Nigeria: Notes on Recent Boko Haram Violence

In Nigeria, Boko Haram and its offshoot Islamic State West Africa (ISWA) have perpetrated several major attacks and a number of micro attacks recently. Here are some of the most prominent incidents in recent weeks:

  • An ISWA attack on a military base in Baga (map), 26 December
  • An ISWA attack on Rann (map), 14 January
  • An ISWA attack on Geidam (map), 23 January,
  • Attacks attributed to Boko Haram, targeting two military bases/outposts at Pulka (map) and Logomani (map) on the Nigeria-Cameroon border, 26-27 January
  • A second attack on Rann, attributed by some reports to Boko Haram rather than ISWA, 28 January

Some of these places are small cities – the number of displaced from Rann alone is estimated at 30,000. Most of these towns/cities have been previously, even repeatedly, exposed to Boko Haram and ISWA violence. Much of Borno State remains extremely dangerous for civilians and soldiers; all of the attacks mentioned above occurred in Borno save the one in Geidam, which is in neighboring Yobe State.

Reporting on these attacks also emphasizes the unpreparedness of the Nigerian military. See the following thread:

The assault on Geidam also shows how individual attacks can build momentum for future violence, as fighters seize weapons and equipment and as the attacks shake soldiers’ and even officers’ confidence. The accounts about Geidam do not all agree on the details, but different reporters and ISWA’s own readout all say that ISWA took supplies in Geidam, perhaps including fuel, a tank, other military vehicles, and weapons. Meanwhile, the attack seems to have caught the military by surprise:

In separate interviews with PREMIUM TIMES under anonymity on Friday morning, military officers were troubled by Boko Haram’s ability to inflict such damage on an area that had long been fortified to serve as a buffer against unchecked movement of insurgents south of River Komadougou-Yobe.

Geidam has been regularly targeted since November 2011 when Boko Haram launched a string of deadly assaults on residents in the community and Damaturu, the state capital. The military, however, moved swiftly to frustrate easy movement of the insurgents by setting up bases in the communities near River Komadougou-Yobe, which is a minor tributary of the Lake Chad.

While other Yobe communities, especially Buni Yadi, live in fear of regular Boko Haram attacks, Geidam was relatively calm, which security analysts credit to the military’s ability to prevent terrorists from using the nearby river.

But the military base in Geidam, which sits near the border with Diffa, Niger Republic, was perhaps the first target of the latest deadly raid, according to military sources.

Amnesty International’s report on the second Rann attack offers an even more damning portrait of military unpreparedness – or outright fear of Boko Haram/ISWA:

Disturbingly, witnesses told us that Nigerian soldiers abandoned their posts the day before the attack, demonstrating the authorities’ utter failure to protect civilians.

Alleged withdrawal of troops, triggered a massive exodus of civilians to Cameroon, as fear spread that Boko Haram would take advantage and attack the town. At around 9am on 28 January, a group of Boko Haram fighters arrived on motorcycles. They set houses ablaze and killed those left behind. They also chased after those who attempted to escape and killed some people outside the town. Eleven bodies were found within Rann town, and 49 bodies were found outside.

Another theme worth noting about recent violence is that even micro attacks can have wide impacts. For example, recent ambushes and abductions on a road running from Damaturu (Yobe) to Biu (Borno) caused widespread disruption:

The road which is about 120 kilometres has remained the only safer means as linkage to people living in southern Borno senatorial district reach Maiduguri, the state capital following closure and danger posed on other closest roads.

Sources said, after the abduction, security forces had to close down the road for motorists and passengers. A driver who plies the road on daily basis, Mallam Ali Isa told our Correspondent that he had to follow through 400km Gombe-Potiskum- Damaturu- Maiduguri road after the news filtered that the road was not safe on Friday. His words: “The Damaturu-Buni Yadi- Biu Road was not safe. Today is Buni Yadi Market where thousands of people from the surrounding communities come for business, unfortunately, there was an attack on the road which led to abduction of unspecified number of travellers with looting of foodstuff, and this warrant the military to close down the road including the market,” Isa learnt.

As a closing thought, a lot of the reporting has discussed these incidents in the context of Nigeria’s approaching presidential (February 16) and state (March 2) elections. But I am not sure that the electoral calendar is uppermost in the minds of either Boko Haram or ISWA. I think they operate on a longer timeline and that electoral disruption is a lower priority for them than (a) military positioning, (b) keeping fighters happy/occupied, and (c) obtaining or expanding their supplies and their overall political, economic, and religious influence.

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Recent Analyses and Articles on Boko Haram

Recently there has been a spate of interesting work on Boko Haram and its offshoot Islamic State West Africa (ISWA) or Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). Here are some links and excerpts. As always, it can be difficult to verify some journalists’ and analysts’ sources, especially when they claim rare of exclusive access to insiders.

  • The journalist Ahmed Salkida is covering ISWAP’s military endeavors in northeastern Nigeria. See here and here. An excerpt from the former: “Boko Haram/ISWAP policy with respect to physically holding territories changed after the steady losses they suffered in the run up to general elections in Nigeria in 2014. They do not want to physically hold unto territories anymore than they are determined to ensure that the military does not have any sustainable presence in the territories. Furthermore, ISWAP is paying more premium to wooing local communities to feel more secure with them than they could ever be with the military. That is their strategy…ISWAP is no longer showing interest in taking a formidable military base such as was in Baga and staying put there. It doesn’t apparently serve their tactical and strategic interest well. They are more interested in taking over military hardware and ammunition in those bases while instilling fear on the troops and making it extremely difficult for the military to have the comfort to plan and launch attacks.”
  • Babatunde Obamamoye has written an interesting-looking article about negotiating with Boko Haram. From the abstract: “A notable shocking development in the advancement of the Boko Haram terrorist revolt was the abduction of about 276 Chibok girls in April 2014. Shortly afterward, while the terrorists made known their extremist determination to offer the girls for sale, the Nigerian government vowed unconditional rescue of the girls. Notwithstanding the evident opposition of both adversaries to nonviolent engagement, some of the victims were eventually released through negotiations. What then were the rationales that paved the way for negotiations? What are the implications of this approach? This article demystifies the rationales for negotiation between the Nigerian government and the Boko Haram terrorist group over the abducted girls. It argues that nonviolent engagement in this context arose out of intersecting interests but, more important, reinforced the “vulnerability” of the “new” religious terrorists to negotiation when violence proved futile in accomplishing some of their vital objectives.”
  • Christian Seignobos has also published a fascinating article (in French) on local dynamics of Boko Haram’s violence and the insurgency’s broader effects in the year 2017. The abstract is available in English: “The 2017 chronicle of events belies the assertions of the concerned governments diagnosing the impending end of the group. In Nigeria and neighbouring countries of Borno State, the bands called Boko Haram are still as active as ever. Fishermen, breeders and traders who want to continue to live of Lake Chad have to live with it, and sometimes take advantage of the chaos to oust their rivals. For its part, Boko Haram had to make choices in its local alliances. The insurgents interests have coincided with those of the Buduma indigenous people: the first wanted to expel the populations who refused to accept to pledge allegiance and pay them taxes, while the latter took the opportunity to try to chase away «foreigners» who had taken over their islands’ lands and pastures. In Cameroon, the «movement» had gradually established itself in the departments of Logone-et-Chari which cover the Kotoko country, and of Mayo-Sava, which includes the former kingdom of Wandala in the foothills of the northern Mandara Mountains. It is currently trying, from its multiple withdrawal sites, to escape the intervention of the army and its auxiliaries.”

Roundup on Boko Haram/ISWA Attacks in Gudumbali and Baga, Borno State, Nigeria

In recent days, the Boko Haram faction led by Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi and known as “Islamic State West Africa” (ISWA or ISWAP) has attacked two towns in Borno State, northeastern Nigeria – Gudumbali and Baga. The latter, of course, has been the target of prominent attacks by Boko Haram dating back years. (Note also that there was a recent kidnapping attributed to Boko Haram in Borno.) As often with Boko Haram attacks, conflicting information makes it hard to assess what happened. But here’s a roundup of coverage and analysis:

Gudumbali (map of Local Government Area)

AFP: “Boko Haram jihadists were in control of a town in northeast Nigeria on Saturday [8 September] after sacking a military base, in the latest attack that raises questions about claims they are weakened to the point of defeat. Local officials and security sources said scores of fighters believed to be loyal to a Boko Haram faction backed by the Islamic State group overran troops in Gudumbali.”

Vanguard: “The Nigerian Army on Sunday [9 September] said it had restored normalcy in Gudumbali and environs with the concerted effort of troops of Operation Lafiya Dole deployed to the area. Newsmen report that scores of jihadists in gun trucks and bearing various calibre of arms, stormed the town and engaged troops in fierce battle that lasted for many hours.

Premium Times: “Mr Bukar said when he realised the criminals were not targeting civilians, he decided to lock himself with his parents with a padlock so they would not come into their home. ‘They left the town after several hours. They were chanting ‘Munkama garinsu gabadaya’ which means we have taken over the town completely,’ he said. ‘The rains of bullet suddenly stopped but we were advised to remain in the house. At that time we knew that the military had also left the place because they fought nonstop for almost 12 hours.'”

Nigerian Army (official): “It will be recalled that Gudumbali is one of the communities in Borno state, that were recently reoccupied by Internally Displaced Persons who had voluntarily returned to their ancestral homes. The people of Gudumbali community and Guzamala Local Government in general are urged to remain calm and resilient as Operation Lafiya Dole troops tirelessly combat the terrorists. They are also implored to maintain high level of vigilance and monitor strange faces to prevent fleeing Boko Haram terrorists from infiltrating and hibernating in their communities.” My comment: this reads to me as insensitive and paranoia-inducing language. Better to say something along the lines of “we won’t be sending any more people back to these areas until we’re sure they’ll be safe there.” Note also that the Army’s statement contradicts press accounts, particularly in terms of the assertion that “no human casualty was recorded in the encounter.”

Baga (map)

Punch: “Boko Haram terrorists have staged a fresh attack on a military base in Baga in the Kukawa Local Government Area of Borno State, a day after they invaded Gudumbali area in the Guzamala Local Government Area and sacked the residents.”

Finally, see also the group’s recent video release (filmed, of course, before these recent attacks), consisting of battle footage and displays of soldiers’ corpses and Book Haram’s arsenal.