backbone of all al-Qaeda affiliate groups in West Africa.” Another source further indicated that “this has been our biggest breakthrough against terrorism in Nigeria ever,” adding, “we still have other high-ranking terrorists on our radar based on the information gathered from the phones of Barnawi and his three comrades. We will rope them in at the right time.”
The capture of Barnawi is definitely a success for Nigerian intelligence, with the Department of State services (DSS) calling him “a trained terrorist commander” who also recruited for al-Qaeda affiliates. He is also accused of masterminding a string of kidnappings of Westerners between 2011 and 2013. In a statement released on 9 April, which accompanied a mug shot of Barnawi, the DSS disclosed that “this arrest is a major milestone in the counter-terrorism fight.”
While security analysts agree that he is the most high-profile capture since the start of the Islamist insurgency in 2009, it remains unclear what effect it will ultimately have on operations on the ground. Boko Haram has been severally affected by an aggressive fight back from the Nigerian military and since January, the militant group has lost territory and its capacity to mount conventional attacks. President Muhammadu Buhari has also gone so far as to say that the militants were “technically” defeated despite suicide and bomb attacks continuing in northeastern Nigeria and in neighbouring Cameroon and Niger. However Barnawi’s arrest, who trained in Sudan, Afghanistan and with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), is only part of a larger organization that continues to operate despite setbacks. Furthermore, Ansaru’s terrorist activities likely will not be affected by his capture.
There was also confusion last month when Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau indicated in a video that his time in charge of the group was running out. The video, however was following a week later but another one, which did not feature Shekau but which maintained that he was still in charge and dismissed any suggestion of surrender.