A version of this post originally appeared on Africa in Transition. The views expressed are the authors own.
Boko Haram has moved beyond separate security incidents to a full-scale military campaign, the goal of which appears to be the capture of the Borno state capital of Maiduguri, a city with a population approaching two million.
Though Boko Haram war lord Abubakar Shekau has proclaimed a “caliphate,” the movement’s focus appears mainly to be on its military operations.
Despite the caliphate declaration, there are no signs as yet that Boko Haram is ready to assume the heavy burden of governing the territories it occupies while it is pursuing Maiduguri, its most important military target.
With respect to the territory it already occupies, Boko Haram may be taking a page from British colonial rule in northern Nigeria: conquer the towns, and then leave the local leadership in place, as long as it tows the line.
The campaign for Maiduguri may not be the turning point that some commentators suggest. From the beginning, Boko Haram has been fighting Abuja–the corrupt, Western-educated elites who have beggared the North. Boko Haram has followed a remarkably linear progression with very few setbacks and U-turns.
To respond to the Boko Haram challenge, in August, 2013, the government of Nigeria established the 7th Division of the Army, headquartered in Maiduguri. It formed the new division by taking forces from the 1st Mechanized Division in Kaduna and the 3rd Armor Division in Jos. Press accounts say the 7th Division was composed of eight thousand troops. Last week another 500 troops were added, bringing the total to 8,500.
Yet even with that many ground forces in the northeast, the Army has not been able to rollback Boko Haram. The Nigerian military has not prevented Boko Haram from taking some twelve towns in close proximity to Maiduguri. Of the 8,500 government forces, the media does not say how many are in Maiduguri.
The 7th Division is subdivided into nine subordinate battalions. In all the other army divisions, battalions are deployed throughout the geographical area for which the division is responsible. So, one might assume a lot less than 8,500 troops are in Maiduguri
On the other hand, the ease with which Boko Haram has captured outlying towns suggests that only a limited portion of the 8,500 are deployed outside of Maiduguri. A credible hypothesis is that the bulk of forces are being kept at the HQ to prevent a Boko Haram takeover of Maiduguri. The loss of Maiduguri would be a major set-back for Abuja in a way that small towns and villages are not.
If the Nigerian army’s strength nation-wide is around 60,000, and if of that number only a fraction represent combat-capable troops, perhaps 25 percent, then 8,500 personnel in the northeast would represent over half of Nigeria’s available fighting personnel.
If this syllogism approaches accuracy, then to say that the Nigerian military is ‘over stretched’ is an understatement.
Jim Sanders is a career West Africa watcher for various federal agencies, now retired.