For ten years the Islamic extremist group popularly known as Boko Haram has been waging a ferocious war against Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger. A war which started in the North Eastern Nigerian state of Borno in 2009 has expanded to Northern Cameroon, Southern Chad and Niger over the past decade. The response from these four countries has been vehement, with sophisticated weaponry and elite military personnel dispatched to annihilate the group from the surface of the earth. International response has also been enormous, with partners in what former American President, George Bush Jr, described as the war against terrorism joining efforts to counteract Boko Haram. In one of these instances in October 2015, the U.S. government under President Obama dispatched 300 U.S. forces to the North of Cameroon. Assisted by drones, these soldiers’ main mission was to provide intelligence to the Cameroonian military and the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) set up by the four countries directly engaging Boko Haram. The war against Boko Haram has made Cameroon a strategic partner of the United States in the fight against global terrorism. Similar assistance and initiatives have been taking place in the other countries, especially in Nigeria where the group has its main basis.
Despite this military might and the pumping of billions of dollars, the greatest success story of these four nations and their allies over these ten years seems to have been the ejection of Boko Haram from its former principal base (caliphate) in Borno state, as well as a reduction in its activities. However, despite systematic blows to its operational capabilities, the group is still able to launch ferocious and audacious attacks against the military and civilian population.
The fight against Boko Haram
The war against Boko Haram is shrouded in much secrecy, to the extent that there is no disclosed military or counterinsurgency budget by countries engaged in the fight. However, looking at the hardware and manpower deployed to the fight, these countries and their partners have dedicated a good chunk of their national budget to outsmart Boko Haram. In most cases, elite forces have been at the forefront with upgraded weaponry, drones and surveillance machinery as well. However, all these have instead driven Boko Haram wild and since 2017 the group has been using suicide child bombers to hit its targets.
In June 2013, the then Nigerian President, Goodluck Jonathan authorized the categorization of Boko Haram as a terrorist group. In November, the U.S. State Department took a similar move, naming Boko Haram and sister group Ansaru, Foreign Terrorist Groups (FTGs). In the same year, the Nigerian government explored possibilities of granting amnesty to Boko Haram members. According to Crisis Group, in 2011 the Federal Government of Nigeria either refused or betrayed the group’s trust for negotiations. Another round of negotiations were held on 16th September 2011 under the auspices of former President Olusegun Obasanjo and Boko Haram laid down conditions for a temporary ceasefire, including release of arrested members, compensation of those killed and prosecution of those suspected in the death of its founding leader, Muhammed Yusuf in police custody in 2009. The government refused these conditions and the two sides went their separate ways, ensuring the continuation of violence, with civilians paying the highest price.
With the naming of Boko Haram as a terrorist group by both the Nigerian and U.S. governments, the group’s activities increased – after a lull between 2009 and 2011 – and by 2013, they had become very sophisticated and highly equipped. Some analysts and Northern politicians advised the government of Nigeria to refrain from calling the group a “terrorist” group and to instead foster negotiations through a trusted third party. However, with the elections in 2015, President Jonathan was bent on scoring more political points, appeasing his foreign partners and assuring them of the seriousness of his government by kicking out the group. However, this move instead unveiled the real war, which took a different form beginning in 2013.
In one attack in September 2013, Boko Haram mounted a fake checkpoint as its members dressed in military fatigues and killed about 143 people, burning vehicles and goods. In April 2014, the group made headline news around the world by attacking a boarding school in Borno state and abducting more than 276 girls from the village of Chibok.
Boko Haram dwells on an ideology wherein fighters consider death as a more honourable state than a “sinful” life, which is why any form of violence against them serves as a catalyst for more attacks. Many offer themselves as sacrifices for their cause, an act which serves only to strengthen this ideology and recruit more fighters.
A War Without End?
As the group gained notoriety among the mainly poor and less privileged Northerners known as the Almajiris in North Eastern Nigeria and Cameroon, from where it recruits most of its fighters, more and more attacks were being staged. One of the bloodiest was the Baga massacre on 3rd January 2015, where it is feared that about 2000 people were slaughtered. Despite these attacks, Boko Haram was also losing grounds and territory, including Damasak in North Eastern Nigeria, following a joint operation by Nigerian and Chadian forces. Between 2015 and 2018, thousands of hostages allegedly taken by the group were also rescued by the militaries of the concerned countries. In Cameroon, the group was pushed out of territories such as Kerewa in the Far North region of the country. In August 2016, Major General Lucky Irabor of the Nigerian military announced that the group had been pushed out of most of the towns and villages and that it only controlled some areas around the Lake Chad region and the Sambisa forest. While taking office in 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari promised to wipe Boko Haram from the surface of the earth before the end of the year. And in 2016, Buhari announced that the group had been technically defeated.
Despite all these challenges to its capacity, in January 2019, Boko Haram resurfaced with more attacks in Nigeria, which the UN said forced about 30,000 people to cross the border into Cameroon. In March, it attacked the Chadian town of Dangdala, killing 23 soldiers in what became one of the worst attacks on the Chadian military by Boko Haram. In Cameroon, the attacks have in recent months become almost daily, with villagers and members of the military paying the price. In June 2019, a series of attacks staged by suspected members of the group in some localities in Cameroon including Kolofata, Darak and Nguetchewe left about 37 people dead according to local newspapers. The government later on announced that 17 soldiers were killed and President Paul Biya declared a day of national mourning in what was described as the deadliest attack by the group in recent times.
Even though officially recognized in 2002 following its activities at the Muhammadu Ndimi Mosque in Maiduguri, Borno state, Nigeria, the roots of Boko Haram can be traced back to the days of the Maitatsine uprisings in the 1980s staged by Muhammed Marwa, a Cameroonian who moved to Nigeria shortly before independence. Marwa claimed to be a Muslim Cleric and wanted to “purify” the form of Islam practiced in the North. Just like Boko Haram, he claimed Western influence had polluted the Nigerian society and needed cleansing via the strict application of Sharia law. His hardline version of Islam was appealing to many who joined the movement and waged an uprising especially when security forces confronted them with violence. By 1980, the Maitatsine movement could boast of between 8,000 to 12,000 followers, mostly recruited among the Almajiris. In the bloody uprising of 1980 Marwa was killed by security forces.
The failure of the Nigerian government to negotiate the Maitatsine uprising only led to a lull in violence which re-emerged about two decades later, with the emergence of Muhammed Yusuf, the founder of Jama’atu Ahlus-Sunnah Lidda’Awati Wal Jihad (People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teaching and Jihad), also known as Boko Haram because of its abhorrence of Western education. Since March 2015, the group has become known as the Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA).
After close to two decades of fighting and death of tens of thousands of persons, the U.S. government is today negotiating with the Taliban because not even the killing of Bin Laden ended extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The governments of Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger have to reconsider their positions in the conflict and consider other means of managing the situation because 10 years of violence has instead plunged the population into more hardship and the four countries have not become any safer. The governments of these countries should enhance sustainable development which would make sure that youths do not fall into the waiting hands of radicalism.
From a July 2009 uprising wherein about 700 members of the group, which until then was not directly involved in violence, were killed, including its founder Muhammed Yusuf, and after ten years of an uprising, a regional problem has become an international question. After branding the IRA (Irish Republican Army) a terrorist organization, the government of the United Kingdom only knew peace following negotiations with the Irish based movement, even though its leader was accused of killing a relative of Her Royal Majesty. If this is possible, then a similar situation can be upheld in Africa, with an African approach for an African solution.