Boko Haram’s Threat to Northeast Nigeria – Addressing the Five-Year CrisisOctober 11, 2014 in Nigeria
Nigeria is rapidly losing control of large areas in the northeastern states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe to Boko Haram, which is attempting to establish an Islamic State. The emergency rule, established in northeastern Nigeria by the government in May 2013, has failed to contain and halt Boko Haram’s violence while the Nigerian military’s continued failure to carryout operations to secure the region has only further discredited and demoralized the military and forces operating in the area. While Boko Haram has undergone numerous evolutionary phases, this current phase is the most dangerous and has brought them the closest towards achieving their goal of forming an Islamic State within Nigeria. If in the coming weeks the Nigerian military does not carryout operations to recapture the occupied towns in the states of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe, and fails to secure Maiduguri – a main target for Boko Haram – it is highly likely that Borno state, and areas of neighbouring Adamawa and Yobe states, will fall to the insurgents.
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country and is central to the continent’s development. The current security situation is of mounting concern both to Nigeria and regional states, including Cameroon and Niger. With Boko Haram’s disregard for international borders, as militants have staged attacks in neighbouring Cameroon, the creation of an Islamic State my not be solely contained within Nigeria, but may also affect regions outside the country’s borders, including in Cameroon. Boko Haram’s five-year insurgency has claimed thousands of lives and created a refugee and internal displacement crisis. Nigerians are increasingly forced to seek refuge in neighbouring states to avoid Boko Haram attacks and military campaigns against these insurgents, which in-turn places added strain on the economies and humanitarian services of neighbouring states. The fall of the northeastern region to the insurgents will result in the deaths of thousands and will create humanitarian crisis that will affect the region.
Formed in 2002, Boko Haram, an extremely violent Islamist movement, has evolved in northeastern Nigeria and in 2014, it entered a new transitional phase in its pursuit to establish an Islamic State in Nigeria.
Boko Haram is most active in the northeastern states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe however insurgents have carried out terrorist attacks in other regions of Nigeria, including neighbouring states, such as Cameroon, and the capital city Abuja. Prior to 2009, the group did not intend to overthrow the government, however violent clashes between Christians and Muslims, coupled with harsh government treatment, including pervasive police brutality, encouraged Boko Haram’s members to radicalize. The death of its founder and leader, Ustaz Mohammed Yusuf, who died while in police custody in Maiduguri in July 2009, acted as a catalyst for Boko Haram’s transformation into a terrorist network. Post 2009, Boko Haram activities focused on carrying out suicide bombings and assassinations. By 2013, attacks continued to escalate, and Boko Haram’s operations appeared to display a degree of influence from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Boko Haram attacks have targeted civilians, both Christians and Muslims, and have included the bombings of churches, schools, military installations and government institutions. The rise in attacks prompted the Nigerian government to declare a state of emergency in three northeast states – Borno, Yobe and Adamawa – in May 2013 however military operations during the latter part of 2013 failed to contain and impede Boko Haram’s insurgency and only pushed the militants out of the city centres and into the rural areas, where violent attacks against undefended communities continued.
Boko Haram’s Change in Tactics
Since its formation, Boko Haram’s violence has been on an upward trajectory as the militant group has sought to expand its ambitions and capabilities. Over the past five years, Boko Haram has expanded its ambitious goals, from encouraging Muslims in northern Nigeria to live piously to transforming Nigeria into an Islamic State; extended its area of operation, with attacks occurring in Abuja and Lagos; and developing its operational capabilities, from carrying out small hit-and-run attacks to conducting simultaneous large-scale operations using suicide bombers. Since July 2014, Boko Haram’s insurgency has entered its most advanced phase. In an apparent shift in tactics, and for the first time in its history, Boko Haram has opted to seize and hold territory rather than carrying out hit-and-run attacks.
Since its inception, Boko Haram’s primary area of operation has focused on the northeastern states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe. At the start of its insurgency, Boko Haram carried out small-scale hit-and run attacks, mainly targeting non-Muslims. The group’s attacks gradually became sophisticated and complex, and included the 2011 suicide attack on a United Nation’s building in Abuja. Militants however continued to target schools, government and military institutions, burning villages and towns and targeting Muslims in a bid to enforce their strict interpretation of Islam. Despite the 2013 declaration of a state of emergency, followed by the launch of military operations, Boko Haram continued to carryout attacks with relevant ease, increasing its tempo in 2014. Since January, the militant group has launched almost daily attacks, killing and kidnapping hundreds, destroying schools, homes and businesses, and in some cases wiping out entire villages in northeastern Nigeria. Attacks in Abuja, Jos and Lagos in the first half of 2014 suggested that the insurgents’ activities were moving southward while the April kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls from the remote northeastern village of Chibok garnered international attention and raised Boko Haram’s profile.
While Boko Haram’s attacks from 2009 to mid-2014 increased in violence and complexity, and resulted in the death of thousands, the militant group appeared to have no clear strategy that focused on forming an Islamic State. During this period, Boko Haram’s attacks were largely retaliatory and focused on responding to military operations, assassinating opponents, and terrorizing Christians in northern Nigeria. After the Chibok abductions, Boko Haram began to carryout more strategic attacks, including the targeting of bridges in northeastern Nigeria. In August, Boko Haram’s evolving strategic approach took a step further when its leader, Abubakar Shekau, declared an Islamic caliphate after insurgents took control of the Borno local government area of Gwoza.
While the recent seizure of territory signals a change in Boko Haram’s tactics, and the timing appears to be an imitation of the caliphate proclaimed by the Islamic States (IS – previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant ISIL; or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS) in parts of Iraq and Syria, it is evident that the movement has grown in confidence and ambition.
Boko Haram’s Monitoring of Other Terrorist Organizations
Boko Haram’s declaration of an Islamic caliphate in northeastern Nigeria has revealed stronger links between the various jihadist forces in Africa and those terrorist operations operating under greater political ambitions, such as IS.
While Boko Haram’s declaration of an Islamic caliphate is inline with the militant group’s ideology, as it has long voiced a desire to create a strict Islamic State, the timing of the announcement was likely influenced by recent IS activities in Iraq and Syria. Boko Haram had previously declared that they should overrun the entire country prior to announcing an Islamic State. It is believed that this premature declaration is a move to cement their threat in the region, while remaining in competition with operations carried out by IS in Syria and Iraq and in the public eye.
Recent gains achieved by IS likely inspired Shekau’s declaration, as IS has garnered international headlines in recent months by seizing parts of Iraq and Syria in a brutal onslaught. While global focus had initially been placed on Boko Haram’s widely condemned kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls in April, in recent months, much of that focus has shifted to the territorial ambitions of IS despite Boko Haram continuing to carry out nearly daily attacks in northeastern Nigeria. In the wake of a video released in August depicting the brutal murder of American journalist James Foley, the United States has described IS as the strongest-ever Islamist threat with its “apocalyptic end of days” ideology. This statement has further taken attention away from the Nigerian-based militant group, which in comparison, is believed to be a modestly-funded uprising that is composed of poor youths with minimal tactical training.
Although Boko Haram has carried out a brutal five-year campaign, by evoking a Nigerian caliphate, Shekau is attempting to remain relevant and to raise his own profile in the region, rather than submit to like-minded extremists in the Middle East. While Shekau has in the past expressed support for IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and has congratulated IS on its advances in Iraq and Syria, the declaration of a caliphate in northern Nigeria shows no indication that he is associating himself with Baghdadi or IS. There currently is no evidence that the IS and Boko Haram have been working together however it is likely that Boko Haram will continue to monitor IS achievements in the coming months. The release of a video in early October, reportedly depicting the beheading of a Nigerian air force pilot, is similar to those videos released by IS in recent weeks. While the video garnered minimal international attention, it is likely that Boko Haram militants will continue to release similar videos over the coming months.
Current Threat to Maiduguri
The threat of an attack on Maiduguri is high. Boko Haram is reported to be stabilizing the region and preparing for an imminent attack on the city. Militants are reported to be stationed in towns and villages located around Maiduguri, including Konduga, located 35 kilometres (22 miles) from Maiduguri. The likely fall of Maiduguri will mean a significant symbolic and strategic victory for the insurgents, enabling them to control a major city and an international airport – a victory that has not yet been seen in the terrorist group’s five-year insurgency.
Over the past several weeks, Boko Haram have seized territory along at least two of the main approaches to the capital city. Their control of towns and settlements to the south of Maiduguri, and near the porous border with Cameroon, has cut off military access and isolated parts of the state. Boko Haram militants have destroyed several key bridges, including one on the road from Biu to Maiduguri, a bridge near Gamboru Ngala that links Nigeria with Cameroon, a bridge in Potiskum that links Maiduguri and Damaturu to Abuja and a bridge in Yobe that links to the southern areas of Borno and Adamawa. Some of the destroyed bridges were strategically linked to Maiduguri, making it difficult for the Nigerian military to reinforce the state capital and other towns.
The encircling strategy will enable Boko Haram to attack the city from all directions and prevent any civilians trying to escape. Any Nigerians remaining in the city, many of whom have been displaced by months of conflict, are likely to suffer great violence as Boko Haram implements a strict form of Sharia law.
Islamic State in Borno
If swift action is not taken by the Nigerian military, Borno state will likely fall to Boko Haram in the coming months.
Boko Haram’s recent operations are aimed at expanding their declared Islamic caliphate and establishing an Islamic State that will likely encompass most, if not all, of Borno state and may include areas within the states of Adamawa and Yobe. In Borno state, Boko Haram are believed to have seized Gamboru Ngala, Dikwa, Gwoza and Marte. Bama has also been reported captured however the Nigerian military and some local civilians are contesting these reports. Damboa, which was seized by the insurgents in July, has since been reported to be under the Nigerian military’s control. In Adamawa, Madagali has been captured. In Yobe, Buni Yadi has been seized. Other towns and settlements in northeastern Nigeria believed to have been seized or heavily contested include Banki, Kerawa, Ashigashiy, Ngoshe, Pulka and Goniri. Further seizures of towns in the area, and which border Cameroon, are likely to occur.
Boko Haram militants have hoisted flags in many of the communities they now control and have imposed their interpretation of a strict form of Sharia Law on the remaining population. They have been accused of beheading Christians and carrying out other atrocities.
Boko Haram’s five-year insurgency has created a humanitarian crisis affecting both Nigeria and neighbouring states, including Cameroon, Chad and Niger. The fall of Borno and the creation of an Islamic State will further contribute to this crisis and will place added strain on the economies of regional states.
Since early 2013, nearly 300,000 people in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states – 70 percent of them women and children – have fled their homes. The figure of internally displaced people (IDP’s) in Nigeria is currently estimated to be at more than 650,000 and may affect upwards of 1.5 million in the northeast of Nigeria. Most IDP’s are believed to be staying with families in other regions of Nigeria, particularly in the south. As of September 2014, 70,000 Nigerians have sought refuge in neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger.
Nigeria is bracing for a potential food supply crisis this farming season. This is due to a short rains season and on-going violence, which has severely affected the farming sector as a majority of Nigeria’s food is produced in the north, where Boko Haram operates. Nigeria also supplies food to neighbouring states, including Cameroon, Chad, Mali and Niger. A food shortage in Nigeria could have a spill over effect on surrounding states.
Nigeria’s Military Response to Boko Haram
The Nigerian government’s response to Boko Haram’s five-year insurgency has been insufficient in halting the violence and, in recent weeks, in preventing the group’s dramatic territorial advances. The declaration of a state of emergency has failed to curb the Islamist insurgency and instead has only increased the militant group’s tempo of attacks. Despite Boko Haram taking over large areas of northeastern Nigeria, and declaring a caliphate, the country’s military has maintained that there is no threat to Nigeria’s sovereignty. On the ground, troop morale remains low. Soldiers combatting Boko Haram militants are inadequately equipped and are battling militants willing to die in combat for their cause. The September 2014 sentencing of twelve soldiers to death by a military tribunal in Abuja will likely further impact the already low morale.
On the ground, Nigeria’s military has been under increasing pressure to end the insurgency however front-line troops have frequently complained of a lack of adequate weapons and equipment, an issue that has only added to the military’s already low morale. Residents living in towns raided by the Islamist militants have corroborated reports of the Nigerian military being ill equipped, reporting that the insurgents are often armed with rocket-propelled grenades and anti-aircraft weapons mounted on trucks, and in some cases, armoured personnel carriers. In contrast, Nigerian soldiers have at times reported lacking ammunition and being sent out to the bush to fight without basic communication equipment. In August, a lack of adequate weaponry and equipment forced dozens of Nigerian soldiers to refuse to deploy for an offensive aimed at recapturing Gwoza, in Borno state, which the Islamists claim is part of an Islamic caliphate. A number of the soldiers’ wives have also demonstrated at the gate of a military base in Maiduguri in an attempt to prevent their husbands from heading to Gwoza without proper equipment.
Reports released by international humanitarian organizations, including Amnesty International (AI), have divulged that Nigerian troops have carried out rights abuses, including extra-judicial killings, arbitrary detention and torture. Such findings have further eroded civilian trust in the military, losing them a vital intelligence asset.
While President Goodluck Jonathan has requested that the country’s lawmakers approve a US $1 billion foreign loan to upgrade the capacity of the military, this request was seen as a tacit acknowledgement that troops are being outmatched and is yet to be approved. Nigeria’s top military brass have continued to deny that troops have mutinied and have rejected claims that hundreds of troops fled their posts in border towns overrun by Boko Haram. Nigeria’ s military spokesman Chris Olukolade disclosed that Nigerian soldiers would never mutiny as they are “too disciplined and patriotic to indulge in this dangerous offence.”
The recent sentencing to death of twelve soldiers is likely to have a two-pronged effect. Within Nigeria’s military, troop morale is likely to decrease further and may lead to anger amongst those fighting in northeastern Nigeria. In turn, Boko Haram militants will likely use this verdict as an attempt to demonstrate to Nigerians that their government is making minimal efforts to ensure the safety of its troops.
The upward trend in violence has demonstrated that the more security forces deployed to the region, the worse the crisis has become. On its own, military operations have failed to address the crisis and the threat emanating from Boko Haram is no longer an issue that Nigeria can tackle alone. While the threat has now transformed into a regional one, the engagement of regional powers will likely further internationalize Boko Haram, while making these states targets of attacks. Since the May 2014 Paris Summit, neighbouring countries have increased their involvement, sharing intelligence and policing borders, however this cooperation has precipitated retaliatory attacks, particularly in Cameroon.
In order for international involvement to be successful, it must be appropriate and measured and in the short term, international assistance will likely remain restricted to providing Nigerian officials with expertise, involving neighbouring countries in carrying out border controls and providing humanitarian relief and shelter for displaced civilians.
In the short term, Maiduguri must be secured in order to ensure that the city does not fall under the control of the militants. The Nigerian military must also reinforce other regions of Borno state, ensuring that key road networks and remaining bridges are secured, in order to prevent the state from being further isolated. This will allow easier troop movement across the affected region. The military must also make preparations to defend the states of Yobe and Adamawa, as militants will likely aim to target towns and villages in these states in a bid to expand their caliphate. The Nigerian government must work to combat the low morale within its military. The government must provide soldiers with sufficient ammunition and equipment to enable them to combat Boko Haram militants, who are known to use sophisticated weaponry and armoured vehicles. Payments and adequate food must be delivered to troops and soldiers must have the backing and support of the government.
Nigeria and neighbouring states – particularly Cameroon, Chad and Niger – should work to assess the needs of the displaced and ensure the provision of adequate humanitarian assistance. Boko Haram militants are known to operate near the border with Cameroon, the Cameroonian government must deploy reinforcements to defend the border areas and to re-take any captured territory. The Cameroonian military should also make preparations for a possible larger assault carried out by Boko Haram.
The international community, including the United States, should continue to provide assistance to the Nigerian government, which was first provided to them in the wake of the April 2014 mass kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls. Assistance will likely focus on non-lethal military assistance, including continued reconnaissance missions. Following recent agreements reached at conferences in Paris and London, the international community must continue to strengthen regional cooperation to tackle the threat emanating from Boko Haram.
Commerce and Trade Sector Implications
Despite becoming the largest economy on the African continent in 2014, Boko Haram’s five-year insurgency has had a major impact on the economic development of the northern region of the country. While the on-going violence has had a limited effect on the wealthy southern region, a recent attack on Nigeria’s economic hub demonstrated the militant group’s reach and capabilities of carrying out deadly attacks far from its strongholds and has increased concerns over possible attacks in the oil-rich Niger Delta region.
Economic Impact on the North
Boko Haram’s on-going insurgency has severely slowed down production in a region that is already struggling. While agriculture accounts for about a fifth of the country’s GDP, and employs more than 25 percent of those aged 18 to 35, the insurgency has placed a strain on the industry, which in turn has lead to an increase in food prices, particularly in the past year as Boko Haram’s tempo of attacks sharply increased. According to Nigeria’s statistics bureaux, in June food prices in the northern regions of the country rose by 9.8 percent.
The food industry in the north is under great strain over a number of reasons, with the main issue being human mobility. With the recent increase of Boko Haram attacks, those employed in the industry have decreased their movement outside protected areas over fears of attacks carried out by the insurgents. Many farmers in the states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe now fear being attacked while grazing animals while many local processing companies have lost workers after families opted to leave the conflict area. Traders have also limited their movements as Boko Haram militants have increasingly targeted major markets across the region. The agricultural sector has effectively developed into a target for those militants in need of supplies, with many stealing food, equipment and money. The heightened attacks across northeastern Nigeria have also made transportation of food riskier and more expensive, which in turn has placed greater pressure on the economic output. This has also severely reduced cross-border trade with neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger. A food crisis in Nigeria will have a spill over effect that will severely impact neighbouring states.
Extortion and Theft
Boko Haram is heavily dependent on extortion as a means of funding its day-to-day operations. Government officials, contractors and small private entrepreneurs are often forced to make payments to the militant group or face severe consequences. This has particularly had a strong negative effect on smaller pirate entrepreneurs in the northern region, with many either forced to pay a percentage of their income to Boko Haram or forced to close their businesses and lay off workers. The latter is an especially alarming issue in a country that already has a high unemployment rate of 23.9 percent.
Boko Haram militants have also been known to target banks located in the northern region of the country as a means of funding their operations. In 2011, roughly 100 banks were attacked, with officials indicating that over thirty of those were directly attributed to Boko Haram. It is estimated that Boko Haram gains from bank robberies are at US $6 million.
Boko Haram’s violence in the northeastern region of Nigeria has also impacted one potentially lucrative source of revenue – oil, which was found under the Lake Chad Basin in the country’s far northeastern region. In 2012, Nigeria located oil deposits in the Kukawa area of Borno state, with officials estimating that 100 billion cubic metres of deposits lie beneath the lake and its arid hinterland. While at the time, the discovery raised hopes of the possibility to transform the region’s economy, and to help boost Nigeria’s oil reserves, plans to start production have been halted because of the on-going conflict and the Nigerian military’s inability to end it and to secure the region. A number of geologists, engineers and other technical staff resigned from the project after the country’s main oil unions warned workers against working in the region because of the heightened risk of attacks and threat of kidnapping. Currently officials do not have a timeline for when this project could be restarted.
Boko Haram has also threatened to attack the oil reserves in the southern Niger Delta region. Nigeria currently obtains more than ninety percent of its foreign exchange earnings from oil in the Niger Delta. It produces approximately two million barrels of crude oil per day, the highest oil output in Africa. With some of the world’s top oil firms located in the Niger Delta region, an attack carried out by Boko Haram militants would have a severe impact on the country’s economy, forcing many of these firms to cease contracts and pull-out foreign workers over fears of further terrorist attacks.
Attack On Lagos
On June 25, two successive blasts occurred in the Lagos port district. While they were passed off by the local government as a mishap with a gas container, in July, Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau released a video claiming responsibility for the incident, effectively signifying that the militant insurgency has managed to hit the country’s commercial centre despite local officials attempting to cover it up in a bid to prevent panic.
In claiming to be behind the bombing, Boko Haram has exacerbated concerns over its ability to extend its reach into the southern region of the country. Lagos is Nigeria’s largest city and the business centre for Africa’s largest economy. While there have been militant threats against Lagos before, such as in May when the US warned that Sheraton hotels in the city could be a prime target for the militant group, and the fact that local security forces have detained suspected Boko Haram members accused of planning attacks in Lagos on at least three occasions since March 2013, until now the militants have never successfully carried out an attack in the city. The June incident has effectively changed the perception that Lagos, and the southern region in general, is safe from Boko Haram’s insurgency. Further strikes on the commercial capital are likely to occur, especially as Nigeria prepares for presidential elections, which are set to take place in mid February 2015. Although Boko Haram does not have the capacity to wage a sustained war away from its stronghold, attacks are likely to be sporadic, however they will create an impact, especially on the economy.
While the impact of Boko Haram’s activities on the Nigerian economy remain largely localized to the northern region of the country, the on-going instability must end in order for Nigeria to continue to grow economically. Boko Haram’s existence and activities are a threat not only to Nigeria’s economic future, but also to its political stability.
Greater investment in the north will be key to preventing further radicalisation. Oil in particular could help reduce the north’s extreme poverty, unemployment and lack of education, which fuel radical recruitment. If and when the conflict ends, it will be vital to learn from the mistakes made in the Niger Delta region. The Delta region has been affected by violence while decades of corruption and mismanagement have done little to improve the lives of regular citizens, despite the billions produced by the industry. Good governance and accountability will be key to ensuring this.