Is Boko Haram forming an enclave in northeast Nigeria?

The insurgency is driving people out of the north. But Boko Haram has never formally occupied cities and held swaths of territory. To create an enclave would require a whole new approach.

Joe Penney/Reuters
A civilian joint task force member stands guard at a checkpoint in Maiduguri May 22, 2014. Civilian joint task force are government-sponsored civilian self-defense and community-policing groups within Borno state that some locals said have brought security to Maiduguri, according to local government officials.

A version of this post appeared on Africa in Transition. The views expressed are the author's own. 

On June 5 the Wall Street Journal reported that Boko Haram has “tightened its grip” over a 1,200 square mile area of northeastern Nigeria. For the sake of comparison, this area is about the size of the state of Rhode Island, including Narragansett Bay.

It looks like Boko Haram’s strategy has been to destroy all vestiges of authority in the affected area, centered on the Gwoza local government area in Borno State.

Earlier, Boko Haram murdered the emir of Gwoza, Idrissa Timta, who had publicly warned against Boko Haram.

Boko Haram has also steadily carried out sustained attacks on villages in the district, burning the houses and killing hundreds of residents.

If Boko Haram has destroyed government and traditional authorities in Gwoza, it has not replaced that governance with its own; it has not established any state structures apparent to outside observers.

However, the Boko Haram black flag is flying in several villages, according to the BBC.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Boko Haram is using rocket-propelled grenades, night-vision goggles, pickup trucks with heavy machine guns, and satellite phones. The government’s Joint Task Force (JTF), which includes army and police units, appears unable to stop Boko Haram in the Gwoza region.

Where is Boko Haram going next? On June 4, it attacked two villages on the outskirts of Maiduguri (Borno state’s capital), killed 48 in one, and 45 in the other, according to the WSJ.

Maiduguri was long the center of Boko Haram until 2011 when government forces largely cleared the city of its operatives. It now may be seeking to retake the city, which in 2014 had an estimated population of about one million.

It is hard to know how many people are there in Maiduguri however, since media and other access has been severely curtailed by the violence. Presumably many town dwellers have gone elsewhere as Boko Haram violence has increased.

On the other hand, there likely has been an influx of internally displaced persons to the city who have fled Boko Haram attacks in villages. Maiduguri has a large military base, Giwa Barracks, which was successfully attacked by Boko Haram in March though they did not attempt to hold it.

In the aftermath of that attack, the JTF carried out atrocities against detainees charged with no crime that was widely reported by human rights organizations and the media. The town is also the seat of the federal University of Maiduguri.

If Boko Haram were to take Maiduguri, it presumably would be forced to establish some type of administration, which it has not done in any region under its influence up to now.

Controlling a large and complex city would likely require Boko Haram to move in new directions.

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