Why Boko Haram remains a threat

By Tomi Oladipo
BBC Africa Security Correspondent

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Nigerian soldiers have retaken many towns from Boko Haram in a recent offensive

If the recent footage released by the military is anything to go by, Nigerians may have reason for optimism about the government's ongoing battle against the Islamist militant group Boko Haram.

The Nigerian military says the footage shows Boko Haram fighters on trucks and motorcycles fleeing aerial bombardment by the Air Force, in a recent operation in the Sambisa forest - thought to be the militants' last stronghold in Nigeria.

Over the past week alone, the military says hundreds of women and children have been rescued as part of an ongoing offensive against the group.

The latest developments mean that the Nigerian military has not only reclaimed many towns in the north-east previously under Boko Haram control, but are now pushing further to rout them from their final hideouts

Media caption,
Fatima, 15, was reunited with her family after her brother read about her rescue online

By starting to provide more documentary evidence to back up its claims of success, the Nigerian military has shown it is willing to get involved in the propaganda war as well.

Before that, the images from Boko Haram, including militants carrying out atrocities and their leader Abubakar Shekau taunting the government, instilled fear and hopelessness in the minds of many.

The last broadcast from Shekau was his pledge of allegiance to Islamic State in an audio clip in March.

But as we have seen from his group in the past, silence does not always imply that they have been significantly weakened.

Attacks credited to Boko Haram continue in both Nigeria and neighbouring countries.

Army commanders say they don't often find many bodies of the insurgents after battle, suggesting that the jihadists carry away their dead with them as they retreat.

Image source, Nigerian army
Image caption,
The Nigerian army says it has rescued more than 700 people from Boko Haram camps

It's not clear if any senior Boko Haram figures have been captured during the recent operations, says Ryan Cummings, Chief Africa Analyst for the risk management firm Red24.

"With the leadership of the group still intact, Boko Haram may continue to possess the acumen to replenish, regroup, and rearm both within and outside of Nigeria's borders."

Then there is also the argument that until factors like poverty, unemployment and lack of education can be addressed, local populations will remain vulnerable to extremist ideology.

Apart from the Sambisa forest, a vast area based around a nature reserve of the same name, the group is also known to operate in the Mandara Mountains, which lie on the poorly-manned Cameroon-Nigeria border.

Fighting the group here would require greater cooperation between both countries - something that has been lacking - to combat their common enemy.

Nigeria's President-elect Muhammadu Buhari, a former military leader, says one of his first moves after assuming office will be to call a meeting of the regional leaders on a more proactive collaboration to end the conflict.

Boko Haram at a glance

Image source, AFP
  • Founded in 2002, initially focused on opposing Western-style education - Boko Haram means "Western education is forbidden" in the Hausa language
  • Launched military operations in 2009 to create Islamic state
  • Thousands killed, mostly in north-eastern Nigeria - has also attacked police and UN headquarters in capital, Abuja
  • Has abducted hundreds, including at least 200 schoolgirls
  • Seized vast area in north-east, where it declared caliphate
  • Regional force has retaken most territory

Gen Buhari says the outgoing Nigerian government did not do enough to harness a suitable regional response.

Frosty cross-border relations have affected the military operations, with resentment and mistrust between Nigeria and its neighbours.

For a long time Boko Haram fighters were able to cross the border at will, to carry out attacks and to escape any army responses but now their movements have been limited by the joint regional forces.

In Nigeria, Gen Buhari is expected to reshuffle the top brass of the military to bring in top officials who can add more zest or possibly a fresh strategy to the ongoing offensive, in spite of the recent successes on the frontline.

The Nigerian military is keen to redeem its image in the international scene, having been accused by human rights organisations of carrying out abuses in its crackdown against Boko Haram.

It promised to investigate these allegations but it has not released the findings, although soldiers have been facing courts-martial as the force attempts to show it is tackling what it calls indiscipline within its ranks.

This could be a way of winning back military support from the West, particularly the US, in form of advanced training and supply of hardware.

Nigeria says the lack of equipment slowed down its counter-insurgency operations, with the government taking up other options, including the controversial move to employ private security companies.

Reports in March said that hundreds of these "military trainers" from South Africa and former Soviet Union countries were operating on the front lines in military operations against Boko Haram.

The Nigerian government has not specified whether these personnel have ever been involved in direct combat.

The recent gains against Boko Haram are a boost for both the Nigerian military and for President Goodluck Jonathan as he prepares to finish his term at the end of May.

Boko Haram is still active in Nigeria, across the border in Cameroon and with traces in Niger.

The influence and support of Islamic State implies that the insurgency is far from over and could get even more sophisticated.

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