Boko Haram’s Decline Will Reveal Nigeria’s Bigger Problems

A good news story, seemingly rare these days, came in Sunday’s announcement that Boko Haram — a jihadist group currently menacing Nigeria’s north — released 82 of the 276 schoolgirls they had previously abducted from the town of Chibok.

While it is too early to speculate about what this means for the group’s long-term political future, there should be no doubt that this deal was negotiated with the Nigerian Government in a position of strength.

Even as Boko Haram continues amassing fighters — recruiting over 2,000 children in 2016 alone — and spreading fear through its online propaganda campaign, since late last year structural weaknesses within the group have begun to show.

Following a leadership spill between Abubakar Shekau, the successor to the group’s spiritual founder Ustaz Mohammad Yussef, and the group’s spokesman Abu Musab Al-Barnawi, factional in-fighting between the two camps has led to deadly skirmishes on a number of occasions.

A reinvigorated campaign by the Nigerian military corresponding with the 2015 election of hardline former general Muhammadu Buhari has also enjoyed progress against Boko Haram.

So far at least, the changes implemented by Buhari and his newly-appointed commanders seem to have had a positive effect on the battlespace.

Shifting the location of the operational headquarters from Abuja to Maiduguri (the locus of the problem), overhauling military procurement by cracking down on budgetary mismanagement and adjusting the Army’s tactical focus to saturation patrolling throughout Borno state are among the positive measures which saw the number of Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria decrease from 270 in 2015 to just 36 in 2016.

On the whole it seems, especially with Sunday’s news of the Chibok schoolgirls’ release, improvements on the ground in northern Nigeria appear to be increasingly and incrementally tangible — at least, when compared with the worsening situation in Mali.

Concurrently however, the UK Foreign Office, in updating its in-country travel advisory, reported the receipt of new information that Boko Haram was “actively planning to kidnap Western foreign workers along the Kumshe-Banki axis” near the Nigeria-Cameroon border.

Of course, the kidnapping of foreign aid workers and oil workers by jihadists is not a new phenomenon in West Africa. Neither is the emergence of a specific threat is not suggestive of the historical absence of the same threat.

If it’s true though, that Boko Haram is now searching for an explicitly Western kidnapping target to boost its global profile, then it would indicate that a crucial psychological tool and bargaining chip has been lost in the release of the Chibok schoolgirls.

Furthermore, if Boko Haram’s increasingly splintering membership is shifting the emphasis away from large-scale military operations towards low-level kidnappings then the group’s relative strategic position is perhaps in even worse shape than previously thought.

Just as the 2014 kidnapping and beheading of the French mountaineer Herve Gourdel by a group of Islamic State sympathisers in Algeria revealed the work of a peripheral subgroup vying for relevance, a transition away from mass abductions of entire girls’ schools in favour of bundling stray Westerners into people-mover vans would seem to show Boko Haram as a militant group in decline.

If we go by the number of attacks alone, Boko Haram’s “power” — that is, its ability to project military force over territory that it controls — does seem to be decreasing.

That said, if the last decade and a half spent “fighting terrorism” has shown us anything, it is that eliminating the threat posed by jihadist groups is a task which transcends success on the battlefield.

An individual kidnapping, while a comparatively miniscule event, can still have a profound psychological impact on a target population.

This is even more pronounced when the individuals being targeted are foreign aid workers whose reconstruction work, per the counterinsurgency theorist David Kilcullen, is crucial for “hardwiring” militants out of the local environment.

As such, while Mr Buhari is right to be proud of the fact that Boko Haram is no longer capable of “articulated conventional attacks on centres of communication and populations”, his attendant claim (articulated as early as December 2015) that Boko Haram is “technically defeated” continues to be, at best, a little optimistic.

As the International Crisis Group summarised of the situation in May last year: “Boko Haram is seemingly on a back foot … [but] it is unlikely to be eliminated in a decisive battle.”

Naturally, excessively focussing on one’s military successes also allows Mr Buhari to divert attention away from deeper structural problems in Nigeria which underlie the jihadist crisis.

Corruption in particular remains a persistent driver of local instability.

According to one study by PricewaterhouseCoopers, if the misappropriation of funds by key influencers is left unchecked by 2030 it could cost the Nigerian economy up to 37 per cent of the national GDP.

The Nigerian public’s trust in its own institutions, especially the police force, is also at an all-time low.

It’s not all depressing though. Culturally, at least, Mr Buhari does not have a difficult adversary to contend with in Boko Haram.

On a grand historical timescale, it is difficult to imagine that a group as bizarre as Boko Haram — which at one point introduced a tax “for breathing” on some residents in a suburb of Maiduguri — could actually impose what they wish to see imposed on the Nigerian people.

Certainly, the rise of anti-Boko vigilante groups since the Chibok kidnappings would seem to indicate that on some fundamental level the group’s use of child suicide bombers and its propensity for sexual slavery simply does not resonate with the locals.

Likewise, if Nigeria’s generals are to be believed and the territory now controlled by Boko Haram is confined to a few jungled pockets of the Sambisi Forest, then that, at the very least, is a sign of progress.

And yet, as much as the world would like to see Mr Buhari’s mission accomplished, positive trends do not a “technical defeat” make.

As Stephen Chan from SOAS-University of London glibly put it: “Something is rotten in Nigeria — and something peculiarly Nigerian at that.”

The rot, if the metaphor carries, continues to fester, unabated. And until that rot is excised, whole-bodily from the Nigerian system, it is likely that the extremist problem will persist.

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