….Army corruption, troop mutinies, alienated citizens and a lack of political will among reasons that militants continue to thrive
By Luke Harding
Nigeria’s current military strategy for defeating Boko Horam is unlikely to succeed, analysts have warned, with the international community largely powerless to defeat the increasingly rampant Islamist group.
Corruption inside the Nigerian army, unpaid wages, and mutinies among troops have all facilitated Boko Haram’s rise, they said. On Sunday the sect, which has killed thousands in its bid to carve out an Islamic state in northern Nigeria, kidnapped about 80 people in neighbouring Cameroon. The victims of this latest cross-border attack included many children. The Cameroon army subsequently managed to free 20 of the hostages.
Dr Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, an associate fellow at Chatham House’s Africa programme, said Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, had been manifestly unable to halt Boko Haram’s advance. The opposition leader, Gen Muhammadu Buhari, who is seeking to unseat Jonathan in the election on 14 February, may be better able to overhaul the country’s dysfunctional military, he suggested.
“The best hope [of defeating Boko Haram] would be the elections. For me the problem is in Nigeria. The answer is in Nigeria.” He added: “I’m confident that so long as President Jonathan is in charge there isn’t much that can be done. He isn’t in control of the military leadership. And the leadership doesn’t control the soldiers on the ground.”
Others, however, were sceptical that the elections would bring about change, predicting instead that they would further polarise divisions between a largely Muslim north and Christian south. Buhari, a Muslim, draws most of his support from Nigeria’s northern provinces, where Boko Haram is active. The group rejects the idea of a secular state. It has promised to disrupt the polls.
“Nigerian politics is a violent and dangerous game. Gangs of thugs are hired to intimidate rivals,” Martin Roberts, senior Africa analyst at IHS Global Insight, said. Roberts predicted that neither side would concede defeat, with suspicion in the north that Jonathan was deliberately allowing Boko Haram to flourish in an attempt to disenfranchise Buhari’s supporters.
Montclos, meanwhile, said there was relatively little the international community could do, following several well-meaning but doomed attempts to boost the Nigerian military.
The US offered surveillance and intelligence help after Boko Haram kidnapped 279 schoolgirls last April during a raid in Chibok, deep in north-eastern Nigeria, sparking global outrage. But an American plan to equip a new Nigerian battalion ended last month in an acrimonious squabble between Washington and Abuja.
Nigerian commanders insisted that the US supply them with attack helicopters and fighter jets to wipe out Boko Haram, something that the White House was unwilling to do, given the army’s poor human rights record. The Nigerian government then abruptly terminated the final phase of the programme. Successive central governments have also deliberately hollowed out the army because of a pervasive fear it could stage a coup.
Tensions between Nigeria and its neighbours, meanwhile, made the prospect of a regional peacekeeping operation fraught.
At a summit last May the French president, François Hollande, announced a new regional force, comprising troops from Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and the Republic of Niger. Each country was meant to supply 700 troops.
But by November the force had failed to materialise. Ghana’s president, John Mahama, who currently heads the west African Ecowas bloc, last week said that an army to fight Boko Haram could be created under African Union auspices. “It’s pie in the sky. It isn’t going to happen,” Roberts predicted.
With Boko Haram staging a series of audacious cross-border raids, Nigeria’s neighbours were now busy defending their own territory. On Monday a convoy of troops from Chad arrived in Maroua, the main town in Cameroon’s far north.
The Chadian army – which helped French forces drive out al-Qaida-linked jihadis from northern Mali in 2013 – has deployed around 2,000 soldiers. Cameroon has also sent thousands of additional troops to its border with Nigeria.
According to Montclos, Chad’s chief goal is to protect its economic interests. Much of Chad’s oil is exported via northern Cameroon. “This is the main reason they intervened,” he said.
The obstacles preventing a regional task force appear insurmountable, observers say. Cameroon and Nigeria have difficult relations.
Niger – a stable, smaller state, with a relatively disciplined army – has found it impossible to coordinate actions against Boko Haram with its Nigerian counterpart.
“Military officers from the Republic of Niger complain that when they call the Nigerian army nobody picks up. What kind of regional cooperation are we talking about?” Montclos asked.
His recent Chatham House report argues that Boko Haram, which has taken control of Borno state in Nigeria’s north-east, is adept at exploiting the state’s chronic institutional weaknesses.
It knows the local terrain well, can navigate around a demoralised and deficient security presence, and is able to attack villages with total impunity. Government troops on the ground suffer from low morale. Local vigilante forces have been unable to stave off violent Boko Haram operations.
On 3 January Boko Haram launched a bloody assault on the towns of Baga and Doron, killing hundreds and razing the area to the ground. Roberts said that army had withdrawn ahead of the raid, after being told the Nigerian air force was about to bomb the rebels. But the plane never arrived. Typically, the army runs away when Boko Haram advances, he said.
Since 2009 Nigeria’s security forces have waged a brutal anti-insurgency campaign, characterised by massacres, extra-judicial killings and arrests without trial.
This onslaught has alienated many civilians and driven communities into the arms of Boko Haram. This repression has driven recruitment, with Boko Haram expanding from an estimated 4,000 members in 2009 to 6,000-8,000 in 2014.
A new report on Tuesday said that the rapidly escalating insurgency had forced a million people to flee their homes. The International Organisation of Migration said there was “growing evidence” of turmoil spreading across Nigeria’s frontiers into neighbouring Cameroon, Niger and Chad, in addition to those internally displaced by the fighting.