from Africa in Transition

The Boko Haram War Machine

October 08, 2014

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Sub-Saharan Africa


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This is a guest post by Allen Grane, research associate for the Council on Foreign Relations Africa Studies program. Allen is an officer in the U.S. Army National Guard.

In early September there were reports that the Nigerian military captured a “quad barreled ZSU-23-4 Shilka” anti-aircraft gun that was mounted on a Toyota technical truck, from Boko Haram. Sahara Reporters later confirmed that the Nigerian military captured heavy weapons systems from Boko Haram such as a T-55 tank and a Panhard ERC-90 “Sagaie.” Now that we know the kind of weaponry in Boko Haram’s possession, we are left with two major questions.

First, can Boko Haram operate these weapons systems? While T-55’s and ZSU-23-4 “Shilka’s” are not the most advanced weapon systems, it does require some training to operate these systems properly (in Shekau’s latest video he loses control of a heavy machine gun he was firing). With time and practice, it is quite feasible that Boko Haram insurgents could learn to use these systems. It would seem that they have the experience needed as Boko Haram apparently shot down a Nigerian jet in early September with an anti-aircraft system similar to the captured Shilka.

The real difficulty in operating systems such as the T-55 and the “Sagaie” is more a matter of logistics than training. Vehicles need parts. Guns need bullets. And, tanks need gas. It is difficult for modern militaries like the United States to keep 100 percent of their tanks functional. These are machines that require an immense amount of maintenance and repair. If Boko Haram is somehow able to keep its heavy weaponry in working order, it will have to fuel them in order to use them in the fight against the Nigerian military. The basic fuel load on a T-55 tank carries 254 gallons of fuel which gives the T-55 a range of 242 miles. That means that a T-55 tank gets less than one mile per gallon of gas.

This raises a second question: if Boko Haram is able to use its heavy weaponry, how does it supply its logistical needs? The personnel to maintain the equipment would almost certainly come from one of the militaries in the region. But, where do the parts, bullets, and the fuel come from? There are varying hypotheses regarding the origin of the weaponry. It is possible that it comes from Libya or even the Nigerian military itself. Most likely, the equipment comes from various sources. Does Boko Haram get its fuel from Nigeria or other sources in the region? T-55’s run on diesel fuel. Some "bunkered" oil is "cooked" into diesel for domestic use in Nigeria. Boko Haram may draw on this source of supply. That does not preclude Boko Haram from acquiring diesel from outside of the region as well. It remains unclear where Boko Haram accesses fuel reserves necessary to keep its heavy weaponry running.

If Boko Haram is able to operate these weapons systems, it signifies a whole new level to the conflict. However, it is also possible that these systems go unused except as background pieces for propaganda videos. If this is the case the Nigerian military’s capture of these kinds of weapons are largely hollow victories.