In the past week, Boko Haram has launched two major offensives on the city of Maiduguri, the administrative capital of Nigeria’s north eastern Borno State. Both attacks were successfully repelled by Nigerian forces and their Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) allies. Although unconfirmed, it is reported that Boko Haram suffered significant losses of equipment, weaponry and personnel during the aforementioned incursions.
For the past 12 months, much of Boko Haram’s operations in Maiduguri have been limited to acts of urban terror, generally taking the form of suicide bombings targeting both government and civilian interests. The last major offensive against the city occurred in March 2014 when Boko Haram stormed the city’s Giwa barracks, seizing weaponry and freeing scores of detained militants in what was likely a resource-gathering exercise. The attack followed a similar incursion targeting the Maiduguri International Airport and the nearby Composite Group AirForce Base which took place in December 2013. The motivation for this attack was likely focused on disabling fighter jets which had for several months pounded Boko Haram positions in and around its purported base camps in Sambisa Forest.
But what may have been motivations for the latest insurgent raids against Maiduguri?
For one, the uptick in violence could be linked to the forthcoming elections. Given Boko Haram’s abhorrence of Nigeria’s secular government, which is underpinned by democratic processes such as general elections, one would assume that the ballot would be a high value target for the sect. Given that Maiduguri is one of the few areas in Borno state where elections could still feasibly be held, Boko Haram may be attempting to destabilize the city and perhaps stymie voting from taking place. For further background on why Boko Haram may be motivated to disrupt Nigeria’s forthcoming general elections, see my piece for the Tony Blair Foundation on this issue.
Secondly, the spate of Boko Haram attacks on Maiduguri could be an attempt by Boko Haram to absorb and occupy military resources. This hypothesis was perhaps best exemplified by the 25 January offensive against the city. Initially described as an attempt by the militant group to seize control of the state capital, it became more apparent that the offensive may have been a diversion to occupy security assets, while a larger and more coordinated attack was taking place in Monguno — the site of the Nigerian military’s last remaining forward base outside of Maiduguri. But such misdirection may not only be servicing Boko Haram’s offensive stratagem. As is becoming more apparent, Boko Haram is coming under pressure from Chadian and Cameroon forces from the east which has created a new war front for the sect. Boko Haram may be concerned that the Nigeria government could advance on their positions from the west, pulling them into a two-front conflict which would be resource draining. By attacking Maiduguri, Boko Haram forces the Nigerian army into defensive positions which subsequently allows Boko Haram to focus on defending its eastern front.
A third explanation could be that the recent attacks may be the preamble to a more coordinated and large-scale incursion against Maiduguri. In this regard, Boko Haram may be orchestrating these offensives as a means of testing city’s peripheral defences, thereby gauging the requisite blueprint and resources it will require to actually capture the city.
Boko Haram currently finds itself in its most advantageous position to make good on its plans to seize Maiduguri. As mentioned, Boko Haram has assimilated territory to the east of Maiduguri, allegedly capturing and disabling all forward bases between its eastern flank and the boundaries of its own emirate. With the dry season, which occurs between October and March, nearing its end, Boko Haram may be attempting to take advantage of its favourable territorial and climatic conditions to orchestrate one massive push to capture Maiduguri. The fall of Maiduguri would undoubtedly be a significant symbolic victory for the sect given the manner in which it was expelled from the capital following the July 2009 Maiduguri uprising.
However, by capturing the city, Boko Haram would also be a significant operational victory given that it would incapacitate both the army anti-Boko Haram unit, namely the 7th division, and likely ground some of Nigeria’s aerial assets which have and may continue to be pivotal in counterinsurgency operations. Seizing control of Maiduguri also provides Boko Haram access to additional resources in the form of weaponry, supplies, manpower and equipment. Furthermore, controlling a large population centre would also mitigate the use of military tactics by the Nigerian army and its regional counterparts, particularly that of airstrikes or a large-scale ground incursion.