This is the first of a 3-part series examining where we currently are in the fight against the multitude of terrorist groups that have laid siege to our nation. This post will be updated with links when the subsequent parts are posted. The entirety of the challenge is too great for a simple volume such as this but, taken with other viewpoints, maybe we can gain some perspective. The title, “Nigeria’s Thirty-Year War”, was chosen because (believe it or not) it’s been over 10 years since we began fighting Boko Haram and the immediate-past Chief of Army Staff has indicated that we should expect 20 more. Yay.

When Boko Haram abducted just under 300 girls in Chibok, Borno state all those years ago, the whole world was understandably shocked. 7 years later, many of those schoolgirls have still not been released or rescued. That, and other shames, still smear Nigeria, Nigerians and, for the most part, the rulers of Nigeria. That much is obvious.

What is perhaps less obvious is that a terrorist insurgency such as we have in Nigeria really isn’t about taking over. That’s one of the misconceptions that the Nigerian authorities have been making over the years. The Buhari regime has made a lot of noise about Boko Haram “not holding any Nigerian territory” yet, in the very next breath, they complain that BH are “cowards” because they don’t fight as a conventional army would. But, if my premise is correct and they don’t have the same objectives as a conventional military, why on earth would you expect them to fight like one? Yet the president and his men do not appear to see the contradiction. Admittedly, BH gleefully took and held territory back in 2013-14, but I argue that they were simply taking advantage of an opportunity because, if you consider their pronouncements and activities pre-2014, there was no mention (that I’ve heard of) of territorial control. Terrorists take advantage of whatever opportunities present themselves, it’s in their manual and goes with their strategy because any success they can achieve costs us dearly. Indeed, even the infamous Chibok girls’ abduction was a lucky break for the terrorists, considering that reports from some of the released girls confirm that the perpetrators, after raiding the school’s food stores, argued about what to do with the girls, eventually deciding to take them back to Shekau who would “know what to do.”

So, if they’re not after territory, then what are they after?

We have some clues. The most obvious is what they say, the less obvious is what they do and the goals they’re able to achieve. The trouble with the first clue is that you can’t take them too literally because, while they have to provide a somewhat clear message to supporters and potential recruits, they also have to employ deception to throw off the authorities. So there is truth in what they say, but there are equally also lies. The trouble with the second clue is that, as already mentioned, terrorists are happy to take advantage of any opportunity, meaning that the data on what they do can be easily skewed depending on what’s available to them, and in a land with such ungoverned spaces, there’s a lot available. So that needs to be counted with extreme prejudice. The area where you would want to take the data much more seriously is where there are intersections between what they say and what they do, and precisely in that order.

So, when Abubakar Shekau says Western education is haram then he goes on to kidnap almost 300 young girls from a formal boarding school, that obviously is a thing. Therefore, you must anticipate more such attacks and plan around that.

The invasion of GSS Chibok

On the other hand, when Shekau takes over Nigerian territory and declares it to be part of the ISIS “caliphate”, even though he’s known to be allied to al-Qaeda (which does not get along with ISIS), you should probably be sceptical about the long-term intentions. Sure, he says Nigeria should be under Sharia law (without any specificity about how that would work), but ISIS doesn’t recognise Nigeria as a nation, instead they’re attempting to carve out a piece from it. As well, BH never declared or portrayed themselves as rulers, lawmakers, kingmakers, none of that. If anything, the group always put themselves as enforcers and little else. And as you well know, police don’t take territory.

Another important factor is the obvious glee that Abubakar Shekau got from the global attention brought about by the #BringBackOurGirls movement. Of course, the movement was (and still is) necessary. However, an unintended consequence of it was that it raised the profile of BH (and Shekau) in ways that could hardly have been anticipated. This is evidenced by taunting videos released by Shekau, in one of which he says “bring back our army”, one of the few times he has been captured on video speaking in English. Possibly, it’s one of the reasons the Nigerian authorities have for years pleaded with the media to “not give them a platform”, but that’s a fool’s errand. Great crimes make great news and that’s all there is to it.

To cap it off, the Nigerian government, probably realising it did not have the capability to rescue the girls, eventually went into a desperate search for ways to negotiate their release, meeting a series of failures before 82 girls were eventually released. Was a ransom paid? Some say it was, the government insists it wasn’t. Or were terrorist commanders released? Some say yes, government says no. Let’s move on.

Evolution Can Take Unexpected Turns

When a large number of schoolgirls were abducted from their boarding school in [Dapchi] a few years ago, tragically killing at least 5 in the process, speculation was rife over whether Boko Haram was involved or not because, while the tactic resembled known BH methods, the location suggested otherwise. It soon became clear that the girls were being held by the splinter group ISWAP, bringing a bit of clarity (and hope) to the matter. Eventually, most of the girls were released, with the notable exception of Leah Sharibu, who reportedly refused to denounce her Christian religion despite it being the price to pay for freedom. We must all continue to work, and pray, for her swift release, unharmed, from captivity.

This incident, and the subsequent near-resolution, is a bit confusing. On one hand, the abduction is reminiscent of BH methods but, on the other hand, the location is out of BH’s known areas of operations, and the subsequent release of most of the captives, is anathema to BH’s raison d’etre. So, what’s going on here? It would appear that BH’s splinter group, the self-styled Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) have repurposed BH’s tactics to fit their own strategy. As mentioned earlier, terrorist groups are all about exploiting opportunities.

That said, recent events have, I think, further buttressed the point. As mass school kidnappings have almost become the norm in northwest Nigeria, we must consider the possibility that BH, and subsequently ISWAP, pretty much exported their methods to other armed groups in the area, who have been employing it for their own ends.

Why Would That Work?

First, let us assume that a ransom (or some other concession) was paid to ISWAP to secure the release of some of the abducted Dapchi schoolgirls. If that actually happened, then ISWAP exporting their tactics to armed groups in the northwest would make sense for said groups because it provides them with a means to make a whole lot more money than usual. Of course, ensuring that you are not overrun and the hostages rescued is key to a successful operation, but ISWAP has shown that it is possible. In fact, they appear to have demonstrated that in the northwest, a region they were previously not particularly active in. Such a demonstration of capability would likely gain the attention of armed groups active in the region, who already engage in kidnap of innocents, just in smaller numbers and with different methods.

Secondly, when it comes to such kidnapping operations, children are arguably a lot easier to handle than adults, because a group can abduct, transport and hold a significantly larger number of individuals with the same, or even fewer, resources and manpower.

Third, it’s often much more profitable kidnapping children than adults for obvious reasons, namely that decent people naturally get a lot more emotional and even perfect strangers will not just go out of their way but also risk their very lives for the sake of other people’s kids. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just an easy one for a bad actor to take advantage of.  

Finally, mass kidnap of minors horrifies every right-thinking person and hugely embarrasses the authorities. This is important because history suggests that the Nigerian government (at almost every level) tends only to act when greatly embarrassed. Anything that can be swept under the rug usually is but, when their haplessness is exposed, the authorities react swiftly, whether that be with great violence (as in the Lekki massacre) or by throwing huge amounts of money at the problem (as with serial offers of “amnesty” to terrorist groups).

For these reasons (and perhaps others), it would make sense for a terrorist group in the northwest to briefly collaborate with ISWAP in order to learn their methods and tactics.

The Other Side

But what do BH and ISWAP get out of the deal, if indeed it has happened?

Simple. They win.

They win because the simple act of going to school has become almost like navigating a minefield. They win because multiple boarding schools are being shut down all over northern Nigeria. They win because “Western education” is no longer an option for many children in the north.

Combine this with the arguably intentional destruction of the educational system by so many northern rulers who send their children to private schools in Nigeria and abroad while relegating their constituents’ children to the almajiri system, and you have the beginnings of Boko Haram’s ideal state without Shekau having to ever get bogged down in the grind of daily administration. No, inept government officials and greedy politicians will happily do all that while the terrorist is free to focus on policy decisions.

Also, the Nigerian security agencies are known to already be stretched thin. Enabling an enemy of your enemy in order to tie down the latter’s forces far from your area of operations is also of great benefit and not to be sniffed at.

So, what’s to be done? Not so fast, we must analyse further so we don’t make a mistake which might cost (literally) hundreds of lives. In the next article, we’ll take a look at the conditions that brought BH and other terrorist groups to existence and how it can be used to knock them back down again. Then, and only then, can we figure out our own grand strategy for the future of Nigeria, which is what this war is really about.

Until then.