Estimated Reading Time: <1
Boko Haram may be closer than ever to achieving its goal of creating a caliphate in northern Nigeria but comparisons to the Iraq crisis are premature and the military can reverse the group’s gains, analysts say.
Agency France-Presse reports that the conflict in the Islamists’ northeastern stronghold remains in flux even as witnesses, security sources and experts report that the insurgents have seized several areas and towns since April.
Precisely mapping the areas captured by the extremists — who are blamed for more than 10,000 deaths since their uprising began in 2009 — is near impossible.
The northeast, under a state of emergency since May last year, has poor mobile phone coverage, travel is dangerous and the military has restricted the flow of information.
The United Nations has confirmed reports that the towns of Damboa and Gwoza in Borno State were under rebel control earlier this month, although Damboa may have since been retaken.
On Thursday, witnesses and an official in Buni Yadi in neighbouring Yobe state said that town had also been seized.
Ryan Cummings, chief Africa analyst at the South Africa-based crisis management group Red 24, described Boko Haram’s shift from guerrilla-style hit-and-run tactics as “a significant evolution” and predicted the trend would continue.
Virginia Comolli of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London added that the group was “in control” of northern Borno, which is consistent with residents’ accounts. She said that the group had captured and held territory before but “now we are looking at a more extended area”.
“They have a real shot of achieving their goal” of creating a strict Islamic state in the north, she added.
– Military weakness –
While the rebels have grown stronger, secured powerful new weapons and refreshed their ranks with new conscripts, military failures are largely to blame for the worsening crisis, multiple sources said.
“For whatever reason, our soldiers, who are capable of defeating Boko Haram terrorists, were starved of the necessary weapons,” said a senior security source in Borno’s capital Maiduguri.
He noted that Boko Haram had taken over larges swathes of northern Borno before May last year.
When the state of emergency was declared, the military launched a massive offensive which temporarily flushed the rebels from their strongholds.
But, said the security source, top brass failed to sustain the pressure.
Boko Haram “would have been completely crushed had the tempo of the offensive been sustained”, he told AFP.
“I assure you it will not take much effort to crush them if provided with the needed weapons,” he added.
Lack of arms for troops has become a flashpoint issue, and soldiers this week refused to deploy to Gwoza without better weapons in an apparent mutiny.
Nigeria is Africa’s largest oil producer and top economy and some observers have put the defence budget at roughly $6 billion (4.5 billion euros) per year.
If troops are chronically ill-equipped, corruption and inefficiency are the likely causes, rather than a lack of resources, experts say.
Most agree that force alone cannot end the five-year conflict and must be coupled with major economic development in the desperately poor northeast.
– Not ‘Islamic State’ –
In a July video, Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau voiced support for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State (IS) extremists who have captured parts of Iraq and Syria and claimed the grisly execution of US journalist James Foley.
The mention of Baghdadi was unusual for Shekau, who in videos often appears completely detached from current events.
Jacob Zenn, an analyst at the US-based Jamestown Foundation, said there were similarities between IS and Boko Haram, notably their shocking levels of brutality.
Boko Haram has among other crimes massacred thousands of defenceless civilians, opened fire on students sleeping in their dorms, kidnapped hundreds of children, including more than 200 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok in April.
But while the United States has described IS as “beyond anything” it has seen in terms of funding, weaponry and strategic sophistication, Boko Haram is largely made up of poor, uneducated youths with almost no tactical training.
The group is thought to have ties to outside jihadi groups but the extent of those links is not clear.
Boko Haram “has not reached that level of sophistication”, Comolli told AFP, referring to IS, but said Shekau’s mention of Baghdadi was noteworthy.
Boko Haram, she said, is “watching what is going on”.