Nigeria: Boko Haram Group Changes Its Tactics …… Financial Times | Independent Newspapers Limited
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Nigeria: Boko Haram Group Changes Its Tactics …… Financial Times

Posted: Feb 8, 2016 at 10:52 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

Ruined, empty towns reclaimed by the army but not free from the threat of roaming militants. Huddled and hungry masses living like refugees in a city where fear of the next suicide bombing hangs in the air.

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The horror inflicted over the past seven years by Boko Haram militants in northeastern Nigeria is such that even grim scenes like these are a triumph. Security in this neglected corner of Africa’s most populous nation is far better than a year ago, before soldiers backed by foreign mercenaries broke the extremist group’s grip.

Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria’s president, seized on the momentum gained in the offensive — launched before his election victory last April — and took office promising to wipe out the insurgency, and fast.

Setting himself a deadline of the end of 2015, the former army general and one-time military ruler says that on his watch, the troops have delivered. He describes Boko Haram as “degraded” and no longer capable of “military-style attacks”. Last month he said the return of people forced to flee their homes “will start in earnest” this year.

But Mr Buhari’s push to declare the demise of one of the world’s deadliest terror groups risks damaging his credibility, say western officials and Nigerian analysts.

The president’s rhetoric suggests he underestimates the enduring threat of a group with forest, desert and mountain hide-outs in Nigeria and a presence across the country’s porous border in remote, lightly governed desert expanses in fragile states such as Chad, they warn.

Mr Buhari and army officials say continued but less frequent suicide bombings — a hallmark of the movement since its 2012 attack on the UN building in the Nigerian capital Abuja — are a sign the group is on the back foot.

But the shift in the nature of the battle does not mean it is over, some experts say.

Interactive graphic

The Islamist terror group’s attacks have plagued Nigeria for more than five years. This interactive maps their deadly evolution

“The government is attempting to make a distinction between firefighting with Boko Haram and suicide bomb attacks. The fact that the group has resorted to suicide bombings may signal retreat but does not signal defeat,” says Mausi Segun, Nigeria researcher for Human Rights Watch. “Taking back territory but not stopping the killing of people can never be deemed a success.”

That point was driven home at the end of January when insurgents swept into settlements on the outskirts of Maiduguri, capital of Borno state, where the insurgency began, in cars and on motorbikes, burning homes, targeting fleeing residents with suicide bomb attacks and killing more than 50.

In remote areas of Borno, towns under state control are still subject to deadly attacks. Days earlier, suicide bombers killed 13 people in the town of Chibok, where insurgents kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls in 2014, drawing global attention to the insurgency.

And attacks continue in neighbouring countries such as Cameroon, where insurgents killed 35 in a town bordering Nigeria late last month.

The world’s strongest militaries have struggled to counter extremist groups deploying the same tactics as Boko Haram. Some western officials are not optimistic about Nigeria’s chances of ending an insurgency that grew out of a sense of marginalisation and desperation in the north-east, where subsistence farming and fishing barely sustain a rapidly growing population with few prospects.

Before tackling the complexities of developing the north-east, the officials say, the military must wise up to the reality that the battle is not over. “‘Under-promise, over-deliver’ is the saying. They’ve failed at both”, says a western security official in Abuja.

Mr Buhari, a northern Muslim, was viewed by Nigerians and the international community as more capable of tackling the insurgency than his predecessor Goodluck Jonathan, who was criticised for virtually ignoring it as it spiralled out of control.

Kashim Shettima, Borno state governor, who is from the same political party as Mr Buhari, says there is “no comparison” to the level of attention given to the Boko Haram threat now.

Still, he says, there is a long way to go before the 1.6m displaced people camped in Maiduguri, will feel safe enough to return to areas back under government control. He estimates 500,000 would be willing to do so but the government does not have adequate resources to help them rebuild homes, schools and clinics.

For most of the displaced, and for the international agencies assisting them, the president’s call for them to return home is a terrifying prospect.

Nigeria strains to rebuild state attacked by Boko Haram

Education given priority but schools in Maiduguri house thousands of victims of terror

“We see change but he will have to do more”, said Alhaji Kolkoma, a local leader from the town of Munguno, near the Cameroonian border. Boko Haram seized the town last January, sending tens of thousands of residents fleeing to Maiduguri. “Even now there is Boko Haram in our area and security forces are not there.

Brigadier General Rabe Abubakar, a senior armed forces spokesman, says there is no need for fear. “In strategic places, the army is there”, he says. In case of threats, “people can call the security forces by phone for help”.

But after the terror of the past six years, displaced people may not be inclined to trust the army’s words, with many feeling they have been let down by the security forces before. A senior UN official warns: “We know from other settings where violent extremism has pushed people off their land that it can take years to regain trust before people decide to go home.”