from Africa in Transition

The Truth About Boko Haram in Nigeria’s Sambisa Forest

December 30, 2016

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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On Christmas Eve, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari announced that the Nigerian army had driven the remnants of Boko Haram out of its last stronghold, the Sambisa Forest. A Nigerian army spokesman said that it had recovered Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau’s personal copy of the Koran and his flag from “Camp Zero,” apparently the Boko Haram headquarters. An army spokesman said that the chief of Army Staff would present the holy book to President Buhari. The army also said that it had arrested 1,240 suspected Boko Haram terrorists.

However, on Christmas Day, Shekau made a new video–his first since September–in which he claimed that Boko Haram is “safe.” The video, twenty-five minutes long and in Hausa and Arabic, is typically defiant: “We are safe. We have not been flushed out of anywhere. And tactics and strategies cannot reveal our location except if Allah wills by his decree.” He also said, “The war is not over yet. There is still more… Our aim is to establish an Islamic caliphate and we have our own caliphate, we are not part of Nigeria.” He accused President Buhari of lying.

What is the truth? The captured Koran and flag, if they truly belonged to Shekau, would indicate that the army had indeed occupied “Camp Zero.” On the other hand, the Nigeria Security Tracker shows continuing Boko Haram activity throughout December. The Shekau video appears to be authentic. Shekau’s rival within Boko Haram, Abu Musab al-Barnawi is silent, and Shekau made no reference to him. Neither the video nor the army have made reference to the whereabouts of the remaining Chibok school girls. Of the 1,240 “terrorists” the army claims to have arrested, a spokesman said 413 were adults (apparently male), 323 “female adults,” 251 were “male children,” and 253 were “female children.” The army spokesman said, “We are interrogating them to know whether they are Boko haram members, because there is no way somebody that is not their member would live inside Sambisa forest.” Perhaps. But the description of those arrested raises the possibility that at least some were civilians caught up in the war.

A hypothesis is that both President Buhari and Abubakar Shekau are telling the truth: Boko Haram has indeed been pushed out of the Sambisa forest, but it has re-established its headquarters elsewhere in the Lake Chad Basin. Shekau is likely correct when he says the war is not yet over.

More on:

Sub-Saharan Africa

Nigeria

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Heads of State and Government

Defense and Security

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