Nigeria: Advancing Against Boko Haram

4 MINS READFeb 28, 2015 | 14:02 GMT
Nigeria: Advancing Against Boko Haram
The Nigerian army marches toward the enemy during a joint military exercise.

Advances are being made against Boko Haram, a fact made evident by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan's last-minute bid to influence presidential elections scheduled for March 28 by drawing media attention to recent military victories. On Feb. 26, the president visited the liberated town of Baga among several other locations in the northeast of the country. The lack of success against Boko Haram has been a constant source of criticism against Jonathan. But regardless of the impact of this measured military success, the offensive will not prevent Boko Haram from conducting its insurgency and terrorist attacks, which have intensified during the fighting. However, the offensive could affect election outcomes, with the government clearly aiming to go into elections beating back Boko Haram.

After several failed attempts to regain control over portions of northeastern states from Boko Haram, the Nigerian military has over the past two weeks finally started achieving results. Last week, Nigerian forces initiated military operations north of Maiduguri and north of Mubi. They first liberated towns along the main road to Baga, up to Monguno. During the weekend, they captured Baga, where Boko Haram had taken control of a Nigerian military outpost and massacred the local population. This offensive push is the first major success since minor operations in northern Adamawa state last year.

But the operations have recovered only some Boko Haram terrain. So far, the operation has pushed Boko Haram forces out of population centers in a substantial portion of northern Borno state, the most recent area of expansion by the Islamist militant group. The group still controls a large part of Borno state along the mountainous Cameroonian border, its core. It also controls areas of Sambisa Forest and parts of southern Yobe state.

Still, these areas are likely next for Nigerian military operations. Airstrikes have already been launched against Boko Haram positions around Gwoza and Bama, near Cameroon's border. Military operations north of Maiduguri could defeat Boko Haram's attempt to establish territorial control and carve out its own caliphate if they extended into this core, similar to the 2013 military offensive that defeated Boko Haram attempts to set up territorial control in 2013. However, since August 2014, the group has been able to consistently expand its control over localities within northeastern states while withstanding disastrous offensives attempting to liberate areas and defend military positions.

New Support

The Nigerian military's current success stands in stark contrast with earlier efforts mostly because of new support. First, forces from Chad, Niger and Cameroon have assisted the Nigerian offensive on their respective sides of the border. The countries have increased efforts to close their borders to Boko Haram movement. Chad has even deployed forces to support Niger and Cameroon. This activity increases operational effectiveness inside Nigeria and prevents Boko Haram fighters from relocating to new sanctuaries. Niger has tried to cut Boko Haram off from its financial resources, reportedly bombing two separate convoys of Nigerien traders carrying smoked fish into Nigeria, where Boko Haram taxes traders or seizes their goods. Chadian troops have led some incursions into Nigeria, but always in proximity to the border.

Assistance goes beyond Nigeria's immediate neighbors. The French military, which has a heavy presence in all three countries, has also actively supported the effort with intelligence personnel and surveillance flights. U.S. and other foreign intelligence operators have been present and supported these countries in some capacity in this part of West Africa as well, especially since operations in nearby Mali.

Second, the Nigerian military has seen marked improvement in logistics and support. New equipment, such as the purchase of a substantial number of armored vehicles, attack helicopters and even Chinese armed drones, moved into the northeastern theater over the past weeks, increasing the capabilities of the Nigerian forces. Along with renewed airstrikes against Boko Haram, these developments have notably helped the success of Nigeria's operations.

Considerable Risks

If the Nigerian military sustains these operations, another transition in Boko Haram tactics could be expected. If more conventional methods of fighting become infeasible because of successful military counteraction and attrition of combat power, Boko Haram is likely to refocus its resources on insurgency or terrorism again. The group continues to use suicide bombings as a tactic, escalating the frequency of suicide bombings in northern Nigeria over the past few days. If conventional territorial control goes beyond their reach, Boko Haram militants could prioritize vehicle-borne improvised explosive device attacks or expand attacks farther south again.

Finally, Nigeria's military successes will somewhat boost support for Jonathan as he heads into the presidential election. Military leaders supported a delay of the election, which was originally scheduled for Feb. 14, to prepare for the operations, since they would take military resources away from election security. The decision was likely a deliberate political calculation by the Nigerian government given the severe criticism it received from the opposition party. Jonathan and his military commanders also tried to capitalize by making a media spectacle out of their visit to the battle space. Regardless of the outcome of the operations, and those likely to take place over the next month, Boko Haram attacks will pose considerable risk to the elections taking place in northeastern Nigeria and potentially other areas of the country.

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