As Boko Haram tries to capture a capital, how prepared is Nigeria's Army?

While Boko Haram talks about a 'caliphate' in northeast Nigeria, what it wants is to take the capital of Borno state, Maiduguri. Nigeria formed an entire Army Division to deploy in Borno. But it is not enough. 

Olamikan Gbemiga/AP/File
In this June, 25, 2014, file photo, a Nigerian soldier, center, walks at the scene of an explosion in Abuja, Nigeria.

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. 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.