assessments

Jan 6, 2015 | 10:00 GMT

6 mins read

Boko Haram's Territorial Ambitions May Expand From Nigeria to Cameroon

A group of Civilian Joint Task Force members pose in Yola, Adamawa state, on Dec. 4, 2014, after taking part in an operation against Boko Haram.
(FLORIAN PLAUCHEUR/AFP/Getty Images)

After shifting away from insurgent tactics in order to seize and hold territory, Boko Haram now controls a vast swath of territory in northeastern Nigeria. In spite of a reported peace deal, the group has continued its fight against the government in recent months and managed to maintain its territorial gains. For their part, Nigeria's ground forces have proved unreliable and are operating under severe logistical and supply constraints compounded by a lack of political support from the central government.

Because of the continued violence in Nigeria, neighboring Cameroon has long dealt with Boko Haram insurgent attacks across the border. A recent series of simultaneous Boko Haram assaults on Dec. 28, however, could indicate that Boko Haram seeks to expand its territorial ambitions from northeastern Nigeria into Cameroon. Cameroon's Rapid Response Battalion has thus far been effective at recovering territory in the wake of militant attacks, but it has not yet seen a massive militant push on the scale of that in Nigeria. A shift in Boko Haram tactics from low-level attacks to land grabs in Cameroon would pose new challenges for the Rapid Response Battalion, but Cameroon's forces do not operate under the major limitations that Nigeria's do.

Boko Haram continues to make gains against Nigerian forces in the northeast. The latest victory came Jan. 4 when militants took control of a Nigerian military base in Baga near the border with Chad. The base was located in an area already predominantly controlled by Boko Haram and, with few means of resistance, government troops surrendered quickly. Cameroon's forces, too, have given indications that fighting in the border region is stretching its resources currently allocated to the Far North Region where Boko Haram is active.

While Cameroon has seen a great deal of spillover violence, Boko Haram made a recent coordinated attack on at least six towns inside of Cameroon. On Dec. 28, Boko Haram fighters in Nigeria crossed the dry riverbed that runs through the border town of Achigachia. This may have been an attempt by Boko Haram to establish control over a significant portion of Cameroon's Far North region, where the group has long been active and recruited fighters. The militants temporarily took over Cameroon's side of the town and, with it, a Rapid Response Battalion military base. Simultaneously, militants launched attacks on Amchide, Makari, Waza, Mokolo and Guirvidig.

Cameroon's forces in Achigachia recovered the town within four hours. By then, the approximately 1,000 Boko Haram fighters had managed to fly the group's flag and execute several civilians. Cameroon's victory, however, came only after troops called in airstrikes to push the militants back across the borders. Cameroon has limited resources that allow it to rely on this tactic — the country has only a handful of light attack aircraft. This is a shift from past engagements, in which Cameroon's forces stood their ground. The brief loss of the base casts some doubts on their ability to sustain the defense against Boko Haram offensives in this remote area with current resources. Although the move failed, the initial success — especially at the Achigachia military base — highlights the potential for more sustained Boko Haram operations in northern Cameroon if group strategy dictated.

Nigeria's Military Constraints

A shift to sustained operations in northern Cameroon would mirror Boko Haram's earlier strategic shift from insurgent operations in northeastern Nigeria to actively conquering terrain. The altered approach has been extremely successful. Militants hold most of Nigeria's Borno state outside of its capital, Maiduguri. Nigeria's military has recovered some areas on the border of Borno and Adamawa states, but it has not recovered significant terrain, in part because of the forces' limitations. Nigerian troops have operated under severe logistical and equipment constraints. They have also received lackluster support from President Goodluck Jonathan. Because of low troop morale, in several cases forces have outright refused to mobilize against Boko Haram when ordered to do so.

Nigeria's military has attempted to overcome the difficulties within its land forces, expressing a desire to carry out airstrikes to force Boko Haram out of the group's current territory. Logistical constraints, however, may also limit its air capabilities. Foreign assistance for the Nigerian air force has been anemic, primarily because of concerns that the airplanes will be used to indiscriminately bomb civilian areas.

Cameroon's military does not operate under these severe limitations. So far its Rapid Response Battalion has been an effective tool to quickly contain Boko Haram activity in the Far North region. However, Boko Haram activity has been more geographically limited in Cameroon than in Nigeria. If the militant group persists in its attempt to establish territorial control within northern Cameroon, the government may be forced to apply substantially more resources.

Expansion Within Nigeria

Even as it has ramped up operations with the aim of holding territory, Boko Haram has sustained its insurgent activities in nearby government-controlled areas in both Nigeria and Cameroon. Suicide bombings are key to this strategy. In the past month, Boko Haram operatives have carried out the group's typical twin bombings in the Nigerian towns of Gobe, Kano and Maiduguri. These have all focused on soft targets meant to terrorize the civilian population — market places, bus stations, banks and mosques. The group has also occasionally expanded beyond the northeastern states, even reaching as far as Lagos. Most of these attacks, however, have been limited to Kano and Abuja. Boko Haram has yet to show an ability to mount regular attacks in southern Nigeria but is likely to keep exploring an expansion of these capabilities. In Cameroon, militants have also increased their placements of roadside improvised explosive devices specifically targeting security forces.

Key Nigerian legislative elections are scheduled for Feb. 14. At the moment, Boko Haram controls an area of Nigeria roughly the size of Lithuania but in a region that means it does not pose a critical threat to the national government. Because of the situation in the north, voting will be all but impossible in most of Borno state and neighboring areas. Boko Haram will likely target both polling stations and security forces. Low turnout in this region, however, would be politically advantageous for Jonathan, the incumbent president — opposition campaigning has focused on his failure to contain militancy, and the northeast will likely turn against him. Opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari, a former military ruler, is seen by some as being more capable of dealing with the security crisis — a fact that makes Jonathan reluctant to empower the military. 

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