Wednesday, September 10, 2014

It's Just Africa: Boko Haram Sweeps Nigeria

In the months since The Global Atlas last wrote about Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Sunni jihadist terrorist group has swept the countryside in full force, with leader Abubaker Shekau declaring an Islamic caliphate in Gwoza, Borno state. This is the second such caliphate to be declared after another jihadist group, Islamic State, similarly declared an Islamic caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria. The extent of the territory claimed by Boko Haram remains in flux with a stronghold in Borno state, but Boko Haram is moving at an alarming pace in expanding the number of cities and towns under its control.

Originally engaging in selective killings and guerrilla style hit-and-run attacks, Boko Haram has shifted gears, capturing and holding territory as part of the ‘Islamic caliphate’ as well as stepping up the degree of violence in its attacks, to the extent of essentially going on killing sprees in captured territory. The marked increase in violence has prompted an exodus of the civilian population in the twin cities of Gamboru and Ngala in northeastern Nigeria into neighboring Cameroon. Among those who have been killed were Gamboru’s highest Muslim cleric and the head of the traders’ union.  In the past 24 hours, the son of Nigeria’s former President Olusegun Obasanjo has been injured, shot by militants in Baza as the Nigerian army battled to stop Boko Haram’s southward expansion and recapture key towns in Adamawa state. The Obasanjo family has a long-standing commitment to a united Nigeria, and Olusegun Obasanjo fought in the Nigerian military in the late 1960s civil war to prevent the southeast region of the country from seceding to form the new state of Biafra.  

Given its recent successes, Boko Haram poses the greatest threat to Nigeria’s territorial integrity since the Biafran War. Counterterrorism analysts warn that Boko Haram is close to creating a cohesive Islamic state with each successive town it captures. As it stands, the towns reportedly controlled by the terrorist group in addition to Gwoza and Michika are Madagali, Gulak, Damboa, Buni Yadi, Bama, Banki, Dikwa, Ngala, and Marte. The majority of these towns are in Borno state, while three are in neighboring Adamawa state, on the Nigerian border with Cameroon. The expansion emphasizes the heightened capabilities of Boko Haram, which is overrunning Nigeria rather rapidly in the several months since breaking out of the dense forests and mountainous territory on the Nigeria-Cameroon border. The group has captured and is using armored vehicles and heavy weaponry, allowing for both rapid expansion, and defense of multiple fronts against the Nigerian military.

Thousands of people have fled the towns and villages now under Boko Haram control, and have taken refuge in Borno’s capital city of Maiduguri, but fears are mounting that this city will be the terrorists’ next target. Maiduguri’s civilian population has actively resisted elements of Boko Haram, with vigilante youth groups known as Yan Gora, or “Civilian Joint Task Force” (CJTF), mobilizing to assist state security forces through reporting known Boko Haram members or through combat support, killing extremist elements with machetes and sticks. While the CJTF efforts have seen some success, they have also prompted Boko Haram to increasingly target civilians, particularly the Nigerian youth population. Security experts have also expressed the valid concern that unregulated militias of dissatisfied and economically stifled youth are essentially a security crisis waiting to happen.

In May of 2013, the Nigerian government imposed a state of emergency in Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe states, which failed spectacularly in crushing the jihadist movement in both reality and spirit. Since then, Boko Haram has intensified its offensive operations. Last month, the insurgents attacked a police training academy outside Gwoza, leaving twenty Nigerian police officers still missing, and in April, the extremist group made international headlines by kidnapping more than 300 girls from a Chibok boarding school.  

The UN estimates that more than 1.5 million people have been forced from their homes since the state of emergency was declared. An estimated 50,000 displaced Nigerians have sought refuge in Niger since May 2013. In the past couple of weeks alone, approximately 9,000 refugees have crossed into Cameroon and approximately 2,000 refugees have crossed into Niger.

Fear and panic are spreading as the group advances into Adamawa state. The university and all businesses in Mubi town have closed, and nearly all 60,000 former residents have fled. Residents of Adamawa state have been seeking refuge in Adamawa state's capital city of Yola, in the camps at Doubeli and Girei on the outskirts of Yola, or fleeing to the neighboring state of Gombe. The Nigerian Emergency Management Agency estimates that nearly 26,000 people have fled Bama, and that the exodus of civilians, mostly farmers, will lead to a food crisis.

This week, the Nigerian military reported that it had employed airstrikes on Boko Haram hideouts to complement the efforts of ground troops in resisting the insurgents’ southward expansion into Adamawa state. The military succeeded in recapturing certain flashpoint towns such as Bama in northeast Borno state and sent troops to reinforce defensive positions around Mubi town to prevent further southward expansion by the militants. However, there are troubling reports that the Nigerian military (operating budget of $2.3 billion) is struggling to pay and feed troops on the front lines, and consequently prevent desertion by and ensure the loyalty of its troops. 

President Goodluck Jonathan's administration has already discussed defensive measures such as joint border patrols and intelligence sharing with neighboring countries, Chad, Niger, and Cameroon, with the aims of disrupting recruitment of Tuareg and other jihadist fighters from Niger and Mali and preventing illicit cross border movement of arms and ammunition. The Nigerian government’s rapid loss of control over key towns in the northeastern states is a serious concern, prompting the United States to announce the launch of a border security program for Nigeria and neighboring countries to fight Boko Haram.

While crucial to ensuring security, military operations alone cannot change the environment that has allowed Boko Haram to flourish thus far. To rout the terrorist group from Nigerian soil, tangible steps must be taken to change the socioeconomic realities within the country. A standstill economy, an increasing sectarian divide between the country's Christian and Muslim populations, and porous and poorly defended borders play a role in Boko Haram's success. The government must also acknowledge the unique toll these realities take on the youth population. Underemployed Nigerian youth with rapidly diminishing faith in their political and societal leaders to provide them with stability and security are much more likely to be swayed by the rhetoric and promises of Boko Haram’s recruiters.

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