Boko Haram and Nigeria’s Pyrrhic victory

“Only the dead have seen the end of war,” as the saying goes. One can only wonder what President Buhari of Nigeria would make of such a statement after his declaration in December that Boko Haram had been “technically defeated”. And yet in the true spirit of that quote so often misattributed to Plato, violence in the Lake Chad region continues at impressively high levels. President Buhari cannot be excused by virtue of the state’s propensity for blindness towards non-state actors. As a former general, he must be well aware that wars can easily run for longer than presidential terms; boasting of victory in one’s first year in office seems amateurish.

But then again, the facts surrounding the deadliest insurgency on the planet can all seem rather unbelievable. Boko Haram has remained largely invisible in mainstream media, apart from the kidnapping of over 200 girls in Chibok, even while hundreds of thousands flee northeast Nigeria with thousands more dead or injured. Out of the top twenty terrorist attacks in 2014 by number of victims, ten were committed by Boko Haram alone. Consequently, multistate coalitions have been organized to fight against the group, usually including the four Lake Chad nations of Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon. Successes have been scarce, leaving one to wonder whether counterinsurgency efforts have been misguided, or willfully half-hearted.

This last point is crucial. Back in March of 2015, Chad’s President Idriss Déby accused Nigeria of “wasting time for the benefit of Boko Haram”. Amongst promised reinforcements and military cooperation that never materialized, Deby spoke of being “baffled” that after two months of holding Nigeria’s territory “we have not had any direct contact with the Nigerian army units on the ground.” Meanwhile, a high level UN security meeting of the four Lake Chad nations was attended by all except Nigeria itself. Before they were themselves accused of complicity in the insurgency, Cameroon had leveled its own accusations against Nigeria, suggesting that the state was simply unwilling to do its part in eliminating the insurgency.

Onlookers could probably dismiss all this as the normal sort of tension-fuelled bickering that surrounds all international conflicts. But President Buhari’s recent dismissal of the group as a real threat at all has exposed the fundamental difference in perspective between Nigeria and its neighbors. For the other Lake Chad nations, Boko Haram has not and is unlikely to ever be reduced to a mere annoyance, even now they can be seriously listed as a threat to the Cameroonian state. About 4,000 Cameroonians were estimated to have joined Boko Haram’s ranks by September 2015, alongside growing numbers of reports of abuse by state forces in their counterinsurgency efforts. The fact that out of twelve deadly attacks by Boko Haram in the first twenty days of 2016, nine of them occurred in Cameroon, suggests that these efforts have already begun to backfire.

As the most populous country in the continent, its highest level of GDP, and an army that vastly outnumbers all its close neighbors, Nigeria is the preeminent power of West Africa. It is there that the problems begin however. Such a country, especially one helmed by an experienced military officer, should theoretically be more than capable of handling a few thousand insurgents. Nigeria’s neighbors have long been left wondering why this isn’t the case. The fact that even Niger, a country that produces a mere $6 Billion in GDP, spends twice as much of it on defense as Nigeria fuels allegations that the sleeping giant is simply not pulling its weight.

So what does this mean for the near future? Nothing good, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project’s (ACLED) low-end fatality estimates. Despite the loss of the majority of their territory during 2015, the whole year saw a mere 3.4% drop in Boko Haram related fatalities in Nigeria.

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Its “defeat” in Nigeria appears to only have worsened the situation in Cameroon, where fatalities rose by over 30% compared to 2014. This is rather unsurprising amid reports of thousands of militants fleeing into Cameroon’s northern area and subsequent army efforts to hunt them down.

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Similarly, while the insurgency’s greatest impact on Chad had once been the strangling of its landlocked economy, the porous border region has seen a marked spike in attacks towards the end of 2015. Such numbers add further credence to the notion that the Nigerian military has succeeded only in spilling Boko Haram’s militants onto its neighbors.

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The sad truth is that at best these numbers represent a descent from abnormally high levels of violence into less abnormally high levels. To put the difference in perspective, the 1999-2004 period saw 10,553 fatalities from armed actors, compared to 34,125 for the 2010-2015 period, 22,563 of which were directly related to Boko Haram.

The violence in Nigeria has thus continued unabated into 2016, even without taking into account the hundreds of thousands of refugees that have been forced to flee into Cameroon and Chad, further straining relations in the region. These large segments of the population will take any amount of time to return to their homes, something many of them are rightfully unwilling to do due to continued insecurity.

The interstate tension has already begun to burst at the seams, with Cameroon having just recently been accused of executing over 40 villagers in a cross-border pursuit of Boko Haram in Nigerian territory. This is in fact a worryingly growing trend by both Nigerian and Cameroonian forces, with large scale arrests, extra-judicial executions and claims of indiscriminate killings being undiminished by Boko Haram’s “defeat”.

Their ability to sow terror remains undiminished. Now that Nigeria seems to officially have washed their hands of the group that still uses their territory as sanctuary to strike at its enemies, it is a matter of time until accusations of complicity and proxying follow suit. Whether there is truth in such accusations is unimportant, as long as enough statesmen believe them, then their consequences will be very real indeed. With a clear path towards escalation laid out, one is left to wonder if Buhari’s “victory” hasn’t come at the cost of any future hope for closer cooperation in the region, or worse.

Felipe Cruvinel recently completed a Master’s Degree in International Security at the University of Saint Andrews, after getting a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations at Queen Mary University. His interests include security and foreign policy matters at the global level, and Counterinsurgency in particular. This has been reinforced by a life-long interest in History and constant desire to learn more about the long term cycles and trends of political systems. His Twitter is @FCruvi

Boko Haram Casualties charts created by author with data from ACLED

Photo (unmodified) by Diariocritico de Venezuela / CC BY 2.0

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