Date first published: 03/04/2018
Key risks:terrorism; insurgency
In June 2017 Nigeria’s army chief, Tukur Buratai, declared that Boko Haram had been defeated. President Muhammadu Buhari made a similar claim in December 2015. Yet the group continues to conduct regular attacks in Nigeria’s northeast, as well as further afield across the Lake Chad Basin and in Niger. Most recently, on 1 April the group conducted a coordinated attack on the Nigerian city of Maiduguri that left at least 15 dead and over 80 injured. Next year will mark 10 years since the beginning of the Boko Haram insurgency. It will also be an election year, and the government’s failure to eradicate the jihadist group will be perhaps the most important campaign issue.
It is no coincidence that, with an election fast approaching, the government has revealed it is in talks with Boko Haram over a potential ceasefire and a permanent resolution to the group’s insurgency. Ending the threat posed by the Islamic State-aligned group would build political capital ahead of the vote, but Information Minister Lai Mohammed’s admission that talks have been ongoing for some time has so far drawn a less favourable reaction than the government might have hoped for. The government’s previous declarations of victory have been mocked while political opponents have said the talks are an admission the military is unable to secure victory and have criticised reports of an amnesty offer.
The military has had some success in winning back territory formerly held by Boko Haram. This has been aided by an increase in military spending, including the planned purchase of 12 Super Tucano A-29 surveillance and military planes from the United States. However, the delayed sale is illustrative of the flaws that have permeated the counterinsurgency. Former US president Barack Obama suspended the sale shortly after the Nigerian Air Force bombed a refugee camp and killed over 100 civilians. The incident is just one of many missteps by the military that has raised concerns over its commitment to human rights and ability to win hearts and minds. The creation of fake defence contracts by high-level officials, the proceeds of which are then laundered abroad, has also undermined the fight. In addition, in March 2018 over 1000 refugees signed a letter to the president saying they were being forced to trade sex for food with soldiers in one of Borno State’s refugee camps, further fuelling human rights concerns.
It is not clear who exactly the government is negotiating with. Boko Haram has split into at least two, possibly more, factions. There is one led by Abubakar Shekau, who is reported to have previously killed followers who sought to negotiate, and one led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi. The al-Barnawi faction is supposedly more open to negotiations and thus the likely negotiating partner, but this means successful negotiations would only end one threat and not the other. Consequently, it remains likely that attacks will continue to blight the northeast for the foreseeable future. Buhari’s standing ahead of next year’s election is thus diminishing as he continues to struggle to make good on his previous two, intertwined election promises: to tackle corruption and defeat Boko Haram. Three years on from that election, the two continue to pose the greatest threat to development.