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Re-evaluating the Boko Haram conflict


Many political analysts had projected that if Muhammadu Buhari, a Fulani Muslim won the March 2015 Nigerian presidential election, it could lead to the deceleration of the Boko Haram conflict because the local grievances into which those terrorists tap would be removed. Unfortunately, despite President Buhari’s victory at the polls, the Boko Haram conflict has failed to abate. In fact, it has been estimated that between the time Buhari was sworn in as president on May 29, 2015 and the end of October 2015, more than 2,000 Nigerians have lost their lives to Boko Haram. These tragedies have occurred despite the fact that fighting the terrorists has clearly been one of the Buhari regime’s top priorities.

In September 2015 Buhari gave the army a three-month deadline to defeat Boko Haram. That deadline clearly has come and gone, but Boko Haram has not. Though the Buhari government continues to argue that “technically” it has defeated Boko Haram, ostensibly because the group can “no longer mount ‘conventional attacks’ against security forces or population centres,” several Nigerians—including myself—have scoffed at the government’s triumphalism as rather premature.  Indeed, while the government claims that the terrorists no longer control any territory in Borno State—the epicenter of  Boko Haram’s activities—Senator Baba Kaka Garbai, who represents Borno Central in Nigeria’s Senate, claims that the terrorist group still controls  “about 50 percent” of his state.

Boko Haram is well-known as a plague on the security of the Nigerian state since the group became radicalized in 2010. Officially it is estimated that between 2010 and July 2015, over 15,000 people lost their lives to the Boko Haram conflict—though some estimate the actual death toll  between 2010 and 2014 could be anywhere between 100,000  and one million. In addition, the 2014 report of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre and Norwegian Refugee Council have estimated that over 3.3 million people have been displaced in the northeast part of Nigeria—or 10 percent of the 33 million internally displaced persons worldwide.

Over this time Boko Haram has evolved from being a small-time terrorist organization, hidden in the civilian population and using guerrilla strategies to a sophisticated, well-motivated group that overpowers the police and military for weapons, seizes territory, and engages the Nigerian military in conventional battle. Indeed, by January 2015, the sect had succeeded in establishing a mini Islamic state the size of Belgium. The continued resilience of Boko Haram under the Buhari government calls for a second look and re-evaluation of some of the earlier rumors and notions about the sect.

Death of conspiracy theories

The continued resilience of Boko Haram under Buhari’s administration is debunking some conspiracy theories about the sect.

Indeed, before Buhari came to power a conspiracy theory popular in the southern part of the country was that the group was being sponsored by eminent northern politicians to make the country “ungovernable” for former President Goodluck Jonathan because he is a Christian and from a minority ethnic group in the south. If this theory were true, Buhari’s victory over Jonathan would have mellowed the group. But it hasn’t.

Another conspiracy theory was that Boko Haram was being sponsored or ignored by former President Jonathan—either to depopulate the north ahead of the 2015 general elections or to make Islam look bad in order to enable the former president to use religion as a tool of mobilization for his candidacy.  Boko Haram’s continued mayhem long after Jonathan’s loss of power negates any suggestion that he was sponsoring the group—or the similar claim that he deliberately did not do enough to stop them because it was a “northern problem.” In fact, recently the army accused some influential indigenes of the northern state known as Borno of deliberately undermining their efforts to defeat Boko Haram because they were profiting from the situation.

These theories undermined any attempt at collective action against the sect.  For instance, when Jonathan first declared a “state of emergency” in the northeastern states of Adamawa, Yobe, and Borno in May 2013 in a determined bid to fight the terrorists, some eminent northern elders declared that the measure, which included the imposition of curfews, the mounting of several roadblocks, and the shutting down of the states’ communication infrastructures, amounted to a declaration of war against the north. In the same vein, when the Chibok girls were kidnapped, some key Jonathan supporters openly doubted the story, and believed it was part of a grand design by the north to bring down the Jonathan government.

With the election of a Muslim ruler and the death of such conspiracy theories as the above, the expectation is that Buhari has the social capital for a united action against the sect—so why is Boko Haram still posing a threat?

Underestimation of the strength and resources of Boko Haram

The resilience of Boko Haram under the Buhari administration suggests that there has been a gross underestimation by the government of the numerical strength, organizational efficiency, and motivation of the sect members. For instance, in October 2015, government leaders were shocked when a failed suicide bomber claimed that the sect was planning to attack Maiduguri with as many as 8,000 fighters—far more than what many people estimated the entire numerical strength of the sect to be. At one point, Theophilus Danjuma, a retired lieutenant-general and former defense minister, claimed that Boko Haram’s ability to gather intelligence was 100 percent better than that of the Nigerian military.  In fact in 2014, when Governor of Borno State Kashim Shettima claimed that Boko Haram fighters were better armed and more motivated than the Nigerian army fighting them, he was criticized by many Nigerians, including President Jonathan. These portraitures of Boko Haram  contrast heavily with the former image of the sect in the popular imagination  as a group of rag tag snipers, and poor and uneducated youth that  probably did not  number more than a few hundred.

Indeed, the underestimation of Boko Haram helped fuel the narrative that the Nigerian army fighting the terrorists was under-equipped, ill-motivated, cowardly, or heavily compromised. This underestimation also probably explained why the army, which Buhari vowed to better motivate and equip with more sophisticated weapons than Jonathan did, was given only three months in September 2015 to defeat the terrorists. In retrospect, that deadline was counterproductive because it unduly raised public expectations and put enormous pressure on both the military and the government. As Boko Haram’s attacks have continued long after the expiration of the deadline, the government continues to try and save its face with the rhetoric that the sect had been “technically defeated.”  The truth is that terrorism is rarely easily defeated in any country.

What is clear is that what Nigeria needs first is a realistic estimation of the numerical strength of Boko Haram, its organizational forms, and intelligence-gathering methods to enable the government to devise realistic strategies for confronting and containing the sect. The idea that Boko Haram could be defeated within any specified time frame should be abandoned.

The continued resilience of Boko Haram

Like a phoenix, Boko Haram has shown incredible capacity for regrouping after suffering setbacks. There have been at least three occasions when a successful anti-Boko Haram strategy led to a lull in the group’s murderous activities that was erroneously interpreted as a sign of the group’s imminent annihilation.

The first time a lull in the group’s activities was misinterpreted was in 2013 during the war against some al Qaida-linked insurgents in northern Mali, which was also thought to be a training base for Boko Haram and other terrorist groups. It was believed that many Boko Haram fighters relocated to northern Mali to fight with the insurgents against the combined troops from Benin, Nigeria, Senegal, Togo, and Niger. When the French later intervened and routed the insurgents, the general belief was that Boko Haram had been dealt a deadly blow because of the suspected high number of causalities of its members and the destruction of their training bases. But Boko Haram lived on.

The second occasion a lull in Boko Haram’s activities was mistaken for imminent victory against the sect was  when a “state of emergency” was declared in 2013 in the three northern  states of Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe—believed to be the three foci of Boko Haram’s activities. With the emergency rule, there was an increase in the number of troops deployed to the affected states; more road blocks were set up to search people and vehicles; and telecom networks were shut down to prevent the terrorists from using mobile telephones to communicate with one another and their informants. The general consensus was that the emergency rule was initially very successful in that it led to a sharp drop in the sect’s murderous activities. However, like the previous occasion, Boko Haram quickly regrouped and hopes that the solution lay in a “state of emergency” quickly faded.

The third occasion Nigerians thought that Boko Haram was a minute away from complete destruction was after the joint military operations with Chad and Cameroon in February 2015. The initial successes of the joint operation goaded a euphoric Jonathan, who had then already conceded defeat in the March 2015 presidential election to boast in April 2015  that “the ongoing military operations in the northeast had already recorded huge successes, with two states completely free from the control of terrorists while operations in the third state had reached a concluding stage.” However, long after Jonathan made this statement, many people, such as Senator Baba Kaka Garbai of Borno State, insist that Boko Haram still controls half of his state.


One of the main lessons in the fight against Boko Haram in Nigeria is that the sect has shown an incredible capacity for regrouping after major setbacks. It is not clear if the Buhari government, which has shown a single-minded determination to militarily defeat the terrorists, appreciates this fact. The truth is that terrorists, because of their methods, are not easily defeated. They can be contained in the short to medium terms—not completely routed as Buhari seems to believe. It is important that the government does not mistake a lull in the group’s murderous activities as a sign of imminent defeat.

In the same vein, in its single-minded desire to be seen as defeating Boko Haram on record time—something the preceding government was unable to do for years—this government seems unmindful of the many potential ‘Boko Harams’ that are breeding across the country. Elsewhere I argued that a major explanation for the emergence of Boko Haram is the crisis in the Nigeria’s nation-building, which has led to several alienated groups de-linking from the state into primordial identities, often with the Nigerian state as the enemy. Rather than deliberately engaging other alienated groups such as the new agitation for a Republic of Biafra or the regrouping of ex-Niger Delta militants, Buhari appears to regard such groups as deliberate plans to undermine his government. It was essentially the same mistake former President Jonathan made with Boko Haram.

Overall, while the Buhari government must be lauded for its determined fight against Boko Haram, it needs to be encouraged to expand the tools of such fight beyond securing quick military victory to putting the servicing of Nigeria’s nation-building process in the front burner. It is in fact by re-energizing the country’s nation-building process that it can win over several “de-Nigerianized” Nigerians (i.e., Nigerians that have de-linked from the Nigerian state into other primordial identities).  This will ensure that other “Boko Harams” do not emerge across the country if, and when the present Boko Haram is defeated.


This blog reflects the views of the author only and does not reflect the views of the Africa Growth Initiative. Dr. Jideofor Adibe is associate professor of political science at Nasarawa State University Keffi. He is also the editor of the quarterly academic journal,

African Renaissance,

co-editor of the bi-annual

Journal of African Foreign Affairs

and a columnist with

Daily Trust

, one of Nigeria’s leading newspapers.

For more on the wider state of Nigeria and thoughts on President Buhari’s first nine months in office, see the recent Brookings event,

“Examining the current state of Nigeria.”