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Re-evaluating the Boko Haram Conflict – By Dr. Jideofor Adibe

Dr. Jideofor Adibe | Abuja, Nigeria | October 27, 2016 – 

My piece today was first published by Brookings’ Institution on its blog on

February 29 2016 (https://www.brookings.edu/blog/africa-in-focus/2016/02/29/re-evaluating-the-boko-haram-conflict/). I have edited it for space.


I decided to republish it following a report by the Premium Times of October 26 2016 that the Army has instituted a probe into the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of scores of soldiers after a Boko Haram attack in Borno State on October 17 2016. The report raised questions that I believe the above article sought to address some eight months ago.



Many political analysts had projected that if Muhammadu Buhari won the March 2015 Nigerian presidential election, it could lead to the deceleration of the Boko Haram conflict because many of the local grievances into which those terrorists tapped would be removed. Unfortunately, despite President Buhari’s victory at the polls, the Boko Haram conflict has persisted.

In September 2015 Buhari gave the army a three-month deadline to defeat Boko Haram. That deadline came and went but Boko Haram remains with us though the government continues to argue that it has  “technically” defeated the sect.  Beyond rhetoric, what are the lessons to be learnt about the sect from its continued resilience under the Buhari government from the way it was hitherto perceived in the popular imagination?

One, the continued resilience of Boko Haram under Buhari’s government has debunked some conspiracy theories about the sect. Indeed, before Buhari came to power a conspiracy theory popular in the southern part of the country was that the group was being sponsored by eminent northern politicians to make the country “ungovernable” for former President Goodluck Jonathan because he is a Christian and from a minority ethnic group in the south. If this theory were true, Buhari’s victory over Jonathan would have mellowed the group. But it hasn’t.

Two, the resilience of Boko Haram under the Buhari government suggests that there has been a gross underestimation by the government of the numerical strength, organizational efficiency, and motivation of the sect members. For instance, in October 2015, people were shocked when a failed suicide bomber claimed that the sect was planning to attack Maiduguri with as many as 8,000 fighters – a number far above what many people would estimate the entire numerical strength of the sect to be. RecallthatLt GeneralTheophilus Danjuma (Rtd), once claimed that Boko Haram’s ability to gather intelligence was 100 percent better than that of the Nigerian military.  In fact in 2014, when Governor of Borno State Kashim Shettima claimed that Boko Haram fighters were better armed and more motivated than the Nigerian army fighting them, he was criticized by many Nigerians, including President Jonathan. These portraitures of Boko Haram  contrast heavily with the image of the sect in the popular imagination  as a group of rag tag snipers and poor and uneducated youth that  probably did not  number more than a few hundred.

Three, the underestimation of Boko Haram helped fuel the narrative that the Nigerian army fighting the terrorists was under-equipped, ill-motivated, cowardly, or heavily compromised. This underestimation also probably explained why the army, which Buhari vowed to better motivate and equip with more sophisticated weapons than Jonathan did, was given only three months in September 2015 to defeat the terrorists. In retrospect, that deadline was counterproductive because it unduly raised public expectations and put enormous pressure on both the military and the government. The truth is that terrorism is rarely easily defeated in any country.

Four, what seems obvious is that Nigeria needs to have a realistic estimation of the numerical strength of Boko Haram, its organizational forms and intelligence-gathering methods to enable the government to devise realistic strategies for confronting and containing the sect. The idea that Boko Haram could be defeated within any specified time frame should be abandoned.

Five, like a phoenix, Boko Haram has shown incredible capacity for regrouping after suffering setbacks. There have been at least three occasions when a successful anti-Boko Haram strategy led to a lull in the group’s murderous activities that was erroneously interpreted as a sign of the group’s imminent annihilation.

The first time a lull in the group’s activities was misinterpreted was in 2013 during the war against some al Qaida-linked insurgents in northern Mali, which was also thought to be a training base for Boko Haram and other terrorist groups. It was believed that many Boko Haram fighters relocated to northern Mali to fight with the insurgents against the combined troops from Benin, Nigeria, Senegal, Togo, and Niger. When the French later intervened and routed the insurgents, the general belief was that Boko Haram had been dealt a deadly blow because of the suspected high number of causalities of its members and the destruction of their training bases. But Boko Haram lived on.

The second occasion a lull in Boko Haram’s activities was mistaken for imminent victory against the sect was when a “state of emergency” was declared in 2013 in the three northern states of Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe – believed to be the three foci of Boko Haram’s activities.  The emergency rule led to a sharp drop in the sect’s terrorist activities. However, like in the previous occasion, Boko Haram quickly regrouped and hopes that the solution lay in a “state of emergency” quickly faded.

The third occasion Nigerians thought that Boko Haram was a minute away from complete destruction was after the joint military operations with Chad and Cameroon in February 2015. The initial successes of the joint operation goaded a euphoric Jonathan, who had then already conceded defeat in the March 2015 presidential election, to boast in April 2015 that he would hand over to Buhari a Nigeria completely free of any terrorist stronghold. However, long after Jonathan made this statement, Boko Haram still lives – even if we are told it has been seriously degraded.

Six, while the Buhari government has undoubtedly taken the fight to Boko Haram and feels that victory is in sight, Mahamadou Issoufou, the President of Niger Republic recently warned that Boko Haram has developed its own conventional army (PM News, June 20 2016). It was also reported that the sect has set up its own radio station (Daily Trust, June 15 2016). In the same vein, with an upsurge in the attacks by highly militarized ‘Fulani’ herdsmen against several communities across the country there have been speculations that Boko Haram fighters might be embedding themselves among the herdsmen

Seven, while President Buhari has shown an admirable determination to rout Boko Haram, one hopes that he also appreciates that terrorists, because of their methods, are not easily defeated. It is important that the government does not mistake a lull in the group’s murderous activities as a sign of imminent defeat.

Eight,  in its single-minded desire to be seen as defeating Boko Haram on record time, the government should also be mindful of the many potential ‘Boko Harams’ that are breeding across the country. ElsewhereI argued that a major explanation for the emergence of Boko Haram is the crisis in Nigeria’s nation-building process, which has led to several alienated groups de-linking from the state into primordial identities, often with the Nigerian state as the enemy. It is hoped that Buhari does not make the mistake of regarding expressions such as the new agitation for a Republic of Biafra or the regrouping of ex-Niger Delta militants as deliberate attempts to undermine his government – as Jonathan largely did with Boko Haram. These are merely alienated groups trying to de-link from the Nigerian state.  A purely military solution to these agitations is unlikely to succeed, and even if it does in the short term, will end up being a pyrrhic victory in the long run.

Nine, overall, while the Buhari government must be lauded for its determined fight against Boko Haram, it needs also to be encouraged to expand the tools of such fight beyond securing quick military victory to putting the servicing of Nigeria’s nation-building process in the front burner. It is in fact by re-energizing the country’s nation-building process that it can win over several “de-Nigerianized” Nigerians (i.e., Nigerians that have de-linked from the Nigerian state into other primordial identities). This will ensure that other ‘Boko Harams’ do not emerge across the country if, and when the present Boko Haram is defeated.

Centre for Nation-building and Policy Studies (CNPS)

I have been a firm believer that the fundamental problem of the country is not corruption or poverty but the crisis in its nation-building processes. I also believe that unless this crisis in the country’s nation-building is resolved, solutions thrown at her numerous problems will themselves become part of the problems.

I have decided to do my practical bit by setting up a think tank – the Centre for Nation-building and Policy Studies (CNPS). The Centre, which will formally start in December 2016, will engage in policy-oriented research and activities on how governance impacts on the nation-building process and vice versa.


Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @JideoforAdibewp_posts

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Posted by on Oct 27 2016. Filed under Articles, Boko Haram, Columnists, Jideofor Adibe, PhD, NNP Columnists. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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