Boko Haram on the Back Foot?

International Crisis Group Examines the Abuja Summit on Boko Haram
By International Crisis Group

Dakar/Brussels, 4 May 2016. Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°120.

I. Overview
Under its new president, Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria has regrouped, and neighbours

are collaborating with it more meaningfully, taking a more powerful military

response to Boko Haram into rural areas where the jihadist group remains strong.

Other international partners also are supporting the effort against the insurrection

that since 2009 has cost tens of thousands of lives, uprooted millions and spread to

other Lake Chad basin states, damaging local economies and cross-border trade.

Boko Haram is seemingly on a back foot, but formed of dispersed segments spread

over a vast area (Borno state alone is 92,000sqkm) and accomplished in terror attacks,

it is unlikely to be eliminated in a decisive battle. The Lake Chad basin states

and their international partners, who meet in Abuja on 14 May 2016 at their second

regional summit, must use their new collaboration to move beyond military cooperation

and design a more holistic local and regional response, lest Boko Haram or

similar groups remain a long-term threat to the entire Lake Chad basin.

In response to the regional campaign, Boko Haram is adapting to the new conditions,

including by making greater use of women and children as suicide bombers to

attack softer targets, though it can sometimes still launch large raids. It remains

challenging to develop a clear picture of how the group has evolved over the past

seven years and what motivates its leaders and rank-and-file. Many reports, as well

as some books, are available, but most build on few first-hand sources, beyond

statements and sermons by the movement’s leaders. Nigeria and its allies should

more effectively collate and use information gathered from captured fighters, supporters

and civilians in occupied areas. New accounts beginning to emerge from

former abductees, jailed militants and defectors should help to produce an assessment

of the continued threat, the best strategy for curbing the insurgency and, more

generally, shape new thinking and measured policy options for responding to terrorist

attacks from other extremist groups.
The Abuja summit is a major opportunity for Nigeria, its Lake Chad basin neighbours

– Cameroon, Chad and Niger – and wider international partners, namely the

European Union (EU), U.S., France and the UK, to address vital policy issues, including:

 ensuring return of the rule of law and ending state-ordered or state-sponsored

counter-insurgency tactics that exacerbate local grievances and push youths to

join armed groups and further alienate communities whose support is essential

to combatting militancy;
 releasing some of those detained on suspicion of supporting Boko Haram and retrying

individuals sentenced without adequate legal representation;

 distinguishing between irreconcilable Boko Haram fighters and those who might

possibly be rehabilitated;
 remaining open to engagement, public or discreet, with those Boko Haram leaders

who may be looking for a compromise;
 rolling back the use of vigilante groups to fight the insurgents, which if not

properly managed, could pose a longer-term threat; and

 returning government administration to marginalised peripheries, so as to provide

crucial basic services – security, rule of law, education and health – and address

factors that push individuals to join movements like Boko Haram.

This briefing builds on Crisis Group’s past work on violent Islamist radicalism in Nigeria,

current field research there and in Cameroon, Chad and Niger, and its March

2016 special report, Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. It sets the

stage for a series of publications analysing Boko Haram’s evolution from a small protest

movement in north-eastern Nigeria into a regional menace and the responses of

the Lake Chad basin states and their allies.
II. Boko Haram, “Technically” Defeated?

On 24 December 2015, President Buhari declared that “technically” Nigeria has

“won the war” against Boko Haram.1 It is true that for several months, the group has

carried out fewer attacks, and those smaller, on softer targets and with reduced success.

As recently as December 2013, hundreds of Boko Haram fighters overran the

air force base in Maiduguri, the Borno state capital.2 Today, the group seems to deploy

fewer fighters, who mostly attack remote villages and refugee camps, and it relies

increasingly on terrorist attacks, notably suicide bombings. Its four-wheel drive

1 “Nigeria Boko Haram: Militants ‘technically defeated’ – Buhari”, BBC, 24 December 2015. Supporters

tend not to use the term “Boko Haram” which they see as a derogatory designation probably

popularised by militants of Izala, a non-violent Salafi movement eager to distinguish themselves

from and mock the more radical groups, including Boko Haram, born among them. Boko Haram

went through several internal designations, replacing its formal Arabic name, Jama’tu Ahlis Sunna

Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad)

with the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), after its affiliation with the Islamic State

(IS) in 2015. There are reports that some groups involved in the insurgency oppose the IS affiliation,

so may not accept that name. On divisions with the insurgency, see below. For clarity, and given

its wide recognition, “Boko Haram” is used in this briefing.

2 For background on Boko Haram, see Crisis Group Africa Reports N°s 213, Curbing Violence in

Nigeria (II): The Boko Haram Insurgency, 3 April 2014; and 168, Northern Nigeria: Background

to Conflict, 20 December 2010.
fleet is depleted, and many of the armoured vehicles it seized from Nigerian forces

are destroyed or recaptured.
3 Its last terror attack in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, was in

October 2015. On 27 March that year, it lost its own “capital”, Gwoza, in south-east

Borno state.4
While from 2011 insurgents were very active in the other north-eastern states of

Adamawa, Yobe and Gombe, they now seem largely limited, though not exclusively,

to Borno’s north-eastern quadrant. In February 2016, a Borno senator claimed controversially

that Boko Haram still could operate in half the state and had full control

of three of its 27 local government areas (LGAs).5 What seems clear is that it retains

presence and capacity in some rural areas, including several permanent bases, particularly

in the Sambisa forest, along the borders with Cameroon and Niger and on

Lake Chad islets, from where it can launch raids, including into neighbouring

Boko Haram’s reach into Chad, Cameroon and Niger appears to have peaked in

2014-2015. Attacks in Chad and Niger seemed to diminish at the start of 2016, and it

has turned to suicide bombings against Cameroonian towns and garrisons.7

Equally notable, Boko Haram has produced many fewer statements and videos

since the end of 2015. There has been no credible proof of life from its leader, Abubakar

Shekau, in at least a year.8 A video released on 24 March that shows him was

3 It had more than 150 four-wheel drive trucks with mounted weaponry in Gwoza at the beginning

of 2015. Crisis Group electronic communication with military expert, 10 March 2016.

4 On 7 March 2015, Shekau pledged allegiance to Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The area Boko Haram controlled was called the Wilayat Gharb Afriqiya (West Africa province) of

the IS caliphate.
5 “Boko Haram controls half of Borno, says Senator Garbai”, Punch, 7 February 2016. The three

LGAs were Abadam, Mobbar and Kala Balge, all bordering either Niger or Cameroon. The army

said it captured Kala Balge on 23 March 2016.
6 “Boko Haram militants attack village in Adamawa”,, 17 February 2016; “Boko Haram

raids Yobe state on horseback”,, 20 April 2016. Since 2011, Boko Haram has had logistical

networks in Cameroon’s far north, notably Kousseri. Crisis Group interviews, security forces, administrative

authorities, lawyers and traders, Kousseri, March 2016.

7 The first incidents in Niger occurred in December 2014. According to one count, attacks peaked

with 24 in February 2015; there were nine in November and only three in February 2016. “Niger-

Diffa: Access, Insecurity and Internal displacement”, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian

Affairs (OCHA), 10 March 2016. After it joined the regional fight in January 2015, Chad was

targeted with guerrilla attacks in and around Lake Chad throughout the year and deadly suicide

bombings in N’Djamena and some other localities in June and July. Since January 2016, there have

been only small guerrilla operations in the country. Crisis Group interview, security expert,

N’Djamena, April 2016. Aside from 2013 kidnappings of Western hostages, Boko Haram’s first attack

in Cameroon was in March 2014. The country has suffered the most in recent months; 88 were

killed in January 2016, 79 in February, 23 in March and sixteen in April. The Threat of Religious Radicalism, 3 September 2015, pp. 17-20; and observations,

northern Cameroon, March 2016. Crisis Group plans to publish briefings on Boko Haram in

Chad, Cameroon and Niger over the coming months.
8 The controversy over whether Shekau is alive continues; Nigerian authorities have long claimed

he was killed in 2013 and replaced by impersonators. Some Cameroonian soldiers in Mabass said

Shekau was in Madagali, Adamawa state, 10-27 February 2016. Madagali shares borders with

Mabass and Ldamang towns (Mayo Tsanaga), Cameroon. Crisis Group interviews, security forces,

Mabass, Cameroon, March 2016. Boko Haram watchers are divided. Compare Andrea Brigaglia,

“Abubakar Shekau: The Boko Haram Leader Who Never Came ‘Back from the Dead’”, Annual Review

of Islam in Africa, vol. 12, no. 1 (2013-2014); Jacob Zenn, “Boko Haram and the man

doctored, according to several experts; one on 1 April only featured supporters insisting

he was still the leader, though it also depicted well-equipped fighters and

four-wheel drive trucks with heavy weapons, including a heavy artillery piece.9

At the least, Boko Haram has demonstrated that its remains a potent asymmetrical

threat. While ostensibly on the back foot, it is not yet defeated. In mid-April, it

launched a large attack against Nigeria’s 113th battalion in Kareto, northern Borno

state. The nature of its tactics and geographical reach will make the group’s comprehensive

defeat difficult. Current attacks seem to be less about military strategy than

extracting resources and sending a violent message that it is surviving. Increasingly

they are on targets that offer easy plunder, including young captives, many of whom

are turned into “wives” and child soldiers.

In its desperate and violent search for resources through plunder, Boko Haram

shares some characteristics with late nineteenth century warfare in the Lake Chad

area, in which states sustain themselves through raids for goods and people became

a tool to sustain (temporarily) the state.10 It seems even more strikingly similar to

the current Uganda-born Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a force also originally

formed around a radical, religion-based rejection of society that has deteriorated into

a roaming gang, surviving by plundering goods and people.11 But because of its

connection to the global jihad, it has, unlike the LRA, an understanding of the special

power of terror attacks. Much like other jihadist groups, such as al-Qaeda in the

Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), it may become less a guerrilla force attached to a specific

territory and more a terror group with a longer reach.12

Initially, Boko Haram members attacked “strategic” individuals (local officials,

civil servants, chiefs, imams, traders who refused to cooperate and turncoats). They

moved on to greater violence against specific communities, including those that

formed vigilante groups to resist them, such as the Civilian Joint Task Forces (CJTF,

see below). They now appear to be motivated by a broader anger against all who do

not support them, including communities over which they have lost control. In so

acting, they may be destroying what little appeal they once had among segments of

the local population.13
The insurgency has badly damaged the Lake Chad basin economy, destroyed or

driven away the little services (and cash infusion) the state provided and forced

some traders to flee. But in an effort to break its financial base, Cameroon, Chad, Niger

and Nigeria have deliberately targeted economic activities they believe have been

Abubakar Shekau”, African arguments, 30 September 2014; “Salkida: Shekau alive, still controlling

Boko Haram”, The Cable (Nigeria), 16 August 2015; and Crisis Group electronic communication,

researcher working on Boko Haram, 14 April 2016.
9 Crisis Group electronic communications, researchers and an analyst working on Boko Haram,

April 2016.
10 Kyari Mohammed, Borno in the Rabih Years, 1893-1901: the Rise and Crash of a Predatory

State (Maiduguri, 2006). Rabih Fadlallah was a Sudanese warlord and slave trader who conquered

the Borno Empire in 1883 and ruled it until 1900, when he was killed by French forces. Rabih’s

forces regularly raided the countryside for plunder and to capture slaves.

11 On the LRA’s religious dimension, see Heike Behrend, Alice Lakwena & the Holy Spirits: War in

Northern Uganda 1986-97 (Oxford, 1999). On later transformation, see Crisis Group Africa Reports

N°s 182, The Lord’s Resistance Army: End Game?, 17 November 2011; and 77, Northern

Uganda: Understanding and Solving the Conflict, 14 April 2004.

12 Crisis Group interview, international military expert, N’Djamena, Chad, 27 April 2016.

13 Crisis Group electronic communication, researcher working on Boko Haram, 25 March,

benefiting Boko Haram, through tribute, a criminal racket or direct militant participation

in certain businesses. States have ordered a variety of bans, such as on motorbike

taxi service in the countryside, rural markets, the sale of fuel and trade in

fish, pepper, cattle and dried meat. Some trade prohibitions have been lifted after

civil society groups raised concerns, but there is little doubt that the local economies

are suffering.14
Under pressure from the region’s armies, Boko Haram faces growing challenges

to exacting tribute from trade flows that have largely vanished and has difficulties

finding suppliers willing to engage in risky illicit commerce.15 The money from bank

robberies and ransoms has either run out or become more difficult to spend.16 Raids

have replaced the tribute once exacted from villages, another indication that its revenue

base is being stifled, though the group may still have control of markets in

some areas. There is one recent report, quoting security sources, that militants were

surrendering out of starvation.17 Pictures released by the Nigerian military of alleged

militants killed or captured in combat show emaciated bodies. Nevertheless, that

Boko Haram is losing resources and fighters does not mean the governments have

quite regained control.
As Lake Chad basin states push further to dislodge Boko Haram and regain access,

further research may shed light on the movement. Since the killing of Mohamed

Yusuf, its founder, in police custody in 2009, the evasive Abubakar Shekau,

once a Yusuf deputy, is the best-known figure. A known sub-group (or faction), Ansaru,

publicly confirmed its existence in 2012. It formed around Nigerian radicals

associated with AQIM and had links to, but sought to distinguish itself from Boko

Haram. It is not clear whether it was completely dispersed by the security forces, was

absorbed into Boko Haram or transformed and survived as something distinct. It is

not clear either how deep doctrinal differences run within the organisation, notably

over the affiliation to the Islamic State (IS).18 Organisational charts in literature on

Boko Haram are hypothetical, with many empty boxes and question marks. Likely

the assaults have weakened the centre of the movement’s network, making it less capable

of securing obedience and coordination, and fragmenting it into smaller, more

local units, tied to specific areas and resource bases.

14 The pepper trade in south-east Niger resumed in February 2016 after civil society took a stand.

“Déclaration de la Société Civile Nigérienne”, Fondation Frantz Fanon, 20 May 2015.

15 Boko Haram is reportedly using groundnut oil as motorcycle fuel. “Boko Haram, facing fuel

shortages, makes its own: security sources, escapee”, Agence France-Presse, 18 April 2016.

16 An estimated $11 million was reportedly paid to Boko Haram for release of captives in five separate

incidents, 2013-2014, in Cameroon’s Far North alone. Crisis Group interviews, administrative

and municipal authorities, negotiators, journalists, Yaoundé, Maroua, Mokolo, February-March

2016. “Les contours de la libération des 27 otages enlevés par Boko Haram”, L’oeil du Sahel, 16 October

2014; “Nigerian Islamists got 3.15 USD millions to free French hostages”, Reuters, 26 April

17 “Boko Haram: 76 starving members surrender to Nigerian military”, Newsweek, 3 March 2016.

18 Drawing on the work of Nigerian commentator Fulan Nasrullah (, counter-

terrorism analyst Jacob Zenn considers Boko Haram is actually two main active organisations

that sometimes cooperate: Shekau’s ISWAP, along Lake Chad, by the Niger border and in central

Borno state, and Khaled al Barnawi’s Harakat-al-Mujahrin, an Ansaru spin-off content with anonymity,

in Cameroon and along its border. “Wilayat West Africa reboots for the Caliphate”,, 15 September 2015. Nigerian authorities reported al Barnawi’s arrest in April 2016

in Kogi state, far from Cameroon’s border.
In its areas of influence, Boko Haram tried to set up a quasi-administrative structure,

linking the “imam” (Shekau) and its Shura council to designated emirs (locals

or outsiders) charged with organising levies in recruits and kind from local communities.

In some areas where its control was most intense and durable, it tried to implement

its version of Sharia (Islamic law), controlling male and female dress, limiting

female mobility and forcing attendance at Quran classes and prayers.19 However,

some consider the notion of Boko Haram as a structured organisation a state-centric

misunderstanding of a group that should be viewed as a network of networks.20 Boko

Haram, as it deployed in the rural areas and along the border apparently integrated

smaller, pre-existing networks – some of which did not have a religious agenda –

such as of illicit traffickers or bandits. Some of these are returning to their previous

lives but may still be using Boko Haram’s name and notoriety.

It would be wrong, however, to consider the movement a spent force. Since the

beginning of 2016, its network along Cameroon’s border has been able to attempt 35

suicide attacks.21
III. The Regional Fightback
Boko Haram has been weakened by a stronger, coordinated military response that

began in 2015. A combination of regional and wider international support that increased

notably with Buhari’s election has put it on the defensive.

After years of inaction and a series of spectacular setbacks in 2013-2014, Buhari’s

predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, tried to fight back as the 2015 elections approached.

Reaching out to Russia, among others, he secured training and weapons

and arranged for a South African private military company to train and operate a

small force in Borno state from December 2014 to March 2015. Most significantly,

forces from Chad and Niger were allowed to intervene on Nigerian territory around

Lake Chad that February-March. Boko Haram was pushed out of some areas, sometimes

for good (Gwoza and Dikwa), but sometimes not, for failure to maintain a

permanent deployment (Gambaru and Abadam, which are further north, along the

Cameroon and Niger borders respectively). Nigeria’s own army is not large enough

to secure the entire north east and cannot depend on the deeply troubled federal police

to help secure urban areas.
The armed response strengthened further after Buhari assumed the presidency in

May 2015, although given the military’s history, there remains scepticism about the

coherence of the fight against Boko Haram. A retired northern general with strong

anti-corruption credentials and military governor experience in the north east (1975-

1976), he boosted the morale and capacity of Nigeria’s armed forces, which had been

compromised by years of mismanagement and wide-scale graft and fraud. Several of

his acts have improved the military response: a thorough command change, transfer

of the operations base from Abuja to Maiduguri, moving tactical formations’ head-

19 Crisis Group interview, researcher working on Boko Haram, Paris, 30 March 2016; Adam Higazi,

“A Conflict Analysis of Borno and Adamawa States, Northeastern Nigeria”, unpublished field report,

February 2016.
20 Crisis Group interview, Yaoundé, 25 February 2016.

21 Seventeen such attacks succeeded. Crisis Group interviews, security forces, Maroua, March 2016

quarters forward and quick improvements in logistics, wage-payment, air support,

rotation of troops and equipment procurement.22 To reflect the more aggressive disposition,

Nigeria’s counter-insurgency operation changed names from Operation

Zaman Lafiya (We will live in peace) to Operation Lafiya Dole (Peace by All Means).

The armed forces have sustained an offensive posture, catching off balance insurgents

who were used to facing a demoralised army largely confined to fixed locations.

23 To boost morale and improve capacity, the president also ordered investigations

of more than 300 companies and prominent citizens, including senior serving

and retired officers, believed involved in security budget mismanagement. Some

have been detained.24
Another important change has been the growth and spread of vigilante CJTF

groups. Born and nurtured in Maiduguri by local authorities in 2013, they played an

important role in pushing the insurgency out of that city, and they eventually formed

in Borno’s rural areas and in neighbouring states; the Cameroon and Chad equivalents

are known as comités de vigilance.25 They are alleged to have been involved in

serious abuses, including extrajudicial executions and rapes, sometimes in association

with security forces.26 But in rural areas, they have provided essential local

knowledge and intelligence to the security forces and, more importantly, given people

a chance to reconnect with the state who otherwise may have looked to Boko Haram

for protection.
Nigeria’s more cogent response and the insurgency’s growing cross-border footprint

have done much to mobilise Cameroon, Chad and Niger, as well as Western

partners. As early as 2012, in the framework of the Lake Chad Basin Commission

(LCBC), there were attempts to revive the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF),

an unsuccessful regional anti-banditry operation established in 1998, at a time when

bad memories and suspicions between Nigeria and its neighbours, particularly Cameroon,

were high.27 However, Chad and Niger pulled out in 2013 and 2014 respec-

22 “Buhari names new Service Chiefs, NSA”, Premium Times, 13 July 2015; Crisis Group interviews,

senior military officers, Abuja, January and February 2016; Lieutenant General Tukur Buratai, lecture

delivered at National Defence College, Abuja, 13 January 2016.

23 Plans to further strengthen military capacity with significant additional security force recruitment

are under way in Nigeria as well as Cameroon.
24 “Nigeria targets 300 army officers, firms, in widening corruption probe”, Reuters, 25 March

2016; “Why Dasuki will remain in detention – Presidency”, Daily Post, 29 March 2016.

25 In Cameroon, the comités de vigilance are widely praised by security forces and local administration

for their role in fighting Boko Haram. Crisis Group interviews, administrative authorities, security

forces and vigilante groups, Yaoundé, Maroua and Mora, March 2016. In Chad, many vigilante

groups were formed at the authorities’ demand after the suicide attacks in Baga Sola in October

2015. In villages they would stop-and-search newcomers and protect markets and NGO-organised

food distribution. They do not always have guns, often carrying spears, machetes or whips. Crisis

Group interview, vigilante, Andja (near Baga Sola), Chad, April 2016.

26 “Stars on their shoulders. Blood on their hands. War crimes committed by the Nigerian military”,

Amnesty International, 3 June 2015; “Civilian JTF’ members caught on video torturing Boko Haram

suspects”, Sahara Reporters, 21 October 2015.

27 The members of LCBC, created to manage the resources from Lake Chad, are Cameroon, Chad,

Niger and Nigeria, as well as the Central African Republic and Libya. Benin, on Nigeria’s western

border, also pledged 800 troops to the MNJTF along with LCBC members, in May 2014. In March

2016, a MNJTF communiqué announced Benin was ready to deploy 150, “expected to perform garrison

duties, provision of escort and security to humanitarian operations, protection of Very ImBoko

tively, and Boko Haram overran the MNJTF headquarters near the Nigerian town of

Baga, on the shores of Lake Chad, in January 2015.28

Baga’s fall was a wake-up call. Seeing its trade routes to the sea under threat,

Chad sent two large columns, one through Cameroon, one through Niger, and supported

by a Niger contingent, to fight the insurgents in Nigeria.29 Faced with mounting

criticism for collateral damage, the intervention’s heavy human and financial toll

and what it considered insufficient regional and wider international support, as well

as an increase in Boko Haram activity on its territory, however, Chad quickly pulled

out of Nigeria, somewhat frustrated. It has since focused most of its operations on its

Lake Chad’s islands and shore.
Buhari revived regional cooperation that had seemed dead at mid-2015 by paying

special attention to neighbours. The MNJTF settled into an expanded N’Djamena

headquarters, led by a Nigerian general officially in command of all Lake Chad basin

operations. In reality, there has been no force integration: the MNJTF is about coordination,

and national contingents re-hatted as MNJTF operate primarily in their

own country and report to their own capital.30 But the task force allows a level of

cross-border operational coordination, while assuaging sovereignty concerns and

helping to “erase the borders a bit”.31

Not without difficulties, it also coordinates intelligence and does some joint planning.

32 It likewise performs a function common to many African regional organisations,

that of a recipient and coordination point for international technical and financial

aid. Several bi-lateral and multilateral partners provide funds and seconded

officers directly to the intelligence cell (Cellule de Coopération et de Liaison, CCL),

support which may not have been available purely bilaterally.33

portant Personalities”. “Boko Haram: Benin Republic to deploy 150 military troops to MNJTF”,, 15 March 2016.
28 “Stars on their shoulders”. op. cit., p. 12.

29 “Chad troops enter Nigerian town in pursuit of Boko Haram”, Reuters, 3 February 2015. Chad

reportedly sent some 400 vehicles and 2,000 soldiers to Cameroon in January and into Nigeria in

February 2015. Crisis Group analyst interview in a previous capacity, security actor, N’Djamena,

February 2015. The other contingent entered Nigeria from Niger in March 2015.

30 Crisis Group interview, international security officials, N’Djamena, April 2016.

31 Crisis Group interview, MNJTF official, N’Djamena, November 2015.

32 Crisis Group interviews, international security officials, MNJTF officers, N’Djamena, November

2015 and April 2016; MNJTF officers, Mora, Cameroon, March 2016. “Failure to share data hampers

war on Boko Haram in Africa”, The New York Times, 23 April 2016. For internal communications,

Boko Haram has been using cell phones; several years ago Nigeria shut down the network in

the north east and is currently pushing hard for all SIM card purchasers to be identified. (In 2015,

Nigeria fined South African operator MTN $5.2 billion for failing to provide the identity of 5.2 million

users. The fine is currently the object of negotiation involving the South African authorities.)

With the network down, Boko Haram and others would travel east to use the Cameroonian network.

In the ongoing offensive, the army has seized many cell phones, as well as laptops powered by

solar panels. Nigerian authorities claim to have used seized cell phones to track other members.

Western intelligence agencies also track communications. It is unclear how much product is shared

with local allies. Crisis Group interviews, Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria, Washington, 2015-2106.

33 Thus, the EU is about to start giving funds to the African Union (AU) for the MNJTF. It considers

the MNJTF inadequately configured to receive funds directly. The AU will use the money to provide

in-kind assistance. EU support would have been unavailable if the MNJTF was not a joint command.

Some officials from the Lake Chad states have, however, expressed suspicion and frustration,

notably about the slow delivery and longer management chain. Crisis Group interviews, diplomats,

Paris, March 2016; international official, Addis Ababa, April 20

Western aid, particularly from France and the U.S., but also the UK and other allies,

had already begun accruing to Nigeria’s three neighbours in the form of training,

equipment and intelligence, including from U.S. drones operated out of northern

Cameroon. Buhari’s reformist agenda has allowed the West, notably the U.S., to

commit or pledge more support to Nigeria as well.34

IV. Understanding Boko Haram’s Staying Power
Even if it may be on its back foot, Boko Haram is likely to be difficult to eradicate,

because it originates from Nigeria’s deep structural challenges. Key factors include:

demoralisation resulting from massive, oil-fed corruption; chronic mismanagement;

growing inequalities between regions, with high birth rates, poverty and low levels of

formal education particularly acute in the north east; instrumentalisation of Sharia

by northern elites in a context of sudden democratisation; and dysfunctional federalism.

35 Climate change has probably also had a part, though contrary to received wisdom,

Lake Chad has not retreated in recent years.36 The insurgency’s specific home

in the north east owes something to Yusuf’s appeal in his region of origin and ethnic

community, the Kanuri. That region has also been propitious for the insurgency; the

long international borders have allowed it to seek refuge, develop support networks

and procure weapons in the Lake Chad basin, an area both of porous frontiers and of

regions that are marginal peripheries in their own states.

But another local factor mattered for the insurgency’s origin and continuation:

the history of violence in Nigeria, and particularly in the north east. Globally, jihadist

groups have tended to emerge or gather strength during conflict at least as much as

initiate it.37 When Boko Haram took root and grew, north-east Nigeria and the

broader area of the Lake Chad basin were not home to an open, large armed conflict,

but there was diffuse, daily, structural violence. Cattle-rustling, banditry, vigilantism,

the protection needed for a lively illicit economy and abuse by state officials

have all been pervasive and inter-connected.38 It is a region where trade and the

requisite mobile protection have been more important than production, and the

1990s’ economic liberalisation did not change this. Untying the nexus of wealth and

violence is the region’s key structural challenge. A new study of ex-Boko Haram

fighters’ attitudes tellingly notes that “[a]bout half of former members said their

34 Crisis Group interview, diplomats, Abuja, February 2016.

35 Crisis Group Report, Northern Nigeria: Background to Conflict, op. cit. Among the books available,

see in particular Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos (ed.), Boko Haram. Islamism, Politics,

Security and the State in Nigeria (Ibadan 2014).
36 Ayo Obe, “Environmental Degradation, Climate Change and Conflict: The Lake Chad Basin

Area”, Crisis Group, The Future of Conflict, 27 October 2015,


37 Crisis Group Special Report, Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, 14 March

38 See Janet Roitman, Fiscal Disobedience: An Anthropology of Economic Regulation in Central

Africa (Princeton, 2004); Issa Saïbou, Les coupeurs de route: Histoire du banditisme rural et

transfrontalier dans le bassin du lac Tchad (Paris, 2011); Marielle Debos, Le métier des armes au

Tchad. Le gouvernement d’entre-guerres (Paris, 2013

communities at some time supported Boko Haram, believing it would help bring

about a change in government”. State legitimacy is the core problem.39

The challenge has been heightened by a violent counter-insurgency campaign to

which little thought has been given about how it could further fuel insurgency. The

brutal summer 2009 military crackdown in Maiduguri, Yusuf’s extrajudicial execution

in police custody and heavy-handed attempts to crush the movement made

things worse. Repeated pledges by the states involved to comply with the laws of war

have had minimal follow-through; there are still too many troubling reports by human

rights NGOs.40 A human rights expert contended that, throughout the region,

security forces were probably more deadly for civilians than Boko Haram.41 Even accounts

from the security forces are dispiriting reads. How, for example, did Nigerian

forces know the 58 they killed on 21 March 2016 in the village of Musari were insurgents

if they seized only two grenades afterwards?42
This context explains some of Boko Haram’s success in penetrating rural areas,

an essential but little analysed issue. It put rural civilians before a false choice. On

one side was a state that has often made itself felt through unfulfilled promises of

development and the taxations, seizures and predations of its agents, many of whom

do not speak local languages, and their local allies – the chiefs and government officials.

On the other was the presence of armed militants with sticks, but also some

carrots – access to a gun, money, a motorbike, protection for trade (or the loss

thereof), promises of plunder or a bride, chance for revenge against state abuse and

moral justification couched in an understandable religious discourse. Boko Haram

has also provided opportunities not only for individuals, but communities. Along

Lake Chad for instance, significant segments of Buduma fishing communities have

rallied under the Boko Haram flag to counter the economic dominance of Hausa

It is probable, too, that Boko Haram was a chance for some rural youths to gain

leverage in a sclerotic patriarchal social system that gave them little, while delaying

access to marriage and formal adulthood. Boko Haram has abducted many women.

There have been reports of rapes, particularly against Christian women. It seems

many of the captives have been forced into marriages, which has led to marital

rape.44 Reportedly, fighters spent much of their off-duty time talking about marriage

prospects.45 The easy access to brides, via coercion or otherwise, Boko Haram gave

39 “Motivations and empty promises. Voices of former Boko Haram combatants and Nigerian

youth”, Mercy Corps, April 2016, p. 14.
40 “Stars on their shoulders”, op. cit.; “Human rights under fire: Attacks and violations in Cameroon’s

struggle with Boko Haram”, Amnesty International, September 2015.

41 Crisis Group interview, Dakar, 21 April 2016.
42 “Nigerian troops kill 58 Boko Haram insurgents, cut terrorists’ logistics – Army”, Premium

Times, 22 March 2016.
43 Christian Seignobos, “Boko Harm et le lac Tchad. Extension ou sanctuarisation?”, Afrique contemporaine,

255 (2016).
44 See “‘Those terrible weeks in their camp’. Boko Haram violence against women and girls in

Northeast Nigeria”, Human Rights Watch, October 2014, a report that draws almost exclusively on

the cases of Christian abductees but mentions, however, the possibility that rapes are underreported.

45 Crisis Group interviews, male refugees and former Boko Haram captive, Minawao and Yaound

young militants, an aspect observed in some other Muslim reform movements across

West Africa, has probably been a major pull factor for the insurgency.46

Analysis of women’s experience with Boko Haram has often been centred, understandably,

on the plight of the female captives and girls used as suicide-bombers. It

should not be ruled out, however, that some women may have seized on Boko Haram

as an opportunity for a kind of emancipation observed in other mobilisations

drawing on radical Islam. A recent study notes that for some women, particularly

young ones, the group offered “unique opportunities”, notably access to Islamic education

and a form of social power.47 Overall, the relationship of many civilians to the

movement has certainly been more varied than usually thought, combining fear and

opportunity in complex ways, with each person joining for diverse reasons. That

complexity must be understood and dealt with if Boko Haram is to be degraded.

V. Uncertainties Remain
The military balance is currently tipped in favour of the Lake Chad states, and Boko

Haram is not likely to create a large territorial enclave as IS has done in Iraq and

Syria. There are, however, substantial long- and short-term uncertainties that still

threaten Nigeria’s far north and neighbouring countries and must be carefully monitored.

First, Boko Haram is trying to adapt to military defeats. Its networked nature

may mean it is unlikely to collapse from the top and is well-suited to surviving as a

loosely-coordinated structure. Some bastions, such as the Lake Chad islets or the

Mandara hills, may offer long-lasting cover for guerrilla operations. Other militants

could drop the attempt to maintain a guerrilla force, complete with families, in favour

of a slimmer structure with a longer reach and a focus on terror acts. Some may

move to new areas. While Boko Haram has a primary audience among the Kanuri,

the dominant ethnic group in Borno state and surrounding areas (and Yusuf’s and

Shekau’s community), it has been able to reach further.48 The daily violence of banditry

and cattle-rustling prevalent throughout northern Nigeria and the region could

open up new areas of operation.49
Another uncertainty is the potential to reach out to other jihadist movements.

There has long been evidence of some links, notably with AQIM or ex-Ansaru mili-

46 Ibid. Crisis Group interview, researcher working on Boko Haram, Paris, 29 March 2016.

47 “Motivations and empty promises”, op. cit., p. 15; “Strategy of terror: the suicide bombing girls of

Boko Haram”, Der Spiegel, 29 April 2016.
48 Kabiru Umar, convicted for masterminding the Christmas Day 2011 bombing of St. Theresa

Catholic church in Madalla, Niger state, which killed at least 44, was from Gagi Village, Sokoto

state. Aminu Sadiq Ogwuche, arrested in connection with the 14 April 2014 bombing of a bus station

in Nyanya, Abuja, in which about 130 were killed, came from Orokam in Benue state.

49 In what seems like an attempt to manipulate public opinion, some have blamed a number of recent

violent clashes in northern Nigeria between ethnic Fulani herdsmen and farmers on Boko Haram.

But an escalation in violence could make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. “B/Haram attacking Nigerians

under guise of herders/farmers’ feud – Dambazau”, Daily Trust, 15 April 2016. Crisis

Group electronic communication, researcher working on Boko Haram and Fulani pastoralism, 27

April 2016.
tants.50 Several sources noted the presence of a few Maghreb Arabs among Boko Haram

ranks, and Shekau pledged allegiance in March 2015 to IS leader Abu Bakr al-

Baghdadi. U.S. officials have recently claimed links between IS and Boko Haram are

tightening, but evidence so far is slim.51 Nigeria articles in IS’s magazine, Dabiq, are

of poor quality, unlike its coverage of the fronts where IS is clearly present. With the

exception of the 27 November 2015 attack on a Shia gathering near Kano, Boko Haram’s

targeting seems to have been less global recently.
Nigeria’s ability to capitalise on Boko Haram’s current weakness and curb it is

another uncertainty, particularly with oil prices low and the naira falling. The neighbours’

strenghts are also unknown. Each in its way is fragile. Cameroon confronts a

delicate presidential succession in 2018, a security apparatus with internal tensions

and a north with a large (not exclusively) Muslim population that feels marginalised.

Niger is tense, fresh from controversial presidential elections, with budget problems,

a partial criminalisation of the state due to illicit trafficking and a military used to

meddling in politics.52 Chad is also fragile, with a long history of armed rebellions,

essentially controlled by a tribal army awash with aspiring men-at-arms, reeling

from the oil-price collapse and just past the controversial election in which President

Idriss Déby, in power since 1990, won a fifth term.53 Such frailties could, in various

ways, offer ground for an extension or more indigenous mutation of Boko Haram, as

well as the emergence of other violent actors, jihadist or not.

VI. A Mounting Humanitarian Toll
The humanitarian impact has been huge. There is no solid body count, an indication

of state weakness and dearth of local civil society, made worse by security concerns.

The Council on Foreign Relations (U.S.) assesses that Boko Haram and state actors

together have killed 28,000 since 2011 in Nigeria alone, but the toll may be higher.54

There are now 2.8 million displaced persons in the Lake Chad basin, about 200,000

of them refugees. With limited resources made worse by weak capacity, the states

and aid community have struggled to handle the crisis.

Regional governments’ policies have not always helped the displaced. Authorities

have seemed keen for civilians to leave and stay away from Boko Haram-held territory

(where they could be a potential source of voluntary or coerced support for the

50 In October 2014, French troops arrested in Niger a senior member of al-Mourabitoune, a jihadist

organisation linked to AQIM, who was returning from Nigeria where he was giving Boko Haram

media training. Crisis Group interview, Nigerien security official, Niamey, November 2014. Crisis

Group Report, Curbing Violence in Nigeria (II), op. cit., pp. 23-26.

51 “Boko Haram and ISIS are collaborating more: US military”, The New York Times, 21 April 2016;

also, Jacob Zenn, “Nigerian al-Qaedaism”, Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, 2014. For a critical

take on Zenn’s insistence on Boko Haram’s global links, see Abdul Raufu Mustapha, “Understanding

Boko Haram”, in Abdul Raufu Mustapha (ed.), Sects & Social Disorder in Muslim Identities &

Conflict in Northern Nigeria (Oxford, 2014), p. 148. Some military sources warn the evidence of

collaboration is slim. Crisis Group electronic communication, military expert, 10 March 2016; interviews,

ex-Boko Haram captive, Yaoundé, April 2016; military expert, N’Djamena, Chad, 27 April

52 Crisis Group Africa Report N°208, Niger: Another Weak Link in the Sahel?, 19 September 2013.

53 Crisis Group Africa Report N°233, Chad: Between Ambition and Fragility, 30 March 2016.

54 “Nigeria Security Tracker” ( See also Higazi, “A conflict analysis”, op. cit., p. 8.

insurgents) but are at the same time embarrassed by the massive IDP camps, fearing

they may turn into hotbeds of discontent.55 Also, such camps have reportedly attracted

human trafficking and sexual abuse.56
President Buhari’s initial plans to push IDPs back to their home areas have apparently

been dropped, and Nigeria seems to be preparing for massive long-term

displacement.57 Cameroon is not keen on retaining Nigerian refugees and is pushing

for swift repatriation, at the risk of returning them to areas still plagued by insurgency

and possibly to starve. Niger and Chad have pushed Nigerian refugees and nationals

– not always an easy distinction – away from the insurgent-infested Lake

Chad islands, sometimes forcibly, and are trying to prevent returns. The future of

IDPs, stuck in camps often removed from their resource bases, is sombre.

Displaced or not, 9.2 million of the 20 million living in the affected areas require

humanitarian help. Nearly half face severe food insecurity, and in Borno state some

50,000 are starving.58 Agriculture is at a standstill, with labour drained from rural

areas, movement of goods and people complicated and poor rains. While many civilians

have fled to urban centres, there still seem to be many in the bush, with little to

no mobility, and the lean season has not even begun.59 Hasty return to rural areas

without sufficient seeds, tools or fertilisers, will not help. At this stage, if rural populations

are not supported adequately by government, they may be vulnerable to Boko

Haram offering similar supplies .
With the size of the impacted areas, security concerns, intermittent international

attention and Nigeria’s perceived sensitivity to external involvement, aid organisations

are struggling to increase their activity.60 Humanitarian aid is nevertheless indispensable,

as bans on economic activities, which seem to have proven militarily

effective, will likely continue. Even if states were willing to reverse them, it is far

from certain that would produce a rapid improvement in local livelihoods, since

many IDPs and refugees are cautious about returning, and traders are reluctant to

re-enter the markets. Whether pushed back to unsafe areas or stuck in insufficiently

supplied and protected camps, the displaced would be easy targets for voluntary or

coerced Boko Haram recruitment.61
55 Crisis Group interviews, Nigerian, Cameroonian, Chadian national and international humanitarian

actors, Abuja, February 2016, Yaoundé, February-March 2016, N’Djamena, April 2016.

56 “Grim tales of rape, child trafficking in displaced persons camps”, International Centre for Investigative

Reporting, 29 January 2015. This information was confirmed by a human rights expert.

Crisis Group electronic communication, 7 April 2016. Nigeria’s National Emergency Management

Agency (NEMA), however, denied the report. “NEMA denies allegation of sexual abuse, others in

IDP camps”, The Guardian (Nigeria), 16 July 2015.

57 “Boko Haram: it’s about human lives, not territories”,, 16 February 2016.

58 “Lake Chad Basin Emergency: Humanitarian Needs and Response Overview 2016”, OCHA, January

59 “Trade seen as key to return to normality in NE Nigeria”, Agence France-Presse, 13 March 2016.

60 Crisis Group interviews, diplomats and humanitarian actors, Abuja, 16-19 February 2016.

61 Crisis Group interviews, Chadian national and international humanitarian actors, N’Djamena,

April 2016.
VII. Conclusion
Though the military response to Boko Haram has become more cogent, the Lake

Chad states should not too quickly proclaim “mission accomplished”. Even if they

are made to abandon all territorial pretensions in Nigeria’s north east and the Lake

Chad area, or are forced to abandon their guerrilla war, some Boko Haram militants

at least are likely to seek to continue their insurgency in some form, probably

through terror attacks. For Nigeria and its neighbours, the job will only become

more complicated. Beyond military action, more complex governance and development

challenges need to be addressed. In the coming year, Crisis Group will look at

Boko Haram’s regionalisation and transformation, its social impact, patterns of recruitment

and radicalisation, female experiences, MNJTF effectiveness and regional

The 14 May regional security summit, two years after the first was held in Paris, is

an opportunity to consolidate regional and wider international cooperation and, crucially,

to review the current policies of Nigeria and its partners. The summit’s concept

note indicates that the Lake Chad states and their international partners recognise

the numerous steps and initiatives needed to curb Boko Haram, including restoring

security to long-neglected peripheries and borders while respecting rule-oflaw,

protecting victims and beginning infrastructure development in insurgencyaffected

areas so IDPs and refugees can go home.62 These are all important to help

restrict the rebellion, but preventing future insurgencies must also be part of the

summit’s focus. Policies and initiatives should aim at developing strategies and tactics

that invest in the longer-term goal of conflict prevention and focus on:

 Attention to the conflict’s humanitarian consequences. Response to the

human consequences has been dramatically underfunded and insufficient. More

aid, both humanitarian and developmental, is urgently needed, with priority on

the swift return of IDPs and refugees to rebuild local economies, though constrained

by reasonable security concerns. Promises of assistance should be implemented

with speed, without gaps between people returning and the arrival of

support. Special support for agricultural production should be provided. Attention

must also be paid, in both humanitarian interventions and development

programs, to managing land rights and, particularly, relations between affected

communities. Boko Haram has, in some places, driven wider wedges between

communities that were already rivals for scarce resources.

It is not just about making sure victims are taken care of and protected. The handling

of populations that lived under Boko Haram, whether willingly or as captives,

needs to be carefully thought through, including with regard to rehabilitation;

many are psychologically, socially and culturally vulnerable. Humanitarian

support must make special provision for women and children.

 Reform state and state-sponsored counter-insurgency strategy. Nigeria

and its neighbours have relied on massive, often indiscriminate violence to combat

Boko Haram. Security forces and their proxies have been allowed to operate

62 However, as a development expert noted, we are still at the stage of an humanitarian emergency,

and investments will not resolve important governance challenges. Crisis Group electronic communication,

international development expert, 26 April 201
with near total impunity. This may have achieved military gains, but it is likely to

prove counterproductive over time. With Boko Haram apparently on the back

foot, authorities must establish a calendar to end the state of emergency and return

to the rule of law, especially by encouraging security forces to use force more

 Manage captured and ex- fighters wisely. As regional governments close in

further on Boko Haram areas, they should consider how to treat captured and exinsurgents

to prevent further violence and mitigate future recruitment. If they are

handled appropriately, it should be possible to obtain crucial information systematically

on the insurgency, its recruitment process, including profiles and reasons

for joining, and the patterns and intensity of radicalisation. It is essential to

avoid casting all Boko Haram recruits as hardline, which could provoke further

tensions. Governments should also be prepared to engage, openly or discreetly,

with Boko Haram leaders who may be looking for a compromise.

How governments treat and distinguish Boko Haram ideologues from those who

joined from other motives will be vital. Dealing appropriately with ex-members is

the first step to lessen recruitment. This includes developing adequate confinement

conditions, de-radicalisation programs and well-designed assistance for

community reintegration. Though even more of a challenge in areas devastated

by insurgency, a more transparent justice process is critical for restoring rule of

law and the state’s credibility. While not neglecting accountability for serious

crimes and respecting international commitments, the governments should not

rule out engaging with leaders willing to negotiate and should provide avenues

for reconciliation.
 Rolling back the use of vigilantes. The CJTF and other regional vigilante or

irregular forces have been important in the fight against Boko Haram, and government

support of them as an immediate measure was understandable. It is

now time to think carefully about further reliance on them, however, and about

their demobilisation, lest longer-term problems result, including increased risk of

local, communal violence. Many could become tools for local politicians to misuse.

 Bringing back the state. Planning is required for returning more trusted,

transparent authorities, including professional security forces, to regions that

over time have come to distrust central government. This is critical to curbing the

insurgency, particularly in rural areas, where anger against states seen as more

predatory than protective has been a push factor for Boko Haram. While diverse

factors drove the insurgency, structural insecurity is dominant in the Lake Chad

area. Governments must move more urgently to curb impunity, particularly of

security forces, and restore social services. The link between underdevelopment

and radicalisation is complex, and it rarely makes sense to explicitly label reconstruction

or development activities as “de-radicalisation” or “preventing violence

extremism”.63 That said, improved service provision is essential to rebuilding the

state legitimacy that can sap support for movements like Boko Haram. There is

63 Crisis Group Report, Exploiting Disorder, op. cit.

little doubt service provision, which goes beyond rebuilding infrastructure, can

help states recover legitimacy.
The states around Lake Chad have been challenged by Boko Haram to find ways of

cooperating. At some levels this has been successful, but the success is principally

military and tactical and has not been without frustrations and suspicions. The positive

elements should now be extended to include issues such as prisoner handling,

refugee returns, cross-border recruitment and criminality. The bigger challenge may

well be to turn this regional cooperation toward transforming the economies – and

political economies – in all four Lake Chad countries.

Abuja/Dakar/Nairobi/Brussels, 4 May 2016