Sunday’s deadly suicide attack on a Sallah procession in Damboa, Borno State which claimed 31 lives underscores not only the resilience of the Boko Haram insurgency that has lasted for nine years, but the evolving nature of the conflict itself. This latest incident fits the profile of attacks on soft targets carried out by female suicide bombers. In the face of these attacks which are now so frequent as to have become routine, the Buhari administration has dialled down its claims of having “technically defeated” Boko Haram. In his Democracy Day broadcast on May 29, President Buhari refrained from claiming that Boko Haram has been defeated opting instead to say that the group has been “degraded.” The narrative of having “technically defeated” the insurgents has always been problematic given the continuing spate of attacks. The administration has often sought to clarify its stance by explaining that Boko Haram no longer exercises the sort of territorial control that it did in 2014.
This claim is diversionary.
Until the Nigerian military’s reversals in 2013-2014 emboldened the insurgents to declare their caliphate in Gwoza, territorial control was never a huge part of their agenda. Their endgame has always been a return to Maiduguri since their expulsion from the city in 2013 as evidenced by their serial attempts to breach Maiduguri’s defences. These attempts have always been successfully repelled by the military. Boko Haram may no longer exercise the sort of free-ranging territorial ambition that it was brazenly demonstrating in 2014 but the more significant concern is that vast swathes of land in the North-East are not controlled by the Nigerian state either. These places are effectively ungoverned spaces where the insurgents or criminal elements can hide. As the state with the second largest land mass in Nigeria, Borno’s size has long posed a challenge for the Nigerian military which simply lacks the manpower to effectively cover its expansive terrain. The northernmost fringes of Borno around Lake Chad remain hotbeds of insurgent activity.
The factionalisation of Boko Haram has further complicated an already fluid conflict. Paradoxically, while these violent schisms created attritional strife between rival factions of the insurgent group, they have also made for an even more complex operational scenario. In summary, the Nigerian state is no longer facing one coherent entity but at least three different manifestations of a highly mobile enemy. This has intensified the asymmetry of the conflict.
While the transition away from a military phase continues, it is worth noting that the conflict has ebbed and flowed over the last half-decade and while a return to core military action could occur in the near future given Boko Haram’s historic ability to remake itself as a fighting force, what the security authorities should focus on in the short term is effective police action. In other words, the military phase of this conflict is largely over, and has been for a while in practical terms. The extant security challenges of the region, like in most of Nigeria, levy a demand not for more military hardware (although for the North-East this is important) but for investments that will enhance the policing and intelligence architecture.
Breaking up the insurgents’ local cells and their channels of recruitment and indoctrination require high grade intelligence gathering as well as penetration by covert assets. The profile of at risk locations has remained consistent. Insurgents have set their sights on soft targets – markets, mosques, parks, schools and other public places of low resistance but with a high yield in casualties. These locations require vigilance and protection by the police and the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps. Nigeria’s military is overworked and overstretched having been tasked to fill both combat and constabulary roles in the North-East and in other theatres of conflict nationwide. Troops are also worn out by infrequent rotation and protracted tours of duty.
The comparatively low mobilisation rates of other agencies in the North-East such as the police and the Civil Defence Corps has not only placed an impossible burden on the military, it has created security gaps that have significantly undermined efforts to resettle displaced persons in liberated communities. The lack of adequate security arrangements to build on the military’s successes in reclaiming areas previously held by insurgents particularly under Operation Deep Punch and Operation Last Hold have eroded public confidence in the sustainability or feasibility of mass relocation of the displaced to liberated communities.
In March, the military reopened the Maiduguri-Bama-Banki corridor, a strategic 75 kilometre-artery that had been closed for four years due to the insurgency. Amid the euphoric reaction to the reopening of the road, the Theatre Commander of Operation Lafiya Dole, Major General Rogers Nicholas cautioned that while the military had secured the highway and would provide escorts for road users, landmines remained a potential threat on the route. At the end of the same month, the Acting Brigade Commander of the 21st Armoured Brigade, Colonel Garba Nura told visiting dignitaries including Governor Kashim Shettima that that though Bama has been secured, he still could not give 100 percent guarantee that Boko Haram has lost its offensive capabilities. He stressed the need for more paramilitary and law enforcement personnel to be deployed to the town and for police sweeps of the locale for unexploded ordnance as conditions for the return of civilians. Twice (in 2017 and this year), the Borno State Government has had to postpone the resettlement of displaced persons owing to serious concerns about security.
An ideal security strategy for the North-East would entail the deepening of covert and intelligence capacities to preempt suicide bomb attacks, the adequate mobilisation of the policeNPF and the NSCDC for constabulary and protection services, and the liberation of the military, with adequate resources, to engage in search and destroy missions further afield in the region’s ungoverned hinterlands. It is also necessary to capacitate the police Explosives and Ordnance Department (EOD) to sweep liberated communities for unexploded ordnance and mines prior to the return of displaced persons. The unpoliced borders which the North-East shares with three neighbouring countries have greatly enabled the insurgents’ transnational footprint and remains a critical vulnerability for the Nigerian state. Without a strategy to secure borders in what is a volatile regional neighbourhood, the insurgency will endure, fed by the plenitude of spaces across multiple borders in which mobile bands of fighters can hibernate after striking their targets. Without enhancing non-military aspects of the security value chain, the insurgents will continue to disrupt life in the region to deadly effect despite the best efforts of the military.