- New Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari is close to making good on his promise to attack Boko Haram, after months of intensive preparations.
- Unprecedented co-operation with, and assistance from, regional neighbours is likely to give Nigeria the chance to severely weaken Boko Haram and significantly reduce its threat outside the northeast of the country.
- High costs curtailing the length of operations, the vast territories to be covered, and limited support for Boko Haram from Islamic State are likely to allow the militant group to retain substantial operational capability in the longer term.
The deployment of a multinational joint task force and strengthening of border security is likely to give new Nigerian commanders the basis to significantly degrade Islamist militant group Boko Haram.
Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari told his Beninese counterpart Boni Yayi on 1 August that, with the help of Nigeria’s neighbours, Boko Haram would be defeated “by the end of this year”. Buhari was told Benin would contribute 800 troops to the multinational joint task force (MNJTF) that is one of the key components in the new Nigerian president’s strategy for crushing the Islamist militant group’s six-year insurgency, which has cost an estimated 15,000 lives.
The Beninese contingent is the final part of the 8,700-strong MNJTF, which was due to deploy on 30 July. The start of operations has been delayed slightly by the installation of Iliya Abbah as force commander just the day before, an appointment made necessary by the transfer of former MNJTF leader Tukur Buratai to become head of the Nigerian army on 13 July, when Buhari replaced his entire set of service chiefs.
Abbah has stated that everything is in place “to hit the ground running”. The force will primarily guard the area around Lake Chad that has been targeted heavily by Boko Haram in the last two months, freeing the Nigerian army to stage offensive operations. The MNJTF is still awaiting financial commitments from international donors, with the UN Security Council on 28 July urging countries to back the campaign. However, the leaders of contributing countries Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Niger, and Benin have provided USD30 million for installation and equipment of the force headquarters in the Chadian capital, N’Djamena, and Buhari has promised an initial USD100 million to start initial operations. They have also agreed that Nigeria, with at least 5,000 troops, will retain the command, while Chad and Cameroon hold the deputy commander and chief of staff posts respectively.
Another key step has been the commitment of Chad and Cameroon to step up operations on their own territory in response to a series of attacks and suicide bombings, particularly in N’Djamena and Maroua, the capital of Cameroon’s Far North province and headquarters of its operations against Boko Haram. On 27 July, Chadian forces launched a major offensive to clear Boko Haram militants from dozens of secluded islets on Lake Chad, claiming to have killed 117. Cameroon has sent another 2,000 troops to the north, bringing the military contingent to 8,500. In common with Niger, these countries have sizeable populations of Kanuri, the ethnic group around which Boko Haram is based, and who have benefited from their linguistic advantage and local knowledge to establish safe havens and blend into the population to launch sudden attacks.
Buhari and other leading regional figures have claimed that attacks which killed around 800 people in the last two months are actually a sign of Boko Haram’s weakness and that the group is on its last legs. According to this argument, the militant group is no longer strong enough to confront security forces and is seeking soft targets. However, the campaign is also an indicator of the group’s closer links with the Islamic State following its pledge of allegiance on 7 March. The increased use of suicide bombings suggests an intensive training programme backed by Islamic State experts, who are also providing the technical knowledge to remotely trigger devices often strapped to women and children. A new video released on 3 August featured the slick presentation and production values missing from previous Boko Haram videos and, as with the previous release in June, did not show Abubakar Shekau, the purported and highly divisive Boko Haram leader.
Outlook and implications
Buhari has devoted much time since his inauguration on 29 May to putting the factors in place for a co-ordinated and sustained assault that presents the best chance yet for degrading Boko Haram. Buhari made his first foreign visits to Chad and Niger before patching up often difficult relations with Cameroon in a visit on 29-30 July, and then heading to Benin. It was at his instigation that a regional summit of the Lake Chad border countries was held on 11 June and the conditions finally put in place for the MNJTF to deploy, largely thanks to Nigeria’s financial commitment. Buhari has also lobbied heavily at the G7 summit in Germany in early June and on his four-day state visit to the United States last month for financial and technical assistance, training, and equipment.
With a stronger military presence in neighbouring countries, and the MNJTF ready to secure the area around Lake Chad, Buhari will expect his new military team to show results. They are likely to conduct search-and-destroy operations on camps in the Sambisa Forest, Mandara Mountains, and elsewhere, though bigger offensives are likely to be delayed until September when the rainy season ends. However, the sheer scale of the region affected by Boko Haram and the availability of ad-hoc sanctuaries suggest the group will be able to lie low until an offensive necessarily curtailed by a high cost that contributing countries can hardly afford has dissipated. The Islamic State is also likely to send reinforcements, not wishing to lose its West African outpost, though its capacity to send more than token assistance is limited. IHS expects Boko Haram to become severely weakened.
Although the group will respond with further suicide attacks, their rate will drop and be largely confined to northeastern cities, and the threat of improvised explosive device (IED) attacks in northern cities and the Middle Belt will fall significantly in at least the 12-month outlook.