On the evening of Friday, September 7 2018, fighters loyal to the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) raised their flag over Gudumbali, the headquarters of Guzamala Local Government Area in Borno state. Soldiers and policemen in town abandoned their positions, and in some instances discarded their uniforms as they sought to escape the advancing terrorists. What was striking was the speed with which the military lost control of Gudumbali, a strategic town that lies on the road between Damasak and Monguno. This attack happened less than a week after 145 Battalion was attacked in Zari, 51km away, leading to the loss of 48 soldiers. Belatedly, the military launched a counter-attack to retake the town on the evening of Saturday, 8 September. As of the time of writing this report, the operation is still ongoing with fighting having spread as far as Kukawa, 43km away.
2018 is likely to go down as the year of the debacle – the year in which the gulf between official claims of Boko Haram’s technical defeat and the sordid reality of a resilient insurgency that is unlikely to end soon was cruelly exposed. Last week’s attack on Gudumbali was a milestone in a series of reversals that has been inflicted on the Nigerian Army over the past six months. These reversals have coincided with the offensive launched by ISWAP, whose leader, Abu Musab al Barnawi, favours a streamlined ruthlessness that targets the armed forces. The ISWAP offensive has seen a mounting spate of ambushes of military convoys and attacks on military bases that are estimated to have claimed the lives of at least 600 Nigerian troops this year so far. In the whole of 2017, the army recorded 300 casualties. A feature of ISWAP’s attacks has been the seizure of uniforms and armaments from sacked bases adding to the group’s already formidable arsenal.
These setbacks are driven by a number of factors. The army which is also presently deployed in at least 30 states of the federation, is spread too thin and cannot secure the vast expanse of Borno which at almost 71,000sq.km, is Nigeria’s second largest state by landmass. The counter-insurgency campaign also suffers from the lack of adequate air support. The discontinuation of the 2014 contract with STEPP, the South African private military contractor has vastly reduced the air-strike capabilities of the Nigerian forces, and diminished the threat to the insurgents. In addition, Borno’s unguarded borders with three other countries – Cameroon, Chad and Niger – enables insurgents to move fluidly across borders and hibernate in pockets of territory. For all intents and purposes, the Nigerian military is confronting a transnational insurgency which now transcends binary categories of either internal insurrection or international conflict. Its enemy is nimble and mobile, and able to flow through permeable boundaries in ways that the army cannot. In short, Nigeria may be a fragile state but the fact that she shares borders with states that are even more anaemic complicates the scenario.
ISWAP were said to have declared that they were targeting only the military. Even so, continued fighting is bound to have repercussions for the planned return on displaced persons to their communities. Public confidence in the ability of the government to organise a safe, secure and sustainable return of IDPs can only have been diminished. It appears that with the new stance, ISWAP is telling the civilian population that it is more capable of keeping them safe in the volatile environment than the government is able to do. It will be a serious victory for the insurgents if they are successful with this messaging and the people begin to return to their homes, not in obedience to the government but believing the assurances of the insurgents.
Going forward, it is important to ask what is the objective of ISWAP in this series of attacks?
It is possible that although they are supposed to be rivals, Abubakar Shekau’s Boko Haram, and Al-Barnawi’s ISWAP are in fact complementary in the wider strategic viewpoint. Through its operations ISWAP degrades the morale and capabilities of a poorly led military to protect the communities under attack from Shekau’s people. Through their operations, the Shekau’s faction saps the morale of the community to work with or support the military. As long as this tag team effort continues, the likelihood of the collapse of Maiduguri and Borno State grows. If this continues, the possibility exists that people will shift allegiance increasingly to ISWAP. We believe that ISWAP knows this, and is counting on it with an assault on Maiduguri likely to come sometime in Q1 2019, when the Nigerian military is even more distracted by the 2019 General Elections. It must be noted that July 2019 makes it exactly 10 years since the murder of the founder of the movement, Mohammed Yusuf, and this is a significant anniversary. The capture of Maiduguri at that time will be a huge morale booster for the insurgents. The risk then is that with so many ungoverned spaces, community leaders in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa North, will be sucked into a system of shifting alliances, making the region the equivalent of the fiefdoms that govern so many parts of Somalia. That outcome, is now very possible.