Boko Haram on the Back Foot?
Dakar/Brussels, 4 May 2016. Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°120.
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
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”, Naij.com, 17 February 2016; “Boko Haram
raids Yobe state on horseback”, Naij.com, 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,
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
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 (https://fulansitrep.com), 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”,
www.isn.thz.ch, 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
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,
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
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”,
thepost-ng.com, 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, https://medium.com/the-futureof-
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,
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
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” (www.cfr.org). 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”, salkida.com, 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,
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
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