Boko Haram on the Backfoot?

On 25th February 2015, 11 days in to the six week postponement of Nigeria’s general election on the grounds of the insecurity posed by Boko Haram, President Goodluck Jonathan was reported as stating that the “tide has turned” in the battle against the Islamist group. Although the president has been known to make similar statements in the past, such as the numerous times the Nigerian Government has claimed to have killed Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, in this instance there appears to be some evidence behind the president’s statement. The increased regional cooperation in the fight against Boko Haram seems to be greatly improving the Nigerian military’s ability to capture towns and areas previously under the group’s control. For example, on 25th February 2015, the Chadian military reported that it had killed 207 Boko Haram fighters near a Nigerian town close to the border with Cameroon and regional forces have reported capturing eight major towns in recent weeks, including Baga, the site of a massacre brought to the world’s attention by Amnesty International in early January 2015. Although large areas of the northeast, particularly in Borno state, are still under Boko Haram control and the campaign against the group is likely to be a long arduous process, these signs are undeniably positive.

At first glance it appears that Nigeria’s electoral commission’s decision to postpone elections might be vindicated and the northeast of the country will be substantially more secure on 28th March than on 14th February. However, on 24th February 2015 Boko Haram demonstrated its continued threat by launching twin suicide bomb attacks in Potiskum and Kano, the largest city in the north, which claimed at least 26 lives. As elections loom, the president has taken to commenting on such attacks, and a statement from his office read “President Goodluck Jonathan condemns the reversion by the terrorist group Boko Haram to the callous bombing of soft targets…in the wake of the rapid recovery by Nigerian troops and their multinational allies of areas formerly controlled by the sect”. This statement is correct in pointing out that the attack on 24th February does appear to represent a reversion to the group’s original tactics and it could be an indication of the group’s future strategy in response to the Nigerian military’s successes in the northeast. As the Nigerian military continues to regain territory it increases the likelihood that Boko Haram will resume their original strategy of conducting hit and run attacks from the Sambisa Forest and launching suicide bombings in towns and cities across the northeast. Thus, it seems that Boko Haram may turn its focus back on to “soft targets” rather than the Nigerian military. However, this raises the question of what are soft targets?

This year’s general election was postponed on the grounds that the security of the election could not be guaranteed in the northeast of the country. However, if the effect of the Nigerian military’s offensive against Boko Haram is to move the group’s strategy towards targeting “soft targets” the threat to polling stations is likely to be the same or possibly worse. Polling stations are the type of “soft targets” Boko Haram may well be turning its attention to and the threat is likely to spread beyond the area under its control, as was shown in Kano on 24th February 2015. Thus, although the postponement appears to have aided Nigeria in its fight against Boko Haram it is questionable what impact it will have on the security of the elections, which was the reason provided for the delay. A six week offensive may be long enough for the Nigerian military to regain some of the territory held by Boko Haram, but the campaign to defeat the group and return security to the northeast of the country will be a much longer process.

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