When a small group of Nigerian Islamist militants attacked two police stations and killed an officer, government security forces moved in swiftly, announcing they had “crushed” the revolt.
Ten months later, the militants attacked two more stations, slaying four officers. This time Nigerian security forces killed dozens of fighters, and the state police commissioner announced that it was just “a matter of hours before [all] the militants will be flushed out.”
More than a decade later, that hasn’t happened.
Instead, the northern Nigerian group known as Boko Haram, in response to the government crackdown, has grown exponentially and is increasingly targeting civilians. In the last week alone, it has been blamed for a suicide bombing at a bus station in the capital, Abuja, in which 71 civilians were killed, and the abduction of more than 230 teenage schoolgirls from a northern village. The girls remain missing.
On Wednesday, rumors on social media that the militants had seized a highway in southern Nigeria caused chaos and panic as security forces raced to the area. Since January, a quarter of a million Nigerians have fled their homes.
The attacks come at a particularly embarrassing moment for Nigeria, only weeks before it is to host an annual World Economic Forum on Africa, with hundreds of delegates from around the globe set to fly in to a nation that has just emerged as Africa’s biggest economy, surpassing South Africa.
The campaign to destroy Boko Haram has turned Nigeria’s impoverished, predominantly Muslim northeastern desert region into a war zone, as the fighters repeatedly change tactics and up the ante: urban assaults in 2009; suicide bombings, assassinations and drive-by shootings in 2010 and 2011; devastating mass attacks on schools, barracks and unprotected northern villages more recently.
Thousands of Nigerians have died, schools and colleges have been closed, and the region’s economy has been ripped apart.
Analysts say a key reason for the failure to eradicate the group is that it is nearly impossible for an army to use brute force alone to fight indigenous guerrillas who can melt away in a vast desert region.
Moreover, they say, reliance on brute strength doesn’t create the conditions for winning hearts and minds in the nation, which is divided between the marginalized mainly Muslim north and the largely Christian south.
“The Nigerians have long used one instrument, which is a very blunt instrument: military force,” said J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Washington-based Atlantic Council think tank. “To fight a counterinsurgency [campaign] you need policies to secure the population so they are isolated from attacks and are protected to prevent support for the group, and to give them a stake in society.
“You also need intelligence,” he said.
When Boko Haram launched its revolt, it won support because of frustration with corrupt governance and decades of neglect of the northeast, Nigeria’s poorest region. Its then-leader, Mohammed Yusuf, preached an ascetic Muslim lifestyle including sharia law, devoid of what he saw as corrupt Western influence. He was killed in 2009 by security forces after being arrested following Boko Haram’s first major urban assault, on the northeastern city of Maiduguri.
By last year, Boko Haram controlled vast swaths of Nigeria’s northeast, and although an intensified military air campaign has whittled back its strength, the group has still managed to launch almost daily attacks since January, killing 1,500 people, more than half of them civilians, Amnesty International says.
Northern politicians and military commanders have often been accused of collaborating with Boko Haram, for political gain or because they sympathize with it.
“After the politicians had created the monster, they lost control of it,” a former Nigerian intelligence officer told the International Crisis Group in an interview last July.
Pham said Boko Haram had links to the group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and to the Shabab, the Al Qaeda-linked Somali terrorist group, with its fighters apparently receiving training in Afghanistan and Somalia.
“They’re not representative of Nigerians or Nigerian Muslims. They’re an extremist group, revolting to most Nigerians,” he said.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch say the government has incurred public resentment through heavy-handed military tactics, by killing or jailing of suspects for years in horrendous conditions without trial, and by shooting indiscriminately in northern neighborhoods after attacks by Boko Haram. That has helped the group find recruits among the legions of desperate, unemployed young men in northern Nigeria.
In a March attack that Boko Haram was blamed for, gunmen freed detainees imprisoned at the Giwa barracks in Maiduguri. Security forces hit back and 622 people were killed, according to Amnesty International, mainly Boko Haram suspects and unarmed detainees.
Amnesty International analyst Makmid Kamara said witnesses described soldiers detaining people and then shooting them. Witnesses also reported two mass graves, and satellite imagery appeared to back the reports.
“It will lead to greater levels of resentment. If anything it will help them [Boko Haram] to get more recruits,” Kamara said.
“The government’s ham-fisted military actions have allowed Boko Haram to create a false narrative of equivalency: ‘We kidnap and kill, but so does the government,’” said Pham.
But more recently, Boko Haram’s attacks on schools — and the repercussions of the insurrection for the northern economy — have narrowed its support base.
“Many people still fear them and many people still don’t give information to the security forces because of fear, not necessarily because they sympathize with them,” Pham said.
As adherents are killed, Boko Haram “reportedly has resorted to forced conscription and recruiting of criminals and thugs (area boys), paying them for attacks, sometimes with a share of the spoils,” a recent International Crisis Group report said. “Tactics … continue to evolve rapidly, and partially in response to losses and a turn in public opinion, it increasingly relies on attacks on secular schools, villages and Civilian Joint Task Force groups.”
Attempts to negotiate with the group have failed, and some analysts say its leadership is fractured, making it difficult to reach a cease-fire.
About 6,000 soldiers will be deployed to protect the foreign delegates scheduled to arrive in Abuja in May.
“That will create local resentment that the government can protect foreigners when it can’t even protect its own people,” Pham said.