On Christmas Eve 2015 the Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari, was publicly confident that his country had “technically won the war” against the Islamist group Boko Haram. Less than two months into 2016, and the group is still wreaking havoc across northern Nigeria and beyond.
Since the beginning of the year, the group has killed more than 100 people and continued to drive many more from their homes as they flee for their safety. Its most recent atrocity was the February 10 suicide attack on a refugee camp near Maiduguri that killed 58 people.
From any reasonable angle, the situation hardly looks resolved. According to UN assistant secretary general and regional humanitarian co-ordinator for the Sahel, Toby Lanzer, Boko Haram has become the deadliest terrorist group in the world. As of the beginning of 2016, 2.8m people living in the Lake Chad region have been displaced, including more than a million children; a million children are out of school, and hundreds of thousands are at risk of starving to death.
All this despite the fact that 2015 was supposed to bring an end to the chaos and carnage of 2014, when the kidnapping of 276 girls in Chibok – many of whom are still missing – and the campaign Bring Back Our Girls made the “People Committed to the Prophet’s Teachings for Propagation and Jihad”, as the militants used to call themselves, infamous around the world. According to Human Rights Watch, the members of Boko Haram were directly responsible for the deaths of more than 3,750 people in 2014.
When newly elected, Buhari promised to get rid of Boko Haram before the end of 2015. Many high-ranking army officers were replaced, and Buhari appointed Major-General Tukur Yusuf Buratai (from Borno State) as force commander of the international task force set up to tackle the group. The Nigerian army recaptured large parts of Boko Haram-held territory in north-eastern Nigeria, apparently with the help of South African mercenaries and even a few Ukrainian helicopter pilots.
Meanwhile, Boko Haram underwent something of a rebranding, first swearing allegiance to Islamic State (IS) and then calling itself “Islamic State West Africa Province”. As a result, the group now adopts the rhetoric and symbols of IS. The connection to IS has worried many Western media and politicians who see this as the opening up of a new front in a global jihad.
As of the beginning of the 2016, there are still no signs of an operational connection between Boko Haram and IS. Nonetheless, Boko Haram clearly seems to be switching tactics.
Harassed by the Nigerian army and the troops of the international collation, its ranks have started to dwindle. Its forces now tend to hide in the Sambisa forest and in the islands of Lake Chad which are reputably difficult to access. Instead of relying only on quick attacks with the help of their motorbikes, they are increasingly using suicide bombings. And while those tactics reflect the group’s thinning numbers, they are also having notable effects on the societies they’re targeting.
On June 15 2015, two female suicide bombers killed 38 people in N’Djamena, the capital of neighbouring Chad. As a result, the Chadian government chose to ban the wearing of the burqa and to order that any being sold in markets be burned.
The conflict is now genuinely international, and the populations of the whole of the Lake Chad basin are now threatened by the attacks of either Boko Haram members or sleeper cell agents. The Multinational Joint Task Force created in early 2015, which comprises Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Benin, is partly responsible for this phenomenon. The Chadian army in particular has sent troops to localities in the Cameroonian-Nigerian borderland in order to recapture the territory occupied by Boko Haram but also to prevent the group from obtaining new supplies and weapons.
Help is coming from outside Africa, too. The French Operation Serval has tried to prevent Boko Haram from obtaining weapons from Mali, while American aerial surveillance and French interventions in Niger have attempted to intercept weapons coming from Libya. The coalition aims to suffocate the terrorists but there are still funding and co-ordination issues.
All in all, Boko Haram has been weakened – but there’s a long way to go until it’s defeated.