West Africa

Is this the end of Boko Haram?

Is this the end of Boko Haram?
  • PublishedOctober 15, 2021

Over the past few months, thousands of Boko Haram fighters have surrendered to authorities in Nigeria and Cameroon. There are several reasons for the rapid disintegration of this terror organisation but if the root causes of what led to its formation are not tackled, another group could rise up again, warns Neil Ford.

The Boko Haram insurgency in West Africa has reached a crucial point, as thousands of militants are reported to have surrendered and efforts to stem funding for the group finally yield some positive results.

Yet even if it should be fatally damaged, another militant Islamist group is ready to take its place and the prospects of lasting peace will be limited as long as the underlying causes of disaffection remain.

Boko Haram was founded in 2002 and first launched military operations 12 years ago. The resulting conflict is estimated to have contributed to the deaths of about 350,000 people, with up to 3m more displaced.

The group’s operations have devastated a wide swathe of northeast Nigeria, including the Lake Chad Basin, with violence spilling over into the neighbouring states of Chad, Cameroon and Niger.

The militaries of the affected nations set up the Multinational Joint Task Force in the Lake Chad basin to coordinate their operations but the group has bounced back from each previous setback.

The Nigerian military reported at the start of September that 5,890 Boko Haram fighters had surrendered over the previous few weeks, although it seems likely that that figure includes the families of militants as well as the fighters themselves.

Either way, it is clear that a significant number have given up the fight. There is also some uncertainty over whether the figure includes the surrender of more than 1,500 militants in Cameroon, who the Nigerian government want to see repatriated.

Demobilisation centres have been set up in Nigeria to handle the former militants, while Cameroon has created its own Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) centre.

The apparent downturn in the organisation’s fortunes appears to be the result of a conflict with another Islamist group as well as operations by the Nigerian army and its allies.

There has been fierce fighting between the group and a former Boko Haram faction that broke away and subsequently renamed itself Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, was killed in fighting with ISWAP in May, apparently killing himself when on the verge of being captured. Although previous claims of his death turned out to be inaccurate, even Boko Haram members have now confirmed it.

If the organisation is on the verge of being replaced, its demise has been fairly quick. The group had undertaken a number of deadly attacks in the week running up to the announcement on defections by the Nigerian military, with 26 Chadian soldiers killed in early August and 16 Nigerien troops named among the victims later in the month.

The Nigerian military has made bold claims about the success of its campaign against Boko Haram in the past, only for the group to bounce back, so there are no guarantees of success this time around.

Given the apparent loss of its remote Sambisa Forest stronghold to ISWAP in May, it seems more likely than at any other stage that Boko Haram could disintegrate, yet even if it were to be dissolved, there is a very real fear that ISWAP or another group could fill the gap.

The Nigerian military was unable to defeat Boko Haram in the Sambisa Forest, so another group could easily make use of the same challenging environment. Some militants will undoubtedly not wish to give up the fight and could exploit the ingredients that gave rise to the conflict in the first place, including limited economic prospects, corruption and climate change.

There have been reports that ISWAP is attempting to set up a rival government, funding development projects and levying taxes, in an effort to garner popular support. Such efforts are not negligible in a country with limited official government services.

Rehabilitation and reintegration

It is vital that substantial investment is made in northeast Nigeria, both to help rebuild the region for its inhabitants and to erode the underlying causes of the conflict.

Moreover, rehabilitation programmes for former combatants and their families, including education, training, employment and homes, are needed to give them a stake in a peaceful future. Some are themselves victims of the violence, forced to join the group against their will, while others are more convinced adherents and still others lie in a grey zone somewhere between the two extremes.

The Nigerian government’s Operation Safe Corridor deradicalisation and demobilisation programme offers former insurgents six months of rehabilitation support, including training and counselling. However, such support has been controversial among displaced people in the region, who argue that they are unable to access similar levels of support themselves and feel that the former combatants are being rewarded for their violence.

Peace and reconciliation processes elsewhere on the continent have had some success but there is a feeling in Nigeria that the militants have surrendered to avoid both violence from rival factions and state justice.

Reintegrating former fighters into their home villages will be a huge challenge: some who have been terrorised regard it as the price of peace, while others say they are unwilling to live alongside their former tormentors.

Some communities have already refused to accept the more than 1,000 former insurgents who have completed their rehabilitation programmes. It is easy to see why but former combatants without hope of a better future are more likely to take up arms again. Reconciliation without the ‘truth’ side of the ‘truth and reconciliation process’ is widely considered to be a far less effective driver of peace.

As always, the terrorist group was borne out of long-running underdevelopment, in this case in northeast Nigeria. In particular, global warming and water overuse have seen Lake Chad shrink massively over many years, so that it is now only 10% of the size it was in the 1960s.

Strained water resources have driven ethnic and cultural conflict between settled farmers and pastoralists in the Basin, creating an environment which Boko Haram has been able to exploit. The same environmental factors have fuelled fighting across the Sahel.

Cutting off support

Another important means of calming the insurgency, whether in the form of Boko Haram, ISWAP or another Islamist group, is cutting off financial support.

There have been a variety of claims about support for Boko Haram from within the establishment, including funding from hundreds of currency traders and other professionals, and intelligence information being passed on from the Nigerian security services and military to the group.

Six Nigerians were convicted of financing Boko Haram in the United Arab Emirates in 2019 but the identities of those under investigation in Nigeria itself are generally not revealed despite official reports that large numbers of people are involved.

Some sources claim it is financed by wealthy sympathisers, including religious leaders, and there have been repeated allegations that they have secured weapons as a result of either military incompetence or collusion.

Perhaps most damagingly, some have claimed that the political leaders of northeastern states work with Boko Haram, providing money in return for armed action against political opponents.

All these forms of support could be depressed, although Boko Haram also generates income through the mainstays of organised crime, such as extortion, kidnapping, smuggling, robbery and drug and human trafficking. It has been alleged that the group also imposes levies on fishermen on Lake Chad, sometimes in collusion with the military.

Organised terrorism is a hydra-headed monster – cut off one head and two appear in its place. The only way to kill it is to slay the heart of the beast which is usually to be found in poverty and hopelessness. If the fall of Afghanistan has any lasting lessons to teach us, then it is that bombs and bullets will not win against terrorism. Development and hope might. 

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Written By
Neil Ford

Neil is a journalist, writer, editor and consultant, specialising in international and African affairs.

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