Despite Boko Haram bombings, Nigeria's battered north sees progress

Many northern Nigerians credit the breakthroughs made against the Islamist group to President Buhari. But can the Nigerian military adjust to the group's shift to more suicide bombings?

Jossy Ola/AP/File
Women and children rescued by Nigerian soldiers from Boko Haram extremists in the northeast of Nigeria arrive at the military office in Maiduguri, in July, 2015.

When Boko Haram abducted Rev. Enoch Mark’s two daughters, he felt like his world had come to an end.

The girls were part of the over 200 students kidnapped from Chibok last April, a news story that galvanized the world one social media tweet and Facebook post at a time under the popular #Bringbackourgirls campaign. 

Since then things have gone from bad to worse for Rev. Mark: one of his abducted daughters was reportedly stoned to death for refusing to convert to Islam, and he has bounced around between overcrowded and makeshift displacement camps that dot northern Nigeria.

But despite this, Mark, and many of the 2.1 million civilians displaced by Boko Haram, insists there has been a shift in the counterinsurgency efforts – and he credits President Muhammadu Buhari.  

“President Buhari has subdued them,” Mark says. “Now Boko Haram is no longer capturing and staying in towns like they did before.”

Mr. Buhari’s track record since he took office in May shows that eradicating the Boko Haram threat remains his top priority in ensuring the continued expansion of Africa’s richest country. He has fully selected his military and security staff even though he has yet to fill most cabinet positions. And he has spent a good chunk of his first few months in office abroad, strengthening military and intelligence ties with countries like France and the US.

The efforts have worked and there are signs of progress: from mass migrations of refugees returning back to their reclaimed towns in the northeast to plans of re-opening public schools in Borno state, the birthplace of Boko Haram, after being shuttered from more than a year.

But the recent moves by Boko Haram – including the first-ever attack at an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp this month, a coordinated bombing in Maiduguri this past weekend, and a new audio message by the presumed-dead Boko Haram leader – raise questions on whether the Nigerian army, and Buhari, can adjust to Boko Haram’s newer hit-and-run strategy of suicide bombings.

Deadlier attacks

The attacks this past month show a Boko Haram that has a clear message to the Nigerian people: we are still here.

But they also show that the group is desperate, the Nigerian army says, and are putting forth a last resort effort to cause chaos.

“The blasts are among those that would be the last in this issue,” Chief of Army Staff Gen. Tukur Buruta said at a recent conference. “We will start counting very few before we get to the end of this [campaign].”

The coordinated bombings in Maiduguri last Sunday left 117 people dead, making it the deadliest Boko Haram attack under Buhari. The attack was significant because Maiduguri is where the Nigerian army has headquartered its counterinsurgency campaign since May.

Earlier in September, Boko Haram improvised an explosive at Malkohi, a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Yola, the first time Boko Haram has ever attacked a camp. Though Malkohi is the smallest of the six official camps in Yola, the city is home to thousands who have fled the insurgency from Borno and Adamawa states.

Experts say that that such bombings are likely to continue even if the Boko Haram leadership is captured. Instead, the government's focus should be put on securing towns and villages.

“The increase in bomb blasts in recent times can only be curtailed if our security works with preventive measures not reactive measures,” says Baba Oliver, a security analyst. 

Others agree saying that the key issues remain in surveillance and intelligence gathering, something Buhari hopes to address in working with western allies. But many say the efforts need to be community based.

“They should set up mechanisms that people can use to report," says Aisha Yesufu, leader of the Bring Back Our Girls campaign. “Even if it is a simple line that people can call into and report suspicious activities before they actually happen.”

Where is Shekau?

In an audio message released this past weekend, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau called the Nigerian army liars for saying troops have regained territory from the militant Islamist group.

"They have lied about us saying that they re-taken our territories, taken weapons, and driven us away," he claims. "They are actually the ones whom we have driven away. They are all liars."

Nigeria's army has repeatedly claimed that Mr. Shekau has been killed over the last few years only for him to resurface in new videos and recordings. The frequency in which he appears of late has changed however, signifying, some say, the decline of the group. In the past, he was known to write letters to communities his men were about to attack, and post videos of his attacks. 

“He was known to come out boldly in cities, but now he is hiding. And no one knows where he is,” says a military expert who has been following Boko Haram since its inception. He asked not to be named due to his ties to the Nigerian military.

In response to the audio message, Gen. Burutai described Shekau as a “noisemaker” who is trying to sound relevant. The military later released a statement calling the recent recording “irrelevant and fruitless” and claimed that there would be continued efforts to bring back the Chibok girls.

For Mark, the reverend who lost two daughters, the only answer is to trust the military – something he could not do with the last administration.

“The war is not yet over,” he says from his new home at a camp in Niger state. “But we are hopeful that soon we will be able to return home and rebuild."

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