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.
According to a new report that was published on Wednesday, suspected Boko Haram suicide bombings caused a massive increase in the number of civilian deaths an injured in Nigeria in 2015.
Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) has reported that the number of fatalities and injures increased 190 percent last year from the previous year while the use of human suicide bombers rose 167 percent during the same period. AOAV reported in “Unacceptable Harm – Monitoring Explosive Violence in 2015” that of the 3,048 deaths recorded in 84 incidents in Nigeria in 2015, 2,920 were civilian casualties, or 96 percent of the total, noting that this made Nigeria the fourth worst-hit country in the world for deaths and injuries from conflict in 2015, behind Syria, Yemen and Iraq, with Afghanistan in fifth. The London-based non-profit group has stated that the increase was part of a global trend that had seen a rise in civilian casualties from “explosive weapons” for the fourth consecutive year. “Explosive weapons” include artillery shells, landmines, air strikes, improvised explosive devices, car bombs and suicide attacks. While Boko Haram only rarely claims responsibility for attacks, there is no other group in the country known to employ suicide bombers as a tactic. The report disclosed that assuming the Islamists were behind the attacks, “then it would make them the most prolific user of suicide bombings recorded by the AOAV in 2015.” Over the past year, Boko Haram has increasingly used suicide bombings in its insurgency, which began in 2009. In particular young women and girls have become a favoured method of inflicting maximum civilian causalities in northeastern Nigerian as well as in neighboring states in the Lake Chad region. AOAV has reported that 923 civilians were killed or injured in neighboring Cameroon and Chad in eighteen incidents that were reported in 2015. Boko Haram’s use of guerrilla-style tactics has long made it difficult to combat, even though President Muhammadu Buhari maintains that the group has been “technically” defeated. On 26 April, the military warned the public in a statement that “fleeing remnant terrorists have laid landmines on stretches of farmland.” The statement further disclosed that “these latest tactics of the terrorists is a grand design to cause fear and panic among the farmers as well as the local populace,” It noted that efforts are currently underway to “neutralize” the mines. It also advised people to be wary of “strange or suspicious objects” in the soil. The latest warning risks complicating further the return of many of the over 2.6 million people displaced by the violence, amidst concern about food shortages and post-conflict reconstruction costs.
According to the AOAV report, a total of 43,786 deaths and injuries were reported worldwide in 2015 as a result of the use of explosive weapons – up two percent from 2014. Civilian deaths accounted for 33,307 or 76 percent of deaths. Over the past five years, AOAV has recorded a total of 188,331 deaths and injuries across the world.
The United Nations child agency has reported that Boko Haram’s use of child bombes has increased over the last year, with one in five suicide attacks being carried out by children.
According to a new report, girls, who are often drugged, were behind three-quarters of such attacks that were committed by the militant Islamist group in Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria. This represents an 11-fold increase, with four such attacks carried out in 2014, compared to 44 the next year, including January 2016. Analysts note that this change in tactics reflects the group’s loss of territory in Nigeria over the past several months. A regional offensive by Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon last year drove Boko Haram from much of its territory it held in northern Nigeria, effectively undermining its six-year campaign to carve out an Islamist caliphate. Despite this loss of territory, the militants have struck back with suicide bombing and hit-and-run attacks targeting civilians.
Meanwhile aid agency Mercy Corps reported on Monday that Boko Haram has lured young entrepreneurs and business owners in northeastern Nigeria to join the Islamist group by providing or promising capital and loans to boost their businesses. According to Mercy Corps, seeing successful business ownership as a way to escape poverty, many Nigerian youths, ranging from butchers and beauticians to tailors and traders, have accepted loans for their businesses in return for joining Boko Haram. The report from the US-based aid agency notes however that this lure of business support is often a trap, as those who cannot repay their loans are either forced to join the militants or are killed. Report author and Mercy Corps peacebuilding adviser Lisa Inks has disclosed that “Boko Haram is tapping into the yearning of Nigerian youth to get ahead in an environment of massive inequality,” adding, “it is incredibly clever – either such loans breed loyalty or Boko Haram use mafia style tactics to trap and force young people to join them.”
According to the latest statistics released by Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics, six in ten Nigerians live in absolute poverty, on less than one dollar a day, a figure which rises to three quarters of the population in the northeastern region of the country. Many young people told Mercy Corps that they would struggle without the support of powerful “godfathers” to provide capital for their businesses, or cash transfers for equipment and goods. Mercy Corps, which conducted interviews with 145 people including young former Boko Haram members, family of former members and youths who resisted joining, has reported that Bok Haram has therefore been able to fill a critical gap in financial services.
The report has called for increased access to financial and business services, more support for conflict-hit communities and greater efforts to reintegrate people who have fled the militant group.
On Monday (8 February), African forces began a US-led counter-terrorism training programme in Senegal, which is aimed at what a US commander said were rising signs of collaboration between Islamist groups across northern Africa and the Sahel region.
The annual “Flintlock” exercises began only weeks after an attack in Burkina Faso’s capital city Ouagadougou, which left thirty people dead. The assault on the hotel used by foreigners raised concerns that militants were expanding from a stronghold in northern Mali, towards stable, Western allies, such as Senegal. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) fighters claimed responsibility for the attack, which is just one of several increasingly bold regional strikes that have occurred in the Sahel region. Speaking to reporters on Monday, US Commander for Special Operations Command Africa Brigadier General Donald Bolduc indicated that increased collaboration between militant groups effectively meant that they have been able to strengthen and strike harder in the region. According to General Bolduc, “we have watched that collaboration manifest itself with ISIS becoming more effective in North Africa, Boko Haram becoming more deadly in the Lake Chad Basin (and) AQIM adopting asymmetrical attacks…against urban infrastructure.” He further noted that cooperation has increased as the so-called Islamic State (IS/ISIS) group exploited a power vacuum in Libya to expand its self-declared caliphate, which takes up large areas in Syria and Iraq. He added that “we know in Libya that they (AQIM and ISIS) are working more closely together. Its more than just influence, they (AQIM) are really taking direction from them.” He also stressed the importance of regional cooperation and intelligence-sharing, adding that the United States would help Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria set up a joint intelligence center by the middle of next year. The US already supports a regional task force against Nigerian-based terrorist group Boko Haram. However not all security experts agree that there are emerging alliances between Islamist militant groups, with some arguing that competition between groups has led o more attacks.
This year’s programme, which opened on a dusty airstrip in Senegal’s central city of Thies, involves around 1,700 mostly African special operation forces. Western partners are also participating in the programme, including forces from France and Germany, which are amongst more than thirty countries that are participating. The attacks in Ouagadougou, coupled with a hotel attack in the Malian capital of Bamako in November 2015, have led to a greater emphasis on preparing for urban attacks this year through training to increase cooperation between police and military forces. At the request of African partners, this year’s exercises will also include anti-Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) training. The programme, which has been an annual event since 2005, will run from 8 February until 29. Some exercises will also be held in Mauritania.