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Jacob Zenn is a Fellow on African and Eurasian Affairs at The Jamestown Foundation.
The latest news from northeastern Nigeria is that the Nigerian army will erect fortresses around the region’s larger towns to prevent Boko Haram raids and allow farmers to tend their fields in safety. This strategy should also in theory allow displaced people to return to the towns that they abandoned after Boko Haram incursions. Whether or not this strategy can keep Boko Haram out for good is one question. But the other question is, “what does this say about the state of the insurgency in northeastern Nigeria?”
In August 2014, Abubakr Shekau, leader of Boko Haram, announced the creation of an Islamic state after amassing significant territory in northeastern Nigeria and the surrounding region. Months later in March 2015, he pledged loyalty to Abubakr al-Baghdadi of the Islamic State and renamed Boko Haram the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). While at least some of this conquered territory has since been recaptured by the government, the “fortress strategy” put forward by the Nigerian military shows that only the major towns in Borno State remain in government control, which itself is tenuous. Several kilometers outside of those towns Boko Haram still operates freely.
A UN report from September 30, 2017 shows that eastern Yobe State, northeastern Adamawa State, and virtually all of Borno State, aside from its capital of Maiduguri and other large towns, remain “not accessible” or “partially accessible” to the UN because of the threat of insurgent attacks. Even parts of Borno that are “accessible,” such as Magumeri, are still highly insecure. Magumeri is where ISWAP militants, loyal to Abu Musab al-Barnawi and travelling in a convoy of forty-five vehicles, were able to kill dozens of Nigerian soldiers and kidnap University of Maiduguri professors on an oil exploring mission in July 2017.
In August 2016, Abu Musab al-Barnawi was appointed as leader of ISWAP and Shekau was demoted from the position by Islamic State for reasons that Islamic State has not made clear. However, the decision was likely related to Shekau’s loss of support among ISWAP fighters. Al-Barnawi’s ally, Mamman Nur, for instance, claimed that Shekau killed anyone that he considered to be a threat his authority, including a weapons expert who simply had a dream that Shekau should not take women as slaves.
Despite Shekau’s demotion from ISWAP, he still has militants loyal to him around Sambisa Forest. A recent video from November 2017 shows Shekau’s fighters ambushing Nigerian troops and stealing a tank near Sambisa. Shekau’s fighters have also been able to send suicide bombers to attack the University of Maiduguri three times in 2017, and his faction recently carried out a suicide bombing at a mosque in Adamawa State that killed at least fifty worshippers. This shows Shekau’s faction has reach beyond Sambisa. Moreover, Shekau also has enough control over his faction to have authorized the exchange of more than eighty kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls in May 2017; ISWAP under Abu Musab al-Barnawi, however, reportedly still holds more than one-hundred other Chibok schoolgirls in its territory.
What this means is that much like the challenge for the U.S. and Afghan army in Afghanistan, the Nigerian army now has enough strength to control population centers but not rural areas. The population, caught in the middle, may not be in favor of the insurgents but the retribution that ISWAP and Shekau’s faction can inflict on anyone who collaborates with the government is enough to keep the population passive. In such a situation the insurgents can take advantage of their superior knowledge of the socio-cultural and physical terrain in northeastern Nigeria to harass the Nigerian army, at least outside of these new “fortresses”.
Nigeria now faces a classic counterinsurgency scenario, and it may be an uphill battle to shift the current status quo in its favor instead of playing defense.