Can Nigeria quell Boko Haram’s insurgency?

Arms and ammunitions recovered from Islamist insurgent during a clash with soldiers in the remote northeast town of Baga, Borno state - 30 April 2013

There is no doubt that the situation in northern Nigeria is deteriorating fast and now President Goodluck Jonathan has admitted as much.

No-one else in the government had dared say a word.

The frequency and scale of the attacks carried out by the militant group popularly known as Boko Haram forced the president to take action and to silence some of his critics who accuse him of being out of touch and slow to react.

"These terrorists and insurgents seem determined to establish control and authority over parts of our beloved nation and to progressively overwhelm the rest of the country," said President Jonathan in a televised address.

The tone of the speech was somewhat surprising.

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Here was the president of the country effectively telling every Nigerian: "You are all in danger".

Perhaps it was aimed at getting widespread approval for the imminent military offensive.

The Nigerian military has promised "massive deployment of men and resources aimed at asserting the nation's territorial integrity."

Soldiers are being sent to the three states of Adamawa, Yobe and Borno - where the attack on Bama occurred last week.

Describing that attack, an army spokesman told the media that dozens of Boko Haram fighters had arrived in the town, some 70km (44 miles) from Maiduguri, the regional capital of Borno, before dawn in pick-up trucks mounted with heavy firepower as well as in buses.

Mali parallel

The militants killed police officers, soldiers and prison staff before releasing more than 100 inmates.

It was an unusual account coming from an army that has a reputation for playing down the number of casualties following Boko Haram attacks.

It is not clear how declaring a state of emergency in three north-eastern states will change the situation on the ground.

Boko Haram: Timeline of terror

  • 2002: Founded
  • 2009: Hundreds killed when Maiduguri police stations stormed; leader Mohammed Yusuf captured and killed
  • Dec 2010: Bombed Jos, killing 80 people; blamed for New Year's Eve attack on Abuja barracks
  • Jun-Aug 2011: Bomb attacks on Abuja police HQ and UN building
  • Dec 2011: Multiple bomb attacks on Christmas Day kill dozens
  • Jan 2012: Wave of violence across north-east Nigeria
  • April 2012: Deadly Easter church attack in Kaduna; ThisDay newspaper offices bombed
  • February 2013: French family kidnapped in Cameroon
  • May 2013: Heavily armed incursion into Bama town

Violent Boko Haram attacks have been followed by similar announcements before.

Comparisons have been made between Boko Haram and the Islamist rebels in Mali prior to the French military intervention in January.

Some analysts have suggested that if left to fester, there is little to stop Boko Haram from setting up its own Islamic institutions in the extreme north-east of the country.

Will more boots on the ground improve the situation?

Much will depend on how the troops behave.

Not for the first time, the Nigerian army has been accused of carrying out human rights abuses - last month in the town of Baga in Borno state, residents said soldiers targeted civilians and burnt homes in response to the killing of a soldier.

The military denied the accusations whilst at the same time stating that the militants were hiding amongst the civilian population.

"We call on all citizens to co-operate with our security agencies to ensure a return to normalcy within the shortest possible time," President Jonathan said in his address.

Amnesty?

It is a big ask.

In the already heavily militarised north of Nigeria, residents are hardly in a position to take sides.

Start Quote

Abubakar Shekau - from a video released on 13 May 2013

You talk of dialogue. You are free to say whatever you want but we will never stop our struggle”

End Quote Abubakar Shekau Boko Haram leader

Analysts argue that the military has already lost the battle for hearts and minds and residents feel trapped between the two sides of this murky conflict.

When a Reuters news agency journalist visited the battered town of Baga, he witnessed locals shouting abuse at soldiers.

The military faces an almost impossible task of defeating the militants without civilians paying an extremely heavy price.

President Jonathan does have another option.

Under pressure from northern politicians and religious leaders, he agreed to consider an amnesty for the militants despite the fact that he had earlier rejected the idea of dialogue.

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau does not seem keen either.

"You talk of dialogue. You are free to say whatever you want but we will never stop our struggle," he said in the Hausa language in a recent video recording.

Seeing as the Islamist group is not a homogenous group, it is possible that some insurgents could be persuaded to adopt a peaceful path.

But as thousands of soldiers enter the increasingly militarised environment it seems highly unlikely that peace talks can gain any traction.

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