9 January 2018
The Boko Haram ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) faction known as ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province) has stuck with its strategy of concentrating on the security forces and doing so by assembling a large enough number of gunmen to ensure, most of the time, a quick victory. The continued prevalence of corruption and incompetent officers in the army has contributed to continued chaos and lawlessness in northern Borno State, where most of the population was displaced by Boko Haram violence in 2014-15 and when Boko Haram control was broken by 2017. After that government programs to revive the economy and restore law and order collapsed under the usual corruption and incompetence of local officials and security forces. Even a reform minded president who was a former general and Moslem was unable to push military reforms far enough and fast enough. Boko Haram is not winning, the government is failing to finish off a defeated Boko Haram and take advantage of an opportunity to regain the trust and loyalty of the local population. ISIL took advantage of similar conditions to quickly overrun more than a third of Iraq in 2014. Many Nigerian leaders are well aware of how that worked but the corruption is so entrenched and widespread that reform moves slowly and that left the army and government officials vulnerable to a well-organized Boko Haram comeback.
ISWAP is also known as the Barnawi (or “Albarnawi”) faction of Boko Haram. ISWAP has apparently received a lot of useful technical and tactical advice from ISIL veterans of fighting in Iraq, Syria and Libya. Boko Haram persists in the northeast in large part because of its willingness to experiment, innovate and take advice from foreign ISIL veterans. The Barnawi faction follows the current ISIL doctrine of concentrating attacks on security forces and government officials (preferably the corrupt ones). That makes it easier to extort (raise taxes) cash and other goods from the local population. The Barnawi faction has over 3,000 active gunmen and operates mainly in the far north of Borno state near Lake Chad and the borders of Niger and Chad. The smaller Shekau faction has about half as many armed men and operates further south near the Borno State capital of Maiduguri and the Sambisa Forest. Both factions rely on the fact that the years of Boko Haram violence in Borno State (where Boko Haram originated in 2004) has increased the poverty and corruption the Islamic terrorist organization was founded to eliminate. While many potential recruits are discouraged by stricter standards and more fanatic approach of ISIL (compared to the original Boko Haram) faction the most hard core Islamic radicals are drawn to the more extreme groups and that way Boko Haram persists.
Some army commanders in the northeast (Borno State) tried to blame foreign NGOs (who provide a steady flow of reports, documented with pictures and video, of army misbehavior and mistreatment of civilians) for the problems, accusing some of the foreigners of spying for Boko Haram and deliberately spreading false reports of army misbehavior to hurt the morale of troops and loyalty of local civilians. These accusations tend to be quickly withdrawn when senior officers back in the national capital hear of it. The generals in the high command know the NGO reports are true because these reports are often quietly double-checked by high command investigators. Such retractions are just another reminder of the problems the military faces, and are unable to fix, in the northeast.
Another aspect of the Boko Haram violence in the northeast and the continuing battles between farmers and herders in northern and central Nigeria is the fact that many of the victims are Christians and that is deliberate. In 2018 about 2,400 Christians were killed in northern and central Nigeria. Since 2015 over 15,000 Christians have been killed, most of them deliberately sought out and murdered by Boko Haram. There is growing pressure from the Christian half (largely in the south) of the Nigerian population as well as foreign nations with Christian majorities, for Nigeria to put an end to this religious persecution. It is definitely persecution when Boko Haram does it as seeking out and killing non-Moslems is an acknowledged goal of Boko Haram. The farmer versus herder violence in northern and central Nigeria is mainly about land and who controls it. While the herders are often militant Fulani Moslems most of the farmers they battle with in the north are also Moslem. But many Fulani agree with (and often join) Boko Haram about how killing non-Moslems is what devout Moslems should do as often as possible. Most of the farmers killed by Fulani are Christians and in 2018 the Fulani herders killed more Christians in Nigeria than did Boko Haram.
President Buhari recently went to Borno state and met with the governor, who pleaded for Buhari to persuade the army to allow expanded use of local defense volunteers. Officially called the Civilian JTF (Joint Task Force or CJTF) strength peaked at about 30,000 volunteers in 2017 and with the decline in Boko Haram activity in the last year about a third of the force has been disbanded (or at least no longer recognized and supported by the military). About two percent of those who joined CJTF have been killed and many more have been wounded or injured while on duty. In effect, about ten percent of the CJTF men have been injured. But the soldiers respect them, the local civilians depend on and support them while Boko Haram has come to fear them. The more senior army commanders do not support the CJTF because these civilians often confront misbehaving soldiers and embarrass the army by exposing the bad behavior.
Volunteers initially received little material support from the government. But in early 2013 Boko Haram began to notice that in Borno and Yobe states thousands of Moslem and Christian young men were enthusiastically joining the CJTF to provide security from Boko Haram violence and provide information to the security forces about who Boko Haram members were and where they were living. That trend continued and eventually the CJTF and self-defense groups in general became the greatest threat to Boko Haram in rural areas as well as the cities. The CJTF frequently patrol remote areas and operate a growing network of trusted informants who can quickly phone in details on local Boko Haram activity.
By the end of 2013 Boko Haram had openly declared war on CJTF and threatened to kill any of them they could find. That state of war continued for several years until 2016 when Boko Haram was no longer controlling large territories and was less of a threat to CJTF members and their families. The army came to depend less on the CJTF which preferred to operate with heavily armed police or soldiers nearby (ready to move in arrest Boko Haram suspects the vigilantes identify or help fight back if Boko Haram attack). By 2014 the army was regularly using the volunteers to replace troops at checkpoints. This policy enabled more checkpoints to be set up and more through searches of vehicles to be conducted. This made it more difficult for Boko Haram to move around, plan and carry out attacks or to resupply the few men they still had in the cities. Boko Haram responded by attacking checkpoints more frequently and that led to many volunteers getting weapons, officially or otherwise (sometimes with the help of soldiers or police). The checkpoints became a major problem for Boko Haram and he growing use of CJTF patrols and informants are even more of a problem. By 2017 CJTF spent a lot of their time on checkpoint duty, mainly because they know the locals and are better at spotting Islamic terrorists, especially suicide bombers. But as Boko Haram activity declined after 2016 the army maintained fewer checkpoints and supported fewer and fewer CJTF groups.
As early as 2014 some CJTF groups were launching attacks on Boko Haram, and usually winning because they knew the area and people better and often were able to launch a surprise attack at night. A major factor in this was that in the more remote areas, like near the Sambisa Forest, the CJTF groups contained a lot of local hunters. These men are professional hunters who thrive in rural areas where there is a lot more game than people. CJTF first demonstrated to the army the skills of local hunters who tracked game for a living. The army noted that the success of CJTF attack units was largely because of local hunters. Soon the army began to hire some of the hunters who were exceptional trackers as well as offering bounties if they could track down certain Boko Haram men or groups. At first Boko Haram fought back and attacked trackers or their families. That backfired because the CJTF have better information about their home areas which made it difficult for Boko Haram to make revenge attacks. The attacks were made anyway and failed so often that most Boko Haram were advised by their leaders to stay away from CJTF, especially those groups with professional hunters. There were still parts of the Sambisa Forest were Boko Haram could establish bases and avoid the CJTF but these were areas where there was less game and less of everything. That meant fewer Islamic terrorists and their captives could survive there and had to leave their sanctuaries more frequently to raid villages for supplies. That’s when the Boko Haram were most vulnerable and many of their losses were to desertion (because of hunger and frustration) rather than combat casualties. The CJTF groups with a lot of hunters have remained useful for the army but only because there is no alternative when you have to track the enemy on the ground. The military never has enough helicopters or UAVs to provide overhead views and that is less useful in forest areas where trackers on the ground are still the best solution.
The military never liked to publicize how important the CJTF, and civilian support in general, was to the defeat of Boko Haram but the truth got out anyway and the civilian volunteers eventually received more credit for their contributions. This media attention also revealed that the military had recruited over a hundred of the most effective CJTF informants into a special unit where these men work full time for the military as plain clothes agents who are sent to any area where Boko Haram is believed to be active (or trying to be) and collect information. In some areas of Borno State the CJTF was not all that useful and that was in the many towns and villages were everyone, or nearly everyone, fled the Boko Haram violence and there were few people left. Many of these refugees have yet to return and parts of northeast and eastern Borno State are depopulated battlefields for the remaining Boko Haram and the army. These depopulated areas are now a sanctuary for many Boko Haram groups.
The Borno governor wants the army to expand the CJTF from its current 20,000 members and overcome army resistance to putting more CJTF on the payroll. That might happen. The governor also wants more competent officers for the troops in Borno but that is still a work in progress
Oil production for 2018 was up nine percent over 2017. Daily production in 2018 was 2.09 million BPD (barrels per day). By the end of 2017 production had hit 2.03 million BPD and while it fluctuated a lot in 2018 the trend was upward despite the continuing problems with oil theft gangs and repair/maintenance backlogs (especially of the pipelines). The long-delayed maintenance and refurbishment of the oil production facilities in the Niger River Delta (where most of the production is) remains a problem although some of the foreign companies that control various oil fields and pipeline are more successful at keeping their infrastructure in good shape. At the end of 2016 Nigerian oil production was rising to levels not seen for years. That has been the trend for most of 2017 because the new government had negotiated a peace deal with the local rebels (who opposed corruption and bad treatment of locals in general). Production rose and is on the way to the goal of 2.5 million BPD by 2020 but achieving that level of production depends on keeping the peace in the Delta. Continued corruption and rampant oil theft makes it difficult to increase production and sustain those higher production level goals. The oil theft gangs in the Niger Rover Delta continue to flourish with the help of corrupt government officials (civil and military.) In addition to the damage thieves do to pipelines (punching holes in them and quickly collecting oil before the police show up) the truce with some of the Delta rebels fell apart with the New Year and there has already been one attack on a pipeline (a loud bomb that damaged but did not penetrate a pipeline.)
January 8, 2019: The government urged the media to show more restraint in reporting on military movements and preparations for operations. This comes a day after soldiers raided the officers of a major newspaper and arrested two reporters on charges of revealing military secrets. The media, and most Nigerians, believe the media is being harassed because they expose the military efforts to down play defeats and misbehavior in the northeast. The national government is caught in the middle and is unwilling to admit that the army frequently lies and misbehaves. While the media will often speculate or even invent details of stories they are generally correct in calling out the military for poor performance and an unwillingness to admit they have some major problems with leadership and morale.
January 7, 2019: In the northeast (Borno State) both Boko Haram factions carried out attacks outside Maiduguri. The traditional Boko Haram attacked a village, killing three people. The ISIL faction attacked a small military base 23 kilometers from the city.
President Buhari did a radio interview in which he admitted there were still problems with the army and that Boko Haram was taking advantage of that in the northeast. Buhari is running for reelection and despite the continued problems with the army and Boko Haram he is still seen as the candidate best able to deal with these problems. On the down side Buhari is 76 years old and not in the best of health. Buhari also gets criticized for the growing number of incidents when the military tries to intimidate or shut down media that report on military misbehavior or incompetence. Buhari appears unable to discipline the officers responsible. The problem here is the misbehaving officers seem to be the majority so cleaning that up has to be approached carefully.
January 3, 2019: In the northeast, across the border in Niger, local forces have, over the last three days made a series of land and air attacks on Boko Haram near the Nigerian border and killed nearly 300 of the Islamic terrorists.
In the northeast (Borno State) near the Cameroon border Boko Haram attacked an aid convoy guarded by soldiers. Two soldiers were killed and seven civilians wounded. Boko Haram captured one of the foreign aid trucks before they abandoned their attack. Such attacks on commercial or aid convoys are common in this area and that is why most have armed escorts.
January 2, 2019: In the northeast (Borno State) Boko Haram gunmen shot down an air force Mi-35 helicopter, killing the five men on board. The Mi-35 was supporting soldiers seeking to force Boko Haram from the town of Baga (near Lake Chad)
December 31, 2018: In the northeast (Borno State) across the border in Niger a joint force clashed with Boko Haram leaving ten soldiers (five each from Niger and Nigeria) and 11 Islamic terrorists dead.
December 30, 2018: In the northeast (Borno State) the army and the Multinational Joint task Force assembled troops in Monguno (135 kilometers northeast of the state capital Maiduguri) so they could retake Baga and five villages near Lake Chad that Boko Haram had captured in the last week. Since the 28th Boko Haram has made three attacks to take Monguno but were repulsed. Elsewhere in the area (Dirkwa) soldiers killed three suicide bombers before they could be close enough to detonate.
December 29, 2018: In the northeast (Yobe State) a clash between Boko Haram and soldiers left seven soldiers dead.
December 27, 2018: In the northeast (Borno State) Boko Haram gunmen attacked a military base near the town of Baga (near Lake Chad) and during the last 48 hours captured the base and then moved into the nearby town of Baga. The attack caused some 500 soldiers in the area, many of them from the Multinational Joint task Force to flee. This indicates poor leadership in the military units and as a result Boko Haram captured a lot of weapons, vehicles, ammo and other equipment. Boko Haram then proceeded to loot Baga and kill anyone they suspected of belonging to local defense forces. The ISIL faction carried out these attacks and had given civilians two days warning to leave their homes to avoid injury. This also demoralized the security forces. Over the next week more than 10,000 refugees from Baga registered a refugee camps further south (closer to the well defended state capital).
December 25, 2018: In the northeast (Borno State) Boko Haram gunmen killed four civilians near Chibok (north of the capital).
December 24, 2018: In the northeast (Yobe State) Boko Haram gunmen ambushed a military convoy, killing 13 soldiers and two policemen. At least ten Boko Haram men were killed before the Islamic terrorists fled.
December 23, 2018: In the northeast (Borno State) Boko Haram gunmen killed three civilians near Chibok (north of the capital).
December 21, 2018: In the southeast the violence in southwest Cameroon has declined to the point where Cameroon reopened the main border crossing, which had been closed for nearly a year. The separatist violence next door in Cameroon continues but is declining. Since 2017 over 30,000 English speaking Cameroonians have fled to Nigeria and most are still in Nigeria. The Cameroonian government wants Nigeria to send these refugees back and reopening the border crossing makes it easier for refugees to come and confirm that it is safe to return. Conditions in Anglophone (English speaking) areas of Cameroon deteriorated because of more than a year of violence. In addition to over 30,000 refugees in Nigeria there are another 80,000 English speaking Cameroonians made homeless (at least temporarily) by the violence and are still in Cameroon. The Nigerian government owes Cameroon a lot because of Cameroonian aid in dealing with the Boko Haram crises. Thus the Nigerians are willing to do whatever Cameroon wants to help deal with the separatist crises. That includes expelling some Cameroonians who have fled to Nigeria. This is all happening in the southeast where, during late 2017 there was growing violence across the border in southwest Cameroon where a separatist movement has turned violent and dozens of people had been killed by the end of 2017. The violence escalated in 2018 and by mid-year more than a hundred civilians and nearly as many police and soldiers had died. After that the number of Anglophone Cameroonians fleeing to Nigeria declined, as did the violence in southwest Cameroon. The issues are more linguistic than tribal and the separatists are largely English speaking Cameroonians (about 20 percent of the 23 million Cameroonians) who protest the bad treatment they receive from the French speaking majority. The English speakers of southwest Cameroon used to be part of Nigeria but as part of the process by which colonial rule ended in the 1950s some groups on proposed new borders were given an option on which nation to belong to. The Cameroon English speakers thought they would be better off as a linguistic minority in Cameroon but subsequent generations developed different attitudes. Ironically the separatist Cameroonians are adjacent to the separatist Nigerian Igbo areas that want to be a separate state called Biafra. The people in these two separatist areas have a lot in common but operating together to form a single new state has never been a priority.
December 20, 2018: In the northeast (Borno State) soldiers clashed with Boko Haram gunmen near the Chad border. Five soldiers died and Boko Haram casualties are unknown.
In central Nigeria (Benue State) armed Fulani herders clashed with soldiers. Five of the Fulani died and the rest fled.
In central Nigeria (the capital Abuja) police arrested a long-sought Boko Haram leader Umar Abdulmalik who had led a gang that successfully operated outside the northeast since 2015. He was responsible for a bombing in Abuja in 2015 and several subsequent attacks and major crimes (like bank robbery). Several of Abdulmaliks’ subordinates were also arrested.
December 16, 2018: In the northeast (Borno State) soldiers clashed with Boko Haram gunmen outside Maiduguri. One soldier and four Boko Haram men were killed before the Islamic terrorists fled.
December 15, 2018: In the northeast (Borno State) Boko Haram killed four farmers near the Niger border. Further south, near the Chad border two soldiers were killed by a Boko Haram landmine.
December 14, 2018: In the northeast (Borno State) Boko Haram gunmen killed twelve soldiers at Kukawa near Lake Chad. Across the border in Cameroon two female suicide bombers from Nigeria set off their explosives in Kolofata, a market town on the Cameroon side of the border. The two bombers detonated short of their target, a building where merchant women were gathered before the market opened. Two civilians were wounded. This is the third suicide bomb attack in Kolofata in the last week.
December 12, 2018: In the northeast (Borno State) a female Boko Haram suicide bomber was killed outside Maiduguri before she could detonate her explosives.
This report was first published by Strategy Page.