11 June 2020
As Nigeria suffers from the coronavirus crisis and shrinking oil revenue, security forces will be further strained in their fight against the jihadi group.
How is Boko Haram exploiting the health crisis?
Even amid the pandemic, all Boko Haram factions have rejected the notion of a truce with the Nigerian government, which they see as an agency of evil. Jihadi rhetoric portrays the new coronavirus disease, COVID-19, as God’s punishment of their enemies. There is no credible information about the presence of the virus among jihadis themselves.
A deadly raid by Boko Haram on a village in Borno State earlier this week is just one disturbing example of how such attacks have continued during the pandemic. Since July 2018, there has been a dramatic uptick in jihadi violence in Nigeria and other Lake Chad Basin countries, often directed against security services rather than civilian populations. This period has featured high-profile, mass-casualty attacks on military personnel in the region. Still, though Boko Haram factions seek to exploit the coronavirus crisis, the presence of the disease has not led to a breakthrough for any of them thus far.
There are at least three factions of Boko Haram [PDF], comprising several thousand fighters altogether and each with differing relationships with the self-proclaimed Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and various criminal syndicates. They operate freely in Borno and Yobe States, and in adjacent parts of Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. They share the goal of destroying the Nigerian secular state and establishing a new polity based on their idiosyncratic seventh-century interpretation of Islamic theology and law. Some reportedly offer government services in a few localities along the border with Niger; though limited, these services are sometimes more than what official governments offer.
How has the pandemic affected security in Nigeria?
The Nigerian security services are struggling with a general breakdown of law and order. The pandemic and the economic consequences of fighting it have exacerbated—but did not cause—the nationwide erosion of security. The Nigerian army was already overstretched before the arrival of COVID-19, with the country beset by conflict in the northeast, where Boko Haram is active. Confrontation over land and water has driven intercommunal attacks, and kidnappings and cattle-rustling operations have increased. Further, the oil-producing Niger Delta remains restive. The army is stationed in nearly all of Nigeria’s thirty-six states, in many cases doing the work of police forces, which are poorly trained, overstretched, and under-resourced.
As COVID-19 spread, the military had the added responsibility of enforcing lockdowns across the country. Officially, there have been about 12,800 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 361 deaths, as of June 8. But most observers put the total far higher.
The fall in oil prices spurred by the global response to COVID-19 has probably had a greater impact on the government’s fight against jihadis. More than 60 percent of government revenue and more than 90 percent of Nigeria’s foreign exchange come from oil. The catastrophic price drop over the past three months has sharply cut into government revenue. This comes at a time when the government faces heavy expenses to acquire medical equipment and set up testing facilities. With public health demands and the fall in government revenue, chronic underfunding of the security services is likely to get worse, reducing the capacity to fight jihadi groups.
Are European and U.S. troops still assisting in broader West African counterterrorism efforts?
Western countries continue to provide counterterrorism support. France is deeply involved in the Lake Chad Basin and further west, in Mali and Burkina Faso. It deploys five thousand military personnel in Operation Barkhane, headquartered in N’Djamena, Chad. It also provides strong diplomatic and financial support for the Group of Five for the Sahel (G5 Sahel) regional partnership, which is made up of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. There is also a UN peacekeeping force in Mali, which is regularly subject to jihadi attacks.
The U.S. military presence in West Africa numbers about 1,200 troops, around 800 of whom are based in Niger. American personnel are mostly involved in training local forces, sharing intelligence, and providing logistical support, especially for the French military. Following the deadly 2017 ambush in Niger, the U.S. military largely ceased direct combat operations in West Africa. However, this past March, U.S. forces took part in a firefight alongside Nigerien and Nigerian forces against suspected Boko Haram militants in Diffa, Niger.
In line with the 2018 U.S. National Defense Strategy [PDF], which outlined a shift toward focusing on great-power confrontation, the Donald J. Trump administration proposed substantially reducing the number of U.S. counterterrorism forces in West Africa. These proposals have been strongly opposed by France, francophone countries in West Africa, and some members of the U.S. Congress, especially as jihadi activity has escalated. France was particularly worried about losing access to U.S. intelligence and surveillance. For example, U.S. support was crucial in the France-led operation that killed the leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. However, no significant U.S. drawdown has occurred, and the U.S. Defense Department says such proposals are still under review.
By John Campbell. This article was first published by the Council on Foreign Relations.