Strategic shifts and strategic talks in the Boko Haram insurgency

Was asked a few questions regarding the progression of the Boko Haram insurgency and the nature of the talks currently being held between Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and Cameroon’s Paul Biya. I have added my musings for your consideration.

Has there been a shift in Boko Haram’s strategy?

Following a multilateral counterinsurgency campaign which dislodged Boko Haram from areas under its control in north eastern Nigeria, there has been a discernible shift in the sect’s strategy. We have seen Boko Haram revert to an expansive and resource-light asymmetric armed campaign, using suicide bombings in urban centres whilst targeting isolated settlements in hit-and-run raids. The current modus operandi employed by the sect mirrors the tactics used by Boko Haram prior to mid-2014 when it begun capturing and holding territory in rural north eastern Nigeria.

If there has indeed been a change of strategy, can the conventional troops on the ground address this?

While Nigeria and her allies have proven that the use of conventional warfare was effective in dislodging Boko Haram from areas they had captured, such tactics may be problematic in countering a force primed at asymmetric warfare. With Boko Haram reverting to acts of terrorism and hit-and-run armed raids, both of which leverage off their unpredictability, Nigeria and her allies will need to secure a reliable and extensive local intelligence network to counter such acts of violence. A major concern, however, is that the Nigeria’s counterterrorism strategy to date, which has been mired in claims of human rights abuses, has fostered a degree of distrust in local communities and is serving as a significant barrier to the local intelligence gathering. Such problems are also likely to be countered by the both the armies of Cameroon, Niger and, to an extent, Chad who themselves will need to leverage off local intelligence as a means of responding to Boko Haram’s regional contagion within their own respective borders. Moreover, while conventional tactics may have proved effective in sparsely populated rural areas in Nigeria’s north east, replicating such strategies in heavily populated urban settings where Boko Haram possesses an operational presence may prove difficult.

Is the regional fight against Boko Haram faltering?

In my humble opinion, the regional fight against Boko Haram has yet to commence. While we have seen greater cooperation between Nigeria and her Lake Chad neighbours, the major problem is that the Boko Haram insurgency continues to be defined as a Nigerian problem and is being treated as such. To date, counterinsurgency operations have been generally limited to north eastern Nigeria with minimal punitive measures being taken against the sect in neighbouring countries. Boko Haram’s recent spate of attacks in Cameroon, Niger and, most recently, Chad, is suggestive of a regionalization of the Boko Haram insurgency and that a regional response is required to address the problem.

Could the Buhari-Biya meeting lead to a more concrete cooperation and coordination of their actions?

The efficacy of Buhari’s meeting with Biya in terms of the fight against Boko Haram will be dependent on the Cameroonian statesman acknowledging that Boko Haram is as much of a threat to the Cameroon State as it is to that of Nigeria. To date, Biya has not explicitly acknowledged an established Boko Haram presence in northern Cameroon and has limited his response to the sect by deploying additional forces to the country’s north western border with Nigeria. This strongly suggests that Biya continues to view the Boko Haram threat in Cameroon as being rooted in neighbouring Nigeria, implicitly dispelling claims that Boko Haram could have grassroot levels of operational and logistical support in Cameroon. The fact that Cameroon is calling for the ability to conduct hot pursuit operations in Nigeria further reinforces the narrative that the solution to the Boko Haram paradox is limited to the actions (or inaction) of the Nigerian government.

Has Cameroon left it too late to wake up to the seriousness of the security challenge it now faces?  

I do not think that it’s too late for Cameroon to respond to the security challenge posed by the Boko Haram insurgency; however, the fact that the Biya administration allowed the problem to fester for so long will complicate the efficacy of counterinsurgency initiatives.  Boko Haram activity in Cameroon can be traced as far back as 2011, when President Paul Biya raised concerns about the presence of Nigerian Islamist extremists, who were proselyting in Cameroonian mosques. However, for several years the Biya administration has resisted claims that the sect has established an operational presence in the country. During this time it is believed that Boko Haram may have even established its primary bases on the Cameroonian side of the Mandara Mountain range, which serves as a natural border between Nigeria and Cameroon, and is actively recruiting among communities who are socially, politically and economically marginalized by the Yaounde-based administration. For Cameroon to make headway against Boko Haram in its Far North region, which is believed to be the sect’s operational stronghold in northern Cameroon, the Biya regime needs to make a better offer to local communities than Boko Haram can and build a rapport based on trust and good governance which can translate in actionable intelligence and cooperation.

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