Boko Haram Continues to Stun Northern Nigeria

Bottom Line Up Front: 
• Boko Haram continues to terrorize northeastern Nigeria; the group has been responsible for the deaths of more than 10,000 Nigerians last year, and according to some Nigerian officials, the group currently controls as much as 70 percent of Borno as well as parts of neighboring states—an area close to the size of West Virginia

• In a new terror tactic, the group recently used young girls to launch back-to-back suicide bombings that killed at least 23; this followed a bloody multi-day attack on the town of Baga that may have killed as many as 2,000 people

• While Nigerian President Jonathan, facing reelection in less than one month, made a surprise visit to the Borno State capital of Maiduguri late last week, meeting with some displaced by the recent attacks, critics have charged that he has remained largely passive as the insurgent offensive continues

• While atrocities perpetrated by Boko Haram have received some attention in the international press, events in Nigeria continue to be overshadowed by the spotlight on terrorist attacks outside of Africa.

On January 10, a girl described by witnesses
 as about ten years old detonated a suicide bomb in a busy market in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State in northeastern Nigeria, killing at least 20 people. The next day, as dozens of world leaders gathered in Paris to commemorate the victims of the French terror attacks, explosives carried by two young girls detonated and ripped through a mobile phone market in the northeastern Nigerian town of Potiskum, leaving three dead besides the bombers and wounding more than 40 others.

A week earlier, Boko Haram captured Baga, a town on the shores of Lake Chad intended as a staging base for a multinational regional force to fight the militants. Over the course of several days the group razed parts of the town and surrounding villages, sending an estimated 30,000 Nigerians fleeing—some to an island in Lake Chad where they became trapped without food or water—and joining the more than one million who have been displaced during the course of the conflict.

The Nigerian government put the official death toll from the Baga attack at 150 (although providing no explanation for how it arrived at the figure since the town remains in Boko Haram hands); reports from villagers who escaped and their advocates, however, suggest the attack killed closer to 2,000 people. Satellite images comparing the town and surrounding villages before and after the violence show more than 3,700 destroyed or damaged structures, further evidence supporting the higher death toll.

It is difficult and dangerous to access areas under Boko Haram control, and Baga’s remote location and damage to communications infrastructure makes reports difficult to verify. But if the higher number is accurate, the Baga attack would be Boko Haram’s deadliest single assault to date and the latest in a string of bloody victories that has again exposed the Nigerian military’s inability to contain, much less defeat, the group.

The Baga massacre and suicide bombings were initially mostly overlooked as the Paris attacks dominated the news cycle. There has been an outpouring of solidarity for the French victims and pledges of international solidarity for France’s stand against violent extremism, but nothing similar yet has been forthcoming for Nigeria’s fight against the growing power of Boko Haram, at least not since the ephemeral and largely ineffectual global social media phenomenon of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign last year. This is despite the fact that over the course of recent months, Boko Haram has proven itself to possess conventional military capability comparable to that of the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, which has been the subject of considerable international attention.

Facing a tough reelection contest on February 14, President Goodluck Jonathan has been tight-lipped about the recent incidents, although the week following the recent attacks he visited Maiduguri, which is home to more than 500,000 people displaced by the Boko Haram insurgency.

Meanwhile, emboldened by its victories over the Nigerian military, Boko Haram has continued the expansion of attacks to Niger and Cameroon. In early January, Boko Haram leader Abu Bakr Shekau released a video threatening Cameroonian President Paul Biya after he sent troops to the country’s north to battle the militants. On January 12, militants attacked a Cameroonian military base at Kolafata, engaging troops in a five-hour gun battle before being turned back. A week later, Boko Haram fighters crossed over from Nigeria again, kidnapping over 80 people and killing three others in attacks on villages near the porous border. In response to the attacks, Chad, which has one of the most seasoned militaries in the region, has sent a significant number of troops to reinforce its Cameroonian counterparts in an effort to contain the spread of the violent jihadist group. Despite Nigeria’s complaints of lack of past cooperation from Cameroon, coordination in joint operations has lagged. And though Chadian forces are best placed to combat Boko Haram, Nigeria may balk at neighboring forces in its territory.

The Nigerian armed forces remain largely ineffective in the face of Boko Haram’s continued advance. Morale among troops is low, and defections drain fighting strength, despite threats of execution for desertion and mutiny. Without adequate resources and training and a genuine commitment from the government to back the security services, they will remain unable and unwilling to meaningfully counter Boko Haram.

National and state elections are scheduled for next month but it is difficult to envision how voting might take place in northeastern Nigeria. Large swathes of the three states in the far northeast are under Boko Haram control and the Independent National Electoral Commission has already cast doubts as to whether the poll will take place there at all. Moreover, there is the risk that other parts of the country, especially in the north, may suffer low voter turnout due to fears of attacks like the recent spate of suicide bombings that Boko Haram has launched into areas it does not control.

Boko Haram is determined to humiliate and discredit the government and will almost certainly use the elections as an opportunity for further violence, probably featuring suicide bombers—including more women and children—to terrorize voters. The attacks will further destabilize the increasingly rickety Nigerian state and undermine its government even as, left unchallenged by Nigerian forces, Boko Haram fighters extend their violence into neighboring countries.

Image: A Nigerian woman, now a refugee in Chad, was displaced by the Boko Haram assault on Baga. REUTERS/Emmanuel Braun