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In Boko Haram Offensive, Nigerian Forces on Familiar Ground

  • Heather Murdock

Soldier from Lagos, part of an expected 1,000 reinforcements sent to Adamawa state to fight Boko Haram Islamists, with th 23rd Armoured Brigade, Yola, May 20, 2013.

Soldier from Lagos, part of an expected 1,000 reinforcements sent to Adamawa state to fight Boko Haram Islamists, with th 23rd Armoured Brigade, Yola, May 20, 2013.

It has been less than 10 days since the Nigerian military began what it calls a “massive” offensive against Boko Haram, the extremist Islamist militant group that claims ties to al-Qaida and recently captured portions of the country's northeast.

While military officials claim to have killed dozens of its fighters and arrested hundreds of its members, destroying their encampments and re-taking at least five districts since the campaign began, none of the information is verifiable. With phone lines down and roads blocked, no independent observers are present along the front lines and some aid workers fled the region after an attack last Saturday.

Hussaini Abdu, head of the anti-poverty organization ActionAid in Abuja, says the military’s information blackout is meant to achieve two aims.

“One ... is to possibly constrain the communications of the insurgents groups, but it’s also to disallow the public from accessing such information that can be used to put pressure on the military," he said. "So if there are issues of rights violations — if there are cases of killing of innocent people and all those things — if people get to know it, we report it in the media it will put pressure on them. And the military typically will see it as a distraction.”

Renowned for its peacekeeping successes across Africa, the Nigerian military, some experts say, possesses the weaponry and manpower to beat back the insurgency. But faced with a battle unlike any it has fought, past successes abroad may not translate to victory at home.

Although the military released a statement Friday saying no civilians have been killed in the conflict, and that nine of 12 women and children had been rescued from Boko Haram kidnappers, Amnesty International issued a report Thursday saying the military has a history of rights violations. In recent weeks, the rights group says, it has received reports of arbitrary arrests and soldiers dumping bodies at morgues.

According to Abdu, the Nigerian military has not fought a guerilla war since the country's civil war in the 1960s, and only recently saw Boko Haram take the form of an enemy it was well prepared to defeat.

“They are trained to fight territorial battles," says Abdu, explaining that Boko Haram's recent military-style attacks and seizures of northern districts compelled the military's aggressive response. "They are not trained to fight [with] guerillas, so when those territories began to emerge — personally, I think they were excited about it — they could go to the games reserve and drop bombs and disperse the training centers. They could go to borders, cordon the areas, arrest everybody.”

While the military appears poised to beat back the insurgency, political analyst and former University of Nigeria researcher Nkwachukwu Orji says Boko Haram has a history of appearing to succumb to defeat only to return stronger, better armed and more violent.

“They are going to fight to reclaim those territories that Boko Haram already controls," he said. "And then what happens to Boko Harm is that they will definitely find their way and escape to Niger, to Cameroon — distant places for some time — and watch what will happen after the six months emergency [rule].”

When the battle is won, Orji says, the military will be able to force Boko Haram to participate in peace talks, which, in the past, the group has rejected.

“Military engagement cannot solve this problem in the long run," said Orji. "What it can do is make sure the government has the control in terms of negotiating.”

On Tuesday, the military said it was planning to release some prisoners held in connection with Boko Haram activities, including all detained women and children. And while it appears to be a move towards negotiations, Abdu says he wonders if they are doing it simply because all the prisons are full.

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