ATbar The Nigerian Reality in the War against Boko Haram: Between Hope and Despair

The Nigerian Reality in the War against Boko Haram: Between Hope and Despair

22/03/2016 | by Doukhan, David (Dr.)  

In a state deeply involved in fighting extremism, radical Islamism and terrorism it is expected to see a united nation where all hands are joined and focused on winning the war in spite of political rivalries and other factors such as religion, ethnicity and economic interests. Nigeria’s endless war against Boko Haram, which has been conducted for six years now, is doing the contrary- it is splitting forces. What really happened in the north-east of Nigeria? According to the country’s President they have won the war against Boko Haram. Others think that the victory over Boko Haram has not yet been achieved. They base their arguments on the continuous vicious terrorist attacks perpetrated by Boko Haram insurgents, attacks which killed dozens of innocent civilians and are responsible for more than 2.5 million people being defined as refugees. These attacks have closed thousands of schools in the North-East, leaving the children as easy prey for the radical Islamists. The fact that Boko Haram is now the Islamic State's Province in West Africa (ISPWA) worsens the situation as the group continues to learn from and use the same strategies as ISIS in its own activities. Reports from Nigeria reflect contradictions - in this article I will attempt, to clarify the situation.

Contradictions and ambiguity are inherent elements in war. However, each side in a war aspires to victory and interprets it at his will. In the past two regular armies confronted on the battlefield and annihilation of one force and its capacities permitted the other to declare victory. In the modern and post-modern era where regular armies are confronted with terrorist organizations or hybrid groups and are not constrained to the dynamics of the battlefield, militaries are required to change their R.O.E (Rules of Engagement). Fighting against such enemies without taking into consideration the new characteristics of the phenomenon of war, such as the media, technology, superiority in intelligence, the relations between the army forces and the civilian and the casualties' aversion parameter(people of democratic countries shows reluctance from casualties from both sides especially if the war is not justified-the post-heroic warfare)[1], promises a long and complex war, with many casualties on all sides, and demands a constant budget which is not usually available.

In this context the Nigerian Federal Administration under President Buhari, in its continuous efforts (described as infective) to eradicate Boko Haram, raised two main topics related to the war against Boko Haram:

 1) Did the Army achieve the mission given to it by the President of Nigeria, Buhari, who is also the commander-in-chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces, i.e. to eradicate Boko Haram ? Recently President Buhari declared that: "Boko Haram, as an organized fighting force, we have dealt with them. Boko Haram cannot now march their forces and attack towns or attack military installations. Technically, we've won the war because people are going back into their neighborhoods".[2] In this statement, President Buhari is clearly speaking about military victory over Boko Haram.

2) A political debate on the Army’s capabilities began as a result of a statement made by former President Goodluck Jonathan, who claimed that President Buhari’s administration is prosecuting the war against the Boko Haram insurgency with the arms his administration procured.[3] His statement came shortly after the Information and Culture Minister; Lai Mohammed, placed blame on former President Goodluck Jonathan, accusing him of purchasing substandard military weapons for the war against Boko Haram.[4]As was previously mentioned, rather than uniting in the fight against terrorism, Nigeria’s unity is doubt.

Military victory over Boko Haram

President Muhammadu Buhari declared that none of the 774 local government areas in Nigeria are under the control of Boko Haram insurgents.[5] President Buhari made this disclosure on February 11th, 2016 at a joint briefing with German President, Mr. Joachim Guack, at the Presidential Villa, in Abuja.[6] He added that the group can no longer organize conventional attacks on military and police installations or seize control of towns.[7]

Apparently this is very good news. These statements are in line with the military announcements about victory over the insurgency and the reoccupation of large territories that were previously under Boko Haram’s control.

Unfortunately, the insurgents are alive and active; they stormed towns and villages rendering them to ashes, killing dozens of civilian and spreading terrorism and fear in an already chaotic environment. Boko Haram changes tactics; the group learns very quickly. The tactical changes or the shifts in modus operandi are a result of the recent military successes by the Nigerian authorities which are also backed by the combined Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF). Boko Haram has changed from asymmetrical warfare, which the government was successfully hindering in December 2015-early January 2016, to the current guerrilla attacks. In such attacks, Boko Haram is not attempting to control territory and act as a state which provides services to its people and protects its borders; rather, they are operating as a terror organization with more conventional tactics: bombings, gunmen, assassinations and kidnappings. This is similar to Al Shabab’s modus operandi in East Africa. The Nigerian army needs to adapt to this transition. Boko Haram insurgents have changed tactics to carry out terror activities, for example, they now dress like mad persons to gain access to public areas in order to detonate bombs. From a statement made by the acting director of Defence Information, Rabe Abubakar, we can learn that the military has found insurgents from Boko Haram disguised as legitimate fruit and vegetable vendors who smuggled IED's within groceries to crowded areas.[8]  Boko Haram uses female suicide bombers because they are less suspicious, and can easily conceal bombs in their burqas.[9] Why girls? Either because of brain washing, or because Boko Haram has humiliated them sexually, for example with rape, sex slavery, leaving them with  no option but to become a suicide bomber because of the honor code regarding women’s sexuality in place in traditional Nigerian societies.[10]

As the country is constantly and consistently being struck by Boko Haram’s terrorism from, I must conclude that the picture of the war against Boko Haram in north-east Nigeria is not clear enough.

In contrast to the ambiguity of the situation in north-east Nigeria is a contradictory picture provided by a Senator in the upper chamber of the National Assembly representing Borno Central, Baba Kaka Gaibai, who revealed to journalists during a condolence visit to Dalori village where 65 persons were reported killed by the insurgents, that Borno State as it is today, is equally shared between Boko Haram and the Nigerian military. The Senator noted, with regret, that both Boko Haram and the Nigerian forces have full control of three separate local governments in the troubled Borno State and are dominant in 21 other local governments. The Senator reacted to the insinuations making rounds in the states that the insurgents have largely been overpowered by the military, and said:

It is a wrong assumption that most of the local governments in Borno are recaptured from Boko Haram. In reality this is not true in the sense that apart from the Maiduguri Metropolis, Bayo and Kwaya Kusar, these are the three local governments that are under the occupation of the Nigerian government where the military and police are maintaining law and order in these local governments. But some of the local governments are partially occupied by the insurgence. Let me give you an example. Like Mobbar is one hundred percent occupied by the insurgence. Abadam is the same thing; it is occupied one hundred percent by the insurgence, so also Kala/Balge. There are some local governments that are also partially occupied by the insurgents.[11]

The Senator urged the citizens not to believe the impression created by the Federal Government which claims that Boko Haram had been defeated in Borno State, because in reality it "is not true."[12]In other words: President Buhari is lying to his people.

The Senator’s observations, which fully contradict President Buhari’s declaration, invited a fast reaction from the governor of Borno state, Alhaji Kashim Shettima. He argued that the Senator’s claim that a substantial part of the state is under the control of the insurgents was either an emotional outburst or that perhaps the Senator was quoted out of context. The governor opined that Borno state is better now than it was six months ago:

As the Chief Security Officer of Borno state I can authoritatively say that no local government is under the occupation of Boko Haram […] I am telling you, authoritatively, that our military deserves a commendation, because all my local government areas have been liberated. Only a few insurgents remain in the Sambisa Forest and are desperate to launch some pockets of attacks is what we are now witnessing as a result of the bombardment that is going on in their hideouts.[13]

Governor Shettima was not alone in condemning Senator Gaibai’s observations. The Northern Inter-Faith Religious Organizations for Peace have blasted the Senator for his claims that Boko Haram still controls 50 % of the state, accusing him of being sympathetic to the terror group.[14]

Who should the local population believe? They know and suffer from the reality on the ground; suicide bombers and surprise attacks are still a part of their daily routine. This sad reality contradicts the announcements coming from military and/or presidential sources.

If we refer to the President’s and military commanders’ announcements about victory over the insurgency while the ground still burns, we can conclude that the military victory announcements were published within the frame of psychological warfare aimed at many sides: 1) to the enemy who lost ground and staff;  2) to the local population, in order to encourage them to return home and to rebuild the devastated country; 3) to the fighting troops to raise their moral; 4) to neighboring countries to maintain their military pressure on the group ; 5) to western countries to ensure the continuity of armament, instructors and cash/money flow; 6) to send a message to the awakening of the Movement for the Actualization of Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) and the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) which states: beware, the Army is ready and capable. 

Seeing that Boko Haram is continuing to hit everywhere and still holds terrain, specifically the area of the Sambisa Forest, it seems to me that there is no military victory over Boko Haram. As such declaring victory over Boko Haram was a premature step.  An imminent end to the Boko Haram crisis seems a very unlikely development at this stage, since problems in the North-East should not be regarded as purely security problems; the ongoing battle against Boko Haram would require perseverance and immense resources.[15]

Army Competence - Catch-22

The idiom 'Catch-22' is derived from the famous book title written by Joseph Heller, and its meaning is a situation where everyone loses. This is exactly the situation in Nigeria regarding its war against Boko Haram.

It is agreed that a liberal democracy, like Nigeria, is a political system where there is a government (the Federal Government) that recognizes that the individual, everywhere, has rights that exist independently of government and which need to be protected by and against the government.[16] Hence, the challenge is to follow the fundamental democratic principle that "public power shall be exercised under the law". For a liberal democratic government it is important to stay within the boundaries of the laws when implementing its policies concerning the prevention of and combating terrorism. This is not the case with Nigeria, according to reports made by Amnesty International.[17] The state has not taken into consideration injustice, inequality and the rights of ethnic communities for some time, causing political unrest and tension between communities. Some people, frustrated by the government’s inefficiency, humiliated and persecuted by the army and security services, have turned to political violence as a way of making their voices heard. The distance from the political violence path to pure acts of terrorism is short. Martha Crenshaw draws our attention to political explanations of terrorism generated within a democracy. She has claimed that:

In the case of terrorism that is generated within a democracy, the degree of social, ethnic, and political heterogeneity or fragmentation within the state appears to be a critical variable. Highly contentious polities and divided societies are likely to be associated with a greater risk of terrorism. They are typically associated with the prevalence of other forms of political violence as well. The instigating factors for violence constitute a complex, dynamic equation that is difficult to solve regardless of regime type.[18]


This short forward describes perfectly, in my opinion, the situation in Nigeria and the power balance between the actors involved in the war against Boko Haram. In this context the army is to be considered a key component in combatting the terrorist group, since, given any form of terrorism in the liberal state, the state is required to fight terrorism by various means (e.g. CVE - Countering Violent Extremism) as well as utilizing the army.

Unfortunately, the Nigerian Army (today) has the reputation of being inefficient and suffers from corruption,[19] torture and extra-judicial killings as well as lack of resources limiting its ability to respond to the growing threat posed by Boko Haram.[20] Moreover, allegations of indiscriminate mass arrests, bloody raids on villages and the systematic torture of incarcerated suspects means that communities which have the most to fear from the rebel militia are instead more scared of the lawless government forces. The civilians’ fear of the Army has reached the point in which some have argued and concluded that if the armed forces want to defeat Boko Haram, they will first need to earn back the public's trust. [21]

At present, two new divisions, the 8th and 6th divisions of the Army, are based in Borno North and the South-South, respectively. The new divisions were designed to boost the operational capacity of the military against the Boko Haram insurgency in the North-East, especially the Lake Chad Basin and other parts of the country. The international community led by the U.S., stood alongside Nigeria in its war against terrorism and supported the armed forces by providing equipment, training, and funds to procure modern and sophisticated means to enhance effectiveness in battle field. Although the Nigerian Army seems to be overwhelmed and demoralized, its priorities are divided between fighting Boko Haram insurgency in the north, controlling militancy and oil theft in the Niger Delta, and calming tribal conflicts in the middle-belt. Its image has suffered too much damage in the eyes of Nigerians and the international community, mainly because of the way it has been handling the war against Boko Haram for the past five years. Over the years, Boko Haram has repeatedly embarked on massive propaganda operations, using social media to demonize the Nigerian army. Through so many of its online propaganda campaigns, the group has portrayed the army as weak, cowardly and unable to fight; a depiction which was not far from reality. Boko Haram as a hybrid and learning organization adopted the Perception Warfare. By rational and successful use of the media they captured the minds, the hearts and souls of the Islamic population in North-East Nigeria.

Boko Haram's success in creating a 'state within a state' was due to the corruption phenomena that paralyzed the Army. Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, a security analyst from French Institute of Geopolitics in the University of Paris, argued in 2015 that President Goodluck Jonathan was unable to win the fight against the terrorist group led by Abubakar Shekau, and that Nigeria's chances of defeating Boko Haram are being hampered by corruption inside the Nigerian army. According to Montclos, the problem could be dealt with if there was a change in governance following the country’s presidential elections which were held on February 14, 2015. "The best hope [of defeating Boko Haram] would be the elections. For me the problem is in Nigeria. The answer is in Nigeria," said Perouse de Montclos. He added: "I'm confident that so long as President Jonathan is in charge there isn’t much that can be done".[22]

On November 18, President Buhari revealed the dimensions of the corruption within the army and its influence on the troops’ performances in the North-East. The President claimed that: "Nigerian troops were denied weapons to fight Boko Haram and thousands of lives were lost because of rampant fraud in the procurement process […]."[23] He ordered anyone involved in corrupt multi-billion dollar deals for weapons and equipment to be 'brought to book' after receiving a report from a committee set up to probe the issue. It seems that President Buhari knows his people well. It was not a surprise when shortly after his order that Buhari’s anti-corruption investigation campaign implicated two high-ranking military figures: former National Security Advisor (NSA) Colonel Sambo Dasuki and ex-Nigerian Defense Minister Bello Haliru Mohammed.[24] The former is accused of stealing $2 billion worth of government funds earmarked for purchasing arms to fight Boko Haram, while the latter is alleged to have laundered some $1.5 million of arms money.[25] These events and actions indicate that from the beginning, the war against Boko Haram was doomed to fail.

At the beginning of this section, I used the idiom 'Catch 22' as a metaphor to describe the situation in Nigeria regarding the war against Boko Haram. The situation in the country is confused and unclear. There is a clear desire from security forces to eradicate Boko Haram and to restore peace in the country- the desired outcome. Achieving that goal/outcome by implementing various solutions (such as the use of force, CVE actions, Multinational Force, etc.) seems to be impossible and unattainable due to a set of inherently contradictory rules or conditions such as corruption, poor governability, religious and ethnical differences and quarrels and more.

If the federal government, under Buhari’s command, is looking for a 'silver bullet' solution to crush the insurgency with a single blow - they are mistaken. However, history showed to all countries painful lessons such as the British from their interactions with the IRA in Northern Ireland, the U.S. from their fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Iraq, France in Northern Africa, Israel from the Palestinians, Hamas and Hezbollah organizations, the USSR in Afghanistan, etc. Their conclusion must be very clear, as the former Minister of the Federal Capital Territory and current Governor of Kaduna, Nasir El-Rufai, once commented rhetorically: "Tell me where in the world military action alone has solved an insurgency […] You can never solve any of these problems with military solutions […] It is a political issue; it is a social issue; it is an economic issue; and until these issues are addressed, the military can never give you a solution."[26]

[1] Edward N. Luttwak, Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001), pp. 69-80; "Toward Post-Heroic Warfare," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 74, No. 3 (May-June 1995), pp. 109-122.

[2] In Dec. 24, 2015 President Muhammadu Buhari said Nigeria has "technically" defeated the Boko Haram militant group. Buhari explained that Nigerian forces have restricted the Boko Haram insurgency to fighting with improvised explosives devices (IEDs) and mostly limited their force to the center of Borno state. See: "President Buhari Says Nigeria Has 'Technically' Beaten Boko Haram," Time. 

[3]Jonathan replies Buhari; you're still fighting Boko Haram with arms I bought, Interview with France 24 on 28 January 2016. 

[4] Boko Haram: Lai Mohammed Accuses Jonathan of Buying Substandard Weapons, Point Blank News February 1, 2016. 

[5]Buhari : No territory under Boko Haram  -" I have attempted to explain in so many fora (plural of forum) that Boko Haram is not what it used to be. While they are firmly holding 14 out of 774 local governments when we came in, they are not holding any local government now." People's Daily, Feb 12th, 2016. ; 

[6] Talatu Usman, "Boko Haram not holding any Nigerian territory – Buhari," Premium Times, February 16, 2016. 

[7] When President Muhammed Buhari took over the mantle of leadership of Nigeria on the 29th of May 2015 as the Commander in-chief of the army forces of Nigeria, he gave an irreversible order to the military to, as matter of serious commitment and determination, end the awful activities of Boko Haram in the North-East region by December 2015.

[8] Nicholas Ibekwe," Boko Haram Terrorists Now Disguise As Fruit and Vegetable Sellers - Nigerian Military," Premium Times, 15 January 2016. 

[9] There were calls to ban wearing of the burqa in public after it was banned in Chad following a suicide-bomb attack in N’Djamena in which the female bomber concealed the bomb in her burqa. But such bans cannot be put in place in Nigeria because of the heightened religious tension and division in the country. There are some who view such as ban as an anti-Islam act. From a plot that was revealed on December 5th, 2014, after a suspected suicide bomber was apprehended at the entrance of the University of Maiduguri by members of the Civilian Joint Task Force, a non-military vigilante group, we know that Boko Haram had deployed more than 50 female suicide bombers throughout Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State in northeast Nigeria, intending to kill 100,000 people. See: Johnny Magdaleno, "Boko Haram Plans to Massacre 100,000 Nigerians with Female Suicide Bombers," Vice News (December 5, 2014). 

[10] Boko Haram is increasingly using young girls in its continuing insurgency, which has spread beyond northeastern Nigeria to neighboring countries Chad, Cameroon and Niger. Scott Stewart and Margaret Fox in an analysis, "An Unprecedented Use of Female Suicide Bombers," claimed that Boko Haram has used more female suicide bombers than any other militant group in history. See more at:;

[11]Global Reporters," Boko Haram: President Buhari lied to Nigerians – Sen. Baba Kaka Garbai," GR, February 10th, 2016.   

[12] Ibid.

[14] Andrew Essien, "Boko Haram Not Controlling Half Of Borno, Northern Clerics Blast Sen. Garbai," Leadership: Nigeria's Most Influential Newspaper, Feb 10, 2016 

[15] In my article titled: Defeating Boko Haram: The Reality on the Ground is Deceptive, dated 26 November 2015, I analyzed in depth the problems in North-East Nigeria. The article was published by the ICT. See: 

[16] Liberal democracy is highly respected as one of the better political systems in the world. The system is ruled by people who are democratically elected by the public, and who form a government that serves the people or acts in their best interest. In such a political system, any political changes should be made by public discussion with a free press and freedom of speech.

[17] Amnesty International, Nigeria: Stars on their Shoulders: Blood on their Hands: War Crimes Committed by the Nigerian Military, 2 June 2015, index number: A FR 44/1657/2015. 

[18] Martha Crenshaw, “Political Explanations in Addressing the Causes of Terrorism.” The Club de Madrid Series on: Democracy and Terrorism. Madrid: The International Summit on Democracy, 2005. pp. 13-17. 

[19] The failure of the state security agencies – the military, police, secret police – to confront Boko Haram insurgency and violence is sometimes attributed to incapacity. But many claim deep corruption prevents the military from containing the insurgencies.

[20] Despite being among Africa’s largest militaries and having played important roles in peacekeeping missions during civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia, Nigeria’s armed forces have been unable to stop Boko Haram. Corruption in the military and other security agencies is rooted in the government's uniquely strange and ambiguous understanding of the concept of security. "Security matters are highly sensitive", is a common statement in such circles, entrenching the idea that these matters need not be subject to public scrutiny.

[21] I have elaborated regarding these issues in a previous article. Refer to footnote no. 14.

[22] Corruption Blocking Nigerian Army From Beating Boko Haram, The Voice, 23/01/2015 

[23] AFP, Corruption hit Nigerian army, 18 November 2015 

[24] As an example to the type of procurement and the loss of military personnel, per President Buhari’s claim, I can cite the following story: in recent days, it has been revealed that Air-Vice Marshal Adesola Amosu and a former National Security Adviser (NSA) Col. Sambo Dasuki (retd.) purchased two unserviceable Mi-24V helicopters from unscrupulous defense contractors. These helicopters were missing the necessary parts to fly, including being without rotors. According to military sources, the air force leadership then took the rotors from another unserviceable Russian helicopter, a Mi-35P. In December 2014, Group Captain Ubong Akpan and Master Warrant Officer Zabesan Hosea boarded a Russian-made Mi-24V helicopter with the intent to carry out combat operations against Boko Haram terrorists in Adamawa State. Both air servicemen lost their lives when their helicopter crashed near Girei, Adamawa State. See: How Scandalous Corruption In The Nigerian Military Led To The Death Of Air Force Pilot, Others, Jan 18, 2016. .   On February 21st2016, following the presidential order, Amosu's wife returned N381m (around $1.5m) to the state,. See: Air Force Chief's wife, Amosu, returns stolen N381m to FG, 

[25]The Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai, has directed all officers of the Nigerian Army who have not declared their assets to do so immediately, the Nigerian Army said in a statement on January 21st. Conor Gaffey, Nigerian Army Orders Officers to Declare Assets in Corruption Clampdown, Newsweek, January 1st .2016.  ; 

[26]Max Siollun, "How Boko Haram can be defeated," New African, 19 January 2015.