Why the government’s claim to have defeated Boko Haram was a serious error
They have pursued dealing with the threat of Boko Haram more aggressively. Since his term began, there has been continual success in reducing the terrorist group’s capability across Northern Nigeria.
But his administration has repeatedly framed the war in near-propagandist terms. Their rhetoric on Boko Haram has made defeating the group seem a neat, simple objective, achievable over a clearly set time frame, as opposed to the long-fought, complex, difficult war that it has proven to be.
The government and President Buhari, early into his presidency, pledged to defeat Boko Haram by the end of 2016. But to give the war a timeline in this way and to promise a “defeat” so soon was an error.
It implied that insurgent groups functioned like nation-states do. That this was a historically conventional war, with a declared starting point and ending with defeat or victory. It ignored the fact that Boko Haram’s insurgency, whilst militant, is underpinned by social, economic and ideological challenges that a military effort can never resolve. And that the likelihood is that Boko Haram will ever be completely wiped out, in the near or foreseeable future, is extremely slim.
Before the end of December last year, the military and the government claimed that they had defeated Boko Haram. President Buhari declared “The final crushing of Boko Haram terrorists”, claiming that their last enclave in the Sambisa Forest, “Camp Zero” had been captured by the military. The military also declared that they had defeated Boko Haram and captured the Sambisa Forest.
But the declarations of victory by the government and the military were prompted by a deadline that should never have been set. They framed what was a symbolic victory of capturing a key enclave in the Sambisa Forest, as a conclusive end to the group. The facts on the ground give those pronouncements a veneer of propaganda. The military is still pursuing Boko Haram hideouts in the Sambisa, a vast region, part forest, part shrub-lands, two thirds of the size of Scotland.
In Borno, many areas liberated from Boko Haram militants remain deeply insecure. The tragic bombing in Rann on an IDP camp, where a military air strike killed over a hundred people and injured scores, further highlights the current conflict. Rann was an area only liberated from Boko Haram occupation last year. The strikes confused the camp with Boko Haram militants due to warfare that was taking place only a few kilometers away. Had Boko Haram been defeated, those air strikes would not have been necessary.
The minister of Information, Lai Muhammed, told Journalists in late December that Boko Haram was “largely defeated”, explaining that the militants could no longer hold territory or carry out “spectacular attacks”. The minister was correct in that the militants no longer occupy urban territory as they did at the height of the insurgency. That the government would want to draw attention to their successes is also understandable.
But according to aid groups in Borno, despite the decreased insurgency, a number of rural communities that remain hard to access as Rann was, remain under constant threat. That the militants still retain a large number of abductees, including many of the abducted Chibok girls, implies that Camp Zero is not their only base.
Since December, horrific attacks by Boko Haram, such as in a market in Madagali, Adamawa, killing 56 people and injuring over 170, can reasonably be described as “spectacular”. For the millions of Nigerians in the North East who live in areas that are no longer occupied, but remain vulnerable to suicide attacks, government announcements of “defeat” will not reflect their present anxieties. When innocent civilians continue to die through Boko Haram attacks, the war against Boko Haram seems further away from any conclusion.
The administration and the military should explain with each significant step forward, that they have made progress but that more needs to be done. They should explain that Boko Haram are not defeated, but seriously degraded, on the back foot and still deadly. They should reframe their language in explaining the insurgency in less absolute terms. They should not, as they did in December, declare a false victory.
By doing so they have made the fight against Boko Haram more politicised than it should have been. It should not be about whether they have defeated Boko Haram but about whether they are doing all that they can to do so.