Now a decade old, Boko Haram continues to wreak havoc in northern Nigeria, especially in Borno state. The Nigerian federal government’s strategy has so far largely been based on the use of conventional military force. Recently the army announced it was moving to a strategy of “super camps,” which are heavily fortified military bases near population centers, partly recalling an unsuccessful strategy used by U.S. forces in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Such a policy, in effect, cedes control of the countryside to the insurgents. Far from defeated, Boko Haram has intensified its activity over recent months, and the level of military casualties has surpassed that of the height of the conflict in 2014 and 2015.
Faced with a resurgent Boko Haram and an ineffectual federal government, Governor Babagana Zulum of Borno state appears to be readying a multi-pronged strategy of his own. According to press reports, he is recruiting ten thousand hunters that have “voodoo powers and hunting skills” to fight Boko Haram. With distinctive dress and amulets that purportedly protect them against bullets, they are now a visible presence in Maiduguri, the state’s capital with a population of between one and two million.
The hunters reportedly come from all over northern Nigeria and the Sahel, hence, they should be familiar with the terrain and local culture. That hunters and vigilantes are aiding in the fight against Boko Haram is not new—some state government turned to them at the height of the insurgency in 2014—but this appears to be one of the largest, most well-organized, and most well-resourced efforts. The leader of one hunting contingent said that the state government is feeding and supplying the hunters, while the governor’s spokesperson said that the Borno state government had also increased the resources available to other non-state fighting groups.
The project is ambitious and apparently involves a whole-of-government approach. To complement the security initiatives, the governor also promised to enhance “access to education, job opportunities” and to provide “other means of livelihoods through social protection initiatives.” At another level, the governor has recruited thirty ulamas in Mecca to offer daily prayers for peace in Borno and Nigeria and the defeat of Boko Haram.
It looks like Governor Zulum is assembling a fighting force separate and apart from the federal army and the police, though the hunters and the state government emphasize that they plan to cooperate closely with the Nigerian military. Chief of Army Staff Tukur Buratai, who led the government’s efforts against Boko Haram in 2014 and 2015, reportedly gave his blessing to the initiative in a phone call.
The governor’s approach may yield success. Hunters and vigilantes, with their knowledge of the environment and culture, could prove to be more successful than the army. In intensely Islamic Borno, prayers from Mecca may undercut the Islamic claims of Boko Haram. Nevertheless, the emergence of what amounts to an army under the control of a state governor is bound to give the Federal government pause. For the moment, however, state and Federal authorities are cooperating.