The war against the jihadist terrorist sect, Boko Haram, has been on for more than a decade and has taken on various forms across presidencies. Despite its formation in 2002 as a nonviolent group, it has become synonymous with unspeakable carnage in Nigeria and its neighboring countries. It has, over the years, attracted global attention and necessitated joint multi-national military operations aimed at ending the sect’s terror. But none of those have successfully managed to crush it once and for all. Now, it appears a strategy employed by the Nigerian government to battle Boko Haram and protect the lives of its citizens is generating the opposite result.
By 2018, the Nigerian military had suffered so many casualties at the hands of the terrorist organization that media reports started to portray the military as powerless against the all-powerful Boko Haram. On November 18, 2018, the Islamist militants raided an outgunned army base in Metele, killing over a hundred soldiers and taking their guns. The following month, they effortlessly attacked two bases in northeast Nigeria, causing many of the soldiers to flee for their lives. Clearly, the bases were very prone to attacks. In July 2019, the Nigerian military devised a strategy to put an end to this once and for all.
The strategy was to bring together soldiers from many small camps to form “super camps” which would be bigger, more equipped, and ultimately less susceptible to being overrun by the militants. This involved withdrawing soldiers posted to small camps and placing them in more centralized bases with more manpower. On paper, it was easy to see the appeal of that logic: the bigger the bases, the stronger they would be. But the unforeseen problems with that strategy soon became apparent.
In September 2019, the Islamist militants set fire to a clinic in Magumeri, Borno State. News of beheadings by Boko Haram became more rampant. The consequence was clear: withdrawing soldiers from small camps in the communities those camps had been protecting makes them become automatically vulnerable without any form of protection whatsoever. According to briefing notes by an aid agency, the withdrawal of the military from these small communities meant a population of 223,000 people was left at the mercy of the Boko Haram.
This continued well into 2020 as it appeared Boko Haram had even more manpower to concentrate on these abandoned communities. On October 13, eight civilians [three of whom were elderly women] were attacked in Gadai [Borno State] by 27 Boko Haram fighters who stole their livestock and farm produce. On November 2, the militants robbed travelers in the Konduga community, kidnapping six people in the process. The corpses of five of the six were found just a few days later. On November 7, they set up a checkpoint in Monguno where they robbed all travelers in the vehicles that passed by.
The question becomes: how has the military not managed to stop these attacks on civilians? How has the super camp strategy not worked to protect more civilians? It appears the problem is rooted in the strategy itself. Super camps are by nature removed from most civilian settlements and can therefore not closely monitor many communities. An SB Morgan Intelligence analysis revealed that the strategy actually makes it slower to respond to threats from the sect. And this is hardly ideal for a country where many civilians live in areas with gross insecurity.
A report by the Council on Foreign Relations showed that 2020 witnessed nearly a five-year peak in the total number of deaths caused by Boko Haram. According to the 2020 Global Terrorism Index, Nigeria is third among the countries most impacted by terrorism, just behind Afghanistan and Iraq, and surpassing countries like Syria, Yemen, and Pakistan. The Index classifies the insurgency as a state of war in Nigeria. Yet, the military leaves settlements open to be claimed by the enemy. Between December 2019 and August 2020, the number of internally-displaced persons in the six states most affected by the insurgency increased by 4%.
While the Nigerian army has been experimenting with its super camp tactic, the two factions of Boko Haram -Jamā’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l-Jihād (JAS) and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) – have consolidated and expanded their control of communities in northern Nigeria. They are also gaining more economic power through the theft of ammunition and their supplies and the revenue generated from kidnappings and ransom collection.