August briefing

This month saw significant speculation about the fate of Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram’s leader and figurehead, after Chadian president Idriss Deby alleged that he had been replaced by another Boko Haram commander named Muhammad Daud. Nonetheless, as NSN member John Campbell points out in his latest blog, Shekau resurfaced a few days later with a threatening audio message re-affirming Boko Haram’s allegiance to Islamic State.

Some observers had assumed that Shekau’s absence from recent Boko Haram videos suggested his fall from power, or even his death. But we would do well to remember the insurgents appear to be diversifying their media strategy, using videos of their operations and talks by other commanders instead of relying solely on routine messages from Shekau. His absence may well be the product of this growing sophistication.

This month’s briefing also deals with news of released Boko Haram captives, with Ryan Cummings providing a critical account of recent reports that 178 captives were freed from Boko Haram. It includes analysis from Jacob Zenn alleging that Boko Haram fighters are mixing with Islamic State militants in Libya. If true, this will raise alarm bells among those who fear growing links between Islamist militants in West Africa and internationally. Finally, Zacharias Pieri completes this month’s briefing with a comprehensive set of analyses from the Global Initiative Analysis, including an editorial focusing on the need for Nigeria to ‘clear, hold, and build’ in the fight against Boko Haram.

Andrew Noakes
Director
NSN

Our analysis

Nigeria’s Abubakar Shekau is back, if he ever left
Ambassador John Campbell suggests Abubakar Shekau’s recent audio message puts an end to speculation about his demise. He also notes that the message’s content seems to have more of a global focus than usual, though it is too early to draw any conclusions.

Uncertainty dampens optimism of Boko Haram releases
Ryan Cummings offers a critical account of recent reports that Boko Haram captives have been released. He asks how the military was able to rescue as many as 178 captives on 3 August without them being harmed by Boko Haram in the process. He speculates that there may have been negotiation between Boko Haram and the government to secure the captives.

Wilayat West Africa reboots for the Caliphate
Jacob Zenn analyses the relationship between Boko Haram and Islamic State, arguing that Boko Haram over-extended in its effort to emulate Islamic State and hold territory in recent months. He suggests that one consequence of Boko Haram’s retreat from territory it had managed to capture in 2014/15 is a strengthening of ties with Islamic State militants in Libya.

USF Global Initiative Analysis
Zacharias Pieri and the team at the University of South Florida offer a range of analysis in their latest Global Initiative Analysis, including an editorial focusing on the need for the Nigerian military to hold onto and develop territory it has re-taken from Boko Haram fighters.

Key points from this briefing

  • Abubakar Shekau appears to be maintaining his position as leader and figurehead of Boko Haram
  • Shekau’s disappearance from Boko Haram’s videos may simply reflect the diversification of the group’s media strategy
  • There is cause to doubt recent reports of Boko Haram captives being released from detention, and to think there may be quiet negotiation going on between the insurgents and the government
  • Boko Haram over-extended in its bid to capture territory
  • There appear to be growing links between Boko Haram and Islamic State militants in Libya
  • It is vital for the Nigerian military to ‘clear, hold, build’

July briefing

President Buhari’s recent talks with Cameroon’s President Biya on Boko Haram, as well as his appointment of a Nigerian commander to head the new Multi-National Joint Task Force, reflect the importance of developing a regional response to Boko Haram.

The new task force is expected to have the vital ability to cross borders in order to pursue Boko Haram throughout the Lake Chad basin. Until now, longstanding territorial disputes between Nigeria and Cameroon have got in the way of that capability – to Boko Haram’s benefit.

Many of NSN’s analysts suspect that Boko Haram wish to create an Islamic territory along the geographic lines of the old Kanuri Empire, which cuts across Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, and Niger – all of which are in Boko Haram’s current operational space. Just as Boko Haram does not recognise national borders, so too the response must be essentially cross-border – a point emphasised by Ryan Cummings in this month’s briefing.

This should begin with the multi-national force, but ultimately extend further. Countries affected by Boko Haram could all benefit by sharing intelligence as a matter of course, allowing cross-border operations, and planning operations and long-term strategy together at a senior level.

Andrew Noakes
Director
NSN

Our analysis

Strategic shifts and strategic talks in the Boko Haram insurgency
Ryan Cummings argues that a regional response to Boko Haram is critical to defeating the insurgency, but warns that it has not yet got off the ground. Boko Haram continues to be defined by other countries as Nigeria’s problem spilling over to their borders, rather than an insurgency with roots outside of Nigeria. He calls on Cameroon in particular to recognise the domestic threat posed by Boko Haram.

TAP interview on Boko Haram’s impact on agricultural livelihoods
Saratu Abiola’s Testimonial Archive Project brings us another insightful interview into the situation in north-east Nigeria, this time through an interview with Dr. Oluwasina Olabanji who manages agricultural projects in conflict-affected areas. The interview paints a dark picture of the impact Boko Haram’s violence has had on agricultural livelihoods in the region, with many farmers too afraid to farm their land.

Buhari visit to reset the bilateral relationship
In his latest blog on Nigeria, Ambassador Campbell sets the scene for President Buhari’s visit to Washington earlier this month. He views Buhari’s visit as an opportunity to reset relations between the US and Nigeria following a difficult year under the previous administration, with allegations of human rights violations and lack of support for the counter-insurgency traded between Washington and Abuja.

Key points from this briefing

  • Boko Haram does not recognise national borders and operates in a cross-border space
  • The response to Boko Haram must be regional in nature, with the new multi-national force serving as a good first step
  • Boko Haram’s violence has had a devastating impact on the agricultural economy in north-east Nigeria, with many farmers too afraid to farm their land
  • President Buhari’s visit to Washington was an opportunity to reset relations between Nigeria and the US after a difficult year

June briefing

This month’s briefing reflects on the security challenges inherited by President Buhari as we mark one month since his inauguration. Though territorially diminished, Boko Haram shows no sign of being defeated. As NSN member Ryan Cummings notes, the group has continued to carry out attacks in recent weeks, killing up to 82 people, including in direct assaults on the capital of Borno state.

As we have suggested in the past, it would be wrong to equate Boko Haram’s territorial losses with defeat. NSN member Saratu Abiola’s recent interview with an IDP fleeing Boko Haram is a reminder that people in the north-east continue to suffer. With that in mind, we commend President Buhari’s recent call for Boko Haram to come to the negotiating table. Now that the group’s territorial ambitions have been checked, the time may be more conducive to fruitful discussions. Much though depends on Boko Haram’s temperament.

In any case, as Ambassador Campbell reminds us, the solutions to Nigeria’s challenges will take a great deal of time to implement and we should not expect any quick fixes.

Andrew Noakes
Director
NSN

Our analysis

New Nigerian president inherits same Boko Haram violence
Ryan Cummings notes that Boko Haram attacks have continued to plague Nigeria’s north-east and neighbouring countries since President Buhari’s inauguration. Boko Haram’s territorial losses have not translated into defeat, with the group reverting to its asymmetric tactics. He also suggests that the insurgency’s relationship with Islamic State may have strengthened it in recent months. Finally, he praises President Buhari for bringing new momentum to the counter-insurgency, particularly by relocating Nigeria’s military command to the north-east.

Inauguration day in Nigeria
John Campbell reflects on Nigeria’s presidential inauguration day at the end of last month, drawing attention to the multiple challenges that Nigeria’s new president faces, from the Boko Haram insurgency to the threat of violence in the Niger Delta. He concludes that President Buhari will need considerable time to solve the problems he has inherited.

TAP interview with IDP from Adamawa State
In this interview with an IDP who fled her village in Adamawa, Saratu Abiola’s Testimonial Archive Project again draws attention to the ongoing suffering of people in the north-east. The interviewee explains how her village came under attack and it has been a struggle to find a place to live ever since due to the large number of people fleeing. She expresses her hope that the new government will act to stop the violence.

Key points from this briefing

  • Boko Haram has launched several attacks in the last month and people in the north-east continue to suffer
  • Boko Haram’s relationship with Islamic State may have strengthened them in recent months
  • Circumstances may now be more conducive to negotiations with Boko Haram, if they are willing
  • President Buhari should be praised for bringing fresh initiative to the counter-insurgency, particularly by re-locating the military command

May briefing

(first published 29 May 2015)

This month’s briefing comes on the day of President Buhari’s inauguration, as he takes over from President Goodluck Jonathan. We would like to pay tribute to President Jonathan, who successfully curbed Boko Haram’s violence around the recent presidential election and in the period since. As he leaves office, Boko Haram is weakened, though undoubtedly not defeated.

Courtesy of Ambassador Campbell and Zacharias Pieri’s Global Initiative on Civil Society and Conflict, this month’s briefing offers a round-up of the fighting between Boko Haram and the government in recent weeks. It also examines the humanitarian crisis in north-east Nigeria. While Boko Haram no longer appears able to fight a conventional conflict, it has continued to carry out attacks in Nigeria and the Lake Chad region in recent weeks. NSN’s earlier prediction that the insurgency would be able to return to its guerrilla roots after losing territory is being borne out by recent violence.

Meanwhile, attention must be paid to reconstructing the parts of north-east Nigeria devastating by fighting over the last year. The situation of IDPs in particular is of major concern. Now is a crucial time for the government to concentrate its efforts on tackling the underlying causes of Boko Haram in order to defeat the insurgency for good, and to focus on developing the north-east.

Andrew Noakes
Director
NSN

Our analysis

What’s happening with Boko Haram?
Ambassador John Campbell gives a round-up of Boko Haram-related violence in recent weeks. He notes that the violence has clearly declined following the government’s military offensive, but that Boko Haram continues to carry out attacks.

Response needed to northern Nigeria’s humanitarian disaster
In this analysis, Ambassador Campbell calls for an international response to the humanitarian emergency in Nigeria’s north-east. He cites estimates of 1.5 million IDPs in Nigeria and 200,000 outside the country, forced to flee their homes due to Boko Haram. Many are victims of Boko Haram’s violence and are suffering from mental trauma and physical illness, including HIV/AIDS.

Global Initiative Analysis 2
Zacharias Pieri and his colleagues at the University of South Florida give a comprehensive update on the security and political situation in Nigeria. In the lead editorial they conclude that education will be the key to building a stronger Nigeria and predict that it can replicate Asia’s post-war growth. Turning to security issues, they suggest that Boko Haram has lost the capacity to fight as a conventional force but maintains the ability to use guerrilla tactics, including suicide attacks. They point out that Boko Haram’s arms supplies appear to have been cut off.

Key points from this briefing

  • Boko Haram-related violence has declined in recent weeks but guerrilla attacks show the group has not been defeated
  • A major international response is required to tackle the humanitarian crisis in north-east Nigeria
  • There must be a new focus on reconstructing areas affected by Boko Haram’s violence and developing the north-east

April briefing

Following President-elect Buhari’s victory in the presidential election last month, we were pleased to see the incoming president call for a renewed effort to tackle the underlying causes of the Boko Haram insurgency. Writing in the New York Times, President-elect Buhari called for Nigeria to “address why it is that young people join Boko Haram”, and pointed to lack of education as a core driver of the conflict.

Indeed, education is an important way to tackle poverty and to challenge extremist views. But the full spectrum of underlying causes must be addressed, including not only lack of education but poverty more broadly, political marginalisation, and human rights violations. In particular, accountability for past human rights violations in the fight against Boko Haram would send a powerful signal to the people of the north-east that the new government is serious about addressing the roots of the conflict.

This month’s briefing contains commentary from John Campbell on President-elect Buhari’s new strategy for countering Boko Haram, an interview with the Executive Director of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission from the Testimonial Archive Project, a piece from Jason Warner on how to re-build Nigeria after Boko Haram, and analysis from Emily Mellgard of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

Andrew Noakes
Director
NSN

Our analysis

Buhari’s strategy for stopping Boko Haram
In this blog, John Campbell praises President-elect Buhari’s new strategy for tackling Boko Haram, noting that it is astute, realistic, and within his power to implement. He focuses in particular on Buhari’s recognition of the socio-economic causes of the Boko Haram insurgency, and welcomes his decision to focus on female education.

“The responsibility of the state to protect its people doesn’t cease because they have been internally displaced”
Saratu Abiola’s Testimonial Archive Project interviews the Executive Director of the National Human Rights Commission, Chidi Odinkalu. The interview focuses on the plight of internally displaced persons in Nigeria’s north-east, and sheds light on abuse of IDPs as well as their exploitation for political purposes during the recent election campaign.

After Boko Haram: how to re-build Nigeria
Jason Warner co-authors this piece on how to re-build Nigeria after Boko Haram. He notes that the conflict has caused enormous economic damage and has uprooted Borno state’s social and political system. If the north-east is neglected now, further turmoil could ensue in the years to come as new armed groups emerge.

What is Boko Haram?
Emily Mellgard provides an overview of Boko Haram’s leadership, ideology, recruitment, and international links in this outline of the insurgent group. She warns that although Boko Haram appears to have been put on the back foot in recent weeks, the group is resilient to eradication.

Key points from this briefing

  • President-elect Buhari is right to focus on tackling the underlying causes of the Boko Haram insurgency
  • Education is an important area to concentrate on but other areas also need attention, including human rights, political inclusion, and development more broadly
  • Internally displaced people in Nigeria’s north-east continue to suffer greatly, including from abuse while in IDP camps
  • Boko Haram is likely to prove resilient in the face of recent territorial gains by the government
  • However, if Boko Haram can be defeated there must be a major reconstruction effort in the north-east to prevent further conflict

March briefing

This month’s briefing comes on the day of Nigeria’s presidential election, which is now taking place after the government and its regional partners successfully cleared Boko Haram out of much of its territory in the north-east.

The government should be congratulated for its rapid territorial gains against Boko Haram over the last few weeks. However, in our new special report, The end of Boko Haram?, we warn the insurgents are likely to melt back into the countryside and continue the guerrilla warfare that characterised Boko Haram’s fighting up until mid-2014. Nigeria’s next government must not assume the war is over. The report also warns that the use of foreign military advisers in the conflict should be restricted to non-combat roles.

This month’s briefing includes our special report, as well as analysis from Jacob Zenn focusing on Boko Haram’s emergence as part of a transnational jihadist movement, the launch of a new Boko Haram tracker from Zacharias Pieri and his colleagues at the University of South Florida, and an interview from the Testimonial Archive Project with a member of Baga’s Civilian JTF, among other contributions.

Andrew Noakes
Director
NSN

Our analysis

Special Report: The end of Boko Haram?
In our special report, we warn that the government’s recent territorial gains against Boko Haram do not signal the end of the insurgency. We argue that Boko Haram is likely to continue waging a guerrilla war now that it has been chased from the battlefield. We also warn against foreign military advisers becoming directly involved in combat.

Foreign mercenaries will worsen the Boko Haram insurgency
Andrew Noakes speculates about the impact foreign mercenaries could have on the Boko Haram insurgency, following unconfirmed reports foreign military advisors have become involved in the combat in north-east Nigeria. He argues that the short-term military gains could soon be eclipsed by dire political consequences.

A biography of Boko Haram and the bay`a to al-Baghdadi
Jacob Zenn charts Boko Haram’s emergence as part of a wider transnational jihadist movement. He warns it may evolve into a revamped Islamic State version of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) that is capable of competing for a recruiting pool in an area of operations spanning from Nigeria to Libya.

Global Initiative Analysis: Nigeria and Boko Haram tracker issue 1
Zacharias Pieri is part of the team at the University of South Florida behind the Global Initiative Analysis: Nigeria and Boko Haram tracker. This issue examines whether we have reached a turning point in the counter-insurgency campaign, looks at Boko Haram’s key narratives, and makes recommendations on governance and security, among other topics.

Boko Haram, Ballot Cards and Bunkering: Security challenges facing the Nigerian elections
In this blog, Ryan Cummings analyses the security challenges facing the Nigerian elections, including political unrest following the results and Boko Haram attacks.

It got to a point that soldiers offered us their guns
Saratu Abiola’s Testimonial Archive Project records an interview with a member of Baga’s Civilian JTF. He recalls Boko Haram’s notorious attack on Baga, saying that soldiers fled as CJTF volunteers stayed to fight.

Nigeria re-takes territory from Boko Haram
John Campbell tracks the re-capturing of Boko Haram territory by the government and its partners and comments on the possible reasons behind the rapid reversal in fortunes. He argues six weeks is too short a time for the Nigerian army to have transformed itself into a force capable of defeating Boko Haram

Key points from this briefing

  • The government should be praised for turning the tide against Boko Haram, though the insurgency is unlikely to be defeated
  • The use of foreign military advisers in combat roles may backfire on the government if they are indeed being used in this way
  • Nigerian army soldiers fled from Boko Haram as Baga was attacked
  • Boko Haram could be emerging as an Islamic State version of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa
  • There are multiple security challenges surrounding the upcoming elections, particularly from political unrest and Boko Haram
  • Boko Haram is likely to exploit grievances following the presidential election
  • Attacks against Western interests in Nigeria are growing more likely

Special report: The end of Boko Haram?

NSN has published a new special report, The end of Boko Haram? The report focuses on Nigeria’s recent territorial gains against the insurgency in the country’s north-east, and the role of foreign military advisors.

The report notes the extraordinary progress the Nigerian government has made in pushing Boko Haram out of territory in Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe, but warns this does not signal the end of the insurgency.

“The insurgency does not need to operate like a conventional army, which can be expelled from territory in a series of pitched battles”, the report says. “Instead, it has the capacity to quickly melt away into the countryside and avoid large-scale confrontation.”

The report continues, “Boko Haram can be expected to retreat into its hideouts and switch back to fighting the guerrilla campaign it was engaged in up until the middle of 2014.” The recent spate of suicide bombings, including in Borno state’s capital Maiduguri, are a strong indication of this.

The report notes confirmed reports of foreign advisors providing assistance to the Nigerian military, and unconfirmed reports that this assistance involves direct participation in combat. While supporting the former as a necessary form of capacity building, NSN expresses serious concern about the possibility of foreign soldiers becoming involved in combat.

NSN has not been able to verify the unconfirmed reports of foreign advisors being involved in combat.

Even if the reports of advisors becoming involved in combat are exaggerated, the experts warn that the distinction between advisor and mercenary can break down very quickly. “Private military contractors who advise, train, mentor, and maintain equipment can easily find themselves playing a combat role even if it was unintended”, the report notes.

NSN recommends that the use of foreign advisors be restricted to training and advice, and that the government should continue to focus on building the capacity of the Nigerian army to implement a comprehensive counter-insurgency strategy against Boko Haram.

Find the full report here.