There is a yearly Christmas tradition in Nigeria that has nothing to do with Yuletide. This tradition is not a happy one like those we normally associate with this time of year. The one I am referring to has to do with terrorism.
Over the past few years Nigeria’s president has given a speech in which he proclaims that the terrorist group known as Boko Haram (BH) is on the “verge of defeat.” Back in 2015 President Muhammadu Buhari announced that the terrorist organization had been “technically defeated.” He said more or less the same thing in 2016 and 2018.
Recent events suggest that the president is wrong.
Boko Haram has been around since at least 2003. It has been behind some significant attacks such as the 2011 bomb at a UN compound in Abuja that killed 23 and wounded 75 and the 2014 kidnapping of 276 girls in Chibok.
Boko Haram is also known for its use of children as suicide bombers (often girls as young as 7): from June 2014 to the end of February 2018 the group deployed 469 female suicide bombers who killed more than 1,200 people and injured nearly 3,000 others. UNICEF estimates that the group ‘recruited’ 2,000 child soldiers in 2016 alone.
In response the Nigerian army has been the primary counterterrorism force. It has deployed to the terrorist group’s strongholds in Borno State in northeastern Nigeria. While the military has had success against Boko Haram, there are also credible reports that it has engaged in torture.
It is thus hard to determine just how much progress has been achieved against BH. Every week we hear of new attacks on remote villages: at least three Nigerian soldiers were killed in clashes on Jan. 8.
Complicating matters is the presence of an Islamic State (ISIS) affiliate that bills itself as Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). ISWAP killed at least eight Nigerian soldiers in the country’s northeast on Jan. 10. On Jan. 18 the group issued a video showing a child executing a Nigerian Christian.
According to the Global Terrorism Index, deaths from terrorism in 2018 (the last full year for which there are comprehensive statistics) in Nigeria increased 33 percent when compared to 2017 (1, 532 to 2,040). This represents a significant counter example to an overall decline in terrorism deaths last year and does not appear to support the Nigerian government’s claim that terrorism, and more specifically Boko Haram, has been “defeated.”
As if all this was not dire enough, Boko Haram and ISWAP have also been carrying out attacks in neighboring countries (Chad, Cameroon and Benin). According to Amnesty International, 276 Cameroonians were killed in terrorist attacks in 2019.
There is some good news on the horizon nonetheless. The Nigerian military claims that “no fewer than 608 repentant Boko Haram insurgents” are currently undergoing the De-radicalisation, Rehabilitation and Reintegration (DRR) Programme in Gombe State. The effectiveness of this effort, like all such initiatives, is very difficult to determine.
All this suggests that terrorism is nowhere near over in Nigeria. The government needs to re-assess its counterterrorism and counter-radicalization efforts: a military solution is not in the cards. There have been historical socioeconomic inequalities in northern Nigeria that must be addressed (not that resolving these challenges is a guarantee of success).
More importantly, the Nigerian president should refrain from announcing “victory” at the end of every year.